State of the System: Middle Infield

Positional Overview:
Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez will be entering their 5th straight season as the starting 2B/SS combination for the Sox when Beckham returns from his DL stint. Ramirez, while drawing much derision from fans over the last year, has been one of the Sox’ best performers, finishing 2nd, 1st, 1st, 5th, 1st in WAR among positional players over the past five seasons, and is signed through 2015. Beckham on the other hand has been a huge disappointment since the start of the 2010 season, and without any obvious reasons to expect a return to his rookie level production, his days as a starter must surely be numbered. In the Minors, the middle infield positions are in a comfortable state as they currently boast 3 of our top 10 prospects, and most of the depth is in the upper minors, meaning there could be plenty of help on the way (if needed) in 2014.

Which Micah Johnson is for real?
Micah Johnson was one of the breakout stars of the Sox system in first half of the 2013 season. Opening the year with Low-A Kannapolis, Johnson hit a massive .342/.422/.530, while running at will and stealing 61 bases in just 77 games. Unfortunately he came crashing back to earth after getting promoted to A+, where he hit .275/.309/.360, and was even worse in a late season stint with AA Birmingham, where he hit just .238/.227/.238. At his best he was showing patience, contact and power, to go along with his electrifying speed (some rate his speed as a 70 (20-80 scale)). The power and walks vanished after Johnson left Kannapolis, but the strikeout rate actually improved, to an excellent 11.8 K% with Winston-Salem. As a result, it is very difficult to try and predict what Johnson will do in 2014, because there is such a large variation in his 2013 numbers. In all likelihood, his true performance will probably fall somewhere in-between the .342/.422/.530 and .275/.309/.360 lines that he posted in A and A+ last year.

Top Prospects:
Tim Anderson, SSThe first round pick of the Sox in 2013, Tim Anderson is, naturally, one of the top prospects in the system. I was not overly happy when the Sox picked Anderson. Yes, he has great athleticism and speed from a premium defensive position and he has a great chance to stick at SS, but I worry about his ability with the bat. According to the scouting reports he has good bat speed and plus raw power, ‘but it may take a while to show up in games’- a line that I always hate to see in scouting reports.  I’m not sure what it is that makes me cautious about Anderson, just a gut feeling I suppose, but he certainly has the talent to become an All-Star level Major League short-stop, and hopefully the Sox can do a better job of developing Anderson’s bat than they have done with other top prospects.

Marcus Semien, 2BA sabermatricians dream and one of my favorite prospects, Semien broke out in a big way during the ’13 season. He showed power, walks, contact and speed from the middle infield and that is what makes him a top prospect. His approach at the plate is particularly impressive, as he finished the year with 98 BB/90 SO. Some worry about his purported lack of tools, and label him as a utility infielder as a result. I think he can be better than that, and while his upside isn’t massive, he has the ability to be an above average regular at 2B, and could be an ideal two-hole hitter with his patience at the plate.

Best of the Rest:
Joey DeMichele, 2B A third round pick in 2012, DeMichele took a step back last year after a poor offensive showing with Winston-Salem. Fringe-average tools across the board give him utility/bench player upside.

Micah Johnson, 2B Johnson needs to show that he can hit and hit for power in the upper levels otherwise all he has is his speed. Defense at 2B also needs work, and he could end up moving to the outfield. I’m very interested to see how he hits this year.

Tyler Saladino, SSSaladino was our number 4 prospect entering the 2012 season after making a great start to his pro career, impressing at Kannapolis in 2010 (.309/.397/.442) and at Winston-Salem in ’11 (.270/.363/.501). He hasn’t transitioned well to Double-A level and has produced two below average offensive seasons with the Barons (.237/.359/.321 & .229/.316./.314). The power in particular has not played in Double-A, as his ISO fell from .232 in 2011 to .084 in ’12 and .085 in ’13. Saladino’s BB% and SO% have always been good, however, even when he has otherwise been struggling, and his BABIP’s have been low over the past two years, so I do hold some hope that he can bounce back in ‘14.

Carlos Sanchez, SSEntering the 2013 season as our number 5 prospect, Sanchez was bitterly disappointing, hitting just .241/.293/.296 for the year with AAA Charlotte. Personally I’ve never been a big fan of Sanchez as his only skill is the ability to hit for average, and while his contact rates throughout the Minors have been good, he’s certainly not elite in this aspect. When the hits are not falling for him, as was the case in ’13, he doesn’t have any power, walks, or even base-stealing ability, to fall back on. The result is a wretched 64 wRC+. In 2012, Sanchez tore apart Double-A, hitting .370/.424/.462, which looks great, but when you factor in the unsustainable .449 BABIP (his previous career high BABIP was .373), it puts the results into context and makes his performance far less exciting. The redeeming factor for Sanchez is his age. He will be repeating Triple-A this year as a 21 year old (turns 22 in June), so he is still very young for the level, and he has always been one of the youngest players at whichever level he’s been at. Defensively he’s capable at SS, but he may profile better at 2B. Sanchez definitely has some talent, but whether he has enough bat to become a starting caliber infielder is the big question. If not, he could carve out a career as a useful utility infielder type.

Keep an eye on…
Cleuluis Rondon, SS– Rondon’s supreme defensive ability is unfortunately not matched by his ability with the bat. If he makes it to the Big Leagues, it will be on the strength of his glove, which is special. He’s easily the best defensive infielder in the system. Elvis Andrus‘ 2013 batting line could represent a best case scenario for Rondon (.271/.328/.331, 78 wRC+), which, despite being significantly below average,  could still allow him to put up WAR in the 2-3 range. Even Alcides Escobar managed to provide +1.1 WAR for the Royals in ’13 despite a horrendous .234/.259/.300, 49 wRC+ batting line, such is the value of a slick fielding SS.

Interesting side note…
ZIPS and Oliver project Marcus Semien to be worth 2.0 and 2.6 WAR respectively in ’14 (over 600 PA’s). By comparison, Gordon Beckham has been worth 1.9 WAR over the past two seasons combined (990 PA’s), and has averaged 0.74 WAR per year for the four years he has started at 2B. In 2013, the average WAR among 2B’s with at least 400 PA’s was 2.67.

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