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March 1, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL West

Kung-Fu Randa and the Five Corners of Tepidness

by Geoff Young

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary attributes the coinage of "hot corner" as a synonym for third base to one Ren Mulford, who employed it while discussing Cincinnati's Hick Carpenter in 1889. As the 2011 season approaches, a more appropriate term to use in the NL West might be "lukewarm corner."

In San Francisco, the World Champion Giants hope that Pablo Sandoval remembers his nickname is "Kung-Fu Panda" and not "Kung-Fu Randa." Although Sandoval never will be mistaken for Craig Horner (Bob Horner, maybe), that doesn't matter so long as he hits... which he didn't last season.

After a breakout 2009 campaign that had Sandoval looking like the new Jim Ray Hart, expectations were understandably high for the young slugger. Instead of building on his success, however, Sandoval went from prince to sandfrog, doing his best Scott Spiezio impression. There's nothing wrong with having a guy who hits like Spiezio on your ballclub; it becomes a problem only when you're building your offense around him.

Weight and conditioning were concerns for Sandoval entering spring training. The 5-foot-11 switch-hitter reportedly has dropped 20 or so pounds and is believed to be around 240 as of this writing (his exact weight is a well-guarded secret, right there with who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong).

San Francisco's manager Bruce Bochy says that Sandoval will be "out there on a mission to show that he's back." New teammate Miguel Tejada, who revived his career after a move to the NL West last July, has offered to be Sandoval's workout partner.

How well Bochy's optimism and Tejada's generosity translate into production from their young would-be star remains uncertain, but the Giants must seek to ensure that Sandoval hits more like Hart than Spiezio going forward. As fantastic as that pitching staff is, a team needs to score runs to win, and the burden shouldn't fall entirely on Buster Posey's shoulders.

* * *

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Chase Headley looks to step up his game. After a monster 2007 campaign (.330/.437/.580) at Double-A San Antonio (whose home park plays a lot like Petco Park), Headley hasn't developed as expected.

Thanks to the presence of Kevin Kouzmanoff, Headley spent the first year and a half of his big-league career in the smash reality show "Lost in Left Field." With a return to his original position last year came the hope that the bat would follow.

It didn't.

After shaking off some early rust, Headley played a terrific third base but didn't provide much offense. The switch-hitter again struggled from the right side of the plate (.217/.287/.302) and again saw Petco Park destroy his game. As I've noted elsewhere, for his career, Headley hits like Alex Cora at home and Johnny Damon on the road.

Headley also wore down toward the end of 2010. To help avoid a repeat fade, he added the 20 pounds that Sandoval lost this winter.

The Padres also signed veteran Jorge Cantu, who is to third base defense what Pavement is to music, to spell Headley every now and then. The hope is that if Headley doesn't have to play 97 percent of his team's innings at third base, as he did in 2010, he won't "hit" .215/.282/.262 over the season's final month, as he did in 2010.

Headley has been better than many people realize, but with the departure of Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres need a few of their less established players to take a step forward this season. If they are to have any shot at duplicating (or even approaching) last year's success, they'll need Headley to show more on offense. Even a slight nudge upward to Corey Koskie levels would be helpful.

* * *

The Rockies have their own issues. Ian Stewart has shown flashes of greatness but lacks consistency. He struggles to make contact and hasn't hit left-handers. Colorado has brought in Jose Lopez from Seattle and Ty Wigginton from Baltimore to help shore up the infield. While most hitters not named Kirt Manwaring benefit from a move to Coors Field, these latest imports are less than inspiring.

Lopez is 27 years old and should be in his prime, but in a few short years, he's gone from an All-Star second baseman to a weak-hitting third baseman. He's more Granny Lopez than Granny Hamner at this stage in his career.

Lopez figures to be back at second base in Colorado, which brings us to Wigginton. The veteran infielder is expected to see action all over the diamond and serve as a right-handed bat off the bench. The latter might not be the best role for him, though, as southpaws have held him in check over the past two seasons. Come to think of it, Stewart (.203/.309/.365) hasn't been much worse against lefties than Wigginton (.244/.320/.344) during that stretch.

* * *

In Los Angeles, Casey Blake returns. Unlike most everything else involving the Dodgers right now, this comes without controversy. Blake is as exciting as a stack of newspapers in the garage, but he's also the division's most reliable third baseman.

Yes. I know.

Sadder still is the situation in Arizona. The Diamondbacks said goodbye to TTO hero Mark Reynolds and hello to... Sean Burroughs? Well, okay, the 30-year-old once-upon-a-prospect probably isn't expected to do much... although if he does anything, it will be more than he did in any of the past three seasons, during which time he didn't play a single game. Honestly, I just assumed he'd opened up a restaurant with Ryan Anderson or something.

As for Arizona's actual projected third baseman, Melvin Mora is kind of like the Dodgers' Blake, only older and less exciting. Why the Diamondbacks, losers of 97 games in 2010, would replace a 27-year-old who averaged nearly 35 homers a year over the past three seasons with a 39-year-old who hit a total of 38 during that same period is anyone's guess.

Mora is cheaper than Reynolds and doesn't strike out as often (who does?). Still, one wonders about the wisdom of bringing in an old guy who hit .244/.337/.384 away from Coors Field last year to play third base. No word on whether the younger Spiezio, who spent 2010 with the Atlantic League's Newark Bears, was considered for the job. Perhaps the Diamondbacks felt that they'd filled their quota of sons of big leaguers when they coaxed Burroughs out of retirement... or whatever the heck that was.

Related Content:  The Who

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