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March 11, 2013

Rumor Roundup

The Battle for the Keystone

by Daniel Rathman

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Spring training is a time for preparation and position battles, but it is also a prime opportunity for players to showcase new skills. Today’s Roundup features a trio—two position players and one pitcher—that has been doing just that.

Cardinals, Padres impressed with second-base candidates’ defensive progress
Not many teams enjoy significant offensive contributions from their second basemen, and the Cardinals and Padres were not among the fortunate few in 2012, as their keystone men amassed OPSs of 670 and 684, respectively. St. Louis overcame that weakness to reach the National League Championship Series, and San Diego, whose players’ numbers are depressed by Petco Park, cared relatively little about individual performances during a rebuilding year, but both clubs entered this offseason seeking ways to improve on those mediocre outputs going forward.

Since then, general managers John Mozeliak and Josh Byrnes have crafted similar plans in their efforts to address the position: Instead of finding a natural second baseman that does not hit like a typical second baseman, the Cardinals and Padres decided to throw quality hitters into keystone waters and see if they can swim. Now, after a brief period of nail biting, they might be ready to take away their kickboards.   

Matt Carpenter, who played five different positions for first-year manager Mike Matheny in 2012, made just five of his 116 appearances and only two of his 73 starts at second base. But, the 26-year-old amassed a .294/.365/.463 triple-slash line in 340 plate appearances, and even with Allen Craig and David Freese entrenched at the infield corners, the Cardinals struggled to justify keeping him out of the everyday lineup going forward. From there came the plan to work Carpenter out at second base, a position at which his 828 OPS would have ranked third only to Robinson Cano and Aaron Hill, had he played it full-time last year.

MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch spoke with Matheny over the weekend about the Carpenter-at-second experiment, and learned that the skipper’s confidence in the former utility man is growing. Matheny specifically mentioned Carpenter’s improvement on double-play turns, which was on display in Sunday’s game, per a tweet from St. Louis-area radio host B.J. Rains. And, earlier in the weekend, Matheny’s comments prompted our own Jason Martinez to move Carpenter into his projected starting lineup for the Cardinals, even though the manager insisted that no plans have yet been finalized.

Carpenter’s primary competitor for the job is Daniel Descalso, who also hits left-handed, but whose greatest asset is the glove, as evidenced by his .240 TAv and +5.2 FRAA last year. The Cardinals could employ a timeshare at the position—thereby taking advantage of Carpenter’s versatility similar to the way that the Rays utilize Ben Zobrist—but if they choose to go with a one-man show, then the decision will come down to a tradeoff between seldom-seen offense and coveted defense.

St. Louis’ pitchers induced the second-highest volume of ground balls in the league last year, and their infielders held opponents to a .233 average on those worm burners, good for 10th in the majors. If Carpenter is not at least a league-average defender at the keystone, that BABIP could tick up significantly, much to the chagrin of Adam Wainwright, Jake Westbrook, and the rest of the pitching staff. The importance of infield defense to the Cardinals could grant Descalso more playing time than his offensive profile would otherwise warrant, so the onus is on Carpenter to sway Matheny and Mozeliak on the progress of his glove, which would enable the team to benefit from the promise of his bat.

Meanwhile, at the Padres’ camp in Peoria, fifth-ranked prospect Jedd Gyorko is trying to win over Byrnes and manager Bud Black. And, just as Matheny did with Carpenter, Black heaped praise on Gyorko’s spring training efforts, telling MLB.com’s Spencer Fordin, “He’s handled second base very nicely.”

In his list of the Padres’ top 10 prospects, Jason Parks noted that Gyorko “could hit .280+ with good gap pop”—enough to make him an above-average offensive second baseman, but a lackluster profile at more premium offensive positions. Parks was encouraged by the West Virginia University product’s arm and athleticism but lamented his “fringe-at-best” range, a shortcoming that likely contributed to Jason Martinez’s decision to pencil Logan Forsythe into the team’s regular nine over the 24-year-old Gyorko. Although Gyorko’s .328/.380/.588 triple-slash line in the inflated offensive environments of the Pacific Coast League suggests that he has little left to prove at the Triple-A level, he would likely return to Tucson to receive regular playing time, costing the Padres a potentially valuable bat.

There is a wrinkle in this battle, however: Forsythe is dealing with plantar fasciitis and will miss another day or two after receiving an injection on Saturday. If the ailment lingers, Gyorko’s odds of breaking camp with the Padres would vastly improve, putting pressure on the team’s coaching staff to ensure that his glove is up to the challenge. Gyorko has already showcased his superior pop in Cactus League play, slugging three homers in his first 12 games, and the next few days could be critical in his bid to ward off Forsythe and Alexi Amarista for the everyday job.

Has Rick Porcello found a solution to his lefty woes?
The Tigers, whose own difficulties at second base prompted a trade for Omar Infante last year, are currently focused on sorting out their fifth-starter and closer roles, and Porcello might figure into both battles. The right-hander has struck out 14 batters without issuing a walk in 13 Grapefruit League innings, and given that he is still in Lakeland, the likelihood of him being traded before Opening Day is rapidly shrinking. MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported from Sunday’s game that the number of scouts watching had dwindled from Porcello’s previous outing, though it’s unclear whether that was simply due to teams’ scouting itineraries or a legitimate indication that general manager Dave Dombrowski has pulled him off the market.

Manager Jim Leyland downplayed the possibility of Porcello taking over the ninth-inning reins—a scenario in which Drew Smyly would become the number-five starter and Bruce Rondon might return to Triple-A—and given the 24-year-old’s March success, the smart money is on him staying in the rotation. Regardless of Porcello’s Opening Day role, though, one key to his growth is finding an answer to left-handed hitters.

Although some of Porcello’s inconsistency can be attributed to the Tigers’ porous infield defense, which contributed to his bloated .344 BABIP and consequently his 4.59 ERA, his .313 TAv allowed to opposite-handed batters is a much more pertinent concern. Porcello’s ground-ball profile won’t persuade Leyland to pull Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera off the field, so it’s up to the righty to find a way to bolster the 13 percent strikeout rate he posted against lefties last year.

And, if MLB.com analyst Bernie Pleskoff’s observations are an accurate guide, then Porcello seems to be on the right track. Pleskoff tweeted from the game that Porcello was “busting the ball inside against left-handed batters,” an intriguing note because the northpaw rarely did that in 2012.

Instead of pounding the inner edge, Porcello lived on and just beyond the outer third of the plate—and the results were uninspiring. His occasional forays into the inner half also went poorly, but those totals were logged in smaller samples, and it’s possible that a greater emphasis on painting the inside corner could mitigate the damage. Given the aforementioned .313 TAv—which, for the sake of comparison, was equal to that posted by Jose Bautista—Porcello does not have much to lose by tinkering with his approach.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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