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Up the middle

The Baltimore Sun

If you step back and think about it, the proliferation of powerful, fast middle infielders is a modern miracle for baseball fans.

When I was a kid, we had Robin Yount and a fading Joe Morgan, but almost all of the dynamic power/speed combinations played outfield. Now, Brandon Phillips has a 30-30 season at second base, and we shrug, because Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez are posting even more impressive seasons in the same league.

It's kind of cool ... just saying. Let that be a preamble to my musings about fantasy infielders who should be targeted and avoided this spring.

Second base

Though rarely rich in elite offensive talent, the position is deep enough that every team in your average mixed league should be able to snag a quality player. Some readers have asked this spring whether Chase Utley is worth a first-round pick or a big-time auction bid. I say yes because he's not only the best player at his position by a healthy margin, he's also one of the few truly reliable packages of high batting average, power, run production and speed. Think about it. Beyond maybe Matt Holliday, are you sure any outfielder will outproduce Utley?

Robinson Cano is probably the second-best hitter at the position. His drop in batting average last year was predictable, but he's a young, high-contact, line-drive hitter in a great lineup. That's a blue-chip stock.

I had Aaron Hill for $5 in an American League league last year, and it's killing me not to keep him this season (I have to stick with B.J. Upton's power/speed upside at $12). Hill is young enough that he could still improve, he makes contact at a high enough rate that he won't hurt your batting average and his power blossomed last year. Yet no one hypes him as a star.

Mark Ellis is sort of an older version of the same model. I like him, too.

I've never cared for Jeff Kent's sanctimony, but at age 40, the dude can still hit. He seems a bit overlooked because he has lost time to injury the past two years. But he's as good a bet as any second baseman not named Utley or Cano to hit .285 with 20 homers.

Placido Polanco seems likely to be overvalued this year. He's a tremendous contact hitter, but his value is heavily tied to batting average, and his .341 mark last year was inflated by a .350 average on balls in play. Polanco will help your team, but bid for .310, not .340.

You might be able to get the Pittsburgh Pirates' Freddy Sanchez for less, and he's nearly as good a contact guy as Polanco with more power upside.

Dan Uggla is a legitimate power threat, but his homer totals obscure the fact that he's a low-average hitter with little chance to improve in that category. I don't like to spend substantial auction money on a player who actively hurts me in any area.

I fear Upton could become a drain on my average this year. At $12, he's cheap enough to merit the risk, but many owners will pay twice that, and I wouldn't for a guy who struggles to make contact.

If we're talking low-average second basemen, I'd target Rickie Weeks, who walks enough to give himself ample run-scoring and stolen-base opportunities. Weeks was a great player in the second half of last year.

Among bargain-basement second basemen, check out Luis Castillo of the New York Mets. You'll have to make up for his nonexistent power, but a .300 average and 15 steals look nice in your middle infield, and he's reliable.

Shortstop

Ramirez, Rollins and Jose Reyes are all worthy first-round picks. If your league is cold on Reyes after his September swoon, pounce, because he can give you a sizable head start in steals. Ramirez, by contrast, might drop a bit of power after shoulder surgery.

Among the next tier, I'm comfortable discounting Rafael Furcal's first half of 2007 because of a spring training ankle injury. He has always been a good contact hitter who could be counted on for a .280 average, 12 to 15 homers and 30 steals. That's worth $25 in a 12-team National League league, and he should be available cheaper than usual.

Julio Lugo isn't as good as Furcal, but he's a similar player and is also likely to be undervalued after an awful 2007. Nothing changed in his basic ability to make contact or drive the ball, so don't be shocked if he hits .275 with 12 homers and 30 steals this year.

Jason Bartlett is an affordable 25-steal guy who won't hurt your batting average and could score plenty of runs in an improved Tampa Bay Rays offense. Ryan Theriot is similar on the NL side.

Derek Jeter is a solid bet to surpass .300, but his power and speed don't merit the bids his reputation will attract.

Miguel Tejada is in the same boat. He'll help your average, but I see no sign that he'll bounce back to 25-plus homers. The Houston Astros' ballpark isn't much better than Camden Yards for right-handed power.

I like J.J. Hardy, but nothing suggests he'll regularly hit for power the way he did in 2007.

Finally, if you're an Orioles fan and you believe Luis Hernandez is a major league-caliber hitter, think again.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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