The Magic Twenty (Second Base)

You know the age-old question: “Who would you take if you were starting a team from scratch?”

No good debate about young players can go on without some version of that question being brought into the mix. In the spirit of that, Craig and Aaron will each be choosing an entire team made up of 24-and-under players. The goal here is to draft the best team for the long haul, starting in 2005 and ending whenever the last guy decides to join Jesse Orosco in retirement (2095, or thereabouts).

The rules are simple and just slightly longer than those for Fight Club:
– Craig and Aaron alternate picking first at each position.
– Each player they pick must have been 24 years old or younger in “baseball years” in 2004.
– Each player must play the/a position they actually play currently or in the very near future (in other words, no Albert Pujols at third base).
– Money and contracts are not an issue.
– They start picking at 9 (right field) and move down to 1 (pitcher).
– They’ll each pick a starter and a reliever, for 10 positions total.

It’s that simple. And away we go …

TEAM      #     PLAYER                   REAL TEAM                AGE
Aaron     1     Rickie Weeks             Milwaukee Brewers        21
Craig     2     Jed Lowrie               Stanford University      20

AARON: The last time we met — and it’s been a while, so those who have forgotten are certainly forgiven — we made our picks at third base, with you grabbing Hank Blalock and me snatching up David Wright. That left you with a team made up of Miguel Cabrera (RF), Laynce Nix (CF), Adam Dunn (LF), Juan Uribe (SS), and Blalock (3B). I have Austin Kearns (RF), Rocco Baldelli (CF), Jeremy Reed (LF), B.J. Upton (SS), and Wright (3B). Next up on the agenda is picking our second baseman and this isn’t exactly an awe-inspiring group of choices.

Guys like Dallas McPherson, Sean Burroughs, Ian Stewart, and Andy Marte barely got a sniff in the third-base discussion, but any of those guys would be no-brainers for the first pick at second base. As best I can figure, the top available 24-and-under second basemen are Rickie Weeks, Scott Hairston, Jorge Cantu, Chris Burke, Omar Infante, Josh Barfield, Ruben Gotay, Brandon Phillips, and Luis Rivas. Is there anyone decent (or sort-of decent) that I’m leaving out?

CRAIG: Sure, I’ll bite on a couple. The problem with having such an uninspiring crop is that you have to cast the net a little wider. There is Houston prospect Brooks Conrad, Anaheim youngster Howie Kendrick, Toronto’s Ryan Roberts, New York’s Robinson Cano, and Pittsburgh’s Jose Castillo. In a word, yuck. Castillo’s got a fine glove, but no bat. Guys like Roberts and Conrad have the bats, but not the glove. Infante’s got a very good glove as well, but his 2004 hitting performance, while very fine for a 22-year-old middle infielder, sticks out like a sore thumb compared to what he’s done before.

Barfield, meanwhile, was outstanding in 2003 but slumped to a more pedestrian 2004 at the plate, and has real question marks in the field at second base. Phillips has been consistently inconsistent. Burke suddenly found his power stroke last year in the PCL (he was an outstanding power hitter at the University of Tennessee), but he’s already 24 and will turn 25 during spring training. Cantu is a fine young player, but he’s in the Tampa organization (meaning he’ll have to fight for a spot every year with 3,000 washed-up veterans) and has only recently begun to hit. Also, Cantu’s future may be at shortstop if Upton is moved off of short due to defensive shortcomings.

I thought about writing a paragraph on the elegant wonder that is Luis Rivas, but doing that with you would be like waving a red flag at a bull. Suffice it to say that whatever he’s got, I’m not buying.

AARON: That’s a real shame, because whatever he’s got is exactly what I’m selling. Or maybe just giving away. Anyway, the weakness of the second-base crop can probably best be summed up by the fact that Rivas is actually on the list.

CRAIG: There are a couple of second basemen we haven’t talked about — players who are longer shots because they haven’t even played professional baseball yet. Warner Jones of Vanderbilt University and Jed Lowrie of Stanford University are both very fine second basemen who tore the cover off the ball last year in NCAA play. I’ll concentrate on Lowrie, who I think is a bit ahead of Jones (who is more of a contact hitter). A natural shortstop, Lowrie moved to second base as a freshman and was named the best defensive second baseman in the Pac-10 by Baseball America, so we know he can play there.

What is really attractive, though, is his bat. For all intents and purposes, Lowrie was the best hitter in the NCAA last year (he ranked at the top of my Adjusted Hitters Rankings until the very end of the season and ended up third in a virtual dead heat). What’s more impressive is that he did this as a sophomore. He does everything — he hits for average, he hits for a ton of power, and he takes his walks. And he did it all against some of the toughest competition in college ball.

