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The Third Base Derby

With apologies to the legendary duo of Abbott and Costello, "who" will not be playing third base for the Yankees next season. Someone will have to replace Alex Rodriguez, certainly not in production but at least in terms of filling the position. The Hot Stove League season is fewer than two weeks old, but already several prominent names have been mentioned as hot corner candidates. Let’s consider them one at a time, working our way from best player to worst.

Migel Cabrera

Outside of A-Rod, he’s clearly the best available third baseman in terms of free agents/trade possibilities. The 24-year-old reminds me of Frank Robinson at the plate, a pure right-handed hitter who hits with equal parts efficiency and power. Even with his questionable attitude and lack of hustle, Cabrera projects as no worse than Dick Allen over the next six or seven years. Unfortunately, Cabrera plays like Allen at third base; he is a brutal defensive player who should be playing first base sooner than later. He would also cost the Yankees the most in terms of potential talent—a package of at least three young players/prospects. I can’t imagine the Marlins would let him go without acquiring either Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes in return, and that’s just not a smart proposition for the pitching-needy Yankees. If the Yankees can convince the Marlins to take a package of Ian Kennedy, Melky Cabrera, and someone like Ross Ohlendorf of Tyler Clippard, then by all means, make the deal. And then be sure to play Cabrera at first, while sliding the quicker and more sure-handed Wilson Betemit over to third base.

Miguel Tejada

A poor man’s Cabrera, Tejada would come far cheaper in the trade market. A package of Kyle Farnsworth, outfield prospect Brett Gardner and either Ohlendorf or Clippard might be enough to entice the O’s, assuming the Yankees pick up all of Tejada’s salary. The 31-year-old Tejada is a tough right-handed bat who hits well to all fields, puts the ball in play consistently, and doesn’t shrink from pressure situations. On the flip side, his home run totals have declined for three straight seasons, he doesn’t walk much, and he’s lost loads of range in the field. The latter point won’t matter much since the Yankees would play him at third, where his hands and arm are well suited. A bigger concern might be Tejada’s lack of effort. Consistently failing to run out ground balls and pop-ups, Tejada makes Manny Ramirez look like Charley Hustle. That attitude won’t fly under the microscope that is New York, especially under the watchful eye of a disciplinarian like Joe Girardi. The Yankees would have to hope that Tejada feels rejuvenated playing for a contender after years of stumbling through a zombie-like haze in Baltimore.

Mike Lowell

Although he’s a personal favorite of mine, I’m the first to admit that he won’t be the same hitter away from Fenway Park. He’s also 33 and will likely require a four-year contract if the Red Sox don’t reel him back in. Still, there’s plenty to like about Lowell, a first-class individual who works hard and keeps himself well conditioned. He’s also become a much better opposite-field hitter the last two years, especially when it comes to breaking balls on the outer half of the plate. Defensively, Lowell has lost nothing; he has terrific range, good hands, and a reliable throwing arm. If Lowell can hit .280, slug .475, and hit in the vicinity of 20 home runs, that should be good enough, especially given his fielding and leadership skills. There would also be an intangible benefit to adding Lowell. We wouldn’t have to hear fans pining for Scott Brosius anymore.

Edwin Encarnacion

There have been whispers of a possible trade that would send Kennedy to the Reds for Encarnacion straight-up, but that won’t happen until the Yankees have fully explored the possibilities with Miguel Cabrera. Like Cabrera, Encarnacion is only 24 and immensely talented, but also carries questions of attitude. Most notably, he angered former Reds manager Jerry Narron by failing to run out batted balls. (Is this the new epidemic in baseball, or what?) Defensively, Encarnacion is better than Cabrera, but his footwork still poses problems from time to time.

Mike Lamb

Not an ideal choice because he swings from the left side, Lamb would nonetheless come relatively cheaply as a free agent. At one time, he was considered a candidate to play third base in the Bronx—until the trade for A-Rod. The 32-year-old Lamb is a useful player, but he’s ideally a backup on a good team, a versatile left-handed hitter who can play third or first, and fill in at second on an emergency basis. If the Yankees were to sign Lamb, they’d likely have to acquire someone else to platoon with him. And that could be…

Morgan Ensberg

He could become available if the Padres non-tender him this winter. At his peak, Ensberg was a dangerous right-handed power hitter and a solid third baseman with a strong arm. But the 32-year-old has fallen off the map the last two seasons, leading to a trade from the Astros to the Padres. Unfortunately, he appears to be one of those rare players who has become overly passive at the plate—he simply takes too many pitches. A change of scenery could help him, but then again, Death Valley at Yankee Stadium might not be the best medicine for a right-handed pull hitter like Ensberg.

Pedro Feliz

If the Yankees are willing to sacrifice offense completely and emphasize defense as a higher priority, Feliz could be an option on the free agent market. The 32-year-old Feliz has consistent power (he’s hit 20-22 home runs over each of the last four seasons), but struggles to reach base (a .290 on-base percentage in 2007). Realistically, the Yankees will need to have a better-balanced offense without A-Rod, and that means securing some production from both first base and third base. There’s simply too much of a drop-off to Feliz, so the Yankees should pass on this possibility.

So there you have it, a half-dozen realistic candidates, ranging from good to mediocre, or perhaps even worse. If the Yankees don’t turn to an in-house candidate like Betemit—and assuming that A-Rod doesn’t accept arbitration—one of these men could be your starting third baseman in 2008.


Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books on baseball and writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com. He can be reached at bmark@telenet.net.

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