MLB Network’s “Top 10 Right Now” series ranks Major League Baseball’s top players at each position headed into 2019, with two episodes airing each Saturday night from Jan. 12 through Feb. 9. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello participated in the show, and as each position is aired, we’ll share his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and no, batting average and RBI never matter.
Position overview: Second base is a position in flux, with just one true superstar, several stars on the other side of 35, a few late-20s breakouts and a handful of young talents attempting to put it all together. It’s not the strongest position, but it’s not the weakest either.
Eligibility notes: Players are eligible only at one position, and several players who saw time at second base in 2018 were considered in other spots for these rankings, including Javier Baez (SS) and Daniel Murphy (1B).
The Shredder’s list: “The Shredder” is MLB Network’s official ranking system for the Top 10 Right Now series, taking into account a variety of statistical factors without any human input, compiled separately from the human panelists.
For comparison, the Shredder’s 2019 second basemen list is: 1) Jose Altuve 2) Jed Lowrie 3) Whit Merrifield 4) Robinson Cano 5) Chris Taylor 6) Scooter Gennett 7) Joey Wendle 8) Gleyber Torres 9) Ben Zobrist 10) DJ LeMahieu.
On to my list …
1. Jose Altuve, Astros
Altuve has had five straight star-level seasons, making him an easy choice atop this list. Even his “down” year in 2018, when he hit 11 fewer homers than the year before and failed to steal 20 bases for the first time in his career, was a very strong .316/.386/.451 (135 wRC+) campaign.
It’s not hard to see why. Altuve injured his knee on a slide in July and underwent offseason surgery to repair the damage. It had a noticeable effect on his play, because he was hitting .329/.392/.464 (139 wRC+) before the injury, and .276/.366/.409 (121 wRC+) as he played through it. Even that’s a pretty good line, so if he’s fully healthy in 2019, he should remain a superstar-level performer.
2. Whit Merrifield, Royals
Merrifield turns 30 this month — he’s older than Altuve, actually — but he just led the Majors in hits (192) and stolen bases (45), and turned a good first full season (2017’s .288/.324/.460, 105 wRC+) into a very strong second year (.304/.367/.438, 120 wRC+), along with 12 homers. That’s probably about the best performance he can offer, but even if he takes a small step back, you’ll take an above-average bat with elite baserunning skill and strong defense. We’re just looking at 2019, so we don’t have to worry about his long-term profile here.
3. Jed Lowrie, Mets
Lowrie hit .267/.353/.448 (122 wRC+) with 23 homers, and he turns 35 shortly after Opening Day, but he’s coming off two of the best seasons of his career, a pair of campaigns that look oddly similar. (In both years, he had a .448 slugging percentage and a .347 wOBA, though in 2018 he turned a few of his doubles into a career high in home runs.) He maintained a slightly above-average hard-hit rate and is a competent defender at second, so we’re betting on at least one more season of strong production — and so are the Mets.
4. Robinson Cano, Mets
When the Mets traded for Cano (and Edwin Diaz), it was reasonable to worry about how a 36-year-old would age over the remaining five years of his contract, but fortunately for us, we don’t have to worry about that here. We’re considering only 2019, and there’s little to indicate Cano won’t keep hitting at a high level this season.
Cano’s .303/.374/.471 (136 wRC+) was about the same as his career line, and while it’s true enough that his season was marred by an 80-game suspension for violating the MLB drug policy, it’s also true that he hit .317/.363/.497 (140 wRC+) in 41 games after returning. We don’t know how he’ll hit in 2022, but for 2019, there’s no reason to expect anything but success.
5. Ozzie Albies, Braves
If this list had been generated at the All-Star break, then Albies probably would have been No. 2 behind Altuve, because his age-20 partial debut in 2017 was a big success, and he was chugging right along in 2018 with a strong .281/.318/.516 (120 wRC+) line in the first half. But then the wheels fell off, because Albies hit just .226/.282/.342 (67 wRC+) after the break, and it wasn’t about strikeouts and walks so much as it was about more weak contact and more grounders. Albies just turned 22 this month, and his upside is still clear. The concerns raised in the second half just serve to knock him down a few spots, at least for now.
6. Scooter Gennett, Reds
Gennett (.310/.357/.490, 125 wRC+), probably has a case to be higher on this list, because after being cut loose by the Brewers prior to 2017, he’s turned himself into a true slugger with the Reds, crushing 50 homers the last two years while out-slugging Manny Machado, Alex Bregman and Kris Bryant. Gennett made clear changes to his swing path to maximize his power and cut his ground-ball rate, and it’s not even just about the friendly home environment in Cincinnati, because in 2018, he had more homers and a higher slugging on the road.
7. DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
It remains incredibly difficult to know what to make of LeMahieu, who has a well-deserved reputation as a strong defender and showed some very encouraging under-the-hood improvements in 2018, yet still had a massive difference between his performance at home and on the road.
On the plus side, his 43 percent hard-hit rate is solidly above-average, he dropped his ground-ball rate from 56 percent to 50 percent, and he upped his pull rate from 22 percent to 30 percent. These are all signs of a player who might be making changes to show he’s got more in the tank. On the other hand, he hit .317/.360/.433 at home, yet only .229/.277/.422 away from hitter-friendly Coors Field. That’s not a one-year blip, because it’s been happening his entire career, but we also know that leaving Colorado can help road stats, too.
You could easily see him four spots higher or off the list entirely.
8. Ben Zobrist, Cubs
Zobrist turns 38 in May, so at some point he’s going to stop producing, and it seemed like a career-worst 2017 (.232/.318/.375, 82 wRC+) was going to be that point. So much for that; Zobrist overcame the wrist injury that hampered him in ’17 and put up a spectacular ’18, hitting .305/.378/.440 (123 wRC+) with nearly as many walks (55) as strikeouts (60), and almost no platoon split whatsoever. He’s not going to do this forever, and his playing time at second depends somewhat on how often Baez is playing shortstop, but this is now nine of 10 seasons where Zobrist has put up above-average performance.
9. Gleyber Torres, Yankees
Somewhat like Albies, Torres had a strong first half (.294/.350/.555, 141 wRC+) that he couldn’t quite maintain in the second half (.249/.329/.404, 99 wRC+), which isn’t all that unusual from a rookie in his age-21 season. Impressively, he showed little platoon weakness in his first year, and he’s a capable enough second baseman that he was able to fill in at shortstop when needed. He’s already one of the 10 best in the game at second.
10. Chris Taylor, Dodgers
Taylor didn’t actually play a ton of second base in 2018, as he spent most of his time in the outfield, but for the purposes of these lists this is where he fits, and depending on what the Dodgers do this winter, he may yet see a ton of time there in 2019. He didn’t quite maintain the level of his 2017 breakout, but he was still solidly above-average (.254/.331/.444, 113 wRC+), adding 17 homers and making starts at four positions. Wherever he is, he’s a multi-positional asset for the Dodgers.
Just missed (in no order): Jeff McNeil, Mets; Ketel Marte, D-backs; Cesar Hernandez, Phillies; Wendle, Rays; Brian Dozier, Nationals; Jurickson Profar, A’s
McNeil’s late season performance for the Mets (.329/.381/.471, 137 wRC+) was so impressive that he likely would have made this list if his path to playing time was a little more clear, but we already have two Mets on this list in Cano and Lowrie. Wendle made a strong impression in his rook year as well.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com.