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Sunday, February 10, 2013
Ranking baseball's top five infields

By Bill Baer

Having ranked the top five outfields and starting rotations in baseball, we now move onto infields. This is particularly intriguing because many of the infields feature some of the game's best young players, while the infields with the old standbys -- such as the Philadelphia Phillies -- have fallen off. Let's jump in and see the candidates for the top five, with my rankings all the way at the end.

Washington Nationals
It seems like the Nationals have a top-five everything, doesn't it? Previously, I ranked the Nats with the second-best starting rotation and fourth-best outfield, and here they are again. The infield is led by veteran Ryan Zimmerman, one of baseball's most well-respected third basemen. He broke out in the 2009 and 2010 seasons with a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .377 and .390 respectively, but he suffered from a torn abdominal muscle in 2011 and a right shoulder injury last year, limiting both his playing time and effectiveness offensively and defensively. He is expected to be ready to go at full speed when spring training starts, so the Nationals are hoping that an offseason of rest will help. When he is at full strength, he is among the game's best at third base.

After an offseason of uncertainty, the Nationals and first baseman Adam LaRoche decided to continue their partnership, agreeing on a two-year, $24 million contract on Jan. 8. As I wrote last August, LaRoche is one of the most underrated first basemen in baseball. His 3.8 WAR, per FanGraphs, was the fifth-best among qualified first basemen. His .361 wOBA paired nicely with his solid defense, as he has been the third-best first baseman defensively since 2009 according to UZR (min. 4,000 defensive innings).

Behind the dish in Washington will be Kurt Suzuki, one of the game’s better defensive catchers according to Matt Klaassen’s catcher defense ratings, and Wilson Ramos. With the Athletics and Nats last year, Suzuki was a combined four runs above average, making him the 11th-best defensive catcher. He isn't much with the bat, but the Nationals acquired him for his defense and ability to handle a pitching staff. Ramos finished fourth in the 2011 Rookie of the Year voting before hurting his knee early last season.

Danny Espinosa will be at second base for the Nationals. Combining exquisite defense with good power, Espinosa finished 2012 as baseball's sixth-best second baseman according to FanGraphs WAR. Ian Desmond displayed a big power burst last year -- 25 home runs -- and has one of the best arms at shortstop, giving the Nationals that rare combo of two middle infielders with power.

Detroit Tigers
You would expect the player with the first Triple Crown since 1967 to be part of one of baseball's best infields, and that is certainly true for Miguel Cabrera's Tigers. The third baseman, who turns 30 in April, posted a .400 or better wOBA for the fourth consecutive year. The American League average wOBA for third basemen last year was .314, putting in perspective just how good Cabrera was in 2012. He may not bring much on defense or on the bases, but his bat more than makes up for those deficiencies.

Across the diamond from Cabrera is Prince Fielder. Together, the two make baseball's scariest 3-4 combination. As one of baseball's premier power threats, Fielder was shockingly one of only four players with more walks than strikeouts (Joe Mauer, Jose Reyes and Carlos Lee were the others). He finished 2012 just a shade under .400 in wOBA, the best mark among all first basemen. His 4.9 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs, was also the best at the position -- a position that saw only eight players post a WAR of 3.0 or better.

When it comes to catchers, offense is a luxury rather than a necessity. Ideally, your catcher can stay in the lineup regularly and call a good game. Only 16 catchers last year took 400 or more trips to the plate. Alex Avila took 434, had good chemistry with his pitching staff and posted a .327 wOBA (AL average for catchers: .312). He won't be confused with Mauer, but considering who he is surrounded by in the lineup, the Tigers don't need him to be anyone other than himself.

Up the middle, the Tigers feature Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta. Peralta has a reputation as a subpar defender, but as Jeff Sullivan recently showed at FanGraphs, he grades out around the average defensively. He has the potential to be a significantly above-average hitter, as he was in 2011 with a .356 wOBA, but Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects him at .307, just a shade better than his .301 mark last year.

As for Infante, he has graded out as a slightly above-average player as an everyday player over the past three years with the Braves, Marlins, and Tigers. He had his biggest power output since 2004, hitting 12 home runs in the pitcher-friendly Marlins Park and Comerica Park. Infante is easily the best defender in the Tigers' infield, an important feature at a premium defensive position.

Cincinnati Reds
Joey Votto is arguably the best hitter in baseball. His .414 wOBA since 2008 is the best in baseball, ahead of even Albert Pujols and MCabrera. In 475 at-bats last season, he posted a ridiculous .337/.474/.567 line, the highest on-base percentage (non-Barry Bonds division) since Jason Giambi’s .477 in 2001. And this was in a season in which he missed 48 games due to a knee injury. Votto, when he is healthy, is also one of the best defensive first basemen.

Brandon Phillips is just a few feet to Votto's right, giving the Reds one of the best defensive infield right sides in the game. Phillips, a three-time Gold Glove award winner, is renowned for his glove work, but his .336 wOBA since 2006 compares favorably to the NL average for second basemen, which has ranged between .302 and .327. Phillips, over the past three years, has also been good for around 15 stolen bases, a nice bonus.

