When it comes to the makeup of the middle-infield spots on teams in the National League Central, the word “upheaval” comes to mind rather quickly. More clubs have either made changes or are still contemplating some sort of shuffle in their personnel at second base and shortstop.
One constant remains in that there are several dynamic players in this division for 2020 that play up the middle.
Let’s take a look at how it shakes out.
While we speculate on what the rest of the roster looks like come Opening Day, there’s no need to speculate on the middle infield. St. Louis is the only club without a new middle infielder in its starting lineup, as shortstop Paul DeJong and Gold Glove-winning second baseman Kolten Wong have it covered. They’re a big reason why the Cardinals went from worst to first on defense last year. Statcast's recently unveiled infield defense metric ranked Wong second in the Majors with 10 Infield Outs Above Average, while DeJong’s 13 ranked fifth. The Cardinals led the Majors with 42 OAA last year, and the middle infield is a big part of that.
On offense, Wong led the Cardinals in on-base percentage (.361), which saw him moved to second in the lineup. In his third year in the Majors, DeJong had a 30-home run season, and while he struggled with consistency throughout the season, he showed promise for the future.
Utility man Tommy Edman will also slot into the middle infield at times this year and he showed in 2019 that he doesn’t miss a beat while moving around positions. In 92 games, he posted a .304/.350/.500 slash line and a team-leading .850 OPS, and the Cardinals plan to find him ample playing time at many different positions this season. Up and coming in the Minors is Edmundo Sosa, the club’s No. 14 prospect, who can play both shortstop and second base. He had just eight at-bats in 2019, but if his spring goes well, he figures to be a solid bench player and give DeJong some more time off.
The rest (in alphabetical order)
Give the Brewers this: There’s plenty of upside in their middle-infield contingent. Second base is owned by hitting savant Keston Hiura, who made the most of opportunity last season and slashed .303/.368/.570 in 348 plate appearances while hitting 19 home runs. The only rookies in Brewers history with more home runs were Prince Fielder (28 in 2006) and Ryan Braun (37 in '07), and they turned out all right. At shortstop, the Brewers plan a competition between newly acquired Luis Urías, 22, and underperforming incumbent Orlando Arcia, 25. The latter took a step back defensively in '19 during another disappointing season at the plate.
Arcia still has two years of club control beyond 2020 and could become a trade chip if the Brewers like what they see from Urías, a former Top 100 prospect with the Padres. Moving through the Minor League chain is top Brewers prospect Brice Turang, a shortstop who was drafted 21st overall in 2018 and is No. 98 on MLB Pipeline’s current Top 100.
Any discussion about the middle infield for the Cubs starts with Javier Báez.
In 2019, Báez made the move off second base and took over as Chicago's full-time shortstop, and he did not disappoint. Báez turned in a solid follow-up to his NL MVP runner-up campaign in '18, compiling 29 homers, 38 doubles, 85 RBIs and 89 runs scored with an .847 OPS in 138 games. Báez was also elite defensively, posting an MLB-leading 19 OAA.
A year after Cubs second basemen posted a collective 81 wRC+ and .686 OPS, that position remains a big unknown. Nico Hoerner, Chicago's top prospect, will have a chance to win that job this spring. David Bote will also be in the mix, with Daniel Descalso and Robel Garcia in the hunt as utility men. Ian Happ, while in the outfield plans, can offer help at second, too.
Although the Cubs have not officially announced their non-roster invitees, the team has also reportedy reached agreements with Hernán Pérez and Carlos Asuaje this offseason on Minor League deals. Beyond those two, the Cubs will also have shortstop prospect Zack Short in camp this spring, and there is a chance Chicago adds more external depth before Opening Day.
Their roster could change as the season progresses, but for now, let's assume the Pirates will start the year with Kevin Newman at shortstop and Gold Glove Award finalist Adam Frazier at second base. Frazier drew some interest on the trade market earlier this offseason, so he might be on the move at some point between now and Aug. 1. If he's dealt sooner than later, Cole Tucker or Erik González -- slick defenders who haven't hit much in the Majors -- could take on a more prominent role in the middle infield.
Frazier is tough to predict; hitting was always his strength, then he turned into a strong defensive second baseman (11 Infield OAA, per Statcast) with a league-average bat last year. Newman earned the starting job as a rookie by batting .308/.353/.446, outperforming his expected statistics with high-end speed and a low strikeout rate, and his defense was typically solid last season.
One middle-infield prospect worth watching closely in the Minors: 6-foot-7 shortstop Oneil Cruz, who has undeniable talent but no clear position yet.
Second baseman Mike Moustakas, the former Brewer, was signed to a four-year, $64 million contract for his track record on offense as the Reds are seeking more runs after a disappointing 2019. The 31-year-old, a left-handed hitter, batted .254/.329/.516 last season with 35 home runs and 87 RBIs in 143 games for Milwaukee and played second base in 47 games in ’19 (40 starts), though his OAA was just two at that position.
The Reds picked up Freddy Galvis’ $5.5 million option, but still looked around for upgrades. They missed out on signing free agent Didi Gregorius and didn’t make a serious run at their own free agent, José Iglesias, who signed a one-year, $3 million contract with the Orioles. Rumors throughout the winter placed the Reds as interested in trading for Cleveland superstar Francisco Lindor. Pending such a move, the job belongs to Galvis -- who hit a career-high 23 homers last season for Cincinnati and Toronto. Cincinnati claimed Galvis off waivers on Aug. 12 and gave him 23 of his 27 starts at second base next to Iglesias. Galvis, who batted .234 with five homers for the Reds, got off to a hot start with his new club, but endured a 6-for-60 slump to end his season -- which was cut short by a minor left knee injury and pneumonia.
Fans might miss seeing some of the dazzling plays Iglesias made during his one season with the Reds, but they also could be surprised by Galvis. According to Statcast rankings, Galvis and Iglesias were tied with 12 Infield OAA. And Baseball Reference showed Galvis with a slightly better defensive WAR of 1.6 to Iglesias’ 1.4. The backup options appear to be all utility players with Alex Blandino, Kyle Farmer, Christian Colón and Josh VanMeter. Alfredo Rodriguez, ranked as the Reds' No. 18 prospect by MLB Pipeline, has a slick glove at shortstop and is Major League ready, defensively, but is a very light hitter.
Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook.