It’s hard to find a good, stable middle infield combination, especially offensively, since so many players at those positions are defensive specialists who are happy to see a blooper fall in occasionally. When a team like the Padres puts together a good middle infield combo seemingly overnight, it’s definitely worthy of mention. In shortstop Everth Cabrera and second baseman Jedd Gyorko, San Diego may have one of the game’s most surprisingly effective middle infield duos.
If we were to focus only on 2013 performance as a marker of overall ability, then we’d be forced to note that only 11 teams have qualified players at each position. We don’t want to knock out the other 19 teams for not having qualifiers, but there are some we can eliminate right off the bat. Four teams — the Blue Jays, Dodgers, Mariners and Marlins — don’t have a qualified player at either position. Perhaps — in another year — the combo of Jose Reyes and Maicer Izturis will merit mention, but not now. The same goes for Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter with the Yankees, as they won’t get enough playing time out of Jeter to merit consideration this season.
The Angels, Cubs and Nationals are three other teams that will have returning double-play combos that have dealt with both injuries and underperformance this year. The Astros, Athletics, Orioles, Pirates, Twins and Royals simply don’t have a good enough combo to warrant mention. The Diamondbacks should — with Didi Gregorious tearing it up and Martin Prado having a good reputation — but Prado has been abysmal this season. The Rangers should also be on this list, but not only is second base now up in the air for them, but Elvis Andrus hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this year. So while they may very well have the best middle infield in overall talent, especially with a certain prospect performing well, they won’t grade out as high solely on 2013 performance.
That leaves us with 14 teams — the 11 qualified teams, plus the Phillies, Red Sox and Rockies. We’ll include the Phillies because Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley are one of the longer running double play duos, and were moving along just fine until Utley came down with a sore oblique a couple weeks ago. As for the Red Sox and Rockies, their single qualified players — Dustin Pedroia and Troy Tulowitzki, respectively — put them in the discussion single-handedly. For Boston, either Stephen Drew or Jose Iglesias actually gives them a top notch combo, though the same can’t be said for the mysterious Josh Rutledge, DJ LeMahieu and Jonathan Herrera in Colorado.
Let’s see how the 14 teams stack up:
|Team||Second Base||Age||PA||wRC+||Fld||WAR||Shortstop||Age||PA||wRC+||Fld||WAR||Tot WAR|
|Padres||Jedd Gyorko||24||255||129||-2.4||1.6||Everth Cabrera||26||293||131||2||3.1||4.7|
|Red Sox||Dustin Pedroia||29||286||138||1.3||2.8||Stephen Drew||30||197||98||4.4||1.2||4.0|
|Cardinals||Ma. Carpenter||27||271||155||3.9||3.3||Pete Kozma||25||224||74||3.2||0.6||3.9|
|Tigers||Omar Infante||31||229||101||1.6||1.3||Jhonny Peralta||31||239||137||1.5||2.4||3.7|
|Rockies||Josh Rutledge||24||173||68||-4.5||-0.4||Troy Tulowitzki||28||241||180||4.5||3.7||3.3|
|Giants||Marco Scutaro||37||254||138||-1.6||1.9||Brandon Crawford||26||239||116||-2.2||1.4||3.3|
|Phillies||Chase Utley||34||177||124||3.9||1.6||Jimmy Rollins||34||267||97||0.1||1.2||2.8|
|Reds||Br. Phillips||32||252||121||4.8||2.0||Zack Cozart||27||248||69||1.5||0.5||2.5|
|Brewers||Rickie Weeks||30||218||73||-4.9||-0.5||Jean Segura||23||259||153||0.1||3||2.5|
|Indians||Jason Kipnis||26||234||106||1.4||1.3||Asdrubal Cabrera||27||224||106||-1.6||0.8||2.1|
|Rays||Ben Zobrist||32||259||111||-3.3||1.1||Yunel Escobar||30||215||92||1.6||1||2.1|
|Braves||Dan Uggla||33||236||108||-2.5||0.7||An. Simmons||23||257||81||6.8||1.2||1.9|
|Mets||Daniel Murphy||28||249||114||3.1||1.8||Ruben Tejada||23||204||50||0.1||-0.3||1.5|
|White Sox||Jeff Keppinger||33||205||26||-1.9||-1.4||Alexei Ramirez||31||250||61||2.2||0.5||-0.9|
We see six teams separating a bit from the pack. But when we’re talking combos, we want to focus on the teams in which both players are contributing. So, let’s filter out teams that have a player with less than 1.0 WAR at the moment:
|Padres||Jedd Gyorko||24||255||129||-2.4||1.6||Everth Cabrera||26||293||131||2||3.1|
|Red Sox||Dustin Pedroia||29||286||138||1.3||2.8||Stephen Drew||30||197||98||4.4||1.2|
|Tigers||Omar Infante||31||229||101||1.6||1.3||Jhonny Peralta||31||239||137||1.5||2.4|
|Giants||Marco Scutaro||37||254||138||-1.6||1.9||Brandon Crawford||26||239||116||-2.2||1.4|
|Phillies||Chase Utley||34||177||124||3.9||1.6||Jimmy Rollins||34||267||97||0.1||1.2|
|Rays||Ben Zobrist||32||259||111||-3.3||1.1||Yunel Escobar||30||215||92||1.6||1|
We’re left with five teams. And just as in the above chart, we can see Cabrera and Gyorko stand head and shoulders above the pack so far this season. The A’s are the only other team where both middle infield members have posted a 125 wRC+ or better. And while it’s too early to read much into Gyorko’s defensive ability, he’s appeared to make the second base conversion more easily than had been expected, given his third base pedigree and stocky frame.
