Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Lawrie, Profar and the second base search
By Keith Law
Can Brett Lawrie's improvement at third base transfer across the diamond?
Second base is a funny position in baseball; you rarely see high draft picks spent on true second basemen, or big dollars committed to amateur second basemen in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
Second basemen are often converted there from shortstop, and move because they couldn't handle the more difficult position, due to lack of arm strength or trouble ranging far enough in both directions. Among last year's WAR leaders at second base (per Baseball Reference), the top six were all signed or drafted at other positions; among the top 20, only Howie Kendrick, a 10th-round pick, and Jose Altuve, signed for five figures out of Venezuela, were already second basemen when they turned pro.
Now we have several teams looking at potential conversion candidates to second base, either to fill an existing hole on their depth charts or to try to get certain bats into their lineups.
The injury to Jose Reyes has left the Toronto Blue Jays shuffling infield parts around, including the somewhat surprising decision to try Brett Lawrie out at one of his old positions: second base.
Lawrie was drafted at that position by the Milwaukee Brewers after an abortive attempt to make him a catcher while he was in high school, but despite his athleticism, he struggled badly at second and seemed destined for the outfield before the Jays converted him to third base, with very positive results.
Trying Lawrie out at second while he's on a rehab assignment makes sense, as it's a rare opportunity to see if the defensive improvements he's made at third transfer to his old position. This would give the team substantially greater flexibility down the road. The team could upgrade at second or third or in right field, with Lawrie at second or third and Jose Bautista at third or in right. You don't want to try a player out at a new spot in the middle of a major league season when you're trying to win, so giving Lawrie a few reps there this week to see how it looks is a smart move.
The Jays' real problem is that they don't have a good replacement at shortstop for Reyes; every internal candidate will be a defensive downgrade there, whether it's Maicer Izturis or Emilio Bonifacio. Lawrie's ability to play second as well as third, assuming it works out, is great in the long run but doesn't help them in the short term, as the hypothetical upgrade I cited above doesn't currently sit in the organization. The Jays might be able to make a trade in June or July to help the club, but that's independent of the Reyes injury.
As for Lawrie's potential at second, he's improved his footwork since his days there with the Brewers, especially in his first move after contact. He's athletic and explosively quick, a skill that's more valuable at third, where reaction times are shorter, than at second, where range and turning the double play are more important. Former coach Brian Butterfield, now with the Red Sox, helped Lawrie improve his footwork overall and at worst should be average at second, good enough for part-time duty as long as he can avoid injury turning the double play. Given the quality of his bat, though, significant time at second base might be too much risk for the Jays to stomach.
The Washington Nationals are facing a similar dilemma with top prospect Anthony Rendon, a natural third baseman (and a very, very good one) who is currently blocked at the major league level by Ryan Zimmerman, formerly a great defensive third baseman whose arm is so weak right now he couldn't throw you under the bus.
Zimmerman has had shoulder problems on and off for years, and offseason surgery to try to correct the problem hasn't helped, as we saw in Friday night's game against Atlanta, where Zimmerman's awkward motion was on display in an errant throw to second that helped cost the Nationals the game. He drops down on throws, which is often a sign that throwing conventionally is uncomfortable, and also puts more action on the ball after it's released, the way a sidearm pitcher gets sink on his fastball that isn't there when he's throwing from a three-quarters or higher slot.
If Zimmerman, who is signed through 2019 and is guaranteed $100 million (including a "personal services" contract for after his playing career), were a lock to stay at third, the Nationals would have to consider finding another position for Rendon. They've played him two games at second base this season in Triple-A and one at shortstop, but he's not cut out for middle infield work. He doesn't have the quickness or lateral agility you want in either of those positions, but more importantly, he's had injury issues of his own, including three traumatic ankle injuries in the past five years.
Second base is a dangerous position to begin with, because of the beating players there take when turning double plays, and requires more quick movements to left or right than third base does -- all bad news for a guy with a propensity for ankle injuries. If Rendon can't get out of the way of a runner quickly enough while acting as the pivot on a potential twin killing, he could blow out either of his ankles, again. That's not a risk I'd want to take with a potential impact bat like his.
The easiest solution would be to move Zimmerman, who still has great hands and range, to first base, where arm strength is less important. The decision to re-sign Adam LaRoche for two years, while a reasonable value in the abstract, means that first base is occupied for now, and unless the National League adopts the DH rule in the next few weeks -- we should be so lucky -- there is no place for Zimmerman to go.
Rendon is hitting .333/.473/.571 for Double-A Harrisburg, so it seems like he won't be there for long. A few months in Triple-A won't hurt Rendon, who missed most of last season after suffering one of those ankle injuries in the season's second game, but Washington will have to decide one way or the other on his future position after this season.
In the interim, they have started Matt Carpenter there in a few games, even though he'd never played the position professionally outside of five games (two starts) last year. The Cardinals drafted Carpenter in the 13th round in 2009 as a redshirt (fifth-year) senior out of TCU, where he played third base most of his last three years on the Frogs' roster.
Matt Carpenter's defensive versatility has earned him a spot on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster.
At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he'd be the biggest full-time second baseman in history if he qualified for the batting title there, listed at five pounds above that of Ben Zobrist (a great defensive second baseman) and Neil Walker (something south of that), more similar athletically to Walker than the quicker Zobrist.
He's turned himself into an adequate third baseman, thanks mostly to improved reads off the bat, but doesn't have the agility to be more than that, and I think second will be tougher for him than it would be for a more athletic player such as Lawrie. If he's not the full-time third baseman, he'll make an incredible super-utility guy, however, because he can handle second on an occasional basis, as well as filling in at third or first or in an outfield corner. In the era of the four-man bench (12 pitchers, eight starting hitters and a backup catcher), that's incredibly valuable.
The easiest conversion call here involves the best prospect in baseball, Texas shortstop Jurickson Profar, who is blocked in Arlington by Elvis Andrus, with both players plus defenders at the position.
Profar could start for a lot of clubs right now, just not the one that currently employs him, and sliding him over to second base would solve a lot of Texas' problems, if it could get Ian Kinsler to agree to do the right thing for the team and shift to first base. The Rangers aren't getting enough offense from Mitch Moreland, a platoon player in the best of circumstances, at first, and would improve offensively and defensively from benching or demoting him and putting Profar at second.
They have another option to get Profar in the lineup when they decide he's ready, however: center field, where neither Leonys Martin nor Craig Gentry, both excellent defenders, have contributed much offense. Profar has at least played a little second base (26 games in pro ball) but has never played the outfield in a regular-season game at any level. It's a position he could learn in time, given his foot speed and the tremendous instincts he's shown since he signed at age 16, but a transition to second base would help the major league team more quickly.