Prospect Positionals: Middle Infielders

Moving on to the middle of the infield, where the M's were once stocked with talent and now pine for future starters.


Second Base

1. Yung-Chi Chen

Chen is an athletic defender with the glove to play second, short or third, but his bat will likely struggle to play anywhere but second.

After a strong showing in the Northwest League in 2004 (.300/.353/.420, 25 SB), The Taiwan native stayed the course in the Midwest League, posting moderate numbers with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

Putting up a slugging percentage of .416 isn't the most impressive line of production, but from a middle infielder in that league, it's not bad, either.

Chen has all the tools to be an asset defensively and hold his own at the plate, but has a few areas in which heeds to vastly improve in order to maintain or further develop his status.

Surprisingly, cutting down on strikeouts (76 in 503 AB) isn't one of them, though better pitch selection and plate discipline are both in need. Chen could max out in the 12-16 home run range and has the wheels to leg out eight or 10 triples a year.

Chen needs to learn to read the pitcher better to take advantage of his plus speed on the bases.

Chen is No. 1 in the second base rankings simply because it's far from a sure thing that the No. 2 ranked second-sacker can remain at the position.

2. Luis Valbuena

Valbuena has the biggest offensive upside of any middle infielder in the system, as evidenced by his league-leading production in homers and RBI this past season.

While the pure statistical results cannot be taken at face value due to park factors, the Venezuelan has a solid stick from the left side and projects as a solid contributor at the plate.

The concerns come on the defensive side, where Valbuena makes the plays but may have trouble sustaining the athleticism necessary to do the same in the higher levels of the game.

The 19-year-old is listed at 5-feet-10 and 175 pounds. If you've seen Valbuena from within a mile and you believe the official listing, I think my friend Tommy Boy has some old Salinski break pads to sell you - in bulk.

Valbuena may go as high as 195 to 200 pounds with his stocky build. His lower half reminds many of another second base prospect (see No. 5) as well as a former Cleveland Indians all-star Carlos Baerga. Thick in the upper legs and not as fleet of foot as the prototypical second baseman.

Conditioning will be Valby's main focus throughout his career but if he can manage to remain at second base, he has the bat to go places.

As a third baseman, his bat will be too light in the wallet.

3. Oswaldo Navarro

Navarro is one of those players that sneaks up on you, offensively. Visually, it looks like he couldn't hit his frail weight of 160 and it appears as if he couldn't hit the ball out of the infield.

But scouts used to say the same thing about Omar Vizquel, too, and he's a hall of famer with more than 15 years of big-league experience - not that Navarro has those accolades waiting for him.

Navarro is a switch hitter who can play second or short. The 21-year-old Venezuelan continues to surprise some with his progress at the plate, though a .393 slugging percentage impresses nobody this side of the M's 2005 catching corps.

Navarro did smack nine home runs and 29 doubles with Class A Wisconsin this past season, and rarely fans (60 in nearly 500 PAs). His on-base skills could use some improvement, as he's drawn just 81 walks in 289 career games.

His future is probably as a backup, but with solid speed and strong defense at both middle infield spots, Navarro may prove to be more than useful.

4. Michael Garciaparra

When the Mariners selected Michael Garciaparra with the 36th pick overall in the 2001 draft, they thought they were getting an athletic shortstop with plus speed and better than average power.

Four years later it's apparent that that is not what they got, but hope is not lost on the 22-year-old.

Garciaparra had his best pro season last summer, hitting .298/.387/.414 with career highs in several categories including doubles (15) and home runs (6).

The switch to second base was necessary after more than 100 errors in the first two and a half season at shortstop, and Garciaparra is picking up the position well.

If 2006 goes as well as '05 offensively and his glove stays steady, he has a shot to make the big leagues as a utility infielder, not unlike Willie Bloomquist.

Still battling the injury bug, Garciaparra heads into '06 with something he has never had in his professional career - something positive to build on.

5. Ismael Castro

Castro was the Northwest League MVP in 2002 after hitting .313/.356/.507 with nine home runs in 66 games. Three seasons later, Castro is 18 months off of knee surgery and still trying to recover the plate skills he displayed in his MVP season with Everett.

Now 22, the Colombian posted sub-standard numbers in Double-A San Antonio after receiving what amounts to a promotion after playing just 16 games in the California League with the knee injury.

Without his .500 slugging percentage and the pop in his bat, Castro is an organization infielder - without a true position.

Defensively, Castro gloves most of what he gets to, but lacks the range a big league club desires in a second baseman.

Shortstop

1. Asdrubal Cabrera

Cabrera played for three clubs in 2005, starting with his stellar half season in the Midwest League where the 19-year-old hit .318/.407/.474 against more experienced pitching.

Cabrera is a switch hitter with low-to-medium power potential and decent on-base skills. Better from the left side of the plate, the Venezuelan has a chance to be better than league average for the shortstop position.

Making his mark as a blue-chip defender, Cabrera can handle three infield spots with gold glove care.

After showing off the Northwest League in '04, Cabrera finished off his 2005 campaign by wowing the Pacific Coast League with several dazzling plays with his glove.

With a better than average throwing arm, plus range, great footwork and the second best pair of hands in the organization, his bat is the only question mark.

Cabrera should be capable of putting together an offensive package good enough to start in the big leagues for several years - at shortstop or second base.

Don't be surprised if he shares middle infield duties with Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez for years to come.

2. Jeffrey Dominguez

Dominguez is toolsy defensively with a decent arm, yet raw throughout the rest of his game. Still several years away, he may be best suited at second base, similar to the way Navarro and Garciaparra have made the change.

As the 19-year-old mature, he'll need to adjust his approach to add some punch to his production. His .247 slugging percentage in Peoria this past summer shows that he may be a punch-and-judy hitter without the defensive skills of Betancourt, Cabrera or Navarro.

It remains to be seen if Dominguez can handle the adjustments necessary to remain at shortstop, or if he can hit in the upper levels of the minors.

Others: Juan Guzman, Ronald Garth, Dean Zorn, Robby Hudson.

Next Up: Pitchers, December 2.

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