We've discussed the catchers and the first basemen of the AL East, which brings us to the guys who play the next base over. In those discussions, Matt Wieters and Adrian Gonzalez were pretty easy decisions at their respective positions, but second base is one where the best player may be harder to identify because there is not a clear lead over the others who are similarly good at what they do.
Let me reiterate that this is only one year of data. That's obviously not the best way to compare players in the long term, and I'm not trying to pretend that it is. However, posting greater than/less than signs and citing less than 10 points of career wRC+, as the level of discussion in the comments has been dragged down to before is even less helpful, so let's be above that. Good? Good.
There is nearly nothing different about the second base picture from 2011 to 2012. Kelly Johnson was traded to the Blue Jays last year, but everyone else has been around for a while. Robinson Cano has a beautiful, effortless swing and he just might win a batting title someday. Dustin Pedroia is gritty and full of heart because he jumps around between plays. Ben Zobrist is lost in the shuffle for not being named Pedroia or Cano, and Brian Roberts probably wants to forget the last two seasons happened at all. Something like that.
You basically know everything I could tell you here, so let's just get to the numbers.
All numbers are via fangraphs, like usual.
You really can't go wrong with any of the top three here, as they each bring something valuable to the discussion. The argument over whether Cano or Pedroia is the best second baseman in the American League/MLB will likely never end among fans of their respective teams. The fact of the matter is that they are so close in the majority of categories that definitively saying one is head and shoulders above the other comes down to personal preference and favorite team bias.
Would I pick Cano over Pedroia 100 times out of 100? Yes, but that's because I consider Pedroia to be Red Sox scum, not because he's a vastly inferior player or anything. You likely also know about the assistance he gets from the Green Monster playing half his games in Fenway, so I don't need to get into all that again. He's certainly made the most of his circumstances, but to act like that doesn't skew the numbers in his favor would be silly.
Cano's defense cost him some value last season, but it was the first season he had a negative dWAR since 2005, so hopefully that was just a fluke. If he can get his defense into 2007 or 2009 shape, it would be a marked improvement for him. I don't think he's as bad as some of his critics would like to pretend he is in that aspect, but there is certainly room for improvement.
Ben Zobrist would like to remind you that he is very much a part of this discussion as well. Just as I thought that Matt Wieters really didn't get the respect he deserves, I feel similarly about Zobrist. He's incredibly versatile, plays good defense at multiple positions, and is more than competent offensively. His 20 home runs in 2011 were right in line with Dustin Pedroia (21) and Kelly Johnson (21), and only eight behind Cano. He tends to be the forgotten man in the back and forth about Cano and Pedroia, but he is very much right there.
The Blue Jays received their second baseman in Kelly Johnson from the Arizona Diamondbacks last year in return for Aaron Hill and John McDonald, so he's not completely new to the AL East this season. It will, however, be his first full season in the division, and the AL East got a lot better since 2011 ended. His offense is wholly unspectacular, but his defense is solid, which is valuable in and of itself. His triple slash isn't going to be overly flashy, but he'll hit his fair share of dingers. The abundance of strikeouts at Carlos Pena levels will likely be a problem, though.
Brian Roberts strikes out less than Kelly Johnson and hits less home runs, but has really had issues since the 2009 season. He only played in 39 games last season, so the Orioles will definitely be looking for a bounce back season from him in 2012. He's not a great defender, either, but he's not a disaster. If he can play a full season for the first time since 2009, his numbers should get back to what is expected of him, which is certainly better than what he exhibited in 2011.
A bonus graph! Oh, Cano. Why are you allergic to walking?
Dustin Pedroia is very good. Ben Zobrist is very good. Robinson Cano is very good. I don't think the Red Sox, Rays, or Yankees are terribly disappointed with the player they have, nor should they be. For catcher and first base, the choice was blatantly obvious, but that's not really the case here. I think a perfectly reasonable argument can be made for any one of those three players, so it's much less cut and dry in this situation.
Unless something absolutely crazy happens in the meantime, the Yankees are going to break the bank to lock up Robinson Cano long term, and I'm pretty ok with that.