Around the Horn: Middle infielders
Angels need more production from double play duo of Kendrick, Aybar
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to Tempe, Ariz., by Feb. 13, it's time to dissect the Angels' 2014 roster. This is the third of a six-part Around the Horn series taking a position-by-position look at projected starters and backup options heading into the season. Next up: middle infielders.
ANAHEIM -- The Angels were in desperate need of starting pitching, and Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick were signed to relatively team-friendly deals. So for the better part of six months leading up to the non-waiver Trade Deadline of July 31, and up until Mark Trumbo was dealt to the D-backs in the three-team trade that landed Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago on Dec. 10, the two veteran middle infielders were the subject of near-constant trade speculation.
Now, the dust has mostly settled, Spring Training is less than two weeks away, and Aybar and Kendrick -- added to the system in 2002, signed to extensions in 2012 -- will be the Angels' double-play tandem for the seventh consecutive season.
They each face an important question:
Can Kendrick help make up for the production Trumbo took with him?
Will Aybar finally settle into the leadoff spot?
We'll start with Aybar, and any conversation involving the speedy shortstop and the leadoff spot always goes back to his on-base percentage. It has been .321 since the start of 2009, tied with Raul Ibanez for 155th in the Majors. Last year, it sunk to .301 -- the lowest since his part-time days of '06 and '07. And in 221 career games batting leadoff, it has been .317.
As you might have noticed, Aybar doesn't draw a whole lot of walks (189 qualified players have a higher walk rate over the past five years, actually). But with manager Mike Scioscia seemingly committed to Mike Trout in the No. 2 hole and Peter Bourjos now playing in St. Louis, it looks like the leadoff spot is down to either Aybar or Kole Calhoun -- an interesting leadoff man because of his left-handed bat and overall production, but definitely not a prototypical one.
Aybar, 30, bats from both sides of the plate, is a good bunter and still has decent speed (though he stole only 12 bases in 138 games last year, his lowest since 2008). But the Angels should have plenty of offense up and down the lineup. They don't necessarily need a big year at the plate from Aybar.
They need him to defend his position well -- and last year, metrics say he didn't.
From 2012 to '13, Aybar's Ultimate Zone Rating fell from 2.5 to minus-6.6 (18th among qualified shortstops) and his Defensive Runs Saved went from three to minus-seven (17th). A big reason for the drop off in range, and perhaps the lower stolen-base total, could've been all the lower-leg injuries he suffered in 2013, missing 18 games with a left foot contusion while also dealing with nagging injuries to his right knee and right thigh.
It was also a lower-leg injury that spoiled what looked like a career season for Kendrick last year.
On Aug. 5 at Angel Stadium, the Angels' 30-year-old second baseman ranged back for a shallow popup and banged his left knee up against incoming right fielder Collin Cowgill, suffering a hyperextension that forced him to miss the next 32 games.
Still, Kendrick finished the year with a solid .297/.335/.439 slash line, with 13 homers and 54 RBIs. His OPS (.775) ranked sixth among Major League second basemen, and his Wins Above Replacement score (2.7) was tied for ninth -- even though he played in only 14 of the Angels' final 51 games.
Trumbo's departure means Scioscia may keep Kendrick at or near the middle of the order rather than toying with him at the top of the lineup, where he's simply not comfortable.
Kendrick is a career .264/.300/.409 hitter in a No. 2 spot that typically requires a lot of patience and situational hitting. Put him in an RBI spot that gives him more freedom to swing the bat and he shines. Batting fifth, he's a .286/.334/.392 hitter. Batting sixth, it's .310/.337/.453. Batting seventh, it's .314/.352/.455.
"You do have to be able to take pitches for other guys and move runners," Kendrick previously said of batting second. "It's not that I can't do that, but I like to be a little more aggressive and take what's given. Sometimes being in the 2-spot, it might not be as beneficial."
The competition to back up Aybar and Kendrick -- and thus take over the utility-infield spot that has been a question mark since Maicer Izturis departed in 2012 -- will seemingly come down to two solid defensive players in Andrew Romine and John McDonald.
Romine, 28, batted .259/.308/.287 in 123 plate appearances last year and is out of options for the first time this year. McDonald, 39, was signed to a Minor League contract after 15 years spent primarily as a backup infielder and probably has no interest in accepting an option to the Minor Leagues.
Beyond the active roster: Second base is considered the deepest position in the Angels' system, which is partly why trading Kendrick seemed like such a likely outcome. Taylor Lindsey (the Angels' third-best prospects, per MLB.com) is expected to start in Triple-A, and Alex Yarbrough (sixth) would go to Double-A. … Grant Green, acquired from the A's in exchange for Alberto Callaspo in July, will also compete for a bench spot, though he's only comfortable at second base and thus doesn't have the versatility of Romine and McDonald. … Among shortstops, Eric Stamets (seventh) and Jose Rondon (13th) rank among the Angels' Top 20 prospects. Stamets will probably start the season in Double-A, while Tommy Field (on the 40-man roster) projects to start in Triple-A.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.