Here's the second installment of my series ranking the NL East teams on a position-by-position basis. Today we'll look at the division's second basemen. As a reminder, the numbers in parenthesis are the previous season's plate appearances and fWAR, and all of the WAR numbers discussed are fWAR.
Fifth Place: Marlins: Rafael Furcal (2012: 531/0.8)
Last year the Marlins tried two players at 2B, second-year man Donovan Solano and rookie Derek Dietrich. Solano, after an encouraging rookie outing in 2012, suffered a sophomore slump which saw him post a wRC+ of 71, an OPS of .621, and zero WAR despite above-average defense. In the second half they switched to Derek Dietrich, who hit somewhat better despite lousy BABIP luck (.247), but also looked overmatched at times (he had been promoted directly from AA), and also ended up with zero WAR. Dietrich was subsequently, and probably unfairly, blamed by the organization for the Tino Martinez fiasco, and is unlikely to see the inside of the home team clubhouse at Marlins Park again.
So the Marlins, hindered by a very sparse market for middle infielders, signed free agent Rafael Furcal, who did not play in 2013 due to Tommy John surgery (unusual for a position player). Braves fans can remember a time when Furcal was a dynamic shortstop, sort of a proto-Andrelton Simmons. But at age 36, and with rumors of PEDs in his past, Furcal's best days are far behind him. Over his past two playing seasons (2011-2012) he's been good for a total of 1.2 WAR over 900 PA. He still draws some walks, but what little power he had is long gone; his last two seasons' worth of ISO ring out to .117 and .082 respectively.
Furcal hasn't played second base in a major league game since 2004. I don't expect he will have any particular trouble adapting to the move over from shortstop (the position he has played for nearly all of his career). However, his last two years of UZR are discouraging; he posted UZR/150 numbers of -9.6 and -11.2 in his last two seasons. Probably due to this uncertainty, ZIPS differs sharply from Steamer and Oliver in its defensive projection for Furcal; the latter two project significantly above-average defense probably based on re-scaling his shortstop numbers to the lower-skill position, whereas ZIPS projects him as average. All three systems have similar offensive numbers, but based on the defense, Steamer and Oliver give Furcal 1.7 and 1.5 WAR respectively, while ZIPS projects 0.6. Based on the signs of decline, I'm going with the ZIPS number.
Fourth Place: Braves: Dan Uggla (537/0.5)
The Braves have to be nervous wondering which version of Dan Uggla they're getting in 2014. Last year, the first-half Uggla was good enough for the Braves' purposes; his batting average looked rather bad at .200, but he slugged .423 and onbased (is that a word?) .315 for an OPS of .738 and a wRC+ of 108, pretty acceptable numbers for a middle infielder. Unfortunately, the second-half Uggla was an unmitigated disaster; a slash of .133/.298/.231(I don't think I've ever seen a slugging % that far below the OBP), a wRC+ of 57, and exactly one extra-base hit after July 25. The regular season ended with Uggla suffering the indignity of being left off the playoff roster in favor of waiver-wire pickup Elliot Johnson.
But here's the thing: that second half? Only 178 PA, which is on the fringe of being enough to draw any conclusions. All of the above could be just a statistical fluke. Now, I actually watched Uggla during that second half last year, and I will say that he looked lost at the plate, especially after the apparently-unsuccessful Lasik surgery. But mechanics problems are fixable, and he's had all winter for his eyes to heal. Uggla still has an eye for the strike zone; he was drawing walks at a 15% clip even in the doldrums of the second half.
However, there are signs of long-term decline, such as a declining contact rate, an increase in ground balls, and a decrease in line drives. Uggla's also a fairly indifferent defender, although it's a bit hard to tell because his year-to-year defensive metrics are oddly all over the map. (There's also a big disagreement between UZR/150, which rates him slightly below average, and DRS, which absolutely hates him.) For 2014 projections, Oliver unaccountly assigns him a significant plus defensive value, which I think we can disregard as unlikely. On the other hand, Steamer's offensive projections are only a little better than the 2013 numbers, and I think Uggla is due for upward regression exactly because that second half was so atypical. He won't be as good as he was with the Marlins, and he won't be as good as he was two years ago with the Braves, but it looks like ZIPS has the right idea with moderately optimistic (although below career averages) offensive numbers, and moderately pessimistic defensive assumptions, ending up with a WAR of 1.4.
