As spring training nears, both the White Sox and Cubs have more questions than answers. One of these questions is not who will play second base for these teams in 2014 but instead whether that player is the long-term answer.
Gordon Beckham should be entering the prime of his career, one that began with much promise as he finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting after the 2009 season. After that start, he hasn’t progressed as expected, certainly not for a player taken with the eighth pick in the 2008 draft. The hope was he would be a top-of-the-order hitter with some power, perhaps hitting 15 or so home runs and scoring 90-100 runs with a decent on-base percent. While showing occasional flashes of the promise shown in his rookie year, it’s difficult to label his career to date as anything other than unfulfilled expectations.
Beckham’s total production as measured by FanGraphs placed him in the bottom third of second basemen in 2013. Baseball Prospectus 2014 says, “Expect his defense to improve after a season-long case of the glove vapors, but a punchless Beckham is merely a placeholder, not a star.” He’ll be paid $4.175 million this year and is under club control through 2015, so the big decisions are two years away. At some point the question of potential vs. actual production will have to be addressed, and after four years of below-average offensive production, it’s prudent to consider if perhaps the 2010-2013 Beckham is the real Beckham. His long-term projections are similar to what he’s produced in the past four years. Absent unforeseen circumstances, it will be Beckham or bust for the Sox at second in 2014.
On the surface, the Cubs are in even worse shape with Darwin Barney. There’s no doubt he can field the position, being among the best in the majors no matter what metric is used. That’s never been the issue as much as his hitting, which took a decided turn for the worse last year. It is very possible he was the victim of bad luck in 2013 — his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was an extremely low .222 in 2013, suggesting a rebound might be in order. But even if he returns to form, he’s still a .260 hitter with little power. At 28, there’s little reason to believe he’ll develop into anything other than what’s he shown.
A logjam is developing at shortstop with Starlin Castro, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez, making it possible one could be moved to second. With the amount of infield talent the Cubs are developing, they have plenty of options to try someone at second who can deliver more offense without sacrificing too much defense. Barney was just re-signed and will begin 2014 as the starter, but how long he’ll remain there will be determined by the development of the young talent.
The real question is whether these two players will be around when their organizations contend again. In Barney’s case, the answer is probably not, as he’ll be replaced with someone better. It’s harder to say for Beckham, but he probably also won’t be around because it may take the Sox longer to become competitive. They’ve had two very different career trajectories, Beckham the high first-round draft pick and Barney the pleasant surprise in 2011 who seems to have found his true level.
Can these second basemen be saved? Both can have long careers in the majors, just probably not with the organizations they began with.
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.