Two facts in the Tampa Bay Rays’ middle infield competition are as follows: 1) Nick Franklin is a better defensive second baseman than shortstop and 2) Franklin has the tools to be a better defensive shortstop than Asdrubal Cabrera. In an ideal world, Franklin would be the Rays’ second baseman alongside a strong fielding shortstop, but that won’t happen this year with Cabrera around. There will be significant downsides no matter which middle infield alignment the Rays choose.
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Franklin’s defense at shortstop has not looked great this spring. He has a disastrous .857 fielding percentage, with all four of his errors coming at shortstop. Those errors doesn’t even count two or three additional mistakes on double play attempts. He has also made some highlight-reel throws, but those have mostly come on relays from the outfield as opposed to conventional plays at shortstop. He would have the opportunity to make similar plays if he ended up at second base.
A few spring training games shouldn’t overshadow the way that Franklin’s defense has been evaluated for years. Three weeks ago, we talked about how Franklin has always been considered a decent defensive shortstop even if second base was always his better position. The consideration we haven’t talked about, though, is how putting Franklin at short could affect his offense.
Maybe Nick Franklin’s mistakes at shortstop will become less frequent as he gets more reps at the position. If he is given enough time to work the kinks out, he should be a better defensive shortstop than Asdrubal Cabrera. However, should the Rays really put Franklin in a more difficult situation even though his offense isn’t a sure thing either?
Even if Nick Franklin the shortstop has more upside, Franklin the second baseman already has a solid major league season under his belt. Franklin is no longer a prospect because the Seattle Mariners gave him a chance at second base in 2013 and watched him play well. The Rays have a good starting middle infielder in Franklin already–are they going to gamble the money they just won as they hope to make him into a shortstop?
If Franklin was looking comfortable at short, then maybe such a gamble would be the Rays’ best bet. Given his struggles, though, putting Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop is not as bad of an idea as it would seem for the Rays. After all, Cabrera will not be as bad as Yunel Escobar was defensively last year and he will give Franklin a higher probability of being a good starter at the other spot.
The other consideration for the Rays is that Nick Franklin is not their shortstop of the future. We will see about Hak-Ju Lee for the short-term, and the Rays are hoping that Daniel Robertson will be ready at some point in 2016. Franklin still has the ability to be a core player for this team, but that is likely to come at second base or in a super-utility role. Why should the Rays put Franklin at short when they have Cabrera for the position now and have others for coming seasons?
Playing Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Nick Franklin was not the preferred outcome for the Tampa Bay Rays entering this spring, but it may be their best choice at this point. There is a crucial difference between Franklin’s tools at shortstop and his ability to handle the position capably right now, and it is not worthwhile for the Rays to wait until those two things converge.