The Hot Corner

Just a few years ago, shortstop was undoubtedly the position. There was the “Holy Trinity” of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra, a star-studded threesome with talent rarely seen at the same position in baseball history. Between 1999 and 2000, Rodriguez batted .301/.391/.597 with 83 homers and 243 RBIs, Jeter hit .344/.427/.517 with 253 runs scored, 420 hits, and a World Series MVP, and Garciaparra batted .365/.426/.601 with 200 RBIs, 207 runs scored, and two batting titles. Then in 2002, Miguel Tejada won the AL MVP and made a case for it becoming a foursome. Later, Edgar Renteria hit .318/.380/.461 with 183 RBIs, 173 runs scored, and 56 stolen bases while winning back-to-back NL Gold Gloves in 2002 and 2003. At just 27, Renteria looked primed to join the elite shortstop conversation.

And there was more. Barry Larkin and Omar Vizquel, the last of the old guard of shortstops, still had some life left in them, as Larkin hit .304/.392/.467 from 1998-2000 and Vizquel won his seventh straight AL Gold Glove while hitting .333 with 42 steals and 112 runs scored in 1999. Rich Aurilia hit .324/.369/.572 with 37 homers for the Giants in 2001, leading the league in hits while finishing 12th in the MVP voting. A 23-year-old Cristian Guzman looked ready to break out when he hit .308/.346/.507 with 13 triples and 42 total extra-base hits in the first half of the 2001 season, on his way to his first All-Star game. Down in Atlanta, a 19-year-old Rafael Furcal hit .295 with a .394 on-base percentage and 40 steals while winning the 2000 NL Rookie of the Year. It looked like the Golden Age of shortstops.

Fast forward now to the present. Rodriguez is playing third base, while Garciaparra is with the Cubs after an injury plagued 2004 season and hasn’t been the same player since missing nearly all of 2001 with a wrist injury. Jeter and Tejada are still keeping up their ends of the bargain, but Renteria took a step back in 2004, hitting just .287/.327/.401. Larkin retired this offseason and Vizquel is on his last legs with the Giants, having last won a Gold Glove in 2001. Guzman came back from that first All-Star game with a mysterious shoulder injury, was one of the worst hitters in baseball from 2002-2004, and left the Twin as a free agent this offseason. And it turns out Furcal was a 22-year-old rookie instead of a 19-year-old rookie, and he has combined off-the-field problems with an overall lack of development as he currently plays his age-27 season.

After such high hopes, a series of position switches, injuries, retirements, and disappointments have turned shortstop into just another position. However, just as the leader of the Holy Trinity of Shortstops made the move to third base after joining the Yankees last season, the balance of positional power has shifted to the hot corner as well. There is suddenly an extraordinary abundance of talent playing third base right now, and that is despite the fact that Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Miguel Cabrera were each original third basemen who have since taken their big bats elsewhere. While those three stars leaving would be a massive blow to any position, this current group of third basemen is so strong and so deep that it barely misses a beat.

Consider …

Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees: A career .305/.381/.574 hitter with 381 home runs who is currently in his age-29 season, Rodriguez hit .286/.375/.512 with 36 homers, 106 RBIs, and excellent defense in his first year with the Yankees (and his first year at third base) and it was viewed as a major disappointment. One of the ten best players in baseball every year.

Eric Chavez, Oakland A’s: At just 27 years old, Chavez is the winner of four straight AL Gold Gloves and coming off a season in which he hit .276/.397/.501 with 29 homers and 95 walks despite missing 37 games. My pick for 2005 AL MVP and one of the most underrated stars in the game.

Scott Rolen, St. Louis Cardinals: The winner of five straight NL Gold Gloves, Rolen has thrived since arriving in St. Louis during the 2002 season. He had his best season yet last year at the age of 29, hitting .314/.409/.598 with 34 homers and 124 RBIs on his way to a fourth-place NL MVP finish.

Adrian Beltre, Seattle Mariners: Beltre finally had that year everyone had been waiting for from him in 2004, hitting .334/.388/.629 with 48 homers and 121 RBIs in what was one of the greatest seasons ever for a third baseman. Now with Seattle after leaving Los Angeles as a free agent this offseason, Beltre is still just 26 and is another guy who brings great defense to the table in addition to outstanding hitting.

Hank Blalock, Texas Rangers: Blalock is the reason Teixeira is now a first baseman, which tells you how good he is. After hitting .300/.350/.522 in his first full season in 2003, Blalock had a disapointing year in 2004 and still managed to hit .276/.355/.500 with 32 homers and 110 RBIs as a 23-year-old.

Troy Glaus, Arizona Diamondbacks: The forgotten man at the position after playing just 149 games over the past two seasons because of injuries, Glaus is still just 28 years old and has 41- and 47-homer seasons on his resume. A free agent this offseason, Glaus took his 182 career home runs and .253/.357/.497 lifetime hitting line to Arizona, where he has started with a bang.

Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves: Once the king of the position and the last third baseman to win an MVP award, Jones moved to left field for a couple seasons before moving back to the third base in the middle of last year. He had the worst season of his career as a 32-year-old in 2004, but still hit .248/.362/.485 with 30 homers and 96 RBIs in 137 games.

Mike Lowell, Florida Marlins: One of the most underrated players at the position, Lowell hit .282/.354/.500 over the past three years, with an average of 28 homers and 94 RBIs per season. He is also the reason Cabrera moved to the outfield.

Aramis Ramirez, Chicago Cubs: Ramirez hit .318/.373/.578 with 36 homers and 103 RBIs as a 26-year-old in 2004 to finish 10th in the NL MVP voting, and is fresh off a huge contract extension with the Cubs.

Corey Koskie, Toronto Blue Jays: Like Lowell, Koskie has been an overlooked player at the position despite providing excellent production both offensively and defensively since becoming a starter with the Twins in 1999. In fact, since 1999 only Jones, Rolen, Chavez, and Glaus have a higher Runs Created Above Position (RCAP) total than Koskie among third basemen.

Melvin Mora, Baltimore Orioles: Believe it or not, Mora led all major-league third basemen in batting average (.340) and on-base percentage (.419) last year, while ranking second in hits (187), runs (111), and Runs Created (131), and third in doubles (41), OPS (.981), Offensive Winning Percentage (.725), and RCAP (55). He also hit .317/.418/.503 in 2003, but played mostly in the outfield.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

For those of you who lost count, that is 11 third basemen who are at least All-Star-level players, with a minimum of five who could reasonably be described as MVP-caliber. Plus, there are also veterans like David Bell, Edgardo Alfonzo, Bill Mueller, Aaron Boone, and Joe Randa who have been providing solid production at the position for years, and guys like Sean Burroughs, Michael Cuddyer, and Morgan Ensberg who still have the potential to break out and become stars at the position.

And if you think that is an impressive crop now, just wait until the next wave arrives …

David Wright, New York Mets: Wright is no longer a “prospect” thanks to getting 263 at-bats with the Mets last year, but he is just 22 years old this season and is one of the best young players in baseball. After tearing through the minors last year, Wright hit .293/.332/.525 in 69 games with the Mets. His impressive hitting and good defensive skills have drawn many comparisons to Rolen.

Andy Marte, Atlanta Braves: Ranked as my #4 prospect in baseball this year, there is some question about whether or not Marte will stick at third base in the majors. The uncertainty has nothing to do with his defense at third base, which is just fine, but rather Jones’ current presence there with the Braves. He has a chance to do this year for Atlanta what Cabrera did for the Marlins in 2003.

Ian Stewart, Colorado Rockies: My #5 prospect in baseball, just behind Marte, Stewart has a chance to put up some amazing numbers once he gets to the majors and starts playing half his games at Coors Field. He is so good that there is little doubt that he’ll push Jeff Baker and Garrett Atkins, two other intriguing third base prospects, to other positions as soon as he’s ready.

Dallas McPherson, Los Angeles Angels: McPherson was all set to replace Glaus at third base for the Angels this year until a late-spring back injury sent him to the disabled list. He is currently on a minor-league rehab assignment and should be back by the end of the month. I ranked McPherson as the #10 prospect in baseball this season after he hit .310 with 43 homers in 2004, and I expect him to put up some huge power numbers once he gets healthy.

Edwin Encarnacion, Cincinnati Reds: Ranked as my #18 prospect in baseball this year, Encarnacion will likely take over for Randa at third base for the Reds in 2006. He hasn’t put up huge numbers in the minors yet, but projects as a very good all-around player.

Eric Duncan, New York Yankees: Duncan’s only shot at sticking at third base in the majors is for the Yankees to trade him, because as long as Rodriguez is manning the hot corner in New York there is no chance of anyone else playing there. If Duncan (my #22 prospect) stays with New York, he may move across the diamond to first base.

Joel Guzman, Los Angeles Dodgers: Last but certainly not least is Guzman (my #9 prospect), who is actually a shortstop at the moment. His strength and size, along with the fact that the Dodgers’ long-term need is much stronger at third base, makes it likely that Guzman will move over to third once he gets to the majors. His amazing potential may have played a part in Los Angeles letting Beltre leave via free agency.

Third base has long been considered a fairly strong position for offense — “defense up the middle, hitting in the corners,” as the old adage goes. However, if you look at the actual numbers in recent years, third basemen as a group have not been particularly strong at the plate.

YEAR     3B GPA     ML GPA      DIFF
1997      .259       .261      -.002
1998      .259       .260      -.001
1999      .265       .268      -.003
2000      .262       .269      -.007
2001      .258       .260      -.002
2002      .252       .257      -.005
2003      .250       .259      -.009
2004      .263       .262      +.001

In fact, third basemen out-hit major leaguers as a whole (pitchers excluded) last season for the first time in eight years, and just barely at that. That surprised me quite a bit, and I think it also says there is at least a little statistical evidence behind my gut feeling about the current strength of the position. Now, does anyone have any ideas for a catchy nickname to describe a position that may soon have more than a dozen stars?

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