AARON: I wish I had the confidence in Lowrie that you do, because I really don’t feel particularly good about taking any of the obvious choices. If we had picked our second basemen this time last year, Weeks would have been an incredibly easy choice. He was the #2 overall pick in the 2003 draft after an amazing college career and then put up big numbers in his brief taste of pro ball after signing. Since then, his stock has fallen more than perhaps any other prospect in baseball (aside from guys who suffered major injuries).

He hit .259/.366/.407 at Double-A Huntsville, which isn’t horrible, but his lack of power (eight homers in 479 at-bats), speed (11-for-23 stealing bases), and strike-zone control (107 strikeouts and only 55 walks) are really concerning. On the other hand, he’s still just 21, he’s another step closer to the big leagues, and it was his first full season of professional baseball. I guess I’m inclined to give Weeks a bit of a mulligan, if only because I don’t like the prospect of taking a solid-but-unspectacular player like Burke instead. Plus, Barfield also had a disappointing year at Double-A and Hairston, who actually had a very nice season, seems destined for another position.

CRAIG: So that means that with Weeks gone, I get the warmed-over guys. Really, there are four guys that I could make an argument for. Infante turned it on in 2004, and he has a pretty good glove for second. But the first problem I have is not knowing whether Infante’s improvement is really the development of his power (that many players have in their early 20s), or just a one-year fluke. The second problem is that Infante is just like a bunch of my other guys — Cabrera, Nix, Uribe, Dunn — whose main selling point is their power. I don’t need another guy with power but a low OBP, and all that Infante is going to bring to the table offensively is power. He’d be my best alternative, but I can’t go with him.

With Cantu, the power might end up being there (or might not), but he doesn’t look like a good bet to produce an OBP above average. And with his glove distinctly second best to Infante’s, he can’t rank ahead of him. Burke, on the other hand, has the OBP, but I’m not sure the power is going to be there and he’s older than the others. And then there’s Lowrie. Lowrie’s younger than any of these guys. Of course, he hasn’t even played professional ball yet! Still, being the best college hitter out there going into 2005 is a nice thing to be. He could end up being a fantastic hitter in pro ball, and I’d hate to miss out on that in order to take Infante.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

AARON: I’m even less convinced that Infante’s 2004 performance was for real than you are, I think. He slugged .449 last year, but he also batted .264, had a .317 OBP with a 112-to-40 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and perhaps most importantly has an awful track record. He hit .253/.306/.344 in 184 games at Triple-A and .302/.355/.367 in 132 games at Double-A, not to mention hitting just .222/.278/.258 in 69 games with the Tigers in 2003. On the other hand, I just can’t convince myself that taking someone like Lowrie is the right choice, so I would go with Burke in your position. He seems like about as close to a sure-thing, solid, everyday second baseman as there is in this group, and there’s something to be said for that.

CRAIG: Lowrie struggled a bit in the summer playing for Team USA, so it’s not as if he’s gone from strength to strength. And I do feel sheepish rating a guy based on 233 terrific at-bats, which is what Lowrie had in 2004. Still, Lowrie is definitely a top prospect (generally projected in the front half of this year’s first round), only 20 years old, and since second base prospects are rare and Lowrie hasn’t disappointed yet, I’m going with him. Call it an upside decision. Of course, Burke was a terrific hitter in college as well. As good as Lowrie. And was a top-10 pick. And he’s … well, you said “solid-but-unspectacular.” And there’s no guarantee that Lowrie will even turn out that good.

In the end, Stanford’s associate head coach Dean Stotz said something last spring that resonates with me still. Lowrie was burning up the NCAA, hitting .450 in the first part of the season (he ended at .399) and Baseball America wrote a feature on him. In it, Stotz was quoted as saying: “He’s a ballplayer … a great amount of [his success] goes to his work ethic. He’s got the mental makeup and doesn’t panic.” To me, that’s a vote of confidence in a player’s future development. I’m picking Jed Lowrie.

Previous Positions:
The Magic Twenty (Right Field)
The Magic Twenty (Center Field)
The Magic Twenty (Left Field)
The Magic Twenty (Shortstop)
The Magic Twenty (Third Base)

The Teams So Far:

POSITION            CRAIG                    AARON
Right Field         Miguel Cabrera (1)       Austin Kearns (2)
Center Field        Laynce Nix (2)           Rocco Baldelli (1)
Left Field          Adam Dunn (1)            Jeremy Reed (2)
Shortstop           Juan Uribe (2)           B.J. Upton (1)
Third Base          Hank Blalock (1)         David Wright (2)
Second Base         Jed Lowrie (2)           Rickie Weeks (1)

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