Examining the AL East at Second Base
by Cary Greene
January 15, 2022
My goal in this running series is to examine how each American League East Division rival has positioned their rosters up to this point in the offseason. Obviously, rosters aren’t fully sculpted yet, as the CBA lockout has put a deep-freeze on both free agent signings and trades. We will hopefully see a squall of activity once a new labor agreement is ratified by both the MLB Player’s Union and MLB Ownership.
In my first two installments, I examined how each team is set with catching and at first base.
Here is a quick review:
CLEAR AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST LEADER AT CATCHER:
After evaluating the catching in the American League East, Toronto and Tampa were the two best positioned teams for the coming season. The Jays have the steady Danny Jansen to rely on and they also have emerging talent and fan favorite Alejandro Kirk, who has drawn comparisons to Benji Molina, nipping at Jansen’s heels. mlbtradevalues.com values Jansen at 20.6 and Kirk at 15.8 and climbing and the combined WAR both are projected to tally is a 4.0, making the Blue Jays the clear leader in the American League East at Catcher.
Toronto has also only committed a little over $2.6 million to the team’s catching and yet they’ll enjoy 8 years of team control between Jansen and Molina for this paltry spend, giving the Blue Jays a ton of value and production for a modest spend. Tampa was next in the Division thanks mostly to free agent bargain Mike Zunino, who is under contract for the coming season, after which point he’ll become an unrestricted free agent, with a compensatory draft pick attached to whichever MLB team signs him.
Tampa’s future plans at catcher are also clear as this offseason, Tampa added 25 year-old catching prospect René Pinto to the 40 man roster in order to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. I was hoping they’d leave him unprotected and that perhaps the Yankees could swoop in and land him, as Pinto had a very strong 2021 season between the Double and Triple A levels. He had a combined .357 wOBA with a total of 20 HR and 20 doubles. Pinto is a good hitting catcher with a strong arm behind the plate. He appears to fit into the organization’s future plans, especially with this being the final year of team control on Mike Zunino.
Coming in a distant fourth in the division at the catching position are our beloved Yankees, mainly because the production from Gary Sanchez is not worth the spend at this point. Kyle Higashioka’s poor offensive performance negates his stellar defense and so the Yankees just aren’t competitive at this position compared to their division rivals. With Sanchez set to be a free agent, I need to ask the question. What “is” Brian Cashman doing with the catching? Is there a plan? Obviously the Yankees don’t have an uber prospect like Adly Rutchsman, who is in Baltimore’s system, to promote in-season. Rival scouts seem to think most of the Yankee catching prospects are destined for first base or designated hitter roles, if and when they may reach the big leagues. Is Kyle Higashioka the long term plan at catcher?
CLEAR AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST LEADER AT FIRST BASE:
Looking at first base not surprisingly revealed that the Blue Jays were the best positioned team, thanks to Vladimir Guererro Jr.’s massive offensive output. Meanwhile, the Yankees and the Rays were neck and neck, a distant second and third respectively. Brain Cashman of course can’t rely upon Luke Voit to stay healthy as significant concerns about his knees exist, but the Yankees actually feature highly versatile DJ LeMahieu who can play a steady first base if the Yankees decide to go that route. Joey Gallo is also a very good first baseman and could be used in that capacity as needed as well, though the Yankees have yet to deploy him there.
It’s no secret that Tampa gets very good production from their lefty-righty platoon of Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz and they spend a fraction of what the Yankees do at the position. Boston and Baltimore’s futures look exceptionally bright as well so examining first base revealed that the division is going to be extremely competitive at this position.
Many Yankee fans would love to see Brian Cashman make an upgrade this offseason at first base so we will keep a lookout for some Yankee rumblings on this front, be it from the trade front or from free agency. I posed a question to our readers which went unanswered in the first base article, so I’ll ask it again – Given how Division rivals are positioned at first base, does Brian Cashman need to spend even more money to shore up first base or can Voit, LeMahieu and possibly Gallo be counted on over the course of a full 162 game season?
CLEAR AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST LEADER AT SECOND BASE:
Today, we continue to examine the American League East’s rosters and we move on to second base.
