PT TOMORROW: AL West—2B in flux

Seattle Mariners

Where does one begin analyzing the positional playing time battles, opportunities, and questions in SEA? The Mariners' rebuild intentions are obvious, but thanks in part to a Kyle Seager pre-season injury in 2019 and Mitch Haniger's recent core surgery, the projected Opening Day starting lineup is completely revamped from last year's. But the biggest surprise to some might be the club's announced intent to turn Dee Gordon (2B, SEA) into an infield/OF utility and give Shed Long (2B, SEA) a legitimate crack at 2B.

A closer look reveals ample reason as to why the Mariners have been unable to move Gordon—now in the final year of a contract that will pay him $14M—and for their new spring plans. The 32-year-old Gordon still offers defense and elite speed, the latter of which helps maintain a .270-ish BA and plus running game. But Gordon's bat is all powerless soft contact, coupled with a deteriorating bb% and more frequent sub-.300 OBP flirtations, the combination of which can be a lineup killer for long stretches. Nagging injuries and more (41 IL days in 2019) have also begun to impact Gordon's performance, suggesting that his versatility as a 2B/SS/CF—all spots where SEA will occasionally need help—may be a better utilization of his skills these days. 

The bottom line is that Gordon won't be part of the next SEA winner, but Long might be. He's a work-in-progress with the glove, and some nagging injuries of his own (broken finger in 2019) have contributed to an uneven ascent through the minors. But Long's short-stroke bat speed offered glimpses of a sound, all-fields plate approach throughout (.351 OBP) that also projected average MLB power—some of which was flashed in a September small sample (.855 OPS over 83 AB) in SEA once he was healthy. Though Long may eventually end up as an infield/OF utility, the Mariners view his ceiling as that of an offensive 2B regular. And now Long apparently has the inside track on developing this upside leading into Opening Day.

 

Oakland Athletics

The most muddled Opening Day 2B outlook in the division belongs to the A's, with none of the numerous contenders in camp looking like prohibitive bets. Franklin Barreto (2B, OAK) might be the favorite, primarily due to pedigree, ceiling, plus power, and the fact that he's out of options. But Barreto lost his HR stroke during a miserable 2019 start at Triple-A—and then after recovering, proceeded to flail at everything (60% ct%, .123 BA over 57 AB) during a brief MLB call-up. He's out of minor league options, and a .944 OPS and 20/35 BB/K over 199 AB in winter ball offers encouragement. But Barreto needs to show something this spring against better competition to win a share of this job and remain in the organization.

Two of Barreto's primary competitors are also out of options. Recently-acquired Tony Kemp (2B/OF, OAK) in theory could insert an experienced left-handed bat into a heavily right-leaning lineup and begin 2020 in a platoon with Barreto—and his OF versatility is an asset. But a career .690 OPS vR (518 AB) and sub-par pop still cast Kemp as an MLB bench player. Following a blazing 2019 Triple-A start, speedy Jorge Mateo (2B/SS, OAK) looked primed to force his MLB debut in the 2H. But Mateo slid dramatically after May, batting just .250 over his final 300 AB in the minors' most offense-charged league. Infield versatility is a plus, but Mateo's running game—24/11 SB/CS in 2019—has fallen off at higher levels, and subpar power, plate skills don't help.

Other potential competitors include Sheldon Neuse (2B, OAK), the club's best 3B prospect, who enjoyed a banner Triple-A season (.939 OPS) last year but is blocked in OAK by Matt Chapman. Neuse has his full slate of options available, and would have to outplay everyone on both sides of the ball this spring to stick at 2B. A Rule 5 pick over from CHC, Vimael Machin (2B, OAK) offers more positional versatility and a plate approach (63/57 BB/K over 422 AB in Double-A) that the A's covet, but nothing in the way of secondary skills or experience to suggest an everyday regular. Long-time infield/outfield bench utility Chad Pinder (OF/2B, OAK) will try to force himself into the battle. But similar to Kemp, a meh 2019 and career .702 OPS vR say he's not currently miscast. The contend-now A's will have plenty of decisions and 40-man roster moves to make in March—and it wouldn't shock us to see another left-handed-hitting bat in the 2B mix by Opening Day.

 

Texas Rangers

There's a 2B pecking order here in February, but it's far from rock-solid. Incumbent Rougned Odor (2B, TEX) ended 2019 with a huge September surge that included 9 HR and a .268 BA. But he's been woefully inconsistent for the past three seasons, and hit just .205 with 30 HR in 2019—which hints at how awful he'd been prior to that final month and MLB's version of garbage time. Odor's HR rebound (from 18 in 2018) and best-ever 142/157 PX/xPX again say that the power is real, but this was the second year in the last three that his BA has fallen to unplayable levels—and increasingly poor contact (a career-worst 66% ct% last year) doesn't offer much optimism. The long-term deal (through 2023) that kept Odor in AB through all of this might no longer be enough to save him should he struggle out of the gate again.

