Around the horn: Corner Infielders

Garciaparra gives Dodgers stability

The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner infielders.

LOS ANGELES -- In Dodgers hot-stove debates, the corner infield positions have been the hot corners.

With Nomar Garciaparra back to play first base, what becomes of James Loney? And is management really satisfied with Wilson Betemit at third base? Or, will rookie Andy LaRoche get a chance in Spring Training to win the third-base job? Or will Garciaparra move across the diamond to take over third base and open up first for Loney? Or will Nomar swap positions with second baseman Jeff Kent?

All great questions ... but ones that will take a Spring Training -- at least -- to answer.

For now, the plan is to have Garciaparra return to first base and Betemit at third, even though there was no secret about general manager Ned Colletti's interest in Aramis Ramirez to become the third baseman if he hadn't returned to the Cubs.

The message boards illustrate fan impatience with the switch-hitting Betemit because of his inconsistency, particularly batting right-handed, although he'll only be 25 this year and did hit 18 homers last season. As a switch-hitter with power, he would seem to be an ideal project for Hall of Fame batting coach Eddie Murray, although Betemit seemed to be the same player last year whether he wore a Braves or Dodgers uniform.

So the clamor for the return of Adrian Beltre is understandable, although no trade appears to be in the works. The Mariners seem to be in no hurry to dump Beltre, and even if the clubs could agree on which Dodgers would be dealt to Seattle, there's still the issue of Beltre's contract. Although it has three years remaining at $35 million, he would be entitled to demand a trade after one season unless the Dodgers were willing to rework the deal.

And that would require negotiating with Beltre's agent, Scott Boras. Enough said.

Which is why the spring likely will begin with the third-base job being Betemit's to lose. He could be the 30-homer bat the Dodgers feel they lack. The potential is there.

That magic word applies to LaRoche and Loney, too.

LaRoche hit 30 home runs in 2005 when he split time between Class A and Double-A, but last year his power dropped to 19 home runs while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A.

His play was impacted by an injured left shoulder, which underwent surgery in October, and he's expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Catchers: Future is now for Martin
Corner IF: Hot debate at corners
Middle IF: Kent hopes to rebound
Outfielders: New-look outfield
Starters: Schmidt tops deep five
Bullpen: Stability vital to hopes
DH/Bench: Depth remains a strength

A lot of people believe Loney is even more ready to play every day, but Colletti wasn't willing to prove it by letting Garciaparra leave on the heels of the unexpected departure of J.D. Drew. So he re-signed Garciaparra to a two-year deal, leaving Loney's role uncertain, even though he had a .559 slugging percentage during three big-league trials last year and went 3-for-4 in the playoffs.

With Garciaparra last year suffering three injuries that kept him out of 40 games and handicapped him for about 40 more, the belief is that Loney will see plenty of playing time at first base.

Nonetheless, considering the management team in place with the Dodgers, the chances of either the 23-year-old LaRoche or the 22-year-old Loney starting the season as everyday corner infielders are remote.

Although Russell Martin, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton and even 36-year-old Takashi Saito played significant roles in the Dodgers' playoff run last year, none even made the Major League club out of Spring Training.

"I like to be as sure as I can be," Colletti said, explaining why he goes into the season counting almost exclusively on veterans. "If you find out in May that somebody's not ready and you haven't backed it up, it's a little late to change course. That's a miscalculation that's tough to correct.

"This is how we intend to do it. Little by little, you let the kids grow into it, rather than finding themselves in it too deep. You let them slowly take it over. I'd rather have young players compete for the opportunity than to send them out there and say, 'It's all yours.' "

Defensively, LaRoche appeared last spring to be a little rough around the edges at third base, while Loney has the fluid actions of a natural around first base.

The Dodgers also have guaranteed salary committed to Olmedo Saenz, who can play both corner positions, although his primary role is that of a right-handed bat off the bench. Utilityman Ramon Martinez also was re-signed, and he can play all four infield positions.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.