The 2015 Infield Traffic Jam - Who's on Second?

As the White Sox farm system continues to improve in depth, they have a ‘problem’ that’s new and novel: a traffic jam of potential MLB talent at the skill infield positions (SS, 2B, 3B) in AAA. It has been years since this was true at any non-pitching position on the field.

What will they do with it, and how are these prospects likely to perform? What will the 2015 White Sox look like at second base, shortstop and third base? Which players have the highest ceilings, and which ones appear the most “ready”?

Let’s look at the cast of characters, both in MLB and AAA, looking at their offensive and defensive potential. Then we’ll establish the "knowns" for each player, and finally propose some possible scenarios. We’re going to assume for the purpose of this exercise that all these players will be healthy to open next season, and that the White Sox likely won’t trade FOR any new players at these three positions.

First, the established major leaguers (ages shown are for Opening Day 2015)

Alexei Ramirez, RHB
Status: Age 33, under contract: $10M in 2015, team option at $10M in 2016 ($1M buyout)
Positions: Long history as starting shortstop
Ramirez is a gold glove-caliber defender at shortstop, which alone makes him difficult to impossible to replace. He’s also improved with the bat after a couple less stellar years, and generally hits better than league average for the position. Adding to his offensive value, Ramirez has stolen 18 bases (in 22 attempts) so far this year and stole at least 20 each of the two previous seasons. While he’d be very hard to replace, he’s also one of the most valuable trade chips on the team.

Conor Gillaspie, LHB
Status: Age 27, pre-arbitration (1 year remaining, likely salary in 2015 is 550k), 3 arbitration years thereafter
Positions: Two seasons as starting 3B, has played some occasional 1B
Gillaspie has been one of 2014’s most pleasant surprises, posting a very solid .812 OPS thus far. His defense has improved, though he won’t be winning any gold gloves soon. A very solid 28% line drive rate indicates sustainability. He’s very cheap for one more year, and probably reasonable for his arbitration years after. One weakness with Gillaspie is his poor hitting against lefties (.565 OPS this year).

Leury Garcia, switch hitter
Status: Age 24, pre-arbitration (2 years remaining, likely salary 2015 is 525k), 3 arbitration years thereafter
Positions: Garcia has played every position on the field this year (including pitching) other than catcher and first base
He has struggled mightily at the plate in his 1.5 seasons with the White Sox, posting an anemic .446 OPS over that time and a 33% K/PA rate. The utility man does steal some bases (10 SB in 11 ATT) and has pinch running value, but his .206 OBP this year is pretty awful. Defensively, he doesn’t play enough for the metrics to be useful, but the eye test says he’s been playable but inconsistent around the infield and he can cover pretty much anything in a pinch.

Then the guys in AAA (in no particular order)

Micah Johnson, LHB, age 24, 65 games in AAA
Positions: Exclusively a 2B to date
Johnson, the 4th ranked prospect in the system, has the highest ceiling of this bunch and the organization likes him a lot. He’s got game-changing speed, makes consistent contact, has gotten on base at a good clip at A and AA, and looks like a potential leadoff hitter. On the other hand, he has only 65 games at AAA (with a .684 OPS) and just 42 at AA (where he was much stronger), so he may not be ready for the majors yet. He’s also struggled defensively at second base, though the front office insists a position move is not in his future (and for many reasons wouldn’t make sense anyway).

Marcus Semien, RHB, age 24, 112 games in AAA (64 in MLB)
Positions: Primarily SS, but has played 2B and 3B as well, and has experimented in the outfield
Semien had a huge 2013, going from AA to AAA to Chicago while posting an .880 OPS in the minors and drawing more walks than strikeouts. He struggled in his stints in Chicago though, and in Charlotte at first, before getting hot and looking like his previous self again. Offensively, Semien’s plate discipline is unparalleled in the Sox minors, he’s hit double digits in HR every full season, and has a little speed. Defensively he’s above average at second base, and playable at short. He’s got soft hands and a strong arm, but some question if he has the range for shortstop in the majors.

Carlos Sanchez, switch hitter, age 22, 233 games in AAA (6 in MLB)
Positions: Primarily 2B and SS (in that order), but has played 3B as well
Sanchez struggled in 2013, when he started the season as the youngest player (age 20) in the International League. But in 2014 he bounced back to hit for a high average and looked very good defensively at second base, while hitting more than twice as many home runs as he had his entire career prior. This earned him two call-ups, and he’s currently occupying second base after Gordon Beckham was traded away. Defensively, he’s considered above average at second base, and playable at short. His range and glove are solid, but the arm isn’t as strong as Semien's. Offensively he’ll never be a power hitter, but he hits for average and gets on base while showing some speed (16/20 in SB in AAA this year).

Matt Davidson, RHB, age 24, 241 games in AAA (31 in MLB)
Positions: Exclusively a 3B to date
Rarely has a Top 100 prospect in MLB fallen apart so rapidly, so close to the majors. Davidson has been a huge disappointment this year, struggling to stay above the Mendoza line and posting a .660 OPS while striking out in 30.2% of his plate appearances. He has hit 20 home runs and still draws walks at a good clip, but his defense is seen as average at best so the lack of hitting is even more problematic. This after almost winning the starting job in Chicago in spring training.

Tyler Saladino, RHB, age 25, 97 games in AAA
Positions: Primarily SS, but has played all over the field this year
Considered a highly ranked prospect in the system a few years ago, Saladino struggled for two straight seasons, before breaking through again in 2014. Hitting over .300 and posting an .850 OPS while playing solid defense at shortstop, Tyler seemed to be on the cusp of finding a role as at least a utility player in Chicago. But he’s been out for the past two months due to TJ surgery on his throwing arm, and is likely to not be playing baseball again until April or May of next year.

