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Shortstops providing new electricity

Shortstops providing new electricity

There's no particular name for them, those runs that Jose Reyes creates. Yet they're uniquely Reyes nonetheless. He'll reach base, burn a trail to second, and from there -- well, he might as well already be home. He'll lead, steal, dance, prance, surge, jet and sometimes zoom, flying well over the speed limit, but rarely getting caught.

"Controlled havoc," explained third baseman David Wright, giving a nod in his teammate's direction. "You don't want to go out there and just let somebody off the leash and let them go crazy. It's more than meets the eye. It's not just the stolen bases. His electricity rubs off on the rest of us and allows us to play on a different level."

That's not a quirk, so much as it's a baseball philosophy. More and more, teams are employing their own electric shortstops -- Reyes is simply among the best of a new class that has dominated from New York to Los Angeles to Miami. Gone are the shortstops of last decade, who once altered the position by smashing home runs at unprecedented rates. They've since been replaced by these do-everything sparkplugs, and the National League East has become nothing short of a breeding ground.

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Not to mention a battleground. This group was featured during the summer months of last season, when three of its members -- Jimmy Rollins, Hanley Ramirez and Reyes -- all hit superstardom at around the same time. Rollins was the most boisterous of the group, using his historically productive Major League season to trumpet the virtues of his Phillies over the Mets, even claiming that his was the team to beat. His words, as much as his bat, helped inspire the Phillies even after the divisional crown seemed lost.

"I'm like my mother," Rollins said. "She loves to talk. She always said, 'Baby, if you can't do it, don't say it. Because if you say it, people will expect you to do it.'"

So he talked, and then he hit. His main competition, as far as praise and accolades were concerned, was Reyes, a bounding ball of energy who held the Mets' fortunes in his hands. When Reyes produced, the Mets won -- which explained why they won for most of the year. But when he didn't, hitting .205 in September, the Mets faltered.

The Mets hit bottom, in fact, on the season's final afternoon, when Ramirez and his nothing-to-lose Marlins -- notably slighted by some of Reyes's flamboyant dances and handshakes out on the field -- pummeled the Mets in an 8-1 win. Within hours, the Phillies had clinched the NL East title, and the shortstop battle was complete.

Rollins had the victories, and an MVP award to boot. Ramirez had the statistics, and some unmatched offensive potential. Reyes had the stolen-base title, and the respect of all those who still considered him perhaps the foremost shortstop in the game.

"I don't want to say I'm the best, but it's great to be in the same division with those kinds of guys," Reyes said. "I also enjoy watching them play, too. Watching Hanley Ramirez, he's a great player, and Jimmy Rollins. I care about me and about the New York Mets, so I can't worry about other shortstops. But they have a lot of talent, too."

It's a different sort of talent. Shortstops -- traditionally light-hitting, defensive-minded folks -- began to change two decades ago, when the first of the power-hitting behemoths made their way into the league. By the end of last century, slugging superstars such as Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter had transformed the position, turning it from a track meet into a home-run derby.

That generation, now, has all but disappeared. Most have moved to other positions, and others have declined in various aspects of their games. New shortstops have emerged to take their places, but there's no symmetry here. These shortstops are different.

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Reyes is the prototype. He reaches base, steals bags, hits for some power and generally causes chaos. Rollins, the oldest of the bunch, has a bit more pop in his bat and a bit less speed, but the overall effect is the same. And Ramirez, from the perspective of sheer offensive talent, might have the most potential of the bunch. He isn't as strong on defense as either of his two divisional rivals, but he's still improving. That's a scary thought.

"You clearly see the speed and power that he has in the game," Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said. "It is rare."

Rare, perhaps, but not completely unique. The National League, in particular, boasts shortstop after shortstop with the potential to become the face of his franchise. Reyes and Rollins are already there. Ramirez is more than on his way.

In Milwaukee, J.J. Hardy posted dynamic numbers over the first half of last season, and has given the Brewers reason to believe he can do it again. Situated in one of the top young infields in the league, his production could quite easily soar. In Arizona, Stephen Drew slumped last season at the age of 24. Big deal. The Diamondbacks are still counting on him -- and rightly so -- to become a key component of their desert revival.

In Atlanta, the Braves have become so enamored with shortstop Yunel Escobar that they traded away Edgar Renteria -- in large part to make room for a guy who manager Bobby Cox calls "an All-Star caliber player." In San Diego, the Padres think just as highly of Khalil Greene, whose bat might prove critical in the tight NL West. Then, in Colorado, there's Troy Tulowitzki, fresh off a World Series appearance and a fat new contract. His mold is more traditional -- power, power and more power. And that's just fine, too.

"He's going to be around for a long, long time," Rockies first baseman Todd Helton said of his teammate. "His overall makeup is perfect to be very successful in this game for many years. And he's exciting to watch play, and I've got a front-row seat to it."

What these National League shortstops all have in common is energy. Consider Rafael Furcal, the wily veteran of the group -- all 30 years of him -- who just might help spark his Dodgers all the way to the NL West title.

During this spring's final game at Dodgertown, Furcal had already hit a home run and two triples when acting manager Tommy Lasorda figured it was time to give his starting shortstop some rest. Furcal had other plans, arguing his way back into the lineup and playing a full nine innings -- for no reason other than the simple fact that he could.

"It shows you what these guys are all about," Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer said. "He's a very enthusiastic guy who loves to play baseball, and that's contagious. He has the speed dimension, and he's also a tremendous defensive player. But the one thing is he really brings a lot to the party with his enthusiasm."

They all do, to different degrees.

"I think that I'm a little spoiled because I get to see Reyes play every day," Wright said. "Nothing against any of the other shortstops out there, I just think he's on a different level when it comes to being a sparkplug and bringing that electricity to a team."

There may be a few arguments coming out of Philadelphia and Miami, Los Angeles and Denver, and that's the beauty of it. These guys all have the talent and all have the opportunity -- and probably will for a decade or so to come. So sure, Wright's plenty spoiled. So is Helton. And so is every team that has a sparkplug to call its own.

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

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