It's a baseball truism that contending teams need to be strong up the middle, right? Milwaukee has an unproven young catcher in Jonathan Lucroy, an unreliable shortstop in Yuniesky Betancourt, a speedy-but-inconsistent center field tandem in Carlos Gomez and Nyjer Morgan, and the hard-hitting, defensively challenged Rickie Weeks at second base. Throw those four positions into a blender, and the Brewers just don't seem to fit the profile.
Is a strong-up-the-middle core vital to success? It was for the 2003 Florida Marlins, who had Pudge Rodriguez at catcher, a dynamic double-play combination of Luis Castillo and Alex Gonzalez, and speedy catalyst Juan Pierre in center field. But there's no handy-dandy historical guide on the subject. David Eckstein, nobody's idea of a classic defensive shortstop, started for one world championship team in Anaheim in 2002 and another in St. Louis in 2006. And beyond catcher Buster Posey, the 2010 San Francisco group of Freddy Sanchez, Juan Uribe and Andres Torres was more blue-collar than athletically gifted.
Anyway, we digress. For this week's edition of Starting 9, we surveyed 15 scouts and front office people and asked them to rate the top up-the-middle contingents in baseball today. It's a challenge because lots of clubs have one transcendent player (e.g., Hanley Ramirez in Florida or Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado), but very few have the catcher, middle infield and center field spots covered without at least one glaring weakness.
As one flustered scout remarked in an email after sampling the 30 choices, "Wow, I didn't realize how difficult this would be.''
What were the criteria? Defense is vital, obviously, but four slick fielders wielding Nerf bats won't take a team to the promised land, so we asked our respondents to consider offense as well as glove work.
Which up-the-middle positions are most important? Most baseball people rank catcher and/or shortstop at the top of the list.
Finally, we gave an edge to clubs that have three or four high-caliber players over teams with one superstar and a mediocre supporting cast. At the risk of sounding musically obsolete, we were searching for Gladys Knights instead of Pips.
The results of this week's enterprise:
Philadelphia Phillies (C Carlos Ruiz,
2B Chase Utley, SS Jimmy Rollins and
CF Shane Victorino)
These resumes can't be beat. Utley has five All-Star Games and four Silver Sluggers in his portfolio. Rollins has an MVP award, three Gold Gloves and will pass 1,800 career hits at age 32. And Victorino has three Gold Gloves, an All-Star Game appearance and a new autobiography, "The Flyin' Hawaiian.'' Who knew?
Ruiz, the unsung member of the group, will have to settle for the respect of his teammates and undying gratitude from the Phillies' pitching staff.
"He's definitely one of the best catchers in the National League, if not the best, as far as running the game, throwing and blocking balls,'' Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "Just breaking down the scouting reports, he's so prepared. And the pitchers aren't afraid to throw any pitch because they know he'll block it.''
Rollins is looking rejuvenated as he enters his free-agent "walk'' year, but the Phillies better hope that his offseason yoga regimen can carry him through the dog days. The big question, of course, is Utley's health. Is he going to need surgery on his cranky right knee? If not -- if it's just a matter of enduring the pain on a daily basis -- can Utley return and contribute at a high level? Even an 80 or 90 percent of capacity Chase Utley is pretty darned good. But when your star player appears in the same sentence with the word "chondromalacia,'' it's not a good thing.
New York Yankees (C Russell Martin,
2B Robinson Cano, SS Derek Jeter and
CF Curtis Granderson)
We didn't expect the Yankees to receive so much love in this space. Jeter, in case you hadn't heard, is showing signs of regression at age 36, and the Yankees signed Martin after the Dodgers non-tendered him in December. People in the Dodgers organization had serious doubts about his ability to call a game and handle a pitching staff. But Martin is still young, athletically gifted and just three years removed from back-to-back All-Star appearances.
