Second base is a position where defensive concerns generally outweigh offensive ones, as suggested by the modest 94 wRC+ recorded collectively by second basemen this year (although that figure was as high as 106 as recently as two years ago). This year has been a rough one for aging second-sackers, with Daniel Murphy and Dustin Pedroia barely playing due to knee injuries, Ian Kinsler struggling, Robinson Cano getting suspended, and several other previous stalwarts — Brian Dozier, Jason Kipnis, Joe Panik — seeming to fall apart before our eyes. Some of these, as you will see, have direct bearings on our rankings here, while others limit the pool of available replacements.
Among contenders (which for this series I’ve defined as teams with playoff odds of at least 15.0%, a definition that currently covers 16 teams), six teams have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at second base thus far, but as with catchers and first basemen, a closer look at each situation suggests not all will be in the market for external solutions — an area that colleague Dan Szymborski will examine later. Between early-season injuries and slow-starting veterans, some of these teams aren’t in as dire a shape as the overall numbers suggest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out of the woods.
Working from the order of the table above, from the worst to the most borderline…
It hasn’t prevented them from compiling the majors’ best record (71-31, .696), but the Red Sox have pretty much done it all without Pedroia. The 34-year-old former MVP underwent an experimental cartilage restoration procedure in his left knee last October — just the second player to have such a surgery, after teammate Steven Wright — and rehabbed his way back into the lineup in late May. He played just three games, though, before inflammation forced him back to the disabled list. Progress has been so slow that the Sox recently sent him home to Arizona to continue his rehab, an ominous sign for any chances of him returning to action this season.
In anticipation of Pedroia’s early-season absence, the Sox retained July 2017 acquisition Eduardo Núñez via free agency, but he’s hit just .252/.279/.354 for a 68 wRC+ and -0.7 WAR — and that’s with his -0.8 UZR as the defensive component; he’s at -12 DRS and -1.5 WAR via Baseball-Reference’s version. Brock Holt, who’s hit for a 104 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR overall, has been a dud in his time at second base (80 wRC+, 0.0 WAR), which alas has been the majority of his time. In light of their renewed pessimism about Pedroia, expect the Sox to be in the market for an upgrade.
Two years ago, while spending most of his time at shortstop, Jonathan Villar appeared to have unlocked a key to stardom, stealing 62 bases and hitting 19 homers with a 119 wRC+ and 3.0 WAR. Then last year, after the team jettisoned Scooter Gennett (oops), Villar sank to 23 steals, 11 homers, a 71 wRC+, and -0.5 WAR — and lost his job to newly acquired Neil Walker down the stretch. Even with the addition of a competent Walker, the Brewers had the NL’s lowest WAR at the position. Though Villar has been a bit better this year (86 wRC+, 0.7 WAR), they’re still in that spot. Neither Brad Miller nor Hernán Pérez nor the since-released Eric Sogard has been able to improve upon a situation that’s become more urgent given since Villar hit the DL on July 15 with a sprained right thumb.
Lately, the Brewers have been spotted working out incumbent third baseman Travis Shaw at second base, a position he’s never played during his professional career, but general manager David Stearns told MLB.com that it has more to do with Shaw’s routine preparation to play the shift than it does with an impending position change. Still, Shaw has said he’s game to do anything to help the team, a willingness that would increase the Brewers’ flexibility with regards to the trade market.
I’ve covered three positions in this series thus far, and the Rockies have made an appearance in each one. While DJ LeMahieu won the NL batting title two years ago with a .348 average, his lack of peripheral offensive skills has become more glaring as his BABIP has sunk from .388 to .278 in that span; his .278/.324/.430 line equates to an 87 wRC+, making him one of eight Rockies with at least 100 PA and a wRC+ below 90. While his above-average defense (3.1 UZR, 8 DRS) has boosted his WAR to a nearly-adequate 0.9 WAR, the work his fill-ins — primarily Daniel Castro and Pat Valaika — did during his two-week absence due to a left thumb sprain and fracture undid most of that — and similarly figures to sap the offense’s already wheezing production now that LeMahieu is back on the DL due to an oblique strain.
Among second basemen in the 2016-17 span, only Jose Altuve outhit Daniel Murphy — and not by a lot (156 wRC+ to 148). Alas, offseason surgery to repair the articular cartilage in his right knee kept Murphy from making his season debut until June 12, and that was primarily as a first baseman/designated hitter due to his limited mobility; he didn’t make his first start at second base until July 1. In his absence, Howie Kendrick hit well but was lost for the year in late May due to a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Wilmer Difo played like… well, like a replacement-level player.
Murphy’s overall offensive numbers (.263/.312/.364, 81 wRC+) look fairly similar to Difo’s (.244/.302/.338, 71 wRC+), but there is hope, in that the former has a 135 wRC+ in 71 PA from June 24 onward. He’s going to have to hit like that to outdo his generally mediocre defense, but it seems likely the Nationals tough it out here and focus on other upgrades.
The Dodgers have been Scotch-taping it at the keystone all year long, starting seven different players there, namely Logan Forsythe (37 starts), Chase Utley (31), Enrique Hernandez (13), Max Muncy (nine), Austin Barnes (six), Breyvic Valera (three before being sent to the Orioles in the Manny Machado trade) and Chris Taylor (one). Neither Forsythe (62 wRC+and -0.4 WAR overall) nor Utley (78 wRC+, 0.2 WAR overall) has sustained much production, but given their overcrowded outfield, having an extra spot to squeeze the bats of Taylor — who’s basically been freed from shortstop duty with Machado’s arrival — Hernandez or Muncy into the lineup is probably enough for the Dodgers to get by, especially as they can always make a defense-minded substitution in the late innings.
The now-31-year-old Kipinis once ranked among the position’s studs, with three seasons of at least 4.0 WAR from 2013 to -16, but he was dreadful last year (82 wRC+, 0.6 WAR) amid shoulder and hamstring injuries. This year’s 84 wRC+ (.221/.309/.362) is similarly bleak, but the fact that his defense has pushed his value to 1.2 WAR (backup Erik Gonzalez accounts for the drop below 1.0), and that his bat is trending upwards (61 wRC+ with three homers through May, 120 with seven homers since) turns this into a less urgent need for Cleveland. Still, there’s a chance that the team could upgrade, either directly via a new second baseman or indirectly via a third baseman, with Jose Ramírez sliding over, but sacrificing his shot at a positional WAR record).
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.