The Reds feature three underrated, solid players in Todd Frazier at third base, Zack Cozart at shortstop and Ryan Hanigan behind the plate. Frazier posted a .225 isolated power as a rookie, the fourth-best mark among qualified third basemen last year, putting him in company with players like Adrian Beltre and Aramis Ramirez. Likewise, Cozart is one of the better-hitting shortstops in the game when it comes to power, as he ranked fifth in ISO last season at .153. Cozart is known more for his defense, though, displaying the type of consistency that would remind one of his former teammate, Scott Rolen. As for Hanigan, he is all you can ask for out of a non-elite catcher. Earning a shade over $2 million in 2013, he will get on base at a .360 rate or better, play solid defense, and expertly handle his pitching staff. Devin Mesoraco will be trying to pry the starting job away from the veteran. The 24-year-old was Baseball America's No. 16 overall prospect going into the 2012 season, but he did not impress in his 54 games at the major league level.

Texas Rangers
Going by Baseball Reference WAR, Adrian Beltre (61.1) will likely pass Ron Santo by the end of the season, moving into sixth place among those already in the Hall of Fame and those on the ballot. It is a bit surprising to consider Beltre as a Hall of Fame candidate, since he has only been among the game's premier hitters for four seasons in his career (2004, 2010-12), but his defense has never wavered. Beltre has long been the game's best defensive third baseman but was also the second-best third baseman offensively in 2012, trailing only Miguel Cabrera in wOBA. Now without Josh Hamilton in the lineup, the Rangers will be relying on him more than ever.

At second base, Ian Kinsler had the worst offensive showing of his career in 2012, declining in all the wrong categories: walk rate, isolated power, and on-base percentage. His 3.2 WAR was a far cry from 7.5 just a season earlier. He has also been one of the game’s premier baserunners since 2007, ranking third behind Michael Bourn and Jimmy Rollins, according to FanGraphs. When he is on point and healthy, few second basemen can match his all-around game.

Elvis Andrus, one of the most exciting players to watch, will be resuming his duties at shortstop. The 24-year-old has stolen an average of 31 bases per season since becoming an everyday player in 2009, and has combined that with some stellar defense. Given his youth, he still has time to develop into a better hitter -- remember, Derek Jeter didn't become a 20-homer threat until he was 24.

The Rangers round out the infield with a bit of a shakeup. First base, previously shared between Michael Young and Mitch Moreland, will now be Moreland's entirely as Young is now in Philadelphia. Moreland is no one's idea of a slugger at first base as his .325 wOBA over the last two years ranks 22nd out of 34 qualified first basemen but perhaps 150 games and 650 at-bats will let him shine.

At catcher, the Rangers are going into full-offense mode with A.J. Pierzynski and Geovany Soto. Pierzynski had a career year at the age of 35 in 2012 with the White Sox, slugging over .500 for the first time and easily surpassing both his career mark of .429 and previous career-high of .464 from 2003. His 27 homers led all catchers. The Rangers, taking a one-year, $7.5 million gamble on him, are hoping that power output wasn't a mirage. Soto hasn't been able to replicate his offensive displays of 2008 and '10, but the potential is there.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Breaking up the hold of 2012 playoff teams in this list, the 81-81 Diamondbacks crack the top five with the addition of Martin Prado at third base. A jack of all trades, Prado can play any position on the field except pitcher and catcher, but the D-Backs plan to use him exclusively at the hot corner. Prado had a career year with the Braves last year, finishing with 5.9 WAR, the 11th-best total among National League position players. He set career-highs in doubles, triples, RBIs, stolen bases, and walks while playing solid defense at a variety of positions, mostly in left field. Even if he doesn't repeat that production, Prado will be plenty valuable to the Diamondbacks.

Across the diamond from Prado is 25-year-old slugger Paul Goldschmidt. He was one of baseball's better hitters last year as his .363 wOBA ranked fifth among all qualified first basemen. With more experience and maturity, he could evolve into a 30-homer threat. Couple that with his defense -- he is surprisingly nimble for someone listed at 6-3, 230 -- and the D-backs may have an elite first basemen for years to come.

To call Aaron Hill's 2012 year a "breakout" season is not descriptive enough. He went above and beyond his career .272/.327/.432 line by hitting .302/.360/.522, finishing as baseball’s second-most valuable second baseman behind Robinson Cano. It wasn't quite reminiscent of Brady Anderson's 1996, as Hill was somewhere nearby in 2009 in terms of overall offensive output, but it was surprising nonetheless. If Hill can come close to replicating that production in 2013, the Diamondbacks' offense is going to be scary.

Newcomer Cliff Pennington takes over at shortstop after the Stephen Drew era came to a close. Pennington was replacement-level offensively with the Athletics last year, but is more likely somewhere between replacement level and average as his ZiPS-projected .303 wOBA indicates. The D-backs acquired him more for his solid defense and ability to run the bases well, which fits in nicely with their overall scheme. Prospect Didi Gregorius, acquired in the Trevor Bauer trade, could also earn time here.

Finally, Miguel Montero will be handling the Arizona pitching staff. Montero has been baseball's third-most valuable catcher over the past two seasons, trailing only Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. Montero hits for respectable power but has a great eye at the plate as his .391 on-base percentage and 13 percent walk rate last year indicated. The 29-year-old has made steady improvements defensively over the years as well.

With all five teams listed, my personal ranking of the top five infields goes as follows:

1. Tigers
2. Rangers
3. Reds
4. Diamondbacks
5. Nationals

How would you rank the best infields in baseball? Let us know in the comments.

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.