Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

Breaking Down the Tigers and Indians: The Middle Infielders

In part one of this epic breakdown of the two best teams in the AL Central, I took a look at the corner infield positions for the Tigers and Indians. Today, I’m going to break down the middle infielders. There isn’t as much star power at second and shortstop as there is at first and third, but that doesn’t make the battery any less important.

The Tigers will be heading into 2012 with the same middle infield that helped get them to the ALCS in 2011. It’s not the sexiest double play combination in baseball, but when it gets you within two games of making the World Series you can’t really argue with the results. Or maybe you can—sports fans can be a fickle bunch.

At second base the Tigers will once again rely on the consistently consistent Ramon Santiago. He’s not anywhere near being the best second baseman in baseball, but he apparently does enough that the Tigers like having him around. This will be his ninth season with Detroit and his seventh in a row after a brief hiatus in Seattle.

What the Tigers see in Santiago, I’m not entirely sure. His offensive numbers don’t stand out in any way, shape, or form. He doesn’t excel at any one aspect but he doesn’t completely suck either. If nothing else he’s simply a reliable piece of the puzzle on a yearly basis.

Santiago batted .260 with 5 home runs and 30 RBI in 101 games last year, all of which are on par with his career averages. He was worth 1.4 fWAR with a WPA of -.77. Defensively, he turned in an ultimate zone rating  of 1.1. Again, Santiago is nothing spectacular—not even close for that matter—but the consistency can’t be overlooked.

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

At shortstop, the Tigers will pencil in a familiar face to Indians fans: the one and only Jhonny Peralta. If Santiago is the model of offensive consistency, Peralta is the model for offensive inconsistency. As Indians fans know all too well, no one knows what to expect from Peralta year to year, month to month, or even day to day. In 2011 Peralta was fantastic. In 2012, who knows?

Last season was a bounceback year for Peralta. He batted a career-high .299, belted 21 home runs, and drove in 86 runs. For all of that, Peralta’s 5.2 fWAR made him the third-most valuable shortstop in all of baseball. Yes, Jhonny Peralta performed at an All-Star-caliber level. Even on defense, UZR liked Peralta (though considering he’s typically been in the negatives for his career that should be taken with a grain of salt). If he can duplicate last year’s success the Tigers could find themselves back atop the AL Central.

As for the Indians, the middle infield appears to be an area of strength heading into 2012. While the corner positions are full of uncertainty, shortstop and second base appear to be solidified for the foreseeable future thanks to Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis.

Last season was a breakout, career year for Cabrera. Thanks to the encouragement of Orlando Cabrera, A-Cab embraced a new mentality at the plate and the results were hard to argue with. It was almost like watching a completely different player. With his new “let it rip” mentality, Cabrera batted .273 with 25 home runs and 92 RBI. Only Troy Tulowitzki and JJ Hardy hit more home runs at shortstop, and only Tulowitzki had more RBI.

However, despite the spectacular year Cabrera had all around, his value was hurt a weak end of the season, when he seemingly ran out of gas. Anyone who watched the Indians last year could see how the burden of being “the guy” eventually wore down Cabrera in August and September. That also helps explain why FanGraphs had him at only 3.6 wins above replacement compared to Peralta’s 5.5. Cabrera faded down the stretch, Peralta rose to the occasion. The numbers show that.

Meanwhile, Kipnis will be the Opening Day second baseman for the Indians in 2012. The team regards him very highly and believes he has the potential to be a game-changer and a superstar at the MLB level. Many around the organization have made the comparison to Boston’s diminutive All-Star second baseman and former AL MVP, Dustin Pedroia. If Kipnis turns into the second coming of Pedroia—a big if, but not completely out of the question—we should all be ecstatic.

Needless to say, big things are expected from Kipnis offensively. In 36 games with the big-league club last year, he batted .272 with 7 home runs and 19 RBI. He also banged out quite a few memorable hits and went on one of the hottest hitting stretches we’ve seen in some time (a 5-for-5 game against Detroit and four home runs in as many games). If he can make the proper adjustments as teams get more film and develop scouting reports against him, Kipnis could be the AL’s top breakout player in 2012.

Offensively, the Tribe seems set at short and second, but much like the Tigers defensive problems at first and third, the Indians might have to endure their own horror movie up the middle in 2012. Neither Cabrera nor Kipnis is a particularly strong fielder.

For all of his web gems, Cabrera’s subpar range has always dogged him at shortstop— he turned in a UZR of -11.8 in 2011. Yes, he’s making some great plays, but he’s also failing to grab balls that other more agile shortstops are able to get to. Part of that is probably due to bulking up in the weight room in an attempt to become a better hitter, so there is a tradeoff of sorts. Does that mean Cabrera should be moved from shortstop? Of course not, but it’s an issue that should be addressed either through conditioning or better positioning before pitches.

Kipnis’ big issue is he’s still learning to play second base, having spent most of his high school, college, and minor league career as an outfielder. His transition into a reliable defensive second baseman is going to take time and there will be growing pains, but he showed tremendous improvement in his brief time with the Indians last year. His athleticism and natural instincts should more than be able to make up for lack of technique as he learns the intricacies of the position.

The Verdict: Yes, the Tigers have a middle-infield combo that helped propel them to a deep October run last year. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be anything close to what they were in 2011, especially with Peralta. We’ve seen firsthand that when the stakes are high and expectations are huge, Peralta tends to shrink. Every time he had a solid year for the Indians and got everyone excited, he followed it up with an equally awful season. That’s what led to so much fan disgust and his ultimate exit from Cleveland.

On the other hand, the Indians have a shortstop coming off of a career year who looks poised to become a legitimate star in 2012. They also have a young second baseman who showed us last year why we should be buying into the hype surrounding him. Cabrera and Kipnis might very well be the best combination we’ve had up the middle since Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar.

The potential upside for Cabrera and Kipnis outweighs that of Peralta and Santiago, which is why I’m giving the edge to the Indians.

Which team has better middle infielders?

  • Indians (86%, 18 Votes)
  • Tigers (14%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 21

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Tags: Asdrubal Cabrera Detroit Tigers Jason Kipnis Jhonny Peralta Ramon Santiago

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