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The Hot Stove Corner, part 3: Second Base

           BA  AB  R HR RBI BB  K  OBP  SLG  OPS 
Counsell .259 572 83  9  42 76 68 .352 .379 .731 
Cintron  .261  69  8  1   6  3  6 .288 .377 .664 
Green    .250  16  2  0   1  2  1 .316 .250 .566 
Kata     .273  11  2  0   0  3  0 .429 .364 .792

2005 review
The season saw the return of a favourite son to Arizona, in the unmistakeable shape - especially at the plate - of Craig Counsell. This veteran of the 2001 World Series winners had been offloaded to Milwaukee as part of the Sexson deal, but came back to Arizona with a 2-year, $3.1m deal.

Part of the reason was his defense; Scott Hairston had proven a liability with the glove in 2004, and the position as a whole made 16 errors that year. Counsell was a considerable improvement in this area. Only 9 gaffes came from our second basemen all season, and our overall percentage improved to .990, with Counsell in the top five major-leaguers at his position by every major fielding metric (F%, RF + ZR).

Counsell also excelled on the basepaths, where he seems to be improving with age. The past three seasons have all seen career-highs in stolen bases for him, with 26 swiped bags this year - above his total from 1995-2002 combined! He also set personal bests for games, at-bats, doubles and, most surprisingly, home runs: okay, nine won't exactly put the fear into Barry Bonds, but it was more than twice his previous best.

However, this conceals a starting fall-off in his performance. At the end of May, he was hitting .318, with an OBP above .430, and was being hailed as our MVP. However, beyond that stage, things dropped off steeply, with two whole months where he didn't even reach the Mendoza line. Here's the breakdown, month-by-month.

       BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
Apr  .273 .418 .325 .743 
May  .354 .442 .542 .984 
Jun  .241 .289 .411 .700 
Jul  .198 .311 .287 .598 
Aug  .280 .385 .330 .715 
Sep+ .196 .260 .348 .608

Despite this obvious wearing-down, Counsell got by far the lion's share of the at-bats at second base over the season. Kata was traded to Philadelphia for Tim Worrell; Cintron got some occasional playing time, but was largely on the other side of 2B; and Green turned up late, and his appearances were more a token gesture than anything of significance.

2006 possibilities
At first, with Counsell solidly inked for next year, it seems like this is not a question worthy of debate. But Counsell has spent almost as much time at SS as 2B (just 66 more innings at second, over an 11-year career), including all of 2004. With Clayton apparently looking for employment elsewhere, it's certainly conceivable that Counsell could move back to shortstop, his remaining year covering us until the anticipated arrival of Mr. S.Drew. That would leave us with a hole at second base instead, so, on that basis...

Free Agents
The position may change, but the song remains the same - and the 2B free agent market this off-season blows as hard as the Muscle Shoals horn section. Mark Grudzielanek is probably the only likely Grammy nominee in the bunch (okay, enough with the musical metaphors), having been at or above .300 for the past three seasons, albeit with an OPS that's gone 782, 779, 741 - and as he turns 36 before the All-Star Break, I'd not be inclined to sign him.

Rich Aurilia is a cheaper alternative (600K last year), hitting .282 with 14 HR for Cincinnati, but they declined his 2006 option at $2m. He's another one who lives here in Arizona, and it's seems an incentive for players to sign for their "local" team. Tony Graffanino may also want to escape Boston after his botch job in the Division Series, and hit .309 between there and Kansas, so might be worth a look.

Then there's Bret Boone, who was paid $9m last year, and sucked so badly on Seattle he was designated for assigment, then traded to Minnesota for a player to be named later - the Twins later released him entirely. Here, we do have the precedent of Robert Alomar, who took an 88% pay cut to play at 2B for us in 2004; though it doesn't look like Boone is worth even that.

Frankly, we'd be better off chasing someone really cheap like Lenny Harris, who managed the interesting feat of having more games (83) than at-bats (70) for Florida. I'm always in favour of signing players older than I am - it makes me feel younger, somehow... :-) Otherwise, you're looking at the likes of Damion Easley, D'Angelo Jimenez, Miguel Cairo, Joe McEwing, and Frank Menechino. Thanks, but I had enough turkey last week.

Working again on the principle that Vazquez is the main coin we have to offer, let's see whether the usual suspects - centred on East-coast teams with pitching needs - have anything much to give. A top choice could be Brian Roberts, who hit .314 for Baltimore, with 18 HR. Against this, Roberts is currently rehabbing his left elbow here in AZ, and who knows how he'll bounce back.

Or perhaps Jorge Cantu of Tampa Bay? After all, you can't get much closer to Puerto Rico than that: only 1200 miles, compared to our 3000. Plus, Cantu is just 25, but still had 117 RBIs last year - that's as many as Albert Pujols, who played on a rather better team. However, Tampa are likely guarding him jealously as the franchise aims for previously-unheard of heights in 2007 or 2008. Possibly as high as the .500 mark. Snigger.

Irritatingly, we find some very interesting possibilities on Javy's "do not call" list: for example, the Phillies are off-limits, but we could certainly have used Chase Utley and his 28 HR, .915 OPS. Same for Alfonso Soriano; the Rangers are definitely looking for pitching, having been linked to Zito. However, Texas can apparently be found beside Philadelphia in Vazquez's - or perhaps, Mrs Vazquez's - black book, with a line drawn through it, Kill Bill style. Rats. :-(

Of course, rather than throwing good money at any of these people, the Diamondbacks might want to give Andy Green a shot. After all, he was merely PCL Player of the Year, the Player of the Year in the Diamondbacks organization, and made the Topps Minor League Baseball Triple-A All-Star team at second base. He led the PCL in hits, doubles, and extra base hits, and scored more runs than anyone in the minor leagues.

Yes, if one player deserves a shot in 2006, it's probably Green. However, he is 28, so time is definitely not on his side. If he does get to play at the top level, it might not be in America: reports suggest Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan may be interested in him. Worked out quite well for the last D'back infield prospect to go there: 1B Alex Cabrera, who tied the Japanese major-league HR record with 55 in 2002.

Down in Tennessee, Dan Uggla was the main man at second, and played well enough to be described by Baby Backs: TNG as "clearly the team's offensive MVP." He won the Triple Crown there (.297, 21 HR, 87 RBI), making the Southern League's North Division All-Star Team. He also did well in the AFL (.304/.390/.598), and in the likely event Green sticks with the big club (or goes to Japan), will start 2006 in Tucson.

Steve Garrabrants and Erik Schindewolf split duties at Lancaster. Garrabrants, a a former ASU Sun Devil and ninth-round pick in 2003, hit .318 for Lancaster, though this is widely recognised as one of the best hitter's parks anywhere, so needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Schindewolf could only hit .274 after coming up from Yakima, and may have reached his ceiling, but had a healthy .408 OBP, finishing 3rd in the league for walks. Finally, Emilio Bonifacio stole 55 bases for South Bend, but hit just .270.

Summary + Prediction
I'd really like to see Andy Green stick around, to see if he can deliver at the big-league level. However, I have a feeling Counsell will remain at second-base, with us signing a short-stop instead. Green may remain on the roster as a utility player, simply because of his versatility which lets him play almost any position.