It's been a busy offseason for double-play combos
Rangers, Yanks, Phillies, Giants looking for big seasons from middle infielders
They're always right at the center of it all -- covering all kinds of ground, joining up on rally killers, turning two when one isn't enough. Baseball's double-play combinations have remained busybodies this offseason.With change and uncertainty surrounding several top duos throughout the winter, the middle infield will be a focus when teams hit the fields in Arizona and Florida for Spring Training next month. Consider: It was confirmed only recently that a two-time pennant-winning combo confirmed will stay together heading into camp. Ian Kinsler will stay at second base, alongside Elvis Andrus, for the Rangers, rather than moving to first base. That leaves top prospect Jurickson Profar, the Rangers' future in the middle infield, without a spot -- for now. "We had a lot of discussions and second base is the place I want to play," Kinsler said last weekend, acknowledging a down defensive season in 2012. "I feel I have a lot to give at second base and a lot of years to still be productive. ... My goal is to rebound and have an MVP-caliber season like I'm expected to have." Consider, also: The American League's gold standard of double-play combinations came out of last October's playoffs injured and scuffling, and the National League's most accomplished combo didn't make it to the postseason party for the first time in six years. The Yankees and Phillies are hoping their middle men return to form in 2013, and if they do the Robinson Cano-Derek Jeter and Chase Utley-Jimmy Rollins duos will again have to be considered among the elite. For each of those pairings, health is a key factor. Cano -- his future with the Yankees uncertain beyond potential free agency next winter -- has the track record to show he'll bounce back from his 3-for-40 October struggles. Jeter's focus will be reaching his goal of returning from his devastating ankle injury in time for Opening Day. How he does beyond that remains to be seen. Likewise, Utley's health is a key to the Phillies' chances of having their longtime duo lead them back into the playoffs. Utley missed the first half of 2012 because of his chronically injured knees, but Phillies manager Charlie Manuel hopes for a full season out of Utley in 2013. "If anyone can come back and play on a regular basis, Utley can do it," Manuel said. Elsewhere, particularly in the AL East, offseason moves have brought change to the middle of the infield. In Boston, the Red Sox have a new double-play combo with Stephen Drew coming in at shortstop to join second baseman Dustin Pedroia. Drew sustained a season-ending ankle injury in 2011 with Arizona but showed he can still make a big impact after he was traded to the A's for the 2012 stretch run. Another new AL East combo can be found in the middle of the Rays' infield, with Yunel Escobar -- fresh off his second offseason trade -- joining up with Ben Zobrist, the super-utility player who now may settle in at second. "I think he's a great fit for us," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Escobar at the Winter Meetings. "And I think our infield defense has gotten really firm again. With him there and Longo [Evan Longoria] -- and put Zobrist back on the other side with [James] Loney -- that's pretty attractive." Meanwhile, the drastically altered Blue Jays, who dealt Escobar to the Marlins, who then traded him across the state, are looking at Jose Reyes at short and Emilio Bonifacio at second in what is a combination of ex-Marlins. A few other strong duos remain intact despite rumors that swirled about their futures. Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has been the subject of trade speculation, but right now he's headed for another season paired with Jason Kipnis. And the Nationals' Danny Espinosa looks to be in place still at second base on the other side of shortstop Ian Desmond. That would keep the duo of 20-homer, 20-steal threats together in D.C. And one middle-infield move this winter that did take place became a U-turn the Giants hope will bring them back to where they were at the end of October -- hoisting a World Series trophy. Signing veteran Marco Scutaro to a multiyear deal means the second baseman, who showed such sizzle in the postseason, will continue to work with Brandon Crawford, who proved to be one of the Majors' best defensive shortstops in the second half of the season. "Marco's a professional, all the way around. He's worked with a lot of guys, so he knows what to expect, and I know what to expect out of him," Crawford said in October. For that duo, and for the Giants, the best change in the middle infield was deemed to be no change at all.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.