Just like the outfield, the D-backs infield will have a lot of moving parts in 2014. Paul Goldschmidt will start as many times as he’s able at first base, but no other position is likely to be manned by the same player 150 or more times next year.
The other clear starter in the infield, of course, is Aaron Hill, who may or may not have offseason surgery to fix the fracture in his hand suffered at the beginning of April. Hill is no more likely to miss time next year than any other player — it’s just that with a couple of other second basemen on the roster, he may be likely to get a little more than his fair share of rest.
Hill is a well above average player for his position; playing slightly more than half of the season, he’s created runs at a clip 24% better than the average hitter (124 wRC+), in line with his production last year. That’s outstanding for a skill position like second base. On the other side of the ball, Hill hasn’t been as much of an asset — UZR has his defense just a hair under average this season (-1.3 UZR/150), but the Defensive Runs Saved metric has him fringe-average at the position (-7 DRS). He’s not the above-average fielder he was in his first few seasons with the Blue Jays, but the average second baseman would hit a little lower than league average. Offering slightly below average defense but solidly above average offense, Hill is a very valuable player; prorate his 2.2 WAR this season to 162 games, and Hill would have been around 4 WAR this season, a step behind his 5.5 WAR 2012 and good for third on the team (behind Goldy and Gerardo Parra). Hill will be on year one of a three-year, $35M extension he signed in February this year.
Behind Hill at second base is Martin Prado, who filled in for Hill early this season. Although Prado played little at second in 2012, he’s played the equivalent of nearly a season and a half there over his career — his -5.2 UZR/150 in 2013 was in line with his career rate (-6.9 UZR/150). That’s more than adequate to make an average hitter an average player at second base, and while Prado has had a down year offensively (102 wRC+), he’s returned in the second half of the season to being the hitter he was the last few seasons. Going forward, we can expect Prado to hit 15-20% above average — fortunate, because like Hill, he’s locked up through 2016 (at a similar salary — Prado will make $33M to Hill’s $35M).
So long as Hill misses some consecutive games as some point in the season, Prado is likely to playing time there, as the D-backs may want Prado to keep up his skills there. But as we noted on Wednesday, Prado will get playing time in left field next season, where he has been an above-average fielder (11.5 UZR/150 in 2013, 13.7 UZR/150 for his career). More than half of Prado’s innings came at third base this year, where he just a tick above average (2.5 UZR/150, 3.9 UZR/150 for his career).
Whether Prado gets most of his time at third base again this year has everything to do with what happens with Matt Davidson and Eric Chavez. Davidson is under team control through at least 2019, and the team looks ready to commit to him — whether or not he gets the majority of the 3B starts next year is really just a question of whether he gets traded. Davidson didn’t rank among the very top prospects in baseball this year, but he was on everyone’s radar as having a very good chance to be an above-average player.
The crowded outfield pushes Prado toward the infield, so between he and Davidson, there isn’t a lot of playing time to be found at third base for Eric Chavez. A free agent, Chavez is reportedly interested in a return next season. But for Davidson, Chavez is a wonderful fit for the roster; he and Prado would split the 3B time almost evenly. It looks like Chavez is a fringy defender at 3B now (-9.8 UZR/150 this year), but with above-average offense (114 wRC+), Chavez is a useful piece for a team with a flexible roster like the D-backs. With Davidson in the fold, though, I just don’t see how Chavez fits, even if he took a pay cut from this year’s $3M salary. The outfielder glut means that Chavez wouldn’t even be likely to be the team’s principal pinch hitter.
Shortstop is the biggest question mark for next year. We’ll weigh in on the shortstop situation next year in a separate post, but suffice it to say, Chris Owings could replace Didi Gregorius as the team’s primary shortstop — call the split in playing time between Owings and Gregorius an open question. Cliff Pennington is still under team control for another year (at $2.75M), and will probably take over the true reserve role from Willie Bloomquist, who is unlikely to be re-signed by the club (I thought it said a lot when, in a game earlier this month, Prado started at 2B with Bloomquist in LF, instead of the other way around). Penny wasn’t brought in to be strictly a reserve player, but that’s what’s in the cards for 2014 — unless either Owings or Gregorius is traded, in which case Penny’s role will be very similar to what it was this year.
Even leaving the SS split between Owings and Gregorius for a later day, I think we can still make a prediction on how starts will be apportioned in the infield, assuming Chavez is not re-signed and Davidson is essentially a starter at 3B. To keep this compatible with the breakdowns in the outfield post, we’ll do two:
1B: Goldy 95%
2B: Hill 85%, Prado 5-10%, Owings 5-10%
SS: Gregorius/Owings 90%, Pennington 10%
3B: Davidson 80%, Prado 20%
I don’t know who will fill in for Goldy at first base; only Eric Hinske (26 innings) and Eric Chavez (22 innings) did that this season. If push came to shove, it would probably be Martin Prado or Cliff Pennington over there, unless a new player is added. I speculated on Weds that the team might pick up an outfielder with some 1B experience.
The distribution above assumes that Prado gets about 65% of the starts in LF. If Cody Ross enters the equation, Prado’s time there would slip to 50% or less, so then we might have a distribution more like this:
1B: Goldy 95%
2B: Hill 80%, Prado 10-15%, Owings 5-10%
SS: Gregorius/Owings 90%, Pennington 10%
3B: Davidson 70%, Prado 30%
I think a flexible roster is a great thing, and Prado is a huge part of that for the D-backs. In general I think time-shares can be a great way to squeeze extra production out of a roster, by taking advantage of matchups and platoons and by taking plate appearances away from true reserve guys. Something’s almost certainly gotta give on this roster, though, because in the short term, Gregorius, Owings and Davidson aren’t going to develop as players if they’re not starting almost every day — it’s not just about squeezing out production in 2014, it’s about setting the roster up for the future, as well.
We’ll keep in mind that something’s gotta give when we evaluate possible trades and signings in the offseason, noting how any move would affect the playing time distribution for position players. No matter what, the infield part of the roster will have a number of moving parts in 2014 (thanks in large part to Martin Prado). I do hope a move is made to alleviate some of the pressure, however — having a full house is not the same thing as having a stacked deck.
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