At the dish, the 24-year-old rookie has certainly been more than fine. The Padres were bullish enough on him heading out of spring training that they decided to forego any service time shenanigans and start him right away. He’s only sat out three games, and he’s been such a force of late that he has become the normal five-hole hitter — and he even got his first start hitting third this past Sunday. Offense was never supposed to be an issue for the player who placed 67th on the FanGraphs top 100 prospect list this year, and it certainly hasn’t been.
By wRC+, he is the fifth-best second sacker in the game this year, trailing only Matt Carpenter, Pedroia, Marco Scutaro and Howie Kendrick. The scary thing is he really hasn’t been that good against heaters. Looking at his Pitchf/x pitch values, he has been a beast against curves, sliders and changeups; has posted negative values against four seamers, two seamers, cutters and sinkers. Perhaps that won’t change — or perhaps it will — but it’s still early. If he can improve against the cheesier pitches, there still may be room for improvement.
Room for improvement is definitely what Cabrera had when the Padres poached him from the Rockies in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft. He didn’t acquit himself too poorly, but after a 2010 hamstring injury severely hampered Cabrera’s effectiveness, the Pads plugged Jason Bartlett into the lineup and sent Cabrera to Tucson. He spent all of 2011 there, but in early 2012, San Diego finally tired of Bartlett’s ineptitude and recalled Cabrera. He’s been there to stay, in part because he swiped 44 bases in 449 plate appearances last season. That seemed like a pretty hard pace to keep up in today’s game, but with 28 steals in 288 plate appearances this year, he’s basically setting the same pace. His plate discipline has improved, and if he can keep his batting average on balls in play at its current level — a decent bet given his speed and how frequently he puts the ball on the ground — he is basically the ultimate slap hitter. Combine that with above-average defense and you have a pretty nifty player. Of course, things could fall apart for Cabrera if he is suspended by Major League Baseball as part of the Biogenesis probe, but we haven’t heard any new information regarding him specifically since he was implicated in February, so it’s difficult to gauge the degree to which he may be punished.
What’s not difficult to gauge, when we look back at the charts, is the relative youth of the Padres’ combo. Gyorko and Cabrera are not just the youngest combo here, they’re significantly younger than the rest of their respective duos. They are the only combo with both players younger than 27, and are only likely to be joined by the Rangers — and then only if Jurickson Profar permanently displaces Ian Kinsler at second base. The Mariners also could have such a duo if they decided to trade Brendan Ryan and plugged Nick Franklin in at shortstop, though nothing like that appears either imminent or advisable.
Being good and young is a dangerous combination. Gyorko may get lost in the shuffle for rookie-of-the-year, as Evan Gattis took the game by storm to start this season, and Yasiel Puig has taken the showstopper mantle up a couple of notches in the past week. But Gyorko is putting in work, as is Cabrera. Together the two have been the best middle infield duo in the game thus far in 2013. It’s still early — both in the season and in each player’s career — but they’ve performed at an elite level so far this year. Whether they can sustain these kinds of performances and put themselves into the discussion of best overall middle infield tandem remains to be seen.
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