It is time for Part Three of our 2011 wrap-up. Today, we will focus upon the infielders, listing the top-10 most valuable hitters at each position, followed by some commentary. By means of reminder, the ranking is determined using value based on a standard 5x5, mixed universe league. Players are listed at the weakest position for which they will qualify next season. The hierarchy from weakest to strongest is catcher, shortstop, second base, third base, outfield, first base. Next week, we will wrap up the series looking at catcher, outfield and pitching.
TOP-10 FIRST BASEMEN
10. Mark Trumbo
9. Eric Hosmer
8. Ryan Howard
7. Paul Konerko
5. Joey Votto
Biggest surprise inclusion – Eric Hosmer: Coming into the season, the plan was for Kansas City to give a good, long look to Kila Ka’aihue. To paraphrase John Steinbeck who borrowed the line from Robert Burns, the best laid plans of Hawaiian born ballplayers with younger brothers having almost the same name. The elder Ka’aihue never got in going and was sent to Triple-A Omaha where he languished before being traded to Oakland at the end of the season. Hosmer stepped in and never looked back. From a fantasy sense, it was his 11 steals that snuck him into the top-10, but steals are a part of his game and can be counted on for at least the next few seasons. Other than the latent speed, perhaps Hosmer’s greatest asset was his very good contact ability, which helps him avoid slumps in spite of a very low walk rate. Long term, Hosmer is going to need to be a bit more selective if he wants to propel himself into the upper echelon of first basemen.
Biggest surprise omission – Adam Lind: Many expected Lind to have a breakthrough season, though I must admit, I was not as high on him as others and I turned out a bit prescient. Lind’s power is undeniable and he in fact came through in that regard, but he is still fanning too much, especially for a hitter allergic to walks. This combination renders Lind prone to slumps, and when you have as many interchangeable parts as the Blue Jays possess, you are at a risk to lose playing time.
Most likely to fall from top-10 in 2012 – Mark Trumbo: I suppose it is a bit of a cop-out to choose the last ranked player on the list. Maybe I should have been cute and tried to suggest Konerko’s age would finally catch up to him, but there are two problems with that. First, I do not believe it and second, I have never been confused with being cute. Trumbo has two strikes working against him next season, literally and figuratively. His high strikeout rate means he is a performance risk and Anaheim will have a big logjam at the corner infield, outfield and DH positions with the return of Kendrys Morales, the albatross contract that is Vernon Wells, Bobby Abreu’s option kicking in, Torii Hunter’s late season surge giving hope for next season, Peter Bourjos becoming increasingly more comfortable at the dish and the emergence of uber-prospect Mike Trout. Especially if Morales can play the field, Trumbo cannot afford a prolonged slump.
Most likely to jump into the top-10 in 2012 – Freddie Freeman: Another rather wimpy answer as Freeman was just on the outskirts this season, but his pedigree suggests an improving contact rate as he becomes more accustomed to Major League pitching, which bodes well since he is a line drive machine. He is already a big guy, so physical development will not aid his power, but if he can learn to turn on and loft a few more mistakes, his power should rise as well.
TOP-10 SECOND BASEMEN
10. Rickie Weeks
8. Neil Walker
7. Dan Uggla
5. Ben Zobrist
3. Ian Kinsler
Biggest surprise inclusion – Danny Espinosa: Save for some injuries to some perennial top second basemen, this position went chalk, so there is no huge surprise here, but Espinosa was on the outside looking in last spring so he is the choice. That said, there was no single unexpected element to Espinosa’s season. He was advertised as a guy with decent power and speed but strikes out a ton, and he delivered on all accounts. Even though we do not score defense in our game, it matters with players like Espinosa in terms of his ability to maintain his job. His glove work is sufficiently poor that if he slumps or if his power or speed declines, he could find himself on the bench.
Biggest surprise omission – Kelly Johnson: I will pass on naming Chase Utley or Brian Roberts as both had injury woes. Ironically, this came down to Johnson or the player he was traded for in July, Aaron Hill. Johnson gets the nod as I expected a little more from him. Johnson’s issue is a contact rate trending in the wrong direction. In 2010, he fanned at a rate he had not seen since his rookie campaign. I expected a return to the mark closer to which he sat at the previous few seasons, but instead, Johnson whiffed at a career worst rate. Factor in a drop in BABIP and you have a batting average that severely suffered and the production followed.
