Evaluating the American League West Series Posts
Oakland received terrific contributions from all over the diamond in 2012 on their way to an out-of-nowhere 95-win season, but they got almost nothing out of second base. 506 plate appearances of .615 OPS by Jemile Weeks was the biggest factor as the once highly-touted prospect saw his average dip from .303 to .221 from 2011 to 2012. Weeks eventually lost his job once the A's traded for shortstop Stephen Drew in August and the rest of the players that filled in at the position didn't fare much better. If it weren't for Weeks' 50 walks and the 62 the A's keystone sackers drew as a whole (4th best total in the AL) their .620 OPS would have been a lot worse.
Fast forward and the once untouchable Weeks may be completely out of the picture to start this year, and the bulk of the playing time could be heading the way of Scott Sizemore. Sizemore was slated for significant at bats in 2012 for Oakland after posting a .778 OPS in 93 games for the A's in 2011 following his trade from Detroit. But before Spring Training ended last year he tore his ACL and ended up missing the entire season. Sizemore is back healthy this year, and although he is struggling in spring, he figures to see a lot of action at second -- and maybe also at third -- for Oakland.
But Sizemore isn't the only player in the picture here. Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima and trade acquisition Jed Lowrie are also now in Oakland and the two of them -- along with Sizemore -- figure to see time all over the infield. Nakajima was a career .310 hitter in 11 seasons in Japan but the A's are reportedly "not impressed" with the early showing. Lowrie hit 16 homers and had 34 extra base hits in 340 at bats last season before getting sidelined with injuries yet again. Young players Adam Rosales and Grant Green are having strong springs while playing some second but there may not be room on the roster for them. Sizemore seems like the safest bet to see the most action there for now.
There isn't a lot for Astros fans to be excited about with the current version of the big league club, but their diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve is perhaps the biggest exception to that rule. The 5-foot-5 (maybe) right-hand hitting spark plug nearly hit .400 in the minors in 2011 before forcing his way onto the big league roster at the age of 21 and he's continued to hit in the big leagues, posting a .286 average over his first 864 plate appearances, including a .290/.340/.399 mark in his first full big league year in 2012.
Altuve makes great contact, stole 33 bases a season ago and chipped in with surprising 45 extra bases from his line drive swing while playing decent defense for Houston. Because of his size he isn't an ideal player or a bet to improve much, but he is a solid player and an easy fan favorite for the young and not very good Astros. The lineup is improved and the DH should help Houston score more runs and Altuve figures to see a lot of that benefit with his batting spot and OBP skills.
One of Houston's top prospects, Delino DeShields, Jr., is a second baseman and stole an impressive 101 bases in two minor league stops in 2012, but at just 20 years of age he's still a ways off from being big league ready. Marwin Gonzalez is probably the best bet on the Astros' bench to see any ABs left over by Altuve, but those are likely to be very few and far between in 2013. If Altuve can keep his average up while continuing to get the most out of his average skills, the Astros figure to lean on him near the top of their order.
Los Angeles Angels
Howie Kendrick is the Angels' answer at second base, and he's a good one. Maybe even an underrated one. He's not a superstar or really great in any one aspect of his game, but he's been a positive in hitting, baserunning and defense since 2009 according to the metrics. He doesn't walk at all but he sprays line drives all over the park and provides decent XBH pop from the middle of the diamond and even chips in with some speed on the bases.
His big 2011 that led to his 4-year/$33.5m contract may end up being his best offensive year when all is said and done, But he's good for 40 to 50 extra base hits, a .285ish average and above league OPS+ hitting in the 6th or 7th hole for the Angels. A lot of clubs would love to get that from their second baseman. Especially if he handled the position defensively like Kendrick.
Kendrick has proven durable but should something go awry, Alberto Callaspo and Andrew Romine figure to pick up any slack in the playing time, leaving Los Angeles in very good hands as far as depth at the position goes.
There was a lot of talk about Texas' middle infield over the winter, but they decided to stand pat with their second base and shortstop situation. In doing so, they return a clear-cut top-tier player at the position in Ian Kinsler. Kinsler is a two-time 30/30 member and three-time All-Star for the Rangers, and the 30 year old has been a fixture at the top of a very potent Texas lineup for four of the past five seasons.
He's a true stolen base threat, a true power threat, and a good defender. Add to that the fact that he has drawn more walks (411) than all but two middle infielders (Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez) since the start of the 2006 season and it is clear to see why Kinsler is highly regarded.
Someone else who is highly regarded was behind the whole discussion to shift Kinsler to first base or the outfield -- Jurickson Profar. Profar is widely considered the top hitting prospect in all of baseball but he has only 17 plate appearances above Double-A to his name. It seems very likely that Profar will begin the 2013 season in the minor leagues, working to refine his game. Kinsler is more than capable of holding down Profar's spot until his time comes.
To say that 2012 was a bad year for Dustin Ackley wouldn't be fair to other players who had bad years. His bat in 2012 was barely even a shadow of what he showed it could be in his debut in 2011. There were ankle problems (surgery to correct that is in the books) and there were batting stance/approach/swing problems (a change to an even more open stance to hopefully correct that has occurred) that messed with Dustin, but his .226/.294/.328 season was so far from what Mariners fans (maybe unrealistically) expected from him that no excuse seems valid enough to shoulder all of the blame.
That being said, Ackley has shown that he is a solid defender at second -- perhaps better than anyone would have expected him to become when the position switch happened -- and that he has power, speed and will take a walk. Those tools alone mean that he will provide value at least on par with a majority of the other AL second basemen. But major league pitchers seem to have identified a weakness with Ackley and he struck out 124 times last season, more than he did in two season's worth of minor league plate appearances.
His struggles have led Ackley to a new batting stance this spring. A stance that, frankly, doesn't look like one that someone who was recently the No. 2 overall pick and consensus top hitting prospect in the draft would ever use. If the exaggerated opened stance and frontward hand position can help Dustin avoid opening up in his swing too soon then it matters not how ugly it is. The Mariners clearly need Ackley to return to the type of hitter he was when he first broke onto the big league scene in 2011. Even if he struggles, the Mariners will give Dustin another 150+ games at the position in 2013.
Ranking the AL West Second Basemen:
1. Texas Rangers
2. Los Angeles Angels
3. Seattle Mariners
4. Oakland Athletics
5. Houston Astros
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