Earlier this week, we looked through the American League East shortstops to see who was the head of the pack. Today, we’re going to their double-play partners and parsing through the second basemen of the division.
While the disparity between the best and worst starting second basemen in the American League East could be as much as a half dozen wins in WAR, the race narrows at the top with two of the game’s very best at the position. No one ought to be surprised if number two becomes number one sooner rather than later.
5. Yolmer Sánchez, Baltimore Orioles
Now that MLB’s No. 36 prospect Nick Madrigal is taking over the White Sox’s full-time duties at second base for his upcoming rookie season, the club no longer needed their on-again, off-again starting infielder of the previous half-decade, Yolmer Sánchez. After testing the open market in his first year of eligibility to do so, the Orioles signed Sánchez for his above-average defense and passable contact skills.
While his 1.164 OPS of 2020 might suggest a breakout, his hot season is more likely the result of an incredibly small sample’s variance (21 plate appearances). Across his seven-year big league career, Sánchez has triple-slashed a meager .245/.300/360. His glove has kept him in the league, but he doesn’t have much to offer at the plate. Still, Sánchez will likely cover second until the Orioles are comfortable handing the full-time role over to prospect Jahmai Jones, who came over from the Angels in the recent Alex Cobb trade.
4. Enrique Hernández, Boston Red Sox
For the entirety of his career to date, Kiké Hernández has been the Dodgers’ super-sub, capable of dynamic defense at seven positions and an occasional, timely blast. He has a ton of pop for his size (5’11”) with decent bat-to-ball talent as well, but swings at everything within reach, offsetting any significant upside. As a starter, he’ll be given a much bigger role, having to hang against righties instead of just mashing lefties — his career OPS+ against lefties is exactly 40 points higher than his mark against righties. Also, his defense has declined over the past couple of seasons, and will need to rebound to his 2018 levels if the Red Sox hope for him to be a major plus in their infield.
3. Marcus Semien/Cavan Biggio, Toronto Blue Jays
While Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio are all capable of playing shortstop, second, or third, the Jays’ current plan seems to be giving Semien the majority of starts at the keystone, while Bo mans short and Biggio covers the hot corner.
A more expected plan might have been to swap Semien and Biggio since the latter has seen the bulk of his playing time since 2019 at his Hall of Fame father’s position and has the weakest arm of the trio. However, Semien has stated that if he’s not starting at shortstop, he prefers second to third. Although he has never played there before in his MLB career, it’s still a natural transition and one that he should handle with aplomb given how capably he performed at shortstop until 2020. The question will just be whether his bat is closer to the roughly league-average mark that it’s been for most of his career, or the outlier 138 wRC+ 2019 that saw him finish third in AL MVP voting. Also, if Bichette fails to improve defensively, proving unplayable at the team’s highest leverage infield spot, they may end up replacing him at short with Semien, moving Bichette to third, and leaving Biggio as the full time second baseman yet again.
Though Biggio was slightly below average at second last season, he posted seven Outs Above Average in 2019 while manning the keystone over more than three times as many defensive chances as in the shortened 2020. Even if Semien remains the projected starter at second, Biggio will still likely find his way into a good chunk of appearances there over the course of a full season.
Biggio’s offensive sophomore campaign told a similar story of regression to that of his defensive one. After a solid 69th percentile .351 xwOBA in 2019, that number fell all the way to .307. Nonetheless, he actually outperformed his expected mark in 2020 so significantly that he ended up clearing his wOBA of 2019 in 2020 by .007. With one of the keenest eyes in baseball, Biggio’s offensive floor stays relatively high even when his bat goes cold. He has a chance to more than make up for his brief slumps on both sides of the ball last season with a much longer runway and a little bit of growth in 2021.
2. Brandon Lowe, Tampa Bay Rays
Entering his fourth major league season, Brandon Lowe is one of the most underrated hitters in baseball. In 2019, the Rays’ second baseman made his first All-Star team, but missed most of the second half due to a handful of leg injuries. In 2020, he was able to stay healthy all year, albeit a shorter one, finishing with a team-high 14 homers, a .916 OPS, and a 152 OPS+.
Lowe strikes out quite a bit, but walked far more than most (73rd percentile walk rate) and absolutely stung the ball more consistently than almost anyone (98th percentile barrel rate). With a relaxed, smooth swing and a deep, delayed turn of his upper body, Lowe is short to the ball and stays on plane longer than the average big leaguer, allowing him to create massive results with seemingly minimal effort. Don’t let his diminutive stature fool you; Brandon Lowe is going to continue on as one of the game’s biggest bashers for years to come.
1. DJ LeMahieu, New York Yankees
After signing him to a six-year, $90 million contract this past offseason, it’s no mystery who’ll be wearing pinstripes at second base on Opening Day. While DJ LeMahieu’s defense has regressed a tad from the perennial Gold Glove level of his Rockies days, he’s mostly continued to be a well above average defender for the Yankees. Even more importantly, he’s been one of the best hitters in baseball over the past couple of seasons.
LeMahieu finished in the top four of the AL MVP voting during each of his two years in the Bronx, winning the AL’s second base Silver Slugger both seasons. While the two-time batting champion might not be able to replicate last year’s preposterous 1.011 OPS or 177 OPS+ over any 162-game season, he’s only gotten better as a Yankee, accessing more of his power than ever by abusing the Stadium’s short right field porch. Even anticipating some reasonable regression, DJ should continue to carry one of baseball’s most dependable bats in any offensive circumstance.