Most likely to fall from top-10 in 2012 – Danny Espinosa: Sorry, but I am going to double dip here and go with Espinosa again, for many of the reasons outlined above. He fans too much and his defense is not good enough to keep him in the lineup if he is not productive. Next on the list is probably Neil Walker, even though I like him as a quiet producer, especially as the Pirates improve the lineup around him. That said, Walker chipped in with 9 steals that elevated him to top-10 status, but pilfers are not a staple of his game and cannot be counted on going forward.
Most likely to jump into the top-10 in 2012 – Jemile Weeks: Again, eschewing the obvious by omitting Utley and Roberts, the younger Weeks has the tools to make some fantasy noise, especially with his wheels. He has no power but makes good contact, hits a lot of line drives and ground balls, and can steal bases. If the average is high enough, he can potentially get ample bags to earn top-10 value at the position.
TOP-10 THIRD BASEMEN
10. Kevin Youkilis
8. Ryan Roberts
Biggest surprise inclusion – Ryan Roberts: Encarnacion came in a close second, but he had some latent power that could shine through if afforded the chance to play. Roberts’ season was a bit more out of nowhere, especially the power. Perceived as a player who would get exposed if forced into regular playing timE. Roberts proved his doubters wrong with a solid season with near full-time at-bats. His contact rate and defensive versatility keep him in the Majors, the added pop made him fantasy relevant.
Biggest surprise omission – Casey McGehee: Again not taking the easy way out but choosing the injury-impacted Alex Rodriguez, David Wright or Ryan Zimmerman, with the time lost by that troika, a normal season from McGehee should have propelled him onto this list, but a precipitous drop in BABIP along with a smaller decrease in HR/FB resulted in a down year for the Brewers' third sacker. His walk and contact rates were normal, so a bounceback should be in the cards.
Most likely to fall from top-10 in 2012 – Edwin Encarnacion: I could have gone with Roberts again as both he and Encarnacion should fall assuming the aforementioned injured trio return to health, but I feel Encarnacion is the bigger risk to lose playing time as his glove is useless and his strikeouts take away from the plus power. With the improvement in personnel in Toronto “E5” may have trouble finding at-bats.
Most likely to jump into the top-10 in 2012 – Pedro Alvarez: As suggested, it is going to be tough for anyone at the hot corner to emerge as a top-10 hitter next season as three spots should be occupied by A-Rod, Zimmerman and Wright, so I have opted for the outsider with the biggest upside in Alvarez, even though it is not a sure thing he breaks camp with the Pirates. The power is irrefutable, but Alvarez is one of those guys who swings so hard in case he hits the ball. The problem is he does not hit it enough.
10. J.J. Hardy
8. Erick Aybar
5. Elvis Andrus
1. Jose Reyes
Biggest surprise inclusion – Emilio Bonifacio: Bonifacio is my overwhelming choice for most surprising infielder overall. His contact rate is nothing special, but he carried an extremely high BABIP supported by hitting a bunch of line drives, so I cannot pull the lucky card. As I talked about last week with respect to the number of bases stolen by Matt Kemp and Curtis Granderson being buoyed by the confidence garnered from a season where they could do no wrong, I suspect Bonifacio enjoyed a little of that as well. Heck he even popped five over the fence.
Biggest surprise omission – Derek Jeter: Bypassing the chance to pile on Hanley Ramirez, I will select a guy I thought actually made the list since his season did not really seem that bad. But upon further inspection, even though a late season surge got Jeter close to .300, his production was depressed. Jeter had competition as more was expected from Alexei Ramirez and to a lesser degree, Ian Desmond. Plus, do not forget the injured troops at the position, including Rafael Furcal, Stephen Drew, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Yunel Escobar.
Most likely to fall from top-10 in 2012 – Emilio Bonifacio: Sorry, I just do not see a repeat, even though, as suggested, there was quite a bit of skill leading to his exceptional season. It is just that a high line drive rate is not necessarily a repeatable skill and once that falls, so will everything else.
Most likely to jump into the top-10 in 2012 – Ian Desmond: Sticking with the theme and shunning the more obvious injured players, Desmond is the selection for his upside in average and steals. He makes better contact, albeit slightly, than his keystone combo mate Espinosa. His defense is better than his partner's so his job should be safer, plus he could even slide over to second if Espinosa indeed loses his job.
Well, there you have it, a review of the infield play from this past season. Next week, we will close out 2011 with a similar treatment of catcher, outfield and pitching.