Outside of catcher, middle infield always has been the scarcest of positions. The reason players such as Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins have so much value is directly related to the lack of quality options at their respective positions. That means if you are able to nab a middle infielder who happens to break out, it is the sweetest of treasures, more so than simply finding the next 30 home-run hitter.
This season, there are a litany of middle infielders who are performing at higher levels than their pre-established norms. Last year, eight middle infielders had 20 or more home runs. This year, 20 are on such a pace. Of course, there is a catch-22, as the more above-average performances there are at a position, the higher the average becomes. So now that the bar is higher, who makes the cut?
J.J. Hardy, SS, MIL - There has been no bigger surprise of the season than Hardy, who is leading the National League in home runs with 14. He entered the season with a career OPS of .707, but that figure now stands at .983. Legitimate growth or Chris Shelton-esque hot streak?
Adam: For Real. Hardy has be seen as an injury risk, considering in the past three years he has suffered a dislocated shoulder, a torn labrum, a severe ankle sprain and a recurring ankle tendon problem resulting from said ankle sprain. Despite these troubles, though, he had a 133-to-111 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the majors, and a 71-to-51 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors. The man has the plate discipline to support a moderately high average, and even outside of this year, we know he had power potential -- he slugged .503 and had a .865 OPS after the All-Star break in 2005. Hardy has missed a lot of development time, and we must approach him with some skepticism, but one easily can project Hardy as a Jhonny Peralta-type shortstop with better plate discipline.
Will: For Real. As Adam pointed out, Hardy's plate discipline suggested that he had the skills base to make legitimate gains in performance. But the power? Twenty-five home runs in 1,142 career minor leauge at-bats isn't too bad for a shortstop, but it's nothing like what he's doing in 2007. Hardy's power surge is legitimate, however. It's the result of changes to his swing he developed with new Brewers hitting coach Jim Skaalen this offseason. The result has been a vast increase in Hardy's fly-ball rate. Hardy won't lead the National League in homers this year, but his new approach means that he'll continue to be a valuable source of power at the scarce-but-improving middle infield position.
Kelly Johnson, 2B, ATL - The Braves became creative in filling their second base hole when Marcus Giles left, choosing to switch Johnson from left field to second base. No one expected Johnson to take to the position so well, as he is now hitting better than he ever did as an outfielder. How much of this can he sustain?
Adam: For Real. Although unknown to most baseball fans, the 25-year old Johnson was a solid, if unspectacular, outfield prospect who has hit moderately well throughout his minor league career. The switch to second base came from nowhere, but it is a good idea -- Johnson could lose a little off his bat but still help the team. If you view Johnson as an elite second baseman, then he's not for real. But as an above-average second baseman, Johnson can provide a reasonable fascimile of Giles' old Braves numbers from 2005. Johnson's plate discipline -- he has 30 walks to 31 strikeouts -- puts him in a position, even in slumps, to contribute to the team. Fifteen or so homers, 10 steals, and around 100 runs are all reasonable expectations.
Will: For Real. Johnson was a shortstop for the first four years of his pro career, so the move to second wasn't completely foreign, but he has indeed taken to the position -- as well as the leadoff role. Johnson's performance is not a surprise to everyone, as Braves manager Bobby Cox predicted before the season that Johnson would hit 20 home runs. Johnson hit 17 homers per every 500 minor league at-bats, so the power potential always has been there. His gains have been facilitated by the improved batting eye that Adam pointed out. If Johnson can maintain his newfound walk-to-strikeout ratio, he'll indeed score those 100 runs.
Ryan Theriot, SS, CHC - After Neifi Perez left and Cesar Izturis got hurt, Theriot got a shot at the second base job last season and ran with it, hitting .338 with a .957 OPS in 47 games after the All-Star break. Claiming the starting shortstop job from the slumping Izturis this year, he's hit .299 with seven steals in 134 at-bats. Is Theriot a legit starter or a glorified utility infielder?
Adam: Unreal. There's a tendency to think Theriot is an up-and-coming middle infielder with some nice potential to be an above-average player, especially since he sort of burst onto the scene, but it is misplaced optimism. At 27, he is who he is, and with 2,048 career minor league at-bats at a .692 OPS, that's not good enough. What he has shown this season is sort of a best-case scenario -- a nice batting average, some speed, an ability to get on base, but absolutely no power. He cannot sustain a .300 average all year, though, and was only a .271 hitter in the minors. When his batting average drops, he offers a fair bit of cheap speed and multi-positional eligibility, but there is no upside. Theriot makes sense only for those in need of the steals.
Will: For Real. I'll agree with Adam that Theriot always will be a liability in the power department and that there's little upside beyond the speed. However, Theriot's plate discipline might be worth enough in actual baseball for the Cubs to keep him in a starting role. Theriot's been somewhat fortunate so far this year with a .345 average on balls in play, and his minor-league track record (as Adam pointed out) does not support a .300 batting average. His on-base skills, however, are outstanding. Theriot struck out 264 times in six minor league seasons while drawing 260 walks. This ability, along with his speed on the basepaths, make Theriot a legitimate option as a top-of-the-lineup major league starter. My only concern is his defense -- it's below average, and well short of what Izturis provides. Theriot will have to produce at the plate and get on base consistently for the Cubs to justify the downgrade in glovework at such a key defensive position.
Will Harris and Adam Madison are fantasy baseball analysts for TalentedMrRoto.com. Will can be contacted at WillHarris@TalentedMrRoto.com and Adam at Adam@TalentedMrRoto.com