Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Kent, Furcal preparing to start season strong

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

LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers enter 2007 with a middle infield consisting of their best player in 2006 and the guy who was supposed to be.

The former is shortstop Rafael Furcal, who played better than most expected after his expensive free-agent signing by general manager Ned Colletti. The latter is Jeff Kent, whose playing time and production were less than Colletti hoped for when he granted him a contract extension.

Furcal and Kent were two of Colletti's more scrutinized signings after he took over in November. There was criticism of Furcal's $39 million signing, even by rival general managers, because the $13 million annual salary seemed excessive. The extension of Kent, while he was coming off wrist surgery, appeared curiously timed, unnecessary and risky.

One year later, it appears Colletti batted .500. Furcal proved to be a bargain, as he shook off early season nagging injuries and a spate of errors to emerge as the most consistent offensive player on the team. He hit .300, provided significant power leading off with 15 homers and scored 113 runs, the most for a Dodgers leadoff hitter since Maury Wills (130) in 1962.

But Kent's signing remains puzzling, as his body appeared every bit of its 38 years. He played in only 115 games and, despite a .294 average, hit only 14 home runs and drove in 68, his worst run production in a decade.

Kent spent two stints on the disabled list, one for a sprained wrist from late May to mid-June, another for a strained oblique muscle from mid-July until early August. He turned himself into a singles and doubles hitter over the final six weeks of the season, when he hit .355 but had only one home run over his last 92 at-bats.

With Father Time working against him, Kent has spent the offseason dedicated to a comeback. Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Doug Jarrow trekked to Kent's Texas ranch to lay out a conditioning program designed to keep Kent on the field at age 39. Kent, who generally shuts down in the winter, instead has worked out diligently, according to club officials.

It will be interesting to see the physical condition of both when they arrive at Dodgertown. A year ago, Furcal showed up noticeably flabby following knee surgery performed shortly after signing his contract. His lack of conditioning resulted in shoulder and back problems, leading to an April in which he batted .198, had a .306 on-base percentage and notched only two of his 63 RBIs.

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

Kent arrived in Florida still recovering from his wrist surgery and unable to swing aggressively, leading to an April in which he batted only .183 with one home run. New trainer Stan Conte has said Kent is expected to be physically ready for the start of Spring Training.

The Dodgers aren't exactly loaded with backup middle infielders, should injuries take either out of the lineup for an extended time.

Ramon Martinez is the main man to back up either spot. After making the team as a non-roster invitee last year, he delivered a solid, if unspectacular, season as a utilityman. He hit .278 with 24 RBIs in 78 games, with most of his starts at second base. He was clutch at the plate, batting .339 with runners in scoring position, and had a career-high five-RBI game in late May.

But he also wound up chained to the bench late in the season, first by the return of Cesar Izturis from his injury rehabilitation, then because of the curious acquisition of Julio Lugo when Izturis was traded to the Cubs for Greg Maddux. His September also included a six-game stretch when he left the club to go home to Puerto Rico for the birth of his first child.

Marlon Anderson, who made an impact as an emergency outfielder after being acquired for the stretch run, could fill in at second base, although he is penciled in as the primary left-handed pinch-hitter. The 40-man roster also includes Wilson Valdez and Oscar Robles, who handled shortstop and second base at Triple-A Las Vegas for most of the 2006 season.

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