No aspect of the 2012 Cardinals comes with more questions than the middle infield, where one position has no clear starter and one has a veteran with something to prove. Rafael Furcal returns on a two-year contract with the Redbirds, hoping to show he can still play at the high level he displayed as recently as 2009, while the team goes into Spring Training with an open competition for the starting second-base job.
If Furcal’s performance is an unknown, at least his role is not. On the other side of the keystone, there’s a different kind of uncertainty. Three players go into camp with a shot at winning time at second base: Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker. Any of the three could win the lion’s share of the job, or manager Mike Matheny could fashion a job-sharing arrangement among two or three of the contenders.
This is one spot where the Cardinals find themselves far from the top of the division, both offensively and defensively as it stands today.
Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney hit .276 in 2011, with a pair of homers, nine steals, 43 RBIs and 66 runs scored. Barney secured the starting second base job in Spring Training and never looked back. A .238 batting average in the second half dampens any enthusiasm for this youngster, who hasn’t shown much power or speed.
The Reds exercised Phillips’ $12 million option on Oct. 31, but the three-time National League Gold Glove winner has long trumpeted his desire to re-sign with Cincinnati for many years. Phillips, 30, has also been firm about his lack of willingness to accept a hometown discount to remain with the Reds. Phillips recorded his first .300 season but the numbers weren’t all as rosy. His home run total was the lowest since 2006 and his 14 steals were the lowest since 2005. Phillips remains a quality second baseman but at age 30, it remains to be seen if he can climb back to the 20-20 level.
Astros rookie second baseman Jose Altuve hit .276 with a pair of homers, seven steals, 12 RBIs and 26 runs scored in 221 at-bats during his inaugural season. Altuve was hitting .389 in the Minors when the Astros gave him the call to the show. The 21-year-old showed some speed and the ability to collect hits against Major League pitchers but his lack of power and elite speed will limit Altuve’s potential in the short term.
Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks finished up an injury-plagued 2011 season with 20 homers, nine steals, 49 RBIs, 77 runs scored and a .269 batting average in 453 at-bats. Weeks launched 17 homers in the first half of the season but suffered a serious ankle injury near the end of July and registered only 83 at-bats in the second half. The 29-year-old is an attractive asset heading into 2012 because of his ability to hit for power as a second baseman.
Without a lot of fanfare, this second-year player produced a solid 2011 with .273 with 12 homers, nine steals, 83 RBIs and 76 runs scored. Walker has settled in as a solid, but not spectacular second base option. Don’t look for major improvements in 2012 but at age 26 he could still make small gains. A reasonable expectation for him and a solid season cound make him one of the few second baseman to collect 90 RBIs.
Schumaker, 31, hit .283 in 117 games last season, including a .299 mark after the All-Star break. He batted .381 in the playoffs and had the game-winning RBI in the decisive fifth game of the National League Division Series against the Phillies.
By the time 2012 is said and done here is how I see things shaking out amongst the NL Central second basemen
Descalso and Greene are likely slicker fielders, but Schumaker has established himself as a solid hitter for a middle infielder. Whereas at the start of the winter it sounded as though he was being removed from the second-base picture, later indications have made it clear that Schumaker can compete for the job.
Greene and Descalso both come from other positions. Descalso has played plenty of second, but in the Major Leagues, he’s spent more time at third. Offensively, he’s a bit similar to Schumaker, a line-drive hitter with some on-base ability but not much power. Defensively, he is probably a superior second baseman. But his versatility is also an asset that Matheny may covet.
Then there’s Greene, who sometimes sounds like the favorite coming into the spring. A former first-round Draft pick and a shortstop by trade, he has tremendous tools but has yet to turn them into dependable production at the big league level. Greene’s upside is the highest of the contenders, but of the three, he has proved the least in the Majors.
One advantage for Greene is that he is a shortstop, and there’s no clear backup to Furcal. If Greene doesn’t win the starting job, he could well stick as a utility player. Descalso is also almost certain to be on the roster for his positional flexibility, defense and pinch-hitting savvy, while Schumaker will be on as a utility man if not the starter.