Tampa is miles ahead of the Division at second base, thanks to ultra valuable Brandon Lowe, who had 39 home runs, 31 doubles, 99 RBI’s and 97 runs scored on the way to a 5.2 WAR season in which he was snubbed from being selected to the All-Star team as fans voted for Marcus Semien, Jose Altuve and Whit Merrifield instead. Granted, Semien set the single season record for home runs for a second baseman with 45 and finished with a dazzling 7.3 WAR, but it was Lowe who led the way with a 142 OPS+! Given that Semian signed with the Rangers for seven years and $175 million, Lowe will be the favorite to reign supreme among American League East second basemen in the coming season.
Tampa is also oozing with superb organizational depth at Second Base as five players, including Lowe, combine to provide well over a quarter of a century of team control that the Tampa front office will certainly take full advantage of. Topping the depth chart behind Lowe is switch-hitting 23 year-old speedster Vidal Brujan, who put up 44 steals at Triple-A Durham last year, is a candidate to make the Rays 26-man roster as a utility infielder/outfielder this year. Brujan is a very valuable asset, according to mlbtradevalues.com, his value is similar in a trade to the Yankees Jordan Montgomery.
Taylor Walls also provides the Rays with even more depth at second base and this offseason, one of the first moves made by the Tampa front office was to add several players to their 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft and they chose to add Walls along with outfielder Josh Lowe and righty Drew Strotman. Clearly the Rays view Walls as a player worth protecting and considering he’s an above average shortstop, the decision was a no-brainer. Walls has surprising power and has drawn some rave reviews from scouts both in and outside the Tampa organization.
Jim Bowden of the Athletic wrote, “There is no doubt Walls is the most underrated prospect in the Rays’ farm system — unless, of course, you talk to their front office. Walls is as good of a defensive shortstop as you’ll see in the minor leagues, and he’s a switch-hitter with strong offensive components. … He’s a much better prospect than he’s been given credit for.”
The 24 year-old Walls was the Rays 3rd round selection in the 2017 draft and has displayed solid contact skills as a switch-hitter, all the while playing impressive, plus-level defense up the middle with great hands, picturesque fielding mechanics and a strong arm that leave little doubt about his ability to remain at the position. His above-average speed, quick first step and strong instincts translate to above-average range in all directions. That Walls has dabbled at second and third base as a pro and can theoretically play anywhere in the outfield could make him a valuable super-utility type player.
Another Tampa prospect that is playing his way into the picture is Jonathan Aranda, who was added to the 40 man roster this offseason. Aranda wasn’t previously regarded as a top prospect in the system but has since forced his way into the limelight. Aranda’s bat came alive last season as he beat up all types of pitching between A+ and Double A. Aranda had a .426 wOBA, 166 wRC+ and was recognized as the MVP of Double-A’s South Division. He has a prototypical Rays’ fielding profile as he’s played every infield position in the minors. His extreme versatility combined with low strikeout rates and above-average speed and defensive ability provide the makings for a strong future contributor as early as 2022 and beyond.
Unfortunately, the Yankees slot in well behind Tampa at second base, but they are better positioned than all three of their other Division rivals, thanks to the presence of both Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu. Torres of course suffered through an extremely difficult season last year, slashing .259/.331/.366 with a below league average .697 OPS. However, Steamers is projecting Torres to have a bit of a bounce back this season as the site feels his OPS will increase almost 100 points thanks to more doubles, more home runs and increases in batting average and on base percentage. Most Yankee fans would probably sign up for that I would think?
Super sub DJ LeMahieu gives the Yankees tons of infield flexibility and of course, the position LeMahieu that he makes the most defensive impact at is second base. If the Yankees use Torres as a trade chip, they could always use LeMahieu primarily at second base but a plan like that would rob the Yankees of their versatility so it is probably unlikely that Brian Cashman would entertain such a notion. Steamers is also projecting an increase in production from LeMahieu this season as well and that would be very good news for the Yankee infield.
Providing even more depth and flexibility for the Yankees will be the pair of Jose Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera. The Yankees will have a bit of a new look in the infield so let’s recap what’s happened so far this offseason and explain why a few important changes were made.