Third Place: Mets: Daniel Murphy (697/3.0)
I'm looking at Daniel Murphy's 2013 numbers and that 3.0 WAR, and honestly I'm not sure how he did it. His slash of .286/.319/.415 was OK for a middle infielder but not great, and UZR consistently ranks him below average at his position. He did hit 13 home runs, but I think some of the WAR is due to the fact that WAR is a cumulative stat that, to an extent, rewards raw playing time. And playing time Murphy got: he appeared in all but one game for the Mets, and his 697 PA tied for 14th among all major league hitters. Part of it was also an extraordinary run of base-stealing and taking extra bases. Having stolen 19 bases in his career prior to 2013, he stole 23 last year, and was only caught three times. Can he do that again? Although he gets good reads, I think opponents are going to watch him a lot more closely this year.
Murphy does have some power potential, and if he can keep his strikeout rate reasonable and walk more than he did in 2013 (4.6% versus a career 6.1% average), he can have some value. Oliver is wildly optimistic about a defensive improvement and projects a 2.4 WAR based on that; Steamer and ZIPS are more realistic and come up with 1.3 and 1.6 respectively. A bit of improvement in walks and OBP will help. I'll go with 1.5 WAR.
Second Place: Nationals: Anthony Rendon (394/1.5)
The youngest and most intriguing player in this group. Rendon, who will be 24 in June, rocketed through the Nationals system, starting out in short-season ball in 2012 and ending the season in AA, then earning the call-up part way through 2013. In the majors, he didn't kill the ball as much as some people think, but his numbers were respectable for a rookie middle infielder: .265/.329/.396 for a wRC+ of exactly 100. His minor league numbers indicate that as he gets experience and fills out a bit, he should draw more walks (7.9% in 2013) and will develop 15 HR power (7 in 2013). UZR suggests (caution: small sample size) that he will be an above-average defender at 2B.
If one simply extrapolates his 2013 WAR up to 600 PA, it ends up at 2.3. That's what WAR Steamer assigns to him over 507 PA in its projection, but he'll probably get more PA than that. Oliver projects 600 PA ending with 3.2 WAR, but it probably over-estimates his slugging (.429) and defense a bit. I'll take Steamer's numbers and stretch them to 600 PA, and come up with my guesstimate of 2.7 WAR.
First Place: Phillies: Chase Utley (531/3.9)
Chase Utley will go down in history as a player who could have been a Hall of Famer had it not been for his degenerative hip condition. That said, he's getting pretty close to having played out a career of normal duration for a good player; this year will be his 14th season in the majors. He had what was regarded as a rebound season last year, based mainly on his having been healthy enough to rack up 531 plate appearances; he posted a slash line of .284/.348/.475 with a wRC+ of 126, all nice numbers. But... they're all below his career averages. In 2011 and 2012, when Utley was plagued by injuries, he still managed to accumulate a total of 6.9 WAR over a total of 816 PA, which on a WAR/PA basis is not much worse than the number Utley posted in his 2005-2009 glory years. His 3.9 WAR over 531 PA is actually not as good by that measure. Howard Bender at Fangraphs documents some other signs of Utley's offensive decline here. As for defense, a worrisome note in Utley's otherwise-superior career defensive metrics is that in 2013 his UZR/150 worked out to 2.0, far below his 12.2 career average, and his DRS of -4 was a career low. That said, you can't put too much stock in one year's worth of defensive metrics. But it's still startling to look at.
Even so, the declining Utley is still pretty good. ZIPS projects him for .260/.338/.445. 115 wRC+, and 2.8 WAR. Steamer has slightly lower slash numbers but 3.1 WAR based on his defensive numbers rebounding, which is a reasonable assumption based on plain old regression. Oliver says 3.6 WAR but that's based on 600 PA, a threshold Utley hasn't reached since 2009. I'll go with the Steamer projection of 3.1 WAR.