"Last year I thought he was one of the five worst catchers in the National League,'' said a scout. "Apparently he's adapting well to New York, but I really wonder if he's going to hold up over time.'' If not, the Yankees can turn to Francisco Cervelli, who's on his way back from a fractured foot. No one has ever wondered about his defense.
Jeter's range isn't what it used to be, and the daily updates on his stride woes are becoming almost as oppressive as the offseason contract updates. But Jeter has overcome rough patches earlier in his career, and there's a definite comfort level in the Yankees' dugout when a ball is hit in his direction in the ninth inning.
Cano, an elite defender and .309 career hitter, is the guy who puts this group over the top. He's also durable, having appeared in 640 of a possible 648 games over the past four seasons. Granderson gets the job done defensively in center, and he's averaged 23 homers a year since 2006. He also made some welcome progress in hitting lefties a year ago.
Baltimore Orioles (C Matt Wieters, 2B Brian Roberts, SS J.J. Hardy and CF Adam Jones)
With 21 homers and a .393 slugging percentage in 829 at-bats, Wieters has yet to embrace that early "Joe Mauer with power'' label. The Orioles look at his athleticism and 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and keep waiting for him to hit the ball with more authority. But he's made tremendous strides defensively, and his pitch-calling, blocking skills and throwing are all first rate. The Orioles place a lot of stock in Zach Britton and their other young starters, and they have faith that Wieters, at 24, is the catcher who can nurture them along.
The Orioles have another significant building block in Jones, whose five-tool package stands him in rare company. At 25, Jones can be overly daring in the field and show an occasional lack of focus on the bases, so the Orioles continue to wonder what heights he'll reach when he puts it all together. Jones also needs to start showing more discipline against sliders off the outside corner. "He has so much freaking ability,'' said a scout. "I just don't know how much instinct he has at the plate.''
Roberts, at 33, still has the smarts, speed and all-around game to set the tone for the Orioles when he's in the lineup. But every assessment of his game must include the caveat, "Health is a concern.'' Hardy is no iron man himself. He played 115 games for Milwaukee two years ago and 101 games with Minnesota last season, and is now out six weeks with an oblique injury. Cesar Izturis, Baltimore's backup shortstop, is around strictly for his glove.
Chicago White Sox (C A.J. Pierzynski,
2B Gordon Beckham, SS Alexei Ramirez and
CF Alex Rios)
Ozzie Guillen has a nice combination, with an athletic double-play duo, a center fielder who showed enough skill to earn a $70 million contract with Toronto three years ago, and a catcher, Pierzynski, who doesn't always get the credit he deserves for cultivating a staff. "He's a lightning rod, but he always seems to get something out of their pitchers,'' said an American League executive of Pierzynski.
Rios is ultra-streaky at the plate because of his lanky frame and swing mechanics, but he should mix in enough hot streaks to give the Sox 20 homers and 20 or more steals. Ramirez, the Cuban Missile, elicits wows as a defender, and he's finished off some of the rough edges in his game amid a lot of scrutiny in the big leagues. "He's a well-rounded guy offensively and defensively,'' said a scout. "He's grown up so much in two years.''
Now Beckham will try to emulate the Missile. After playing shortstop at the University of Georgia, he spent 59 games in the minors before getting the call to Chicago. Beckham played third base for a year, then struggled with the transition to second before finding his stride in late June last season. Beckham has the physical skills and the temperament to be a big-time player, and the personality to be a fan favorite as his career progresses.
Arizona Diamondbacks (C Miguel Montero,
2B Kelly Johnson, SS Stephen Drew and
CF Chris Young)
"It's a group of solid offensive players, with strong defense at shortstop and in center field,'' said a National League executive. "They might not have the big-time impact guy of some teams, but there's no weak link.''
The four Diamondbacks are in their career primes. Montero and Young are 27, Drew is 28, and Johnson 29. And they all have their strengths.
Young covers a vast expanse of ground in center field, has legit power and continues to mature at the plate. He's using the whole field more often, laying off borderline pitches and showing signs of a becoming a more polished hitter. Johnson has a good eye, and ranked fourth among second basemen with 26 home runs last season.