Prior to the labor freeze, Brain Cashman shuffled the Yankee infield depth around, sending 2021 fan favorite Tyler Wade to the Angels in exchange for a player to be named or cash considerations. The 27 year-old Wade was actually designated for assignment by Cashman, so if the Yankees didn’t trade Wade, he would have lost him for nothing, kind of like Garret Whitlock was lost to the Red Sox last year. The move was clearly designed to protect other players who the Yankees believe will be more valuable than Wade, as the Major-League portion of the Rule 5 Draft will unfold after the lockout ends. Wade was a casualty of the most recent Yankees roster crunch, as Cashman needed to create a few roster spots.
Coming into the prime of his career at age 27, Tyler Wade was a career .212/.298/.307 hitter in 264 games over parts of five seasons with the Yankees. Last season, Wade really came on, playing in a career-high 103 games in 2021, hitting .268/.354/.323 with five RBIs and 17 stolen bases. Wade is mostly a singles hitter and I’m pretty sure Yankee analytics didn’t like his profile at the plate because of the kind of contact he makes. Still, he is able to play multiple positions, as he saw action at second base, shortstop, third base and all three outfield spots. Wade, though, is out of Minor League options so he must stay on the Angel’s Major League roster, or else be exposed to waivers.
After trading Wade, Cashman signed the speedy, light hitting 28 year-old Jose Peraza Peraza to a minor league deal, effectively opening a roster spot. Peraza was a highly-touted prospect in the early stages of his career, showing up on a few top 100 lists in 2015 and 2016 but Peraza’s prospect status was largely based on his speed and bat-to-ball skills, with teams hoping he would eventually mature, both physically and as a hitter. He doesn’t strike out much, as evidenced by his 13.1% career rate, but he also only walks at a 4.1% rate for his career. Combined with a lack of power, that’s led to a meager career slash line of .266/.306/.372, wRC+ of 78. He has 79 stolen bases but hasn’t reached double digits in that department since 2018. Last season Peraza’s slash line was .204/.266/.380 over 154 plate appearances.
Cashman opened a second roster spot by releasing Rougned Odor, despite the fact that the Rangers will pay his $12 million salary this season. Odor has since found a home with the Orioles, who were amenable to adding a veteran presence to their very young infield. Peraza, a right-handed hitter, could be a candidate this season to fill the roles of both Wade and Odor as he can play multiple positions. He’s gotten most of his major league playing time at second base and shortstop, but has also seen some limited action at third base and all three outfield positions.
My first reaction was that of disappointment when I learned that the speedy Wade had been traded, but considering the need to open roster spots ahead of the Rule 5 Draft, I certainly understand the maneuver, which seems to have been done in order to protect 23 year-old, switch-hitting middle infielder Oswaldo Cabrera. Peraza is a depth piece who might actually open the season with the Yankees as a utility player but Cabrera is a player the Yankees clearly see as being a piece of the future puzzle and his time is drawing near, though he’ll likely start the season in Triple-A with Scranton.
Possessing oodles of upside, Cabrerra’s play last year with Double-A Somerset is a big reason why the Yankees moved on from Tyler Wade. Cabrera was promoted to Triple-A Scranton late in the year and he showed signs of being more than capable there as well. Across both levels, Cabrera slashed .272/.330/.533 with an .863 OPS, belting 29 home runs and driving in 89 runs. He’s got genuine gap power and his 31 Doubles and 2 Triples further emphasize his added strength and better use of his lower body for increased leverage. Cabrera has excellent instincts on the bases and though he’s not particularly fast, he did steal 21 bases last year. Defensively, Cabrera is rated as an average shortstop and he’s slightly above average at both third base and second base.
After contemplating the infield puzzle for months now, I’m starting to see an actual plan forming for the Yankee infield, one that Brian Cashman is doing a pretty excellent overall job with under difficult to manage circumstances. I’m sure it’s never easy dealing with a real roster crunch and Tyler Wade was truly a victim of that in New York.
I imagine Cabrera is the player who will ultimately fill the utility-man role in New York, for years to come. Sprinkle in one or both of Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza and suddenly, the Yankee infield is stocked with explosive bats who are also plus defenders. Now mix in LeMahieu’s veteran presence, which ties everything together and one has to wonder, will Gleyber Torres have a future role to play as well, considering his team control has dwindled down to only three years now remaining? Also, what about Gio Urshela, who has two years of team control remaining? Will he be part of the Yankee plan? Brain Cashman could save a fortune if he could manage to guide this grand scheme of an internally sourced infield to fruition.
