Around the Horn: Middle infielders
Young, Kinsler remain staples as team changes around them
The following is the third in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Middle infielders.
ARLINGTON -- If Michael Young's numbers were slightly down in 2007, it didn't seem to matter to the Elias Sports Bureau.Elias still had Young ranked No. 1 among American League third basemen, shortstops and second basemen when they came out with their annual ratings in October. The ratings -- which group second basemen, third basemen and shortstops together -- take into account both offense and defense over the past two seasons and are primarily used to determine compensation for free agents. Young is not a free agent, but was still ranked No. 1 in his class over guys like Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Robinson Cano. Ian Kinsler didn't do too badly either. Young's double-play partner was ranked 17th, pretty good considering it covered his first two years in the Major Leagues and came despite missing time in both seasons because of injuries. On a team that has undergone major changes in the past two years, the one constant has been their shortstop and second baseman and the Rangers go into 2007 believing they are one of the best combinations in the game. "We've had a great deal of turnover the last couple of years," Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said. "We have a clear direction of where we are going and it's partially defined by wanting players who have the makeup, character and work ethic of these two guys. Mike is a steady professional and Ian is just coming into his own right now and developing into a leader on the team capable of impacting the game in a variety of ways. You feel good that the leadership on the team is led by these two guys." Young overcame a slow start in 2007 to finish with a .315 batting average and 201 hits. It marked the fifth straight year that he has hit over .300 with more than 200 hits. He also led the Rangers with 94 RBIs. He is tied with Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer for the most consecutive seasons with at least 200 hits by a middle infielder. Kinsler, despite missing almost the entire month of July with a stress fracture in his left foot, hit .263 with 20 home runs and 61 RBIs while leading the Rangers with 96 runs scored. He also stole 23 bases, becoming the seventh player in Rangers history to finish with at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season. He was 23-for-25 in stolen bases, a 92 percent success rate that was the second highest in the American League and the third highest in club history. Defensively they were part of the good and the bad for the Rangers in 2007. Young and Kinsler helped the Rangers lead the league with 179 double plays, but the club also had the most errors with 124. In the middle, Rangers second basemen and shortstops combined for 37 errors, tied for the third most at those two positions. Young had 19 errors, but was still fourth among American League shortstops in fielding and fifth in range factor among the 11 players with enough game to qualify to be listed in the league leaders. Kinsler led American League second basemen with 17 errors, but had just three in his last 63 games. Ramon Vazquez returns as the Rangers utility infielder after hitting .230 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 104 games and 300 at-bats in 2007. The numbers don't stand out, but he played a crucial role for the Rangers last year while they dealt with injuries to Kinsler and third baseman Hank Blalock. The real intrigue is not what the Rangers have in the middle infield at the Major League level, but what they have coming up behind them.
The intrigue starts with shortstop Joaquin Arias, the Rangers defensive prodigy who missed almost the entire 2007 season with a shoulder injury. He is still rehabilitating the injury at the Rangers camp in the Dominican Republic and may not be at full strength at the start of Spring Training. Once a top prospect, Arias, 23, will have to re-establish that ranking while playing at Triple-A Oklahoma."It's a big year for him," Daniels said. "He's got to prove himself. Physically he is as talented as anybody, but he has to stay on the field and prove himself."
Elvis Andrus threatens to pass him. Andrus is another shortstop prodigy that the Rangers acquired in the Mark Teixeira trade on July 31. Andrus is only 19, but still hit .257 with 78 runs scored and 40 stolen bases at Class A in 2007. Scouts who have seen him play said he is ready to play defensively at the Major League level.That's not going to happen for a while. Andrus is expected to play at Double-A Frisco while Young is signed through at least 2013. The Rangers aren't in any rush right now to predict what might happen at shortstop in the future. "We've got a shortstop who is coming off four straight All-Star Games and is as steady and as productive as they come," Daniels said. "As Michael continues to maintain his production and Elvis continues to develop, we'll talk about it. But right now Michael is clearly our shortstop." The Rangers face a similar situation at second base where German Duran is getting closer to being Major League-ready. The 23-year-old right-handed-hitting infielder batted .300 with 22 home runs and 84 RBIs and 81 runs scored at Double-A Frisco. He is not ready to displace Kinsler at second, but he could be ready to push for a job with the Rangers as a utility man. The Rangers used him at both third base and left field during the Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League and he could see some time at first base during the Spring. "He's very much capable of playing every day at this level," Daniels said. "Second base is probably the easiest position for him to perform at. My sense is -- knowing German and the player he is -- he'll be the kind of guy that [manager Ron Washington] will want to get in there every chance he can. He wants to help the team anyway he can." Many things can happen in the next year or two but -- one way or another -- the Rangers should be strong in the middle infield both now and for some time to come.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.