Player-Specific Conclusions

--Micah Johnson is a 2B.
--Tyler Saladino won’t be healthy enough to play baseball until April at the earliest, so he’s out of the discussion for now.
--Matt Davidson won’t be relegated to a major league bench, nor can he be given a major league starting job after his performance this season. So he’s in AAA again almost assuredly, to start 2015.
--Leury Garcia has been disappointing for a season and a half, and is likely not part of the team’s 2015 plans. He may still be a utility option, but more likely he’s at AAA or out of the organization.
--Given Conor Gillapsie’s strong play this year, his cheap cost and a lack of better options, he’s highly likely to be the starting 3B again to open 2015.
--Marcus Semien and Carlos Sanchez can both handle SS as an occasional backup at least, but neither has shown with high confidence they are starting shortstops in the majors. So that is an open question.

Decision Points

Since we have essentially eliminated both Matt Davidson and Tyler Saladino from the discussion, we’re really discussing the futures of Johnson, Semien, Sanchez and possibly Garcia to fill at least second base and utility infielder, and possibly shortstop. So the key decision points are:

A. Do the White Sox feel that Micah Johnson is major league-ready, or will be by April of next year? If they do, he’s the starting 2B to open next season. If not, he won’t be a utility player, so he’ll be in Charlotte getting full time play.

B. Do the White Sox feel that Semien and/or Sanchez are capable of playing at least passable (somewhere in sight of league average) defense at shortstop? If they do, there is a decent chance they trade Alexei. If they do not, or if they do but cannot get any value in trade, then Alexei stays.

We’ll use those two yes/no questions to make a matrix of four scenarios…

1. JOHNSON IS READY, AND SEMIEN OR SANCHEZ CAN PLAY SS FULL TIME

In this scenario, the White Sox are free to trade Alexei Ramirez, who should get some good value (potentially in pitching or catching). Should that happen, the White Sox will need to fill SS, 2B and utility infield, which essentially hands those three jobs to three of the prospects. Micah Johnson won’t be playing short or third, so he’s your starting second baseman. That leaves Semien and Sanchez for shortstop and utility infielder.

Who gets the starting shortstop job? At first they may split time there, until someone grabs the job. Semien’s offense at the plate projects to be significantly better overall, and since their defense would appear to be similar (but with different weaknesses), Semien should really have the edge. But the fact that the Sox called up Sanchez after Gordon Beckham was traded may indicate the Sox feel better about Sanchez’ future as a starter.

It’s also worth noting that Semien mashes LHP and Sanchez hits RHP better. That could indicate a platoon in the making, with the guy not playing short also spending some time playing 2B, 3B and even DH. It also means that offensively, Semien makes a better foil to Gillaspie and Johnson, so he may be more effective in the utility role than Sanchez.

2. JOHNSON IS READY, AND NEITHER SEMIEN NOR SANCHEZ ARE READY FOR SS FULL TIME

In this situation, Ramirez stays in Chicago, and it complicates things a bit for the other players involved. It means that Johnson, Sanchez and Semien are contending for just two roles – starting second baseman and utility infielder. It is possible one of those latter two are traded in this situation, especially when you add Tim Anderson to the mix (he’ll likely be knocking on the door in 2016). And as Johnson is purely a 2B, he gets this role if he’s ready.

Assuming neither are traded, which of Sanchez or Semien becomes the utility infielder? As noted earlier, Semien’s stronger offensive potential and splits seem to make him a better fit with 2 of the 3 skill infield positions being played by left-handed batters in this scenario. Though again, the White Sox did give Sanchez the first shot at second base when Beckham was traded.

There is a wildcard to consider here too – Marcus has been playing some outfield in Charlotte. Dayan Viciedo has been underwhelming yet again and it’s likely he’s gone, and De Aza has had issues as well, so left field may open up. Avisail Garcia may end up being a DH, which could make the outfield need even greater. Semien seems to have a track on that job. The fact that he can also play the infield means he could be a heavily-used utility player, platooning with Gillaspie against lefties and getting play all over the field at other times.

3. JOHNSON IS NOT READY, AND SEMIEN OR SANCHEZ CAN PLAY SS FULL TIME

If these are the case, there are two possible scenarios. One, if Ramirez is traded, then Sanchez and Semien both get full time roles – it is just a question of which one plays short and which plays second. Who gets each job would likely be a spring training tryout situation. Garcia can be the utility guy in this scenario, or they find an alternative, possible Saladino later in the year.

If these are the case but Ramirez is NOT traded, then Sanchez and Semien get the second base and utility roles. And as we noted earlier, while Semien appears to be of higher value playing full time, he also presents more flexibility in a utility role. Either way, they would both be on the roster.

4. JOHNSON IS NOT READY, AND NEITHER SEMIEN NOR SANCHEZ ARE READY FOR SS FULL TIME

This scenario is the same as part two from above (scenario 3). Ramirez stays, Sanchez and Semien battle for the 2B and UTIL roles, both make the roster.

Final Conclusions

Given the scouting reports on both Marcus Semien and Carlos Sanchez and the fact that Johnson is so well-liked by the organization, the most likely scenarios seem to be numbers 2 and 4 above. Ramirez stays in either case. Semien and Sanchez both have a good shot at the roster either way, at some combination of second base and utility roles, based on Johnson’s readiness. At least one will be there, and very possibly both.

No matter the final solution, it’s great to have this “problem” for the first time in a long time. And we may be doing this again in a year, if Tim Anderson and/or Matt Davidson look ready for the majors.

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