Lots to watch in NL Central's middle infields
CHICAGO -- Being strong up the middle is typically a characteristic of contending teams. This spring, the National League Central clubs will have plenty of decisions to sort out in constructing their double-play combinations.
There are key players hoping for strong comeback campaigns (Javier Báez, Paul DeJong and Mike Moustakas) and young players trying to jockey for starting roles (Jose Garcia and Nico Hoerner) or break into the big leagues (Oneil Cruz). And there are a few spots that will have competitions in the days and weeks leading up to Opening Day.
In this week's installment of MLB.com's around-the-horn look at each position across baseball's divisions, here is a breakdown of the middle-infield situations for each club in the NL Central:
The known: The Brewers love their up-the-middle defense with two-time Gold Glove Award winner Kolten Wong taking over second base and forming a double-play combination with shortstop Orlando Arcia. After Wong inked his two-year deal with an option to come to Milwaukee via free agency, one of the first new teammates he contacted was Arcia, and Wong said he intends to do whatever he can to help Arcia win his first Gold Glove. The Brewers are hopeful they'll get some offensive contributions from the duo as well. Arcia had the best wRC+ and OPS+ of his career during the shortened 2020 season after ranking at the bottom of the NL's qualified hitters in '19, and Wong should get a power boost as a left-handed hitter playing home games at American Family Field.
The unknown: Where does Luis Urías fit into Milwaukee's middle-infield picture? The Brewers gave up a lot (Trent Grisham and Zach Davies) to get Urías and lefty Eric Lauer from the Padres last offseason, intending to have Urías and Arcia compete for shortstop duties. That battle never materialized because Urías suffered a broken hamate bone playing winter ball, then missed Summer Camp with a mild case of COVID-19. Perhaps he's still the Brewers shortstop of the future, but for now it appears Arcia is the clear front-runner. Urías might wind up playing some third base again this season. -- Adam McCalvy
The known: The Cardinals know their starters, at the very least, with Paul DeJong entering his fifth season as the regular shortstop and Tommy Edman set to take over from Kolten Wong as the everyday option at second. Both have proven track records: DeJong an All-Star in 2019 and Edman turning heads by playing six positions in his first two Major League seasons. Both are looking for bounce-back seasons, and the Cards are feeling confident that will take place. Each posted a career-low OPS that did not surmount .690 in the turbulent 2020 season, with identical .250 batting averages, to boot.
The unknown: Can DeJong pick it back up the plate? Will Edman comfortably set aside his roving role and flourish at second? How will the double-play connection work between the two after DeJong-Wong was one of the top defensive pairings in the league? Though the Cardinals know the profiles of the players, it remains to be seen how they adapt to each other in 2021. DeJong, ailed by a COVID-19 diagnosis last season, turned in his weakest offseason campaign. Edman, with full backing from the front office and coaching staff, will be embarking on a career first in 2021. -- Zach Silver
The known: Coming off capturing his first Gold Glove Award, Javier Báez will be back at shortstop for the Cubs this year. His stellar showing defensively was huge for Chicago in 2020, especially given the dramatic drop-off in Báez's offense. In 59 games, Báez hit .203 with eight homers, 24 RBIs and a .599 OPS. He struck out 75 times, compared to drawing seven walks. This came, obviously, in the shortened season, and Báez was vocal about how the lack of in-game video last year impacted his approach and production. It is worth recalling that Báez was in the NL MVP conversation not that long ago. Across the 2018-19 campaigns, the shortstop hit .286 with an .865 OPS, plus an average of 32 homers, 39 doubles, 95 runs, 98 RBIs and 300-plus total bases each year. Báez posted a 122 OPS+ over those two seasons combined, compared to a dismal 59 OPS+ in 2020.
The unknown: Second base is a big question mark at the moment. As Spring Training begins, it is hard to peg one player as the clear favorite to be at the keystone come Opening Day. It could be time to hand the keys to Nico Hoerner, though his youth showed in 2020 (.571 OPS in 48 games). The more experienced David Bote is an option for second (and he did lead the team with 29 RBIs in 2020), but he also hit .200 overall and has struggled more than hoped against lefties the past two years. The Cubs also have the switch-hitting Ildemaro Vargas, who has performed better against lefties than right-handers in his career. All three players can handle other positions as well, though Hoerner is the primary backup at short. No matter how manager David Ross handles the position, he should at least rest assured that the defense at second should be sound. -- Jordan Bastian
The known: For the time being, Adam Frazier is the everyday second baseman. At shortstop, it's a little trickier, but the expectation is Kevin Newman or Erik González will be playing there with Cole Tucker as a depth option. Phillip Evans and Wilmer Difo could also factor into the middle-infield equation when other guys are injured or need rest, which may be necessary coming off the shortened season.
The unknown: Frazier has also come up in trade rumors throughout the offseason. A down 2020 at the plate likely altered his value, but could the Pirates find a suitor with a strong enough haul in return before Opening Day? Newman could slide to second in that scenario. In that case, could Oneil Cruz, the No. 64 overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, make his debut before September? Or will the Pirates let him acclimate to Triple-A for a full season? -- Jake Crouse
The known: Mike Moustakas is back at second base for the second season of his four-year, $64 million contract. During his first season in Cincinnati, Moustakas brought instant credibility as a clubhouse leader and teammates gravitated to him. On the field, however, it wasn’t as smooth as he batted .230/.331/.468 with eight homers, 27 RBIs and a 108 OPS+. Moustakas was limited by a right quadriceps bruise that put him on the 10-day injured list, as well as a foot contusion and time away because of COVID-19 protocols. But he did hit six homers over his final 20 games. Behind Moustakas, depth largely consists of utility players like Kyle Farmer, Alex Blandino, Max Schrock and non-roster invite Dee Strange-Gordon.
The unknown: Shortstop. The team's top offseason priority went unfilled as the top and second-tier shortstops on the free-agent market signed elsewhere. Barring a trade or transaction, the Reds could fill the spot a variety of ways. Jose Garcia showed great promise after he went from Class A Advanced to the big leagues last season, but the organization feels he could benefit from more time in the Minors. Farmer showed strong skills at shortstop last season during his first extended chance at the position, and Blandino came up as a shortstop. Strange-Gordon hasn't played shortstop regularly since 2013, but he will get opportunities in camp. The only other true shortstop on the roster besides Garcia is Rule 5 Draft pick Kyle Holder. Known for his defense, Holder is a left-handed hitter, and if he sticks on the roster, he could be a potential fit in a platoon situation with Farmer. At some point, Garcia could be ready to become a regular, but unless another move is made, it could be a hodgepodge situation at shortstop for Cincinnati. -- Mark Sheldon