CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Around the Horn: Middle infielders

Dodgers set at middle infield with Furcal, Kent

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.

One area where the Dodgers' youth movement has yet to make an impact is in the middle of the infield.

Although it was like pulling teeth to get his commitment, Jeff Kent last month said he would return as the second baseman at age 40 for what figures to be his final chance at a championship.

Shortstop Rafael Furcal, only 30, will be back for the third and final season of his contract, out to prove that his ankle and back are healthy and he's deserving of another big score on the free-agent market.

With a new manager, it's uncertain whether Kent and Furcal will be asked to change offensive roles. Since his signing by former general manager Paul DePodesta, Kent has been the Dodgers' cleanup hitter. Since Ned Colletti made Furcal his first major acquisition, the switch-hitter has been the Dodgers' leadoff hitter.

But Colletti recently added Andruw Jones to the roster. Jones is coming off his worst offensive season, yet his 26 home runs are still six more than Kent's team-high last year. Jones hit primarily in the fourth slot with the Braves, although he dropped through the order to the seventh spot as his average plummeted.

At the leadoff spot, Furcal would seem likely to return, although the presence of Juan Pierre on the roster creates lingering uncertainty. Last year, Grady Little decided to bat Furcal and Pierre one-two, and he left them there with spotty success, although with Furcal's injury it's hard to judge exactly why.

There are those who say Pierre's free-swinging, low-impact batting and bunting style is best suited for leadoff. Others believe he should bat second, some say eighth and many believe he shouldn't even be in the lineup with Jones, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier on the roster.

So Joe Torre not only took over Little's job, but also inherited the same dilemma at the top of the order that Little faced a year ago.

Defensively, Kent hasn't changed very much in the last few years. He has the limited range to be expected for his age, but he's generally reliable with balls he gets to and he can turn a double play as efficiently as any second baseman.

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
Furcal can be spectacular defensively, but also careless with routine throws. The ankle he injured in Spring Training bothered him as much in the field as it did at the plate.

While this could be Kent's swan song, 2008 could make or break Furcal's future with the Dodgers. The youth movement has shortstop Chin-lung Hu and second baseman Tony Abreu as the heir apparents.

Hu, 23, a defensive wizard from Taiwan, has made significant strides with the bat over the last two seasons. In his brief trial last year at the Major League level, he showed more power than expected, but had eight strikeouts and no walks.

Abreu, 23, was a spring sensation, but the switch-hitter really struggled against left-handed pitching. He was sidelined for an extended period with an abdominal injury ultimately diagnosed as a sports hernia that required offseason surgery.

The only other player on the 40-man roster with significant middle infield experience is Nomar Garciaparra, who hasn't played shortstop on a regular basis since 2005 but could wind up a utilityman if Andy LaRoche beats him out for the starting third-base job.

Ramon Martinez was the veteran utility infielder the last two years, but he left as a free agent. His role could be filled by Angel Chavez, a non-roster invitee who has ties to both Torre and Colletti, having played in the Yankees and Giants organizations.

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

{}
{}