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July 3, 2008

Fantasy Beat

Midseason Retooling: Second Base

by Marc Normandin

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This week we shift our focus for mid-season reviews to second base, a position with no shortage of offensive talent this year. Teams lucky enough to draft Chase Utley, Dan Uggla, or Ian Kinsler may not be worried about finding production in the second half, but everyone else should be wondering if their guy's production-good or bad-is sustainable.

Except for his short stint in Philadelphia last year, Tadahito Iguchi has been average at best during his MLB career. The Padres signed him to play second base after barely tolerating Marcus Giles and Geoff Blum there last year, and Iguchi was producing as expected with a .251 EqA before landing on the DL with a separated shoulder. In his place came Edgar Gonzalez, the brother of Padres' first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The elder Gonzalez is a 30-year-old rookie now with his sixth organization, finding himself back in the city where he played college ball. He's hitting .325/.376/.480 over 133 plate appearances-significantly better than Iguchi's .259/.324/.343 showing-and although some of that line will disappear as his .394 BABIP drops closer towards the mean with more playing time, adjusting his numbers for that eventuality still puts him at .276/.323/.418, which would still be an improvement on Iguchi.

When compared to some of his recent minor league seasons-he hit .308/.376/.447 with the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate last year and .293/.376/.480 for Portland this year-that line doesn't seem like much of a stretch. The problem is more with what happens to Gonzalez' playing time when Iguchi returns from his injury. Gonzalez has clearly been the better hitter during his time with the Padres; he hasn't shown a lefty/righty split (though we are talking about a very limited one month sample here) and he's even hit .352/.418/.465 at Petco. If I was stuck choosing between the two, I would wait to see if the Padres plan on letting Gonzalez-who is four years younger than the Japanese import-have the majority of at-bats once Iguchi returns. If not, Iguchi is not the type of player that you need to have this season, given the glut of hitting talent-his VORPr of .055 is tied for 30th among second basemen with 100 minimum plate appearances, while Gonzalez is all the way up at fourth place.

Robinson Cano's struggles from early in the season have not abated, much like during last June. He's not hitting for power to the opposite field, with just 11.4 percent of balls in play heading in that direction for a .194 batting average and no home runs. He's popping up frequently, with 6.6 percent of balls in play resulting in fly balls to the infield (.056 average). He's also grounding the ball to his pull side very frequently: 30.4 percent of balls in play for Cano have been to the right side of the infield, and he's hit a paltry .145 in that situation. Without the opposite field power, his HR/FB has been nearly halved, cutting into an ISO that now sits at .116. Though Cano isn't chasing as many pitches outside of the zone as he used too-and is making contact out of the zone more often as well-this hasn't resulted in anything positive aside from a drop in his strikeout rate from 13.8 to 8.6 percent.

That dip in strikeout rate should theoretically give Cano more chances to collect hits on balls in play, but that has not been the case, as he's delivering just a .248 BABIP. His liner rate is 17.6 percent though, meaning he should have a BABIP .296, right around the league average. Bumping his line up for that improves things to .278/.322/.403-something to remember-and the low strikeout rate means more of that BABIP translating directly into his triple-slash stats. Based on this, we should see Cano climbing out of his funk when his liner rate and BABIP begin to mesh more accurately, but even then we're looking at a merely average major league hitter. Cano was a bit over his head last year-a .331 BABIP despite a 17 percent liner rate means he should have been around .266/.311/.435 rather than hitting over .300-so expect something more in line with the adjusted numbers for the second half of the season. Cano put up excellent numbers after the All-Star break last season, but banking on him to have incredible luck on balls in play to fix his line again is not a sound strategy for success.

Alexi Casilla came into the season rated as the ninth-best prospect under the age of 25 in the Twins organization, as Kevin Goldstein felt that "despite a poor showing last year in terms of both production and effort, he's still a solid talent." That failure to produce also came at the minor league level, with Casilla hitting all of .269/.339/.344 in Triple-A before cratering further in 189 major league at-bats. He began the year in the minors again, hitting just .219 with an ISO of .031, but the Twins called him up regardless to man second base on a daily basis. In response, he's given the Twins his best production since his stint at High-A ball in 2006, with a .291 EqA.

That production is above his 90th-percentile forecast, thanks in part to a .336 BABIP that's well above the expectations set by his 16 percent liner rate. Granted, 16 percent is a low rate that should move closer towards 20 with more plate appearances, but he's still 51 points above where he should be in BABIP now. Adjusting for that would cut into his value significantly, as he would no longer be a quality option at second base this year, and would be hitting closer to .258/.297/.379. That's pretty close to the middle and lower ranges of his PECOTA forecast, meaning there's a better chance that the adjusted line is what you can expect from Casilla than his BABIP-fueled first half. He's stolen four bases on the year and has been caught just once, but he's far from matching last season's total of 35 swiped bags (11 in the majors and 24 at Triple-A). If he's not stealing and not getting on base to begin with, he can't do much for you in the runs category. If you can sell high with Casilla to someone in desperate need of help at the position, do so; point at his early numbers and his past steal totals and hope for a bite.

Howie Kendrick is just 24 years old, so we can excuse him for not immediately turning into a .350-hitting superstar. There are a few roadblocks in the way that may keep him from becoming a very productive hitter: first, Kendrick has always hit the ball on the ground pretty often, and he's doing it even more than before in 2008. His G/F has gone up from 1.6 to 1.8 to 2.2 during his three years in the majors, and he's now hitting groundballs on 56.3 percent of his balls in play. The right-hander has been successful when pulling the ball-a .326 batting average to the left side of the infield on nearly 40 percent of balls in play-but he doesn't have the same drive behind his batted balls on the first base side, hitting just .182 over 20 percent of balls in play. Kendrick has zero pull power in his bag of tricks right now; he's hit a paltry 2.7 percent of balls in play in the air to left, with not a single home run to show for it.

We're only looking at 141 at-bats though, and Kendrick has displayed some power in the past, though not much in the way of homers. PECOTA had him down for a .152 ISO this year at the weighted mean level, but he's only put up a .106 mark. It's tough to get extra-base hits when you don't hit the ball in the air very often, but if Kendrick wants to be more than just a guy shooting balls through the infield defense he's going to need to straighten out his swing and drive the ball with more authority. As of now, he's a guy who should hit .300 for you, but without much in the way of RBI or runs thanks to a low OBP and few extra-base hits. He doesn't steal much either, which makes him a single-category guy for you at this stage in his career. In non-keeper leagues, you may want to look elsewhere if you can, or try dealing Kendrick to someone with more optimism than they should have. He's going to be a great hitter if he can work out the kinks, but the results from this year haven't shown us any progress on that front yet.

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