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Around the horn: Corner infielders

Dodgers set at first, but have question at third

The following is the second 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: Corner infielders.

Things are normal with the Dodgers' infield heading into Spring Training.

They still haven't settled on a third baseman.

James Loney has established himself as the first baseman of the next decade, as long as he avoids the old sophomore jinx.

But across the diamond, there's still no clarity in what has been a black hole since Adrian Beltre was spirited off to Seattle after the 2004 season.

The Dodgers have assigned 18 players to the position in the three seasons that followed and are still in search of the right one. The wrong ones have come from seven different countries with names like Nakamura and Mueller, Robles and Guzman and Valentin and Perez.

Barring an unexpected acquisition, the Dodgers will open Spring Training with a pair of contrasting leading candidates in competition for the job.

There's Nomar Garciaparra, a 34-year-old veteran of 11 Major League seasons coming off a bitterly disappointing season and looking again to revive his career.

And there's Andy LaRoche, a 24-year-old rookie who in two trials last year was unable to make the kind of immediate impact the Dodgers received from Loney, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley and Jonathan Broxton.

With Miguel Cabrera, Scott Rolen and Brandon Inge available, general manager Ned Colletti made acquisitions to upgrade other areas and stuck with internal candidates for third base. For youth movement supporters, the hope is that LaRoche is ready to win the job.

Even Garciaparra concedes that his defensive versatility (he's started at shortstop and first base in addition to third base) could provide new manager Joe Torre with the kind of flexibility that's valuable in the National League. Club officials envision a situation where LaRoche would start and Garciaparra transitions into a super-sub utility role, filling in all over the infield and providing a clutch bat off the bench.

Garciaparra not only witnessed the youth movement unfold last year, he was a victim, having been benched the final three weeks of the season by manager Grady Little after recovering from a calf injury. Garciaparra finished the season with only seven home runs and 59 RBIs, a dramatic power outage even compared to the 20 homers he had the previous season.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Catchers: Martin becoming a fixture
Corner IF: Third base up for grabs
Middle IF: Veteran Kent back for more
Outfielders: Talented foursome
Starters: Consistency might be key
Bullpen: Saito anchors deep group
DH/Bench: Feb. 13

But when the job fell into his lap because of Garciaparra's shortcomings, LaRoche wasn't ready for it. He hit .226 with only one home run and 10 RBIs in 93 at-bats. LaRoche had almost as many walks as hits (20-21), lacking aggressiveness for a hitter that showed better Minor League power than Loney or Kemp.

Of equal or greater concern to some in the organization, LaRoche has chronic back and shoulder ailments.

Garciaparra went from first base to third midway through last season out of necessity for two reasons -- neither LaRoche nor Wilson Betemit could win the job, plus room was needed for Loney at first base. The strategy worked as planned at first base, where Loney grabbed the job and showed no desire to let go.

In 344 at-bats, he slugged 15 home runs with 67 RBIs, silencing skeptics that wondered since his signing whether he'd develop Major League power. His .331 batting average led National League rookies and his .319 mark against left-handed pitching means he won't need to be platooned. His running speed is below average.

Defensively, Loney is smooth around the bag with a gun for a throwing arm that might be expected from a former pitcher, but occasionally he appeared nonchalant on ground balls, which accounted for most of his nine errors.

Future second baseman Tony Abreu saw action at third base last season and will compete for a bench job. Future shortstop Chin-lung Hu's experience is mostly in the middle of the infield. Second baseman Jeff Kent has played first base and could move there if needed. Also coming to big-league camp on Minor League contracts with corner infield experience are Terry Tiffee and John Lindsey.

Ken Gurnick 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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