AL Central position-by-position: Middle infielders
The closer the Indians get to Opening Day, the more likely it is that All-Star Francisco Lindor will still be the Tribe’s shortstop -- and the more likely it is that Mr. Smile will push Cleveland's middle infield to be the best in the American League Central.
Lindor might be the only bona fide superstar in this position group, but there's also plenty of talent at second base and shortstop outside Progressive Field, including the AL's starting shortstop at the 2019 All-Star Game in Jorge Polanco and Major League batting champion Tim Anderson. That's not to mention the young up-and-comers like Adalberto Mondesi and Luis Arraez, who will soon be joined by top prospect Nick Madrigal.
The Indians, Twins and White Sox should have the best middle-infield groups in the division in 2020, with some exciting upside in Kansas City and new regulars set to be established in Detroit. Let's dive in and take a closer look around the division.
After a winter full of trade rumors, the Indians seem set to open the year with Lindor and second baseman César Hernández manning the middle of the infield. Lindor’s success in his five-year career has earned him four All-Star selections, two Gold Glove Awards and two Silver Slugger Awards. Even after missing the first 19 games of the season last year with an ankle injury, he hit .284 with an .854 OPS with 40 doubles, 32 homers and 74 RBIs in 143 games.
Though the production they’ve gotten from their 26-year-old shortstop has been consistent, a question mark surrounds newly acquired Hernández, who will be taking over for Jason Kipnis at second base. In 2019, he hit .279 with a .741 OPS in 161 games for the Phillies. When Philadelphia decided to non-tender his contract in December, he quickly became the best available (and affordable) option for the Tribe to fill the vacancy at second. But will he end up being a significant improvement from Kipnis in 2020? The Indians will have to wait and see.
-- Mandy Bell
The rest (listed alphabetically, not ranked)
If all goes according to plan, the talented Adalberto Mondesi will be back at the shortstop position come Opening Day, teaming with second baseman Nicky Lopez to patrol the Royals’ middle infield. Mondesi had shoulder surgery last fall after twice sustaining a separated shoulder while making plays in the field last season. Mondesi played in only 102 games yet still tied for the league lead in triples with 10, and also had a team-high 43 stolen bases. Lopez, who made his MLB debut in May, hit only .240 overall but he finished strong, hitting .481 with five doubles in his final nine games.
Defensively, Mondesi and Lopez are as good a combo as there is in terms of range and arm strength -- some scouts have said Lopez may have the most accurate arm in the league. Mondesi and Lopez finished tied for 38th among all MLB infielders in Outs Above Average with plus-4 each.
-- Jeffrey Flanagan
The Tigers’ attempt to reunite the Pirates’ old double-play duo of Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison backfired last year, so they’re taking a different approach in 2020. Time will tell if Jonathan Schoop’s high-power, lower-average game will play in spacious Comerica Park, but at the very least, he provides a veteran presence and reliable defense at second base. By contrast, though shortstop Niko Goodrum is just four months younger than Schoop, he has his first opportunity at everyday playing time at one position. He ranked 17th among Major League infielders with eight Outs Above Average last season, according to Statcast, including six in a midseason spell at short. This should be the Tigers’ best middle-infield combo since José Iglesias and Ian Kinsler in 2017.
-- Jason Beck
Minnesota's double-play duo of shortstop Jorge Polanco and second baseman Luis Arraez certainly has the potential to challenge its Cleveland counterpart for supremacy in the division. Polanco was the starting shortstop for the AL in the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland as he set career bests with his .295/.356/.485 batting line, 22 homers and 40 doubles, while the little-known Arraez seized a starting role by hitting .334/.399/.439 as a 22-year-old rookie with the lowest whiff rate (7.9 percent) in baseball.
Two things stand in the way of their ascent to the top of the division. First, can both Polanco and Arraez sustain their success? Polanco followed up an outstanding first half with a drop-off in the second half due in part to injuries. Arraez needs to show that his elite bat-to-ball skills will continue as the league adjusts to him. Secondly, Polanco was graded the worst defensive shortstop in baseball by Statcast, which rated him minus-16 Outs Above Average in 2019. Arraez clocked in at minus-5 in limited playing time, leaving much room for defensive improvement up the middle for the Twins.
The White Sox middle infield will look different in late May or early June at the latest when shortstop Tim Anderson is joined by Nick Madrigal, the organization’s No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline and the team’s top pick in the 2018 Draft. Madrigal possesses Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base along with elite contact skills at the plate, with a mere 21 strikeouts over 628 Minor League at-bats. He hit .311 over stops at Class A Winston-Salem, Double-A Birmingham and Triple-A Charlotte in ’19 but still figures to begin next season with the Knights. Leury García and Danny Mendick appear to be the early candidates for the White Sox at second base.
Anderson is coming off of a remarkable transformation when he raised his average from .240 in the previous season to a Major League-best .335. Anderson has 30-30 potential in terms of power and stolen-base ability but he will need to cut down on his Major League-high 26 errors at shortstop in ’19.
-- Scott Merkin