The Magnificent Middle Infield [2021 Season Preview]

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The Keystone King

Yankees fans everywhere exhaled a collective sigh of relief on the morning of January 15. On that day, which will hopefully not live in infamy, represented the end of a too-long tango between the team’s front office and DJ LeMahieu, when the 32-year-old re-signed for 6-years and $90 million. The idea of an offense without LeMahieu – who led the team in batting average, on-base percentage, wRC+, and WAR over the last two years – was the baseball equivalent of existential dread, so the news of his return may well have been the best possible news for Yankees fans this off-season.

LeMahieu’s excellence in pinstripes cannot be overstated, either. He’s 12th in the majors in fWAR since the beginning of 2019, sandwiched between Ronald Acuña Jr. and JT Realtmuto. His 146 wRC+ is 10th, just behind reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger. And his .336 batting average, passé as it may be, is the best in the business. LeMahieu has been nothing short of elite in pinstripes, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

Speaking of, let’s check-in on the projection systems:

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)WAR
PECOTA64419.295/.360/.450 (122 DRC+)4.6
ZiPS59818.306/.357/.463 (117 wRC+)4.2
Steamer68321.294/.353/.453 (114 wRC+)3.8

All three projection systems are essentially splitting the difference between LeMahieu’s last season in Colorado (87 wRC+) and his first season in the Bronx (135 wRC+), and I’m not all that surprised. After all, he’s 32 and has more than four times as many plate appearances in Colorado. And, given that 2020 was heavily abbreviated, his back-to-back career years involve just 871 PA. I would be at least a bit disappointed in any of those lines – though, all three would be rock solid.

That said: I’m betting the over.

The Young Star at Shortstop

Gleyber Torres turned 24 in December.

Let that sink in for a moment. Take a deep breath. And now repeat after me: Torres is still awesome.

The abbreviated 2020 season was incredibly frustrating for Torres. Derek detailed his ups and downs quite well last fall, but it boils down to a powerless .243/.356/.368 slash line (106 wRC+) and straight-up bad defense at shortstop. And his massive improvements in his walk and strikeout rates appear to be predicated on passivity more so than patience.

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If I may be so bold, though, I do think he’s one of the players whose month-by-month breakdown shows how much one bad month can do to someone’s line in such a short season. To wit:

July.263/.364/.421, 121 wRC+, 1 HR in 22 PA
August.220/.333/.254, 73 wRC+, 0 HR in 69 PA
September.259/.377/.466, 134 wRC+, 2 HR in 69 PA
Postseason.435/.567/.696 with 2 HR in 30 PA

Heading into 2020, Torres was a career .275/.338/.511 (123 wRC+) hitter. We can’t ignore the entirety of the season, nor can we randomly pick apart the data to suggest all is well – but I think there’s enough here to suggest that 2020 was closer to a blip than it was a sign of doom.

And the projections agree:

SystemPAHRAVG/OBP/SLG (+)DefenseWAR
PECOTA57625.261/.344/.463 (118 DRC+)-0.93.0
ZiPS59433.284/.364/.526 (133 wRC+)-0.54.4
Steamer61831.271/.351/.495 (121 wRC+)-0.53.6

Ah, that’s the stuff.

All three systems see Torres holding onto some of his walk rate gains, which is definitely a good thing, but they do not agree on his power output. There’s a clear expectation for improvements there, to be sure – but PECOTA has an ISO below his career norm, Steamer just above, and ZiPS coming relatively close to his breakout 2019. It also seems that ZiPS is clearly banking on some age-related improvement as Torres enters his prime years. Call me a sucker, but I feel good about that.

It’s interesting that all three are bullish on his defense. All of those figures would represent career-bests, and I’m not sure how likely that is. Torres has been a veritable butcher at short, so an improvement to passable would be a boon. Again, though, he’s 24. It could happen.

Who backs up shortstop?

Okay, so maybe the middle infield isn’t magnificent insofar as depth is concerned. I’ll go through the 40-man options first, and I’m going in alphabetical order to stave off the inevitable.

I wrote a bit about Thairo Estrada in my corner infield preview:

Estrada isn’t all that much more enticing, though he has the feel of a perfectly adequate bench player. By reputation, he’s a solid defender at second, third, and short, and a competent hitter with average-ish tools across the board. That’s basically a utility infielder starter kit, and it makes more sense to trot him out there on a non-regular basis than someone who might have more to offer.

Estrada has more intrigue as a backup at positions where defense is more important. Pre-pandemic, FanGraphs noted that he had “average range and plus actions at short, a plus arm, some speed, and feel for contact.” Estrada has logged just 50 innings at short in the majors, so it’d be inane to draw anything from that sample size.

Rohan wrote about several Yankees prospects earlier this week, including Oswald Peraza. The 20-year-old was added to the 40-man back in November to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, and for good reason: he’s a no-doubt shortstop with premium athleticism, big-time speed, and a good feel for contact according to the scouting community, and those sorts of prospects are in short supply. And Brendan Kuty of Baseball America noted that he’s showing signs of power nowadays, as well.

There’s a serious caveat with Peraza, though: he has never played above Low-A, and he was not at the alternate site in 2020. Barring some major strides, it’s difficult to see him factoring into the team’s plans this season.

