In part one of this series we tried to match potential buyers and sellers at first base and catcher. This time around we'll look at the rest of the infield -- second base, third base, and shortstop.
With the contenders mostly strong at the keystone, the Orioles might have the second base market all to themselves. This is a good thing, because they need help pretty desperately. They're dead last in the majors in offensive production at second base. Brian Roberts made it through three games before getting hurt again, leaving second in the hands of Alexi Casilla (.227/.284/.303) and Ryan Flaherty (.182/.248/.264). Roberts is rehabbing and might be back around the All-Star break. He's 35, and if you add up all of his time on the field since 2009 you get 118 games and 525 plate appearances in which he hit .248/.311/.344. It's hard to believe that he'll be able to stay on the field this time, or that his skills won't have atrophied to the point that he'll do anything that's representative of his peak period. Still, the key word is "anything," because he really doesn't have to do much to give the Orioles an upgrade.
The Orioles do have a potential second baseman at Triple-A in Jonathan Schoop, but it's hard to believe he'll hit (.266/.335/.395 career, with about the same rates this year at Triple-A). Players who might become available at some point this season include a trio of Dodgers -- Mark Ellis (under $5.75 million club option, with a $1 million buyout), Skip Schumaker, and Nick Punto. Ellis hit .342 in April, but since coming back from the quadriceps injury that sidelined him for the first half of May, his offense is best described by the title of the old Jack Nitzsche song, "Gone Dead Train," with .185/.256/.247 rates. He's still a good fielder, but of course if he keeps hitting like that his glove is a moot point. At .261/.335/.321 after a much ballyhooed (over-ballyhooed, actually) quieting of his swing, Punto is actually the better offensive/defensive combination.
Using a very loose definition of "contender," most of the teams with even a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs are well taken care of at third base, with stars like Miguel Cabrera and up-and-comers like Manny Machado driving them forward. Those teams that haven't received much from the hot corner, like the Indians (.191/.257/.323) and Yankees (.254/.304/.348) will try to solve their problems with internal options. The Indians just recalled Lonnie Chisenhall (.390/.456/.676 at Triple-A after being demoted earlier this season). The Yankees, who just learned that Kevin Youkilis will require back surgery and will be out anywhere from 10-12 weeks, will eventually get BFF Alex Rodriguez back from surgeries on every single organ in his body (except his brain) and in the meantime will string along with Jayson Nix and David Adams.
There is always the possibility that Rodriguez will return as more of a DH than a third baseman, and so a deal might still be necessary. The difficulty for the Yankees in making any deal is that they need to retain their top prospects (catcher Gary Sanchez and the outfield trio of Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Tyler Austin). "Flags fly forever" can justify any deal, but the Yankees need to staff a team in an age in which the best players are generally not going the free agent route.
Players heading for free agency include 38-year-old Blue Jays utility man Mark De Rosa, the Indians' first base/third base/designated hitter Mark Reynolds (who has hit .194/.274/.319 since April but doesn't figure to be going anywhere), the Dodgers' Juan Uribe (an uncharacteristic .267/.364/.400 in 51 games) , the Phillies Michael Young (.290/.357/.402, spiked by a .381/.391/.540 June), and the Marlins' Placido Polanco (.229/.288/.261).
It's possible a contender might shed a third baseman as well. The Rangers' Mike Olt (.199/.290/.412 after dealing with some vision problems) has nowhere to play with Adrian Beltre in town through 2015 and a crowd in the rest of the infield making first base an unlikely destination. He might help bring a needed extra pitcher. And though the Tigers have shifted Nick Castellanos (.290/.365/.477 at Triple-A) to the outfield so he isn't blocked by Cabrera, an acquiring team could shift him right back again.
There is a secret rule in baseball that none have ever uttered yet every general manager, beat writer, and even fan knows it is true: At some point, every team will get a chance to try Cody Ransom and experience a few joyful weeks of bliss before the truth of Ransom asserts itself. Ransom, currently on his eighth team, is hitting .286/.368/.662 for the Cubs in 88 plate appearances. He's 37 and has 22 teams to go, so any day now the Cubs will be getting a letter from the Commissioner's office telling them that their turn is over and it's time for someone else to have a chance. Ransom can't hit right-handed pitching, but as a career .253/.325/.509 hitter against southpaws, he would be a useful platoon half were a team like the Indians to try to protect a returning Chisenhall from left-handed pitching. Of course, the Cubs won't get anything of value for Ransom, but it's not like he's going to be part of the Next Great Cubs Team, so any return at all should be counted as a victory.
