This week it is time to take a look at the middle infield, which seems to have turned into a less productive set of positions the last few seasons. At both shortstop and second base there are only a handful of players who can really help out your fantasy team, and picking from the rest seems more like an exercise in trying to avoid creating a sinkhole position. Using 2007 performance, we’ll try to sort out some of the latter group today.

Rickie Weeks came on strong after a short stint in the minor leagues and a poor first half of the season to finish the year at .235/.374/.433. Weeks did generate 26.1 VORP, 14th among second basemen, but while this line seems decent enough, there is room for improvement. His BABIP was .289, right around the league average, but his liner rate of 17.1 percent was well under his career mark (and a couple of points below average for everybody) so far. He hit more fly balls than normal while cutting down on his grounders as well, but he didn’t see his power move up as much as he could have, in part thanks to an increase in infield flies. Weeks pops up often, coming in at 14.8 percent and 17.4 percent of all fly balls the past two years. If he can cut down on that even a little bit while hitting a few more liners, we should see his batting average climb. Weeks did manage to hit .273/.442/.553 from August 10 onward, but that may be a bit lofty to expect over a full season.

Considering he’s just 25 years old and coming back from injuries that hampered his development, the idea that Weeks can improve by leaps and bounds isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and a .270/.400/.500 campaign in 2008 doesn’t seem improbable. Just try not to reach for him too soon at your draft or auction, because the chance that he will burn you exists as well. Gaging the next year’s performance off of second-half surges or lapses can be risky, especially in small samples, but from the data we do have Weeks looks like he may have finally figured something out in his approach.

Orlando Hudson is known mostly for his defensive abilities, but he has been able to hit well the past two seasons while in Arizona. This should not come as a surprise–his home park inflates scoring–but most of Hudson’s improvement has come from some improvement in his pitch recognition and an ability to get hits on ground balls. Last year’s thumb injury shouldn’t handicap his power in 2008 much, if at all, since most of his extra-base hits come from liners and hard-hit grounders that find a hole to the outfield, allowing him to get a double or a triple.

The one thing that you need to watch out for is his BABIP, as it was a bit higher than it should have been last season, by 16 points. That may not seem like much-adjusting his line for that inflation brings him to .278/.360/.425-but you have to remember that this is a player who has hit in offensive havens his entire career. Last year, he managed to hit .302/.382/.511 at home, against his hitting just .286/.370/.369 on the road. His three-year splits tell the same story: .295/.367/.473 at home, .274/.334/.403 on the road. This isn’t a Kaz Matsui-esque Coors boost we’re talking about here, but it’s significant considering where Hudson may be drafted in some leagues due to his run and RBI totals at second base. If you’re going to draft Hudson, make sure you do it later on in the draft when the options are scarcer; drafting a backup for Hudson’s road games wouldn’t be the worst idea either.

After a hot start to 2007, Orlando Cabrera cooled off significantly (.259/.310/.329 from July 1 onward) and finished the year at just .301/.345/.397. He did manage to steal 20 bases while only being caught four times, though that is only the ninth highest total among shortstops. Cabrera’s batting average helped to keep the rest of his line afloat through his poor second half, though that itself was propped up by a lofty BABIP. With his low 17.6 percent liner rate, Cabrera’s BABIP should have been closer to .299 than the .324 it came out to; this puts his adjusted line somewhere around a much less pleasant .275/.319/.371.

Will heading to an offense-oriented park on Chicago’s South Side alter Cabrera’s value enough to make him worth a pick? Angel Stadium is fairly neutral, though a little tougher on right-handers like Cabrera. U.S. Cellular only slightly boosts offense overall, but it does ratchet up homer totals significantly. However, Cabrera is not much of a pull hitter, as these charts can show you…

chart 1

…so he may not receive the entire power boost, and certainly will not gain enough to merit much draft consideration. He spreads the ball over the outfield too much to earn more than a few extra-base hits more, and his power isn’t at the level where only a few works. The 20 steals would be nice, but there are better players who can get them for you, and one thing I refuse to do while constructing a team is to draft a guy on his base thefts alone.

On that note, let’s move to Rafael Furcal, who had a disappointing 2007 campaign in light of his recent performances. Furcal saw his production drop to its lowest level since 2001-2002, when he wasn’t much of a power threat and didn’t get on base very often. His .270/.333/.355 line last year was especially a disappointment considering his .300/.369/.445 campaign from 2006, and he only stole 25 bases. Steals are hard to come by, but Furcal had a reputation as a player who could help out your other offensive categories while simultaneously boosting your steal totals.

Part of last season’s issue was a return to reality in the BABIP department. Furcal’s 2006 line was partially the result of a .335 BABIP, though with his 20.9 percent liner rate, that was not too far off from where it was supposed to be. The drop in 2007 came from a dip in his liner rate, down to 18.7 percent. This helped to drop his BABIP 37 points, about 10 points more than it should have fallen. This hurt his batting average and slugging some, and there was also a massive drop in his isolated power to boot. After posting Isolated Power marks of .144 and .145, particularly nifty figures for a shortstop with speed, Furcal only managed a .084 ISO last year.

While he did not hit as many doubles or triples due to the lower batting average, the most significant change was in his home run totals. His HR/FB rate dropped from almost 10 percent to just under four percent, which is also well below his career average of 7.6 percent. His infield fly rate moved up a few percentage points after a career-low mark in 2006, which also hindered his rate stats somewhat. Furcal’s power outage was not a product of his home park-he hit .298/.358/.407 at Dodger Stadium with four homers and 21 extra-base hits while hitting just .241/.307/.301 on the road with two homers and 12 extra-base hits.

His monthly splits are terrible, outside of a hot May and July; Furcal posted an OPS of 657 in August, had two months with an OPS in the 500 range, and even snuck in a 489 mark for September. His only trip to the disabled list last year was due to a sprained ankle suffered in spring training, so blaming his poor performance on injury is difficult without more evidence. If you have faith that Furcal can rebound somewhat-or you really need the stolen bases-try to pick him up as late as possible. I myself would probably not go for him until the late rounds, when it is OK to make risky picks like this, not unless PECOTA gives me a very compelling reason to do so beforehand.