And then there’s Tyler Wade. The 26-year-old has been up and down with the Yankees for four years now, and has hit .190/.274/.301 (57 wRC+) in 346 PA. He’s an asset on the bases (13 steals in 15 attempts, 6.0 BsR, elite sprint speed), average at 2B (+2 DRS/+2 OAA/0.0 UZR in 482.2 innings), and passable at SS (0 DRS/-2 OAA/-0.5 UZR in 192.0 innings). And despite his weak bat, he has mustered a respectable 9.2 BB% in his brief career.

Among the non-roster invitees, only the 26-year-old Andrew Velazquez has some semblance of a shot (and I think that’s being generous). He started 19 games at shortstop for the Orioles last year, and was probably just about average. I say probably, because it was only 171 innings and DRS (+3) and UZR (+0.5) disagree with OAA (-2). He was signed to a minor league deal in December and has two options remaining, so I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw Velazquez at some point, but his bat has somehow been worse than Wade’s (36 wRC+ in 113 PA).

I came into this almost one-hundred percent sure Wade was going to have the job, and I’m leaving it convinced.

Another Dietrich Cameo

You may be a bit tired of hearing about Dietrich at this point, considering that Matt compared him to Jay Bruce on Sunday, and I discussed him in my aforementioned corner infield preview. So here’s the short version:

Dietrich hit .197/.347/.459 (124 wRC+) last year, and is a career .245/.335/.428 (108 wRC+) hitter. He’s much better against righties, toting a career 113 wRC+ against northpaws, and he has experience at first, second, third, and left.

His defense at second base isn’t good, though. DRS has him at around -7 runs per 150, and UZR checks in at -3.7 per 150. OAA is more forgiving, though, grading him at +2 in 452.1 innings since the beginning of 2017. And, for what it’s worth, DRS and UZR do see him as a closer to scratch defender in that stretch.

Whether or not Dietrich makes the team has no impact on the other bench position for the infield, as he can’t play shortstop. But he could help give LeMahieu some days off.

The (Hopefully) Fruitful Farm

The Yankees have a great many high-end middle infield prospects throughout their system. Peraza is really just the tip of the iceberg, and that’s a great sign. I will go through this in alphabetical order once again.

Marcos Cabrera, who I discussed a bit in the corner infield preview, was signed as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic. He has high-end offensive tools and a great arm, but his range is questionable and he’s 6’3″ and pushing 200 pounds. Few see him as a shortstop long-term.

Signed out of Venezuela way back in 2015, the 22-year-old Oswaldo Cabrera is credited with having fantastic hands in the infield. Second base feels like the likeliest position for him, but there are rumblings that he’ll end up playing second, third, and short as he moves up in the system. And, while his stat line does not jump off the page, it’s worth noting that he had premium exit velocities in 2019.

The 20-year-old Roberto Chirinos is a glove-first middle infield prospect. Few see him as something of a tweener, with enough arm for shortstop but range that might leave him best-suited for second. I’ve actually seen Chirinos compared to Estrada, for what it’s worth.

I wrote about Ezequiel Duran earlier this week. The consensus is that he will hit and hit for power, and most believe that he is solid at second base. Whether he could be a factor at shortstop is an intriguing question, and may well determine his path to the majors. Duran’s a personal favorite.

Wilkerman Garcia has been in the organization since 2014, having signed out of Venezuela at the age of 16. He was one of the top prospects in that class, and he has been about as good as advertised on defense; it seems likely that he can capably fill-in at second, third, and short. Garcia’s bat has yet to come around, though, as he’s overly aggressive and hasn’t quite tapped into what most consider at least average raw power.

Hauver. (Nicholas Badders/WCSN)

The Yankees drafted Trevor Hauver with their third-round pick last year, announcing him as a second baseman; this, despite the fact that he played shortstop in high school and the outfield in college. Most expect him to hit, hit for power, and draw walks – but his ability to stay on the infield dirt is an open-ended question. If he does, though, it would definitely be at second.

Hoy-Jun Park strikes me as a rich man’s Tyler Wade. He’s fast, he works the count, and he can play second and short. Unlike Wade, however, he has a modicum of power (even though it’s decidedly below-average). Park spent a full season at Double-A in 2019, so it stands to reason that he could be up at some point this season.

2019 second-round pick Josh Smith is being developed as a shortstop, but probably fits best at second. Often described as ‘scrappy’ or ‘gritty,’ Smith is one of those players that has a bunch of average tools, and nothing that really stands out as particularly good or bad. He has a high floor as a solid utility infielder; his ceiling might not be much higher, though.

The 19-year-old Alexander Vargas is another prospect that I adore. Signed out of Cuba in 2018, Vargas has worked his way up from a scrawny 150ish pounds to a more muscular 175 over the last few years, and his power potential has increased alongside his weight. He’s regarded as a safe bet to stick at shortstop, owing to elite speed and great hands, and his bat is developing nicely.

And that leaves us with 2019 first-round pick Anthony Volpe. There is a strong consensus that he will stick at short, owing to solid range, a strong arm, sure hands, and quality footwork, and his hit tool (at least insofar as contact is concerned) is regarded as plus. His ability to grow into more power is in question; though, he reportedly added fifteen pounds of muscle over the last year or so.

Depth Chart

  • MLB: LeMahieu*, Torres*, Dietrich^, Wade*
  • Triple-A: Estrada*, Velazquez^, Park
  • Double-A: Smith, O. Cabrera
  • High-A: Duran, Hauver, Garcia
  • Low-A: M. Cabrera, Chirinos, Vargas, Volpe

*Denotes on 40-man roster, ^ denotes non-roster invitee to major league spring training.

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1 Comment

  1. Yanks2020

    I assume Peraza is double A?

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