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01/09/08 10:00 AM ET
Both leagues cornering the market
MLB's finest provide versatility at first and third base
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Cornerstones of success? You'll find them at the 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock positions of infields throughout the Major Leagues. But while there are outstanding players at both first base and third base around both leagues, there are -- as is often the case -- intriguing contrasts between the National and American Leagues. Both leagues are characterized by tandems listing to one side or the other. Like in the human brain, either the left side or the right predominates. Pairings such as the Cubs' balanced set of first baseman Derrek Lee and third baseman Aramis Ramirez are the exception. And, right now, each league has its own featured set. At the risk of generalization -- the AL is boiling at the hot corner, and the NL is first and foremost. Take a quick census of the dominant infielders at each corner ... Third basemen Alex Rodriguez, Mike Lowell, Adrian Beltre and now Miguel Cabrera -- all American Leaguers. The answers at first base -- Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Lance Berkman and now Mark Teixeira -- are all National Leaguers. As we said, it's a point, not a blanket statement. For instance, the NL's Mets have a pretty decent third baseman in David Wright and in the AL the Twins (Justin Morneau) and White Sox (Paul Konerko) are doing all right at first. Yet, the trend is out there, one ingredient of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Corner Infielders: Power packs Corner infielders play relatively low-impact defensive positions, so swinging it is more important than picking it. There is a reason for such references as "corner-infield power." If you were asked about the Majors' most productive 2007 tandem and shouted out "Yankees!" you'd be wrong -- A-Rod's 54 home runs notwithstanding. Milwaukee's Ryan Braun -- who didn't even play his first game until May 25! -- and Fielder combined for a Major League-leading total of 84 home runs and 216 RBIs for a corner infield tandem. Rodriguez and mates -- all 10 who cycled through first base -- totaled 78 homers. The NL's second highest combined totals were 54 homers (by the Mets' Wright and Carlos Delgado) and 202 RBIs (by the Rockies' Garrett Atkins and Todd Helton). Running and gunning Quickness is a defensive necessity at the corners, not speed. With the exception of chasing the occasional foul pops down the lines, third and first basemen don't have to do much running. So those who include the stolen base in their tools chest stand out. The Angels' Chone Figgins led big league third basemen with 41 steals. Among those who aren't fleet players who anchored at the position out of team need, Wright led with 34 followed by A-Rod's 24. Minnesota's light-hitting Nick Punto (16), Braun (15), Kansas City's Alex Gordon and Beltre (14 each) and Tampa Bay's Akinori Iwamura (12) were the only others in double figures. An equal number of regular third basemen had zilch steals: Wilson Betemit (including his action for both the Dodgers and the Yankees), Morgan Ensberg, Troy Glaus, Wes Helms, Mike Lamb, Mark Reynolds and Ramirez.
Handle with Gold GlovesTwo tandems, one in each league, include Gold Glove winners at both corners: Cardinals, with Scott Rolen (1998, 2000-04, 2006) and Pujols (2006). Red Sox, with Lowell (2005) and Kevin Youkilis (2007). Comeback corner The leagues' Comeback Player of the Year Awards have been the province of corner infielders: Jason Giambi, Jim Thome, Nomar Garciaparra (playing first for the Dodgers), Carlos Pena and Dmitri Young the last three seasons (with Ken Griffey Jr. the lone exception). Candidates to continue the trend in 2008: Seattle first baseman Richie Sexson, who slumped to 21 homers and 63 RBIs after totaling 73 and 228 his first two seasons with the Mariners. Oakland third baseman Eric Chavez, who has had the surgical trifecta (both shoulders and back) in order to rebound from injuries that limited him to 90 games and ended his streak of consecutive Gold Gloves at six. A's manager Bob Geren, looking at a rookie (Daric Barton) across the infield, is anxious to regain Chavez's veteran presence, but preaches safety first, saying, "He'll be evaluated like any other player coming off an injury -- cautiously. But I'm sure he's excited and anxious to get out there. When you play through injuries for a length of time, to know they've been addressed is always a positive thing." St. Louis' Rolen's shoulder miseries have forced him to miss 176 games since mid-July 2005, fading the memory of what a force he can be. Toronto's Glaus and Lyle Overbay, who struggled with left-leg injuries and a broken right hand, respectively, and combined for only 30 homers and 106 RBIs, a steep decline from the previous season's numbers (60-196). Turning the corner A year ago, Kansas City's decorated third-base prospect Alex Gordon stood out as one of the Majors' most conspicuous rookies. Now, there are high-profile guys all over the place whose time is coming or has already come. The anticipation for the Rays' Evan Longoria has already nudged incumbent Iwamura to second base. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon likes the 22-year-old even when he isn't on the field: "You can talk about his skills, if you want. This guy is a Major League-caliber person, and I think he's going to fit in well with the Major League clubhouse quickly. He gets it. He understands it." Barton, another 22-year-old, ripped the cover off the ball in September and was in line to take over at first even before the A's dealt Nick Swisher to the White Sox. Geren: "There is no doubt in my mind at all. He's not only ready to play at this level, but to succeed at this level. He's an extremely advanced hitter for his age, and he looked great out on defense, too. He's a complete player." Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto, who mashed .294 with 22 homers and 92 RBIs in Triple-A, then stepped up his game in September with the Reds (.321 and 17 RBIs in 24 games). The Indians are covered at both corners, though there are experienced roadblocks in front of both first baseman Jordan Brown (Ryan Garko) and third baseman Andy Marte (Casey Blake). Brown hogs MVP awards (Carolina League in 2006, Eastern League last season). And Marte has become a curiosity, a rarity in that he has bottlenecked in Triple-A for three seasons since ranking as a can't-miss gem in the Braves' system. "We'd like to give him every opportunity possible to show us he's the player we traded for," Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro says of Marte, acquired as the key player in the Coco Crisp deal two winters ago. "He's shown glimpses of that. It's a matter of giving him as much time as possible." Corner factoids Rodriguez crushed many numbers in 2007, none more impressive than becoming the first since Mickey Mantle in 1956 to lead the Majors in homers, RBIs (156) and runs (143). Babe Ruth and Ted Williams are the only others to have ever done that. A-Rod also became the first three-time MVP to never appear in a World Series -- the tissue-paper-stuck-to-his-shoes he hasn't yet been able to shed. The Cubs' Lee did not hit a home run away from Wrigley Field until July 26, yet he and Ramirez still combined for 48 homers and 183 RBIs, eerily matching the Major League average for corner totals (46 and 183). The Tigers' 2007 starters -- Brandon Inge and Sean Casey -- totaled 18 home runs and 125 RBIs. Cabrera and transplanted shortstop Carlos Guillen bring 55 homers and 221 RBIs to the revamped lineup. Lamb will become the Twins' 11th different starting third baseman since Corey Koskie's departure after the 2004 season. In the same span, since Beltre moved to Seattle, the Dodgers have used 18 different third basemen. There have been 15 historical instances of a switch-hitter batting .300-plus with 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs. Six of those are currently in the Braves' corners: Chipper Jones (five times) and Teixeira (2005).
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.