Montero, a natural hitter, has justified the faith the Diamondbacks showed when they traded Chris Snyder to create more playing time for him. And Drew, a steady defender and .800 OPS guy, should be in the conversation when you're talking about the best NL shortstops not named Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. The Drew brothers get criticized for their "low motors,'' but Stephen has topped 150 or more games in three of the past four years. He doesn't say much, but he comes to play.
The downside to this group: Johnson and Montero are below-average defensively, and Young, Johnson and Drew all surpassed 100 strikeouts last year. That's been a common refrain in Arizona.
Texas Rangers (C Yorvit Torrealba, 2B Ian Kinsler, SS Elvis Andrus and CF Julio Borbon)
Let your mind wander for a minute, and it's amazing to think how formidable the Rangers could be at these four spots. Three years ago, they appeared to be awash in catching, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia newly arrived from Atlanta, Gerald Laird still on the roster and Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez in the pipeline. Fast forward to last October, and Matt Treanor and Bengie Molina were handling the catching chores in Arlington. And now it's Torrealba's turn.
The Rangers would also rank higher if Josh Hamilton were playing center field, but they moved him to left to better keep him in one piece over a 162-game season. Talk about irony: Hamilton is now out 6-8 weeks with a shoulder injury after an ill-advised head-first slide.
It's the Texas double-play combination that makes everyone gush. Andrus has tremendous range and poise at age 22, and Kinsler has two All-Star appearances and a 30-homer, 30-steal season in his goodie bag. If manager Ron Washington needs to give those guys a rest, he can just plug in Michael Young.
Borbon is the weak link here, with a .323 on base percentage in 191 games. But he can fly, so there's always hope.
"He has a chance to be a top-of-the-order guy if he can ever develop a strike zone that's consistent,'' said a scout. "He's not real instinctive, but he's got the speed to outrun his mistakes. He'll make some Web Gems just on the ability to correct himself.''
Atlanta Braves (C Brian McCann,
2B Dan Uggla, SS Alex Gonzalez and
CF Nate McLouth)
"They all have their hickeys,'' said an NL talent evaluator. McCann isn't much for throwing out base stealers. Uggla has made himself into a serviceable defender, but he'll never remind anyone of Roberto Alomar. Gonzalez handles everything he reaches, but his range has inevitably declined at age 33. And McLouth … well, the Braves are patiently waiting for him to rediscover the player who banged out 76 extra-base hits and made the All-Star team with Pittsburgh in 2008.
"He always had his holes,'' said a National League personnel man. "He just isn't hitting mistakes the same way as before.''
The Braves are here because they get tremendous sock from two positions where you don't ordinarily expect it. McCann leads major league catchers with 107 homers, 283 extra base hits and 443 RBI since 2006, and Uggla ranks first among second basemen with 154 homers over that same span. Chipper Jones is the Braves' elder statesman and Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman provide promise for the future, but McCann, Uggla and Martin Prado could be the backbone and stabilizing influences in the Atlanta lineup for years to come.
Cleveland Indians (C Carlos Santana,
2B Orlando Cabrera, SS Asdrubal Cabrera
and CF Grady Sizemore)
Surprised to see the Tribe here? Don't be. Santana, a 25-year-old switch-hitter, is batting cleanup for Cleveland, and his defense should continue to evolve under the tutelage of Sandy Alomar Jr. And Asdrubal Cabrera has quietly developed into one of baseball's fine young shortstops. The Indians have taken their lumps for some bad drafts and lack of spending in recent years, but it's impressive to think that Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti acquired Santana for Casey Blake and picked up Cabrera in a trade for Eduardo Perez.
