The Middle Infield Problem
When people talk about the weaknesses on the M’s, they’ll usually point to the obvious; the offense is below average and everyone knows it. Occasionally, someone will talk about the back of the rotation, which may or may not be a problem depending on how guys like Snell and Vargas pitch. But, I realized today that I haven’t had too many conversations with people about another potential problem area for the M’s – the middle infield.
This seems to be an area where there is some legitimate liability, depending on how things break. If Figgins can make the transition to second base and Wilson can stay healthy, they’ll be fine. But, if either or both of those things don’t happen, it could be bad news for the M’s.
Let’s start with second base, since its the lesser of the two issues. Figgins should be able to play there. I’m not overly worried that he’s going to struggle with the adjustment, given his skills and experience. There will be a few errors, but the added range should make up for that, at least in theory. But what happens if he makes 6 or 7 bad looking errors in April, booting easy grounders and botching double plays? Will the M’s reverse field and put Lopez back at second? What if he’s successfully made the transition to third and actually looks good there? What then?
You can flip-flop them and bet on them falling back on their experience, but then the team would find themselves in a situation that they’ve been desperately trying to avoid – Jose Lopez as their second baseman again. They clearly don’t see him as the present or the future there, and I’d imagine the hope is that he never plays the position for the M’s again. After a spring of practicing at third, and yet another year of reporting to camp in what can be generously reported as not the best shape of his life, how good would you expect him to be there? Not great, that’s for sure. But, that’s really the only option if they want to pull the plug on the Figgins at 2B experiment.
Shortstop holds even more potential for problems. As everyone knows by now, Jack Wilson is not a 150 game per year kind of guy. He’s in his decline years, has fought nagging health problems the last two seasons, and already had some hamstring issues this spring. His backup is going to play, and probably quite a bit. We’d assumed it would be Jack Hannahan, but he’s come up with a bad groin and has barely gotten any action this spring. Considering his lack of experience at SS, that’s a problem. He needed this March to show the staff that he could play short, and they haven’t had the chance to see that yet. There’s still time if he can get back on the field soon, but if this problem persists, they’re going to have to go another direction. Wilson’s backup can’t have a lingering health problem himself.
And therein lies the problem. There isn’t another option in the organization. Josh Wilson is a Triple-A player. Tui can’t play short in the majors with any kind of credibility. There isn’t a major league SS anywhere to be found beyond the 25 man roster, and the two guys on the roster who can play short have health issues (even if Wilson is 100% right now, he’s always a possible scratch). The worst case scenario here is pretty darn bad, and unfortunately, the rest of this roster isn’t good enough to carry a below replacement level player starting for any real length of time.
As we get closer to opening day, the M’s are probably going to have to address this. If Hannahan can put the groin thing behind him and show that he can play shortstop a couple of times per week if needed, then they can run with what they have and hope it works out. But if they don’t get Hannahan some reps at short soon, they may have to consider getting themselves another legitimate middle infielder.
One possibility – Cristian Guzman. The Nationals owe him $8 million in the final year of his contract, but he’s getting pushed out of a job by youngster Ian Desmond. If they’d eat most of the contract in exchange for a C+ prospect, he’s the kind of guy who could raise the floor of what the M’s could get from both middle infield spots. He may not raise the top end of the projection much, but the M’s have some vulnerability up the middle that drags down their win totals in the when-things-go-wrong scenarios, and a guy like Guzman would alleviate quite a bit of that. He’d give the team some legitimate depth up the middle on days when Wilson can’t play, and right now, they don’t have that.
It’s worth waiting for Hannahan to get healthy in the next week, because at 100%, he can give you most of what Guzman can without the need to acquire anyone else, but there’s no acceptable alternative in the organization right now. If Hannahan doesn’t get back on the field soon, the M’s will have to explore the trade avenues, because the middle infield is a problem, even if it doesn’t get talked about that much.