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The Pirates are in a position that almost justifies superstition. They're finally winning in a way where they may not play back their record with a sudden fall. Clint Barmes has been part of supporting their pitching staff with his glove. Yet, at .201/.234/.268 (41 OPS+) he gave back so much on offense that he wasn't helping overall. The thing is, a Pirates winning season is such a delicate, gossamer thing that you almost hesitate to suggest changing any element of it, lest a Jenga-like collapse ensue.
If we think about it more rationally, then it becomes obvious that, yes, the Pirates are in a delicate place, but Barmes was one of the reasons for the fragility. The average major-league shortstop is hitting .253/.305/.372. Barmes is a strong fielder, but a shortstop would have to be something like Ozzie Smith in the field to overcome his awesome lack of hitting. The Pirates apparently shared that point of view, as manager Clint Hurdle tabbed 26-year-old backup Jordy Mercer as his go-to guy at short from now on. Mercer is hitting a nice .286/.340/.480, but that's almost certainly small-sample noise -- Mercer was a career .268/.326/.404 hitter in the minors. He did hit 19 home runs in 491 at-bats split between Double- and Triple-A in 2011; above-average power for a middle infielder seems to be on tap, but the bigger question is if he'll be able to put up anything like a league-average on-base percentage.
As with Roberts and the Orioles, Mercer won't have to do much to outhit Barmes, and if he can't field with him, well, the latter is still on hand to act as a defensive replacement. Should this solution be found wanting and the Pirates approach the deadline within reach of a wild-card spot or the division title, an interesting possibility has arisen in Boston because of how well Jose Iglesias is playing. Even out of position at third he's clearly a defensive genius, and while his hitting has been so far out of character it almost warps the laws of physics, one wonders if the Sox would try to flip Stephen Drew, a free agent after the season.
Drew got off to a slow start after suffering a concussion in spring training, but since the cobwebs cleared (there's no official date on that, but I'm willing to discount his first 10 games for the purposes of our discussion here) he's hit .235/.312/.412. That won't make anyone forget Honus Wagner, but it's not bad for a shortstop, and Drew is a very solid defender as well. It's unusual to see a contending club deal a key player, and a year ago Drew didn't command much of a return when he was dealt to from the Diamondbacks to the A's (a 24-year-old shortstop now playing at High-A and therefore on pace to make his big-league debut on the fifth of never), but things may have changed.
Reports have suggested the Red Sox have little interest in dealing Drew, but Iglesias could force the issue.
One other intriguing scenario involves the rebuilding Cubs. Starlin Castro is only 23 and would seem to be fixed as part of the rebuilding franchise. Certainly the Cubs intended it to be that way when they signed him to a seven-year contract that could potentially keep him in Chicago through the 2020 season. He's still only 23 and as such is still far away from his theoretical peak, but this season still has to rate as a disappointment so far. You can measure Castro's ongoing slump from different points of the season, but here's one instructive one: since the last game of a 14-game hitting streak in April, he's hit .214/.256/.284 with one home run and nine walks in 49 games. One of the Cubs' top prospects, shortstop Javier Baez, is hitting .272/.335/.540 with 14 home runs.
Daytona is far away from the major leagues and much can go wrong between High-A and the majors, so the Cubs can't necessarily count on Baez maintaining this level of production as he climbs the ladder, and listening to offers on Castro would be a terrifically aggressive and risky posture to take. Still, Theo Epstein is the guy who traded Nomar Garciaparra in the middle of a pennant race, so anything is possible.
As with third base, it's possible a contender could shed a prospect at this position to improve in some other area. Once again, the Rangers' deep pile of prospects make them the most likely possibility. With Elvis Andrus signed to an extension that lasts well past the point that global warming will make Kansas City the new Hawaii, it's possible that general manager Jon Daniels could choose to move rookie shortstop Jurickson Profar in the right deal. Profar, who is presently in the majors and bouncing between positions, is just 20 and, as a .276/.367/.449 hitter in the minors during a career spent mostly as a teenager, he could be a force in the middle infield. Early-season rumors that had the Rangers looking to move Profar to the Cardinals, who could use a two-way shortstop, for top outfield prospect Oscar Taveras sounded too good to be true (and actually uneven from a Rangers point of view), but with Matt Harrison out at least until August, Alexi Ogando experiencing shoulder inflammation, and rookies Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch putting up mixed results, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Rangers try to add a pitcher.
Next time: The outfield.