Head to Head (Part 3): Ranking the Second Basemen in the NL East

This is the third article in the series ranking the best players by positions in the NL East. This one compares the five starting second basemen in the division; listed alphabetically by last name as Danny Espinosa, Omar Infante, Daniel Murphy, Dan Uggla, and Chase Utley.

If you missed the article on the catchers or first basemen, please click here to read it.

5. Daniel Murphy, New York Mets: During his short reign with the New York Mets, Daniel Murphy’s strength has been his productive bat and versatility in the field, although he has ultimately struggled with staying healthy. Murphy broke into the big leagues in 2008 as a good-hitting left fielder, posting a .313 batting average in 151 plate appearances before dropping off to .266 with 12 home runs as the primary first baseman in 2009. He missed all of ’10 with an MCL tear and played well in ’11 at many positions (first, second, and third base as well as left field) before suffering another MCL tear.

Murphy will begin 2012 as the team’ starting second baseman, replacing the very replaceable Justin Turner. Murphy is a .292 career hitter with a .784 OPS; he’s a good hitter when healthy, and he’s talented enough defensively to fill in at many different positions. He’s not a great second baseman – his .978 lifetime fielding percentage at the position is slightly below the league-average mark of .985 – but he is solid enough. That is, assuming he can stay healthy.

4. Omar Infante, Miami Marlins: Like Daniel Murphy, Omar Infante is valuable because of his defensive prowess that allows him to play nearly anywhere on the field, but a near-frightening drop in his offensive numbers in 2011 wasn’t reassuring for Miami Marlins fans. Infante batted .321/.359/.416 with the Atlanta Braves as a super-utility man in 2010 before dropping off to just .276/.315/.382 with the Marlins, an OPS drop of nearly 100 points.

Infante’s career average of .275 suggests he’s a lot more of the player he showed in ’11 than he did in ’10, and that’s really not a great starter – he doesn’t walk a lot, he has little power, and he’s not particularly fast on the basepaths. After playing five different positions in the field in 2010, Infante didn’t budge from second base in year one with the Marlins, playing all 1,283.1 innings at that position. He fared very well, leading the National League in assists (466) and zone runs (14). Defense shouldn’t be a problem for him next year, but if he doesn’t show some improvement with the bat, he’s going to be relegated to a utility infield spot.

3. Dan Uggla, Atlanta Braves: Despite a hitting streak that stretched over 30 consecutive games, Dan Uggla ended the season at just .233. He hit 36 home runs with 82 RBIs, power that is almost unprecedented at his position. Uggla is the only second baseman in the history of baseball to hit 30 home runs for four straight seasons (and he has done it five years running).

He is awful defensively, bad enough in fact that he shouldn’t be playing second base. Uggla has made double-digit errors all six seasons of his career, and his .980 fielding percentage in 2011 was five points below the league average. He hits well enough that he makes up for his defense, but if he could field like he can hit, he would be the best second baseman in the league.

2. Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals: There are a lot of flaws in Danny Espinosa’s game – he hit just .236 in 2011, he strikes out a ridiculous amount of times, and he’s not great defensively. But he also hit 21 home runs as a rookie second baseman, stole 17 bases, led the league with 19 hit by pitches, and finished sixth in the Rookie of the Year award voting.

He’s still just 24 years old and Espinosa represents the typical Washington Nationals player – an up-and-coming guy that will help the team develop into a contender soon enough. Espinosa’s 3.5 WAR ranked him fourth-best among qualifying NL second baseman, and he has the raw power and speed to possibly develop into a 30-30 HR-SB guy.

1. Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies: Despite chronic knee problems that plagued Chase Utley in 2011 and will cause him to miss extended action in 2012, I still have Utley rated number one on my list. He is a five-tool player that can hit with the best of them and his defense is unmatched by any second baseman in the business.

Utley has won the Bill James Fielding Bible award six straight seasons, even though he’s remarkably never been awarded a Gold Glove for his play in the field. He has posted significantly declining percentages in each of the past three seasons, numbers that are alarming to Philadelphia Phillies fans:

2008: .292/.380/.535/.915 OPS
2009: .282/.397/.508/.905 OPS
2010: .275/.387/.445/.832 OPS
2011: .259/.344/.425/.769 OPS

The drop in his power is the scariest, as Utley has gone from 33 home runs and a .535 slugging percentage in 2008 to just 11 home runs and a .425 slugging percentage in 2011 (there was a substantial drop in plate appearances, but the home run rate still dropped a lot).

Utley plays the game the way it should be played, and he may be the best percentage player since Joe Morgan. He steals bases at an amazing success rate, he draws walks and gets hit by pitches, he’s near-flawless in the field, he hits well left-handed against both righties (.887 career OPS) and lefties (.870 OPS), he has power, and he hustles after every ball like it’s the World Series.

The unfortunate part is that Utley has just two seasons remaining on the seven-year extension he signed prior to ’07, and at the rate he is fading, he may not have much left when his deal is done. If Utley can play in 120 or more games in 2012, he should be the best second baseman in the NL East, and I’m banking on right around that. But if he misses extended action, the Phillies won’t be able to replace his production with Freddy Galvis/Pete Orr/Michael Martinez, and Danny Espinosa overtakes Utley as the division’s best second baseman.

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