I ranked the Yankees ahead of Boston at second base, even though Kike Hernandez was significantly more valuable last year than either DJ LeMahieu or Gleyber Torres was. Hernandez may be better than either LeMahieu or Torres, but when we add both of the Yankee options together, the depth is collectively worth more. That said, who didn’t love the way Hernandez played last year? He had a special season, but unfortunately for Boston, he’s in his final year of team control and I’m not convinced Boston has all that much in the system, so more than likely, Boston will be looking to address their uncertainty at second base, probably doing so some time next offseason.
When we really consider Boston’s situation at second base, it’s hard not to remember back to mid-2017, when Manny Machado infamously spiked Dustin Pedroia during a slide into second base, and the Red Sox second baseman limped off the field in pain. Since then, Boston has had limited production out of the second base position, struggling to find a competent successor to Pedroia. After all, he gave the team a decade of All-Star level performance, which isn’t easily replaceable. Hernandez is a super utility player and the Red Sox certainly would like to install a more permanent fixture at the position.
Regarding the long term plan, it’s not like Chaim Bloom hasn’t built a contingency, but Red Sox fans are cautiously optimistic with how the organization is positioned. Bloom executed the unpopular trade of Boston fan favorite, Mookie Betts and acquired Jeter Downs, a highly rated prospect, as one of the return pieces. Downs is a top-100 prospect, potentially with an above-average hit tool, above-average power tool, and above-average defense. However, he’s struggled with consistency, but has improved both his power and his ability to elevate the ball throughout the minors.
After spending the entire season at Boston’s Triple-A affiliate Worcester, Downs’ stock is down. He slashed .190/.272/.333 with a well below average .606 OPS. He’s clearly not ready for a promotion and Boston doesn’t have much in the pipeline.
The Blue Jays lost an MVP finalist in Marcus Semien, so perhaps more than any American League East team, the Blue Jays have the biggest void to fill at second base. Replacing 45 home runs, 102 RBI production and Gold Glove caliber defense is a tall task and Semien’s departure sets the Jays back a tick for sure. Semien trailed only Shohei Ohtani (9.1 WAR) and Zack Wheeler (7.7 WAR) among all players in 2021.The good news is that since the Blue Jays qualified Semien this off-season under the current CBA, they now receive an extra draft pick in the Competitive Balance Round B at the end of the second round. Texas forfeits its second highest pick in the 2022 MLB Draft and $500,00 in international bonus pool money, which the Blue Jays will try to put to good use.
Toronto is highly interested in both Kris Bryant Matt Chapman and Jose Ramirez and would look to play either at third base if they were successful in acquiring either player. Bryant is a free agent and both Ramirez and Chapman are among their current team’s best players. Bryant’s projected free agent contract will be six years and $160 million. As expensive a price as that is, the Blue Jays have the payroll room and the finances to easily afford him. The prospect cost for Chapman is high, but not off the charts. The cost for Ramirez is several notches higher. Toronto may elect to make do at third base for now and instead focus on upgrading at second base.
The Blue Jays are actually a perfect fit for Ketel Marte and a trade with the Diamondbacks would give Toronto perhaps the most bang for the buck. Brian Cashman had better check in with Arizona because not only is Marte a great fit for the Yankees, but the last thing Yankee fans would want to see is Marte heading north of the border to play for a Division rival like Toronto. I’ll pose a logical question to our readers here: Should Brian Cashman trade for Ketel Marte and thus beat Toronto to the punch?
Bringing up the rear at Second Base is clearly the Orioles, who will probably be starting our good friend Rougned Odor at the position, as a way to infuse a veteran presence into what is an exceptionally young, but talented, infield. Our other good friend, once a highly rated Yankee prospect, Jorge Mateo actually has a shot to stick as a utility player for the Orioles.
24 year-old right-hand hitting spark plug Jahmai Jones is a player the Orioles are hoping to see adjust to the major leagues, but last season was a struggle for him during his disastrous 67 at-bat cameo which began in late August. Jones was hittless in 17 out of 26 games and he slashed a paltry .149/.208/.194 but his lightning-fast rise through the minors probably caught up with him and it feels like Baltimore is still fairly intrigued by him.
Baltimore certainly isn’t spending any money at the position so unless they make some sort of shocking move, it’s safe to project they won’t be getting much production at second base in the coming year.