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Examining the free agent infield market

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USA Today’s Paul White examines the free agent market’s infielders and catchers.

Robinson Cano [2]Top shelf

Robinson Cano will be in a class by himself in this market.

That’s how it works for 30-year-olds who’ve averaged .314 with 28 homers and 103 RBI — not to mention 160 games played — over the past five seasons.

The second baseman isn’t likely to top the $300 million total-package threshold as new representative Jay-Z has floated, but he’ll still command enough to limit the shoppers to the Yankees and precious few others. Even the Yankees might have to get a little creative, but a Cano-Yankees re-up remains the likely scenario, at least until the surprise suitor swoops in.

Position scarcity shapes the rest of this market, giving several catchers an edge. The Red Sox, Rangers, Braves, Yankees, Phillies and White Sox are among teams needing an upgrade — or merely a starter.

Enter Brian McCann and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, starters on playoff teams in Atlanta and Boston, and both not yet 30. They’ll set the price structure and leave a few teams scrambling to fill the position. McCann has battled through injuries the past couple of seasons, but still has reached 20 homers in seven of the past eight seasons and documented his leadership skills almost to a fault with his on-field scolding of home run stylers last season.

Even Mike Napoli, who spent last season playing first base for the Red Sox, has catching on a resume that includes playoff appearance six of the past seven years. He has an .871 OPS over the past six seasons, led the majors in pitches seen per plate appearance this year and showed that the hip problems that negated a three-year deal last winter aren’t an issue.

Stephen Drew [3]Middle class

Chances are slim of finding an impact infield bat this winter, so it’s more of matching needs with value, and maybe snagging a bargain.

That prototypical slugging first baseman isn’t out there, though James Loney is coming off a nice year with the Rays as long as you’re not hung up on homers. His defense to go along with a .299 average and 75 RBI can fit well on the right team, and even ranks him ahead of fellow free agent Justin Morneau in overall productivity.

For that large segment of teams not in the Cano bidding, middle infield options remain. Second baseman Omar Infante hit .318 for the Tigers — his third .300 season in the past five — though without the pop and pizzazz of Cano. Infante’s former Detroit double-play partner, Jhonny Peralta, was at a career-best .303 before the Biogenesis suspension interrupted his season. He’s 31 like Infante and will draw interest.

Stephen Drew has the defensive ability to fit nicely into a strong team and, despite a rough postseason at the plate for Boston, he actually can hit. Remove injury-riddled 2011-12 and he’s a .270 hitter with a .450 slugging percentage since coming to the majors in 2006, and still just 30.

The catcher drop-off is significant. Carlos Ruiz will be 35 in January and hit .268 last year following a .325 season and a PED suspension in between. Still, he and A.J. Pierzynski (37 by Opening Day) will attract attention.

Worth a flier

The annual catcher shuffle will be a lengthy game of musical chairs, as this year’s group has plenty of former and would-be starters: Dioner Navarro, Kurt Suzuki, John Buck and Jose Molina the most noteworthy.

First baseman Corey Hart missed all of last season with knee problems, but he also hit 30 homers in two of the three previous seasons, attractive to any bargain hunters. Also coming back after a lost season are shortstop Rafael Furcal and first baseman/third baseman Kevin Youkilis.

Second baseman Brian Roberts proved he was finally healthy the second half of last season. At 36, he might not be a leadoff threat he was in the past, but he certainly merits a look with other veterans like second baseman Mark Ellis and third baseman Juan Uribe.

Lyle Overbay, Jose Lobaton [4]Recycling bin

Is there a useful season left in Michael Young, relegated to bench duty with the Dodgers at the end of last season?

Mark Reynolds is just 30, but his all-or-nothing approach eventually soured Cleveland and he was hanging on at the end with the offense-starved Yankees.

There could at least be some part-time duty and contributions left in first basemen Lyle Overbay, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman. One long shot who at least has some production to show from last season is corner man Casey McGehee. He led the Japanese champion Rakuten Golden Eagles with 28 homers and is still just 31.

Market watch

Grab a catcher if you must, but after that, this isn’t a market with a lot of flash.

There’s enough scarcity that the Rangers, with no catchers on the roster, re-signed their 2013 backup and former Cubs starter Geovany Soto less than 24 hours into free agency. That could signal a lot of early movement behind the plate but not so much elsewhere.

Napoli’s situation could have a domino effect in Boston, where the fact that Will Middlebrooks can play first and third while USA TODAY Sports Minor League Player of the Year Xander Bogaerts is adept at third and shortstop all plays into Drew’s future, too.

It’s an unusual year when the first base action will focus on teams like the Rays and Pirates looking for their latest bargain find. Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira it’s not.

Associated Press photos