A look at AL West infielders up the middle
The Astros’ middle-infield combination of second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa has wreaked havoc on the American League West in recent years, although they both struggled a bit last year before turning it back on in the postseason.
Houston figures to have the best middle infield in the division yet again, although the Angels have a solid tandem of second baseman David Fletcher and shortstop José Iglesias. The A’s have to replace Marcus Semien and Tommy La Stella, while the Rangers traded away Elvis Andrus (to the A's) and will have an open competition at second. The Mariners have the best defender of the group in Gold Glove winner J.P. Crawford but have issues of their own at second.
Here’s a closer look at the middle-infield positions in the AL West:
The Angels have one of the most underrated players in baseball in second baseman David Fletcher, and they also acquired shortstop José Iglesias in a trade with the Orioles this offseason. Fletcher hit .319/.376/.425 last season and is a pest of a leadoff hitter, as he had the highest contact rate of any player in the Majors last year. He's also a strong defender who has played all over the diamond, but he will be the primary second baseman this year. Iglesias is known as a glove-first shortstop but is coming off a strong year offensively in the shortened 2020 season, batting .373 in 39 games. Iglesias, though, has the tough task of replacing Andrelton Simmons, who is generally considered the best defensive shortstop in the game, when healthy.
The Angels will have a competition in Spring Training for their backup middle-infield roles. Franklin Barreto, Luis Rengifo and Robel García are all on the 40-man roster and are top candidates, while non-roster invitees include Phil Gosselin and Kean Wong. Barreto is coming off left shoulder surgery but is out of Minor League options, which could give him a leg up if the competition is close. Iglesias, 31, has averaged 132 games played over his last five full seasons, so the Angels will need a quality backup for him. -- Rhett Bollinger
The Astros have two of the most established stars in Major League Baseball up the middle in six-time All-Star Jose Altuve at second base and former AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa at shortstop. This will be their seventh season playing together as they helped form the homegrown core of a team that has made the AL Championship Series in each of the last four seasons. Correa and Altuve have both played in 63 postseason games and have excelled. Correa is a career .270/.338/.531 hitter with 17 homers and 50 RBIs in the postseason, while Altuve has batted .306/.378/.565 with 18 homers and 40 RBIs. With Correa -- who played elite defense last year and emerged as a vocal leader -- set to become a free agent after this year, this could be the final season together for the star combo in Houston. Altuve remains signed through ’24.
Both Altuve and Correa had subpar regular seasons, along with several other stars around MLB last year. How will they rebound? Altuve’s dismal regular season was especially alarming with the three-time batting champion hitting just .219 in the shortened 2020 season. Correa hit only five homers in the regular season, but he then had an electric October with six homers in 13 games while leading the Astros to within a game of the World Series. Altuve will be looking to re-establish himself as one of the game’s premier hitters, while Correa will be looking for a healthy full season to set himself up for free agency. -- Brian McTaggart
The A’s traded for Elvis Andrus to fill the void left behind by the departure of Marcus Semien, who was a mainstay at shortstop since 2015 before signing with the Blue Jays as a free agent this offseason. Though Andrus is a newcomer, the veteran is a familiar face to most A’s players and coaches on the staff after the many battles against him while he was a member of the Rangers over the past 12 years. Andrus, 32, is looking to bounce back in Oakland after a back injury limited the former All-Star to just 29 games and a .194 batting average last year. Second base is a bit more open, with utility players Chad Pinder, Tony Kemp and Vimael Machín all options to get time at the spot. Jed Lowrie, who is back for his third stint with the A’s on a Minor League deal with an invite to Spring Training, could also be in the mix.
How the A’s go about dividing up playing time at second base could be determined somewhat on Spring Training performance. Prior to the acquisition of Tommy La Stella last season, the A’s were utilizing a left-right platoon of Kemp and Pinder at the position. With La Stella gone, the A’s could revert back to that strategy this season. The A’s would love for Lowrie to get back to the All-Star hitter he was in 2018 during his last stint with the club, but having only appeared in nine Major League games over the past two seasons due to knee issues, he will need to show he can stay healthy in camp in order to have a serious shot at the second-base job. -- Martin Gallegos
J.P. Crawford’s relentless determination to make defensive improvements upon joining the Mariners in the 2018-19 offseason paid off demonstrably in ’20, with the shortstop earning his first Gold Glove Award. He ranked fourth among shortstops in both defensive runs saved (plus-six) and outs above average (plus-four), and his bat took a marginal step forward with better contact and a higher on-base percentage, leading to a .255/.336/.338 slash line. By all accounts, Crawford is Seattle’s shortstop of the future, and entering his age-26 season, he’s quickly becoming one of its more veteran players. At second base, the one known is that Dylan Moore will get first-team looks in camp.
Second base is the most wide-open spot entering camp. Moore is in the pole position after an impressive 2020, in which he hit .255/.358/.496 with a 139 OPS+ that convinced management he deserves more playing time beyond the utility role. But Shed Long Jr. -- who the Mariners anointed as the everyday guy at this time last year -- will be determined to bounce back from a wildly disappointing ‘20 in which he hit .171/.242/.291 with a 50 OPS+ and suffered a season-ending shin injury. Ty France, whose bat will be in the lineup just about every day, will also see innings at second this season among time he’ll split at third and DH. -- Daniel Kramer
When looking at the projected lineup, the Rangers are most solid up the middle, especially with Isiah Kiner-Falefa moving over from third base -- where he won a Gold Glove Award -- to shortstop for the 2021 season. He is one of the few definites for the Rangers going into Spring Training. Kiner-Falefa played shortstop throughout his career before he started bouncing around the infield late in his Minor League journey. He considers shortstop his primary position.
“I think the fact that, you know, like this year I'm getting to play my position, do my thing, I think it's only going to benefit the team,” Kiner-Falefa said.
Nick Solak is getting the opportunity to win the starting spot at second base following a season of shuffling between the infield and outfield. Veteran outfielder Rougned Odor, who is moving to more of a utility role this season, will also have the chance to get reps at the position. Manager Chris Woodward said Odor has an edge now and will come into camp fighting to win the position battle. Woodward also emphasized that Solak needs to be more productive at the plate to secure that starting spot this season, but his athleticism at second base was exactly what the club wanted and expected.
“We watched him do his work on a daily basis,” Woodward said. “With second base is double plays, he's really worked on his arm stroke, kind of shortened it. His footwork has improved his speed, and athleticism is actually starting to show now.” -- Kennedi Landry