One big reason for this is the acquisition of Nick Solak (2B, TEX) from TAM last July, and an August MLB debut—.884 OPS, 5 HR over 116 AB—that suggests he's ready to play. As per a career .294/.383/.468 minor league line over 1600+ AB, Solak has always had a good plate approach, but he also hit a career-high 32 HR last year between Triple-A and MLB play, hinting that he could now be tapping into more power.

Solak's biggest questions are with his glove and position. He played some 3B in TEX last year, and didn't impress anyone before settling in at DH—and his best on-field position is still at 2B, where he's a subpar defender. The Rangers will reportedly give him some CF reps this spring to see what they have, but right now Solak is a bat-first player without a regular lineup spot. Unless TEX thinks he needs to begin 2020 at Triple-A to learn a new position, Solak will break camp with the club as a utility player off the bench—and Rougned Odor will be on notice.

 

Los Angeles Angels

2B is also an issue in Anaheim, largely fueled by the offseason roster addition of 3B Anthony Rendon. Tommy La Stella (2B/3B, LAA) and David Fletcher (2B/3B/OF, LAA) began 2019 sharing the bulk of the 2B/3B AB—at least before a fractured leg aborted La Stella's unexpected breakout season (.295/.346/.486, 18 HR over 292 AB) in July. Rookie Luis Rengifo (2B, LAA) handled most of the 2B reps in the 2H of 2019, all of which points to a position that could change hands again throughout the year for a number of reasons.

La Stella has always owned plus plate skills, and a career .285 xBA always suggested potentially more than he'd delivered to date as a bench player. But a swing-path change, HctX surge, and Angel Stadium's lowered RF wall were the primary fuel for the 11 HR in 155 AB at his new home venue, and an overall performance as a regular that leaves observers wondering about the encore. La Stella's glove wasn't as awful as advertised, but he's not the 2B equal of Fletcher, who may be MLB's best at this position—no small consideration for an LAA pitching staff that will need all the help it can get. Like La Stella, Fletcher made contact at an elite rate last year, but without any of his teammate's newfound pop, as suggested by a 49/56 PX/xPX. The question going forward is whether the all-fields approach that made Fletcher so tough to defend against and produced a .290/.286 BA/xBA over 596 AB can be reprised. 

The 22-year-old Rengifo has some longer-term upside, but he was rushed up after fewer than 400 high-minors AB, and may not yet be ready for prime-time, as suggested by a .685 OPS over 357 AB with the Angels. Almost moved to the Dodgers in the Joc Pederson fiasco, Rengifo now looks Triple-A bound for more development barring an injury or another trade before Opening Day—but could be rosterable by mid-season. Fletcher's defensive versatility/excellence makes him a valuable utility player on a seemingly injury-susceptible club that has too often needed this kind of help recently. Courtesy of his .880 OPS vR, the left-handed-hitting La Stella has also been discussed this spring as an occasional 1B platoon partner with Albert Pujols (.686 OPS vR in 2019). Regardless of how this all pans out, expect the early 2B AB to be handled by some combination of La Stella and Fletcher, with both also getting opportunities elsewhere as needed. 

 

Houston Astros

Sign-stealing scandal notwithstanding, the starting lineup remains the most rock-solid in the division—and without any budding playing time battles at 2B. The one position player battle that likely begins now is in right-field, where 33-year-old incumbent Josh Reddick (OF, HOU) will attempt to fend off Kyle Tucker (OF, HOU). Reddick's power has faded badly over the past four seasons to a subpar level, as seen in 14 HR over 501 AB (63/57 PX/xPX). An (albeit soft) 87% ct% and notable improvement vL has enabled Reddick to maintain a plus BA, which along with good RF defense has kept him in playing time. But a July/August swoon left Reddick on the brink of losing AB to Tucker before a H%-fueled .339 BA in September saved him. Now in his final contract year, Reddick has experience on his side, but may not have as much rope as he did in 2020.

Tucker is an altogether different animal. A 70%-ish ct% keeps the BA and consistency in question now as Tucker ascends to HOU, as seen in a .266 BA at AAA-Round Rock that included a couple of sub-.200 months. But Tucker's plus secondary skills produced a 30/30 (just 5 CS) season that carried over to a September call-up, in which he hit .269 with 4 HR and 5 SB for the Astros over 67 AB. Following two Triple-A seasons, Tucker's late-2019 showing sets the stage for what projects as a season-long battle to take AB from Reddick, in which injuries along with their relative performances will be in play. And it begins now.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.