Orlando Cabrera gives the Indians energy and a winning pedigree at second base, but he's just keeping the seat warm for Jason Kipnis, Cleveland's reigning minor league player of the year. Kipnis, who hit .311 for Double-A Akron, is with Triple-A Columbus this season and could join the big club sometime this summer. He's already received the coveted seal of approval from manager Manny Acta, who called him a "dirt bag'' in spring training. Although Kipnis has the athleticism to play second base, some scouts wonder if he might wind up in the outfield.
Center field is a question in Cleveland, but not necessarily in a bad way. If Sizemore returns from his current rehab assignment looking like the three-time All-Star of old, that's a huge plus. He's still just 28 years old. If not, young Michael Brantley has made big strides since the middle of last summer. If Brantley can hit north of .280 and steal 30 bases out of the leadoff spot, the Indians will take it. Right now, Acta plans to shift him to left field upon Sizemore's return.
Chicago Cubs (C Geovany Soto,
2B Darwin Barney, SS Starlin Castro
and CF Marlon Byrd)
The Cubs have produced their fair share of up-the-middle greatness, sending Ernie Banks and Ryne Sandberg to the Hall of Fame. And who can forget Leo Durocher's 1969 group of Randy Hundley at catcher, Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger up the middle and Don Young in center field? (Actually, we did forget about Young. Thank heavens for Baseball-reference.com.)
If you're partial to strong catcher-shortstop combos, the 2011 Cubs might be the team for you. "Soto and Castro should get them on the list no matter who is playing center field,'' said an AL assistant general manager.
Soto, 28, won the Rookie of the Year award in 2008, then endured questions about his work ethic and his weight to re-emerge as one of baseball's best offensive catchers. Cubs manager Mike Quade even raves about his baserunning. Castro, at 21, is an amalgam of skill and boundless enthusiasm. "He's got Hanley potential,'' said an AL scout.
Byrd isn't a classic center fielder by any means, but he's hit .307, .298, .283 and .293 the past four seasons. Against a bleak backdrop for center field production in the majors, he'll do. And Barney, out of Oregon State, gives the Cubs the requisite "scrappy gamer'' quotient. If he can't handle second base on a daily basis, there's always Jeff Baker and Blake DeWitt.
In the conversation
Boston Red Sox: Dustin Pedroia is an All-Star at second base, Jacoby Ellsbury has abundant tools in center and Marco Scutaro is passable at short. But Jason Varitek just turned 39, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia's quest to prove himself as an everyday guy hasn't been helped by the Red Sox' dreadful start. "He's always been a work-in-progress defensively,'' said a scout.
Cincinnati Reds: Dusty Baker gets a lot of mileage out of his catching combination. Ramon Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan combined to hit .298 with 12 homers and 88 RBIs last season, and they do an exceptional job with the Reds' staff. Brandon Phillips is a two-way threat at second base, and shortstop Paul Janish and center fielder Drew Stubbs combine to give the Reds the best defensive quartet in the game. "This group contributes more than we think,'' said an NL personnel man. If only Janish could hit more.
Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer is great behind the plate, and Denard Span is more than good enough in center, but the middle infield combination of Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla doesn't measure up with the elite. "He's too out of control for me,'' an NL scout said of Casilla. "I think he's more of a backup.''
St. Louis Cardinals: Minnesota redux. The Cardinals are set with Yadier Molina behind the plate and Colby Rasmus in center field, but the Ryan Theriot-Skip Schumaker double play combination didn't wow anybody in our survey.
Florida Marlins: There's some nice offense here, with Hanley Ramirez complemented by John Buck, Omar Infante and Chris Coghlan. But the Marlins aren't as solid defensively as some other clubs up the middle.
San Francisco Giants: Anytime the conversation begins with Buster Posey, it's a good thing. But Freddy Sanchez and Andres Torres both turned 33 last winter, and Miguel Tejada just doesn't cover enough ground at shortstop. "He's an in-between guy no matter where you try to put him now,'' said a scout. "He can still rise to the occasion when he needs to and get some big hits, but he's just so slow.''
Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter: @jcrasnick