Around the Horn: Corner infielders

Around the Horn: Youth influx at the corners

On most teams, it isn't unusual to find the best player on the team on one of the corners. Look around either league these days and usually one or more of the corner spots is manned by the team's best, like first baseman Albert Pujols and third baseman Scott Rolen for St. Louis, third baseman Alex Rodriguez for the New York Yankees and first basemen Ryan Howard for Philadelphia, Derrek Lee for the Cubs and Lance Berkman for Houston.

Talent at first and/or third base is the norm for most teams, but baseball is in the midst of an impressive wave of talented but very young stars at the corner infield positions.

When they head to Spring Training in Arizona and Florida next month, only 17 of the 60 projected starters at the corner infield spots for MLB's 30 teams will be 31 or older. Of the 43 corner candidates who haven't celebrated their 31st birthday, 14 are 25 or younger, and 28 -- or nearly 50 percent of the 60 projected starters -- are under 28 years old.

This isn't a routine youth movement involving untested greenhorns. Many of these youngsters are All-Star-caliber talents, despite their modest years, and already making quite an impact on the Major League level.

Some are already established stars, like Florida's 23-year-old third baseman Miguel Cabrera, Philadelphia's 27-year-old first baseman and reigning National League Most Valuable Player Howard and Minnesota's 25-year-old first baseman (and current American League MVP) Justin Morneau.

Pittsburgh third baseman Freddy Sanchez, 29, won the NL batting crown last season and Atlanta first baseman Adam LaRoche, 27, blossomed for the Braves in 2006. Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (22), Cincinnati third baseman Edwin Encarnacion (24) and Kansas City's Mark Teahen (25) are coming off strong 2006 campaigns.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright (24), Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder (22), San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez (24), Seattle third baseman Adrian Beltre (27) and the Texas Rangers' 26-year-old corners of first baseman Mark Teixeira and third baseman Hank Blalock were among other twenty-somethings who shone brightly in 2006 and are back for another run this year.

And while they might seem older because they've been around a few more seasons, the fact is Pujols is only 27, Berkman is 30, Joe Crede of the White Sox is 28 and Oakland's Gold Glove third baseman Eric Chavez is 29. Lee of the Cubs and Rodriguez of the Yankees are only 31, while Mets first baseman Carlos Delgado is 34.

Cabrera, a three-time All-Star, converted from left field to third base last season and should be even better at the position in 2007 now that he's had a full season at the hot corner.

Marlins infield/first-base coach Perry Hill believes Cabrera's defensive skills will one day compare with Zimmerman and Wright.

Corner Infielders

Remaining Schedule
Catchers: Turnover at backstop
Corner IF: Infusion of youth at third
Middle IF: Lots of new combos
Outfielders: Revolving doors
Starters: Many seeking to rebound
Bullpen: Closers eye comebacks
DH/Bench: Depth can deliver success

"You talk about the young third basemen, and you always mention those other two guys," Hill said. "I think Miguel Cabrera, eventually, will be right up there with those two guys, in time. I think he will be that good."

Cabrera set a franchise record by hitting .339, and he finished second in the NL to Sanchez in the batting race. Defensively, he was a work in progress. Cabrera committed 17 errors and had a .957 fielding percentage.

The Mariners are counting on plenty of production from their corner infielders, Beltre and 32-year-old first baseman Richie Sexson. Both finished the 2006 season strong.

Sexson had 34 home runs 40 doubles and 107 RBIs while playing in 158 games. He was at his best in September, when he hit .365 with six home runs and had 38 hits in 28 games. Beltre improved upon his 2005 statistics, his first season in Seattle, by hitting .268 with 25 home runs and 87 RBIs. Like Sexson, Beltre was much better in the second half of 2006, as he hit .285 with 18 home runs and 54 RBIs after the All-Star break.

The Washington Nationals, with Zimmerman at third and 28-year-old Nick Johnson at first, could have the youngest corner-infield tandem in the Major Leagues.

In his first full season Zimmerman was the Nationals' biggest run producer, driving in 110 runs, and playing sparking defense in 2006.

"I was more worried about being good defensively, because that is what they expected from me," Zimmerman said. "My job is, basically, to play a good third base. Whatever came offensively, it was kind of a bonus."

So productive was Zimmerman that he is now entrenched in the third spot in the batting order. Zimmerman had a .290 batting average with eight home runs and 46 RBIs while batting in the spot.

"He's actually faster than he was when we drafted him," Washington GM Jim Bowden said. "He has more power than when we drafted him. He has more bat speed than when we drafted him. We drafted him at age 20, and the reality is, he is going to get better. I don't believe in rushing players to the big leagues. But he was just special -- special makeup, special character to go along with a real player who knows how to play the game the right way. He knows how to live life the right way. We are blessed. He is a centerpiece we can build around."

On the other corner of the diamond, Johnson stayed healthy most of the season and had his best year with the bat, hitting .290 with 23 home runs, 77 RBIs, 100 walks and a .428 on-base percentage. But his season came to an end on Sept. 23, when he broke his right leg in a collision with Austin Kearns at Shea Stadium.

"I'm progressing a lot, but I still don't have my range of motion," Johnson said. "I still have a limp. There is still pain there. I'm having bigger gains each week. I have to be able to walk right before I can do [any baseball activities]. It comes down to time. You have to let it heal. I wish it was cold, where you have the ability to get rid of it."

In Pujols and Rolen, the Cardinals have not only a pair of potent sluggers, the reigning world champions also have the latest NL Gold Glove winners on each corner in 2007.

Manager Tony La Russa has called Pujols simply the best player he's ever managed.

"He's absolutely consistent," La Russa said. "You can't go anywhere and get him consistently. He doesn't have one hole where he can't make an adjustment. He's got the high-average mentality of [Tony] Gwynn and [Wade] Boggs and [Rod] Carew and those guys. He's out there to get as many hits as he can. His concentration doesn't back off. He's talented. He's smart. There isn't anybody better."

Many have called Rolen, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, the best defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson.

Pujols finished second in the MVP balloting to Howard. The Philadelphia slugger's sophomore campaign included 58 home runs.

"Incredible season," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said. "We couldn't have come anywhere close [to the playoffs] without him."

Across the diamond, the Phillies improved by bringing in free agent Wes Helms. Last year's hot-corner duo of David Bell and Abraham Nunez combined to bat .245 with eight homers. Helms, 31, batted .329 with 10 homers in 240 at-bats.

Youth will be served at the corners in Arizona, where first baseman Conor Jackson (24) and third baseman Chad Tracy (26) are the projected starters, and at the hot corner in Los Angeles, where 25-year-old Wilson Betemit is the frontrunner for the Dodgers. The Angels are expected to man the corners with 23-year-old Casey Kotchman and 28-year-old Chone Figgins.

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.