Best infield in the National League?

So here’s a question:

Can an infield that includes Wes Helms be considered the best in the National League?

That’s the claim made by Jimmy Rollins (either on his own or through prompting by a reporter) on Tuesday.

Look, I won’t deny the talents of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, who clearly make up the best right side of any infield in baseball. But Wes Helms? I’ll reserve judgment on this claim until the season’s been played — and Helms has been a full-time starter in a pennant race — and follow Rollins’ logic on his more reasonable claim that the Phillies are the team to beat in the NL East in 2007: “But that’s all on paper. You have to go out and do it on the field.”

Let’s see Helms do it on the field.

However, I guess only the Dodgers and Mets can challenge the Phils for best NL infield, and they’ve got weaknesses. Los Angeles has Wilson Betemit at third base and the Mets have Jose Valentin at second — and neither of them was a regular starter in ’06, either. If these teams are the top three around the horn in the NL, the Dodgers are clearly third because of the years Nomar Garciaparra and Jeff Kent have on them, while the Phillies’ senior infielder is Rollins, who is 28, and the Mets’ older players — Valentin and Carlos Delgado — don’t have the injury issues or the apparent decline (yet) that Kent and Nomar have shown.

As for the Mets and Phillies, New York clearly gets the advantage on the left side of the infield with David Wright and Jose Reyes, who is a better leadoff hitter — and probably a better hitter, not to mention five years younger — than Rollins. So the question of who has the best infield in the league comes down to which player is better: Wes Helms or Jose Valentin?

It’s a question that will have to be answered in 2007, but for now, on paper, perhaps we’ll give Philly a slight edge. Below is a comparison of Valentin’s and Helms’ 2006 stats (in black). Valentin had 384 at-bats, while Helms compiled 240. The shaded numbers are what each player, at the same rate of production, would have put up with 600 at-bats last season. Valentin hit .271/.330/.490; Helms .329/.390/.575.

Hits Runs 2B HR RBI BB SO
Valentin 104 162 56 87 24 37 18 28 62 96 37 58 71 111
Helms 79 197 30 75 19 47 10 25 47 117 21 52 55 137

Helms’ numbers are skewed, though, because he’s on a new team with a different lineup and vastly different ballpark. Chances are, he’ll hit fewer doubles and more home runs with Citizens Bank Park as his home field rather than Dolphin Stadium. His runs probably won’t go up too much, because he’ll be hitting low in the Phillies’ order and won’t necessarily have the studs coming up while he’s on base. In any case, the expectation would seem to favor Helms, who is also seven years younger.

However, not only did Valentin put up his numbers over a longer period of time — meaning he was (and is, on account of a longer career) more accustomed to performing with a regular starting gig. The big question for Helms will be whether he can maintain his pace in August when he’s already started 100 games.

It will be interesting to see this NL East race play out. In 2006, the Mets had the division wrapped up in June. The only thing that should be decided this June is that the Nationals will bring up the rear.

Everything else should be determined in September.

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