Third base in the National League is the most competitive position in baseball. With Matt Williams, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Vinny Castilla and Robin Ventura, the NL has no problem filling the All Star roster with great players at the hot corner. This year, Fernando Tatis has added his name to the mix and Adrian Beltre is not far away from doing the same. If Phil Nevin continues to play like he has (14 HRs and 41 RBI in 175 ABs - that works out to 44 HRs and 129 RBI over a full season), then half the teams in the NL will boast an All Star quality 3rd baseman. And it's only going to get better (or worse if you're one of those guys hoping to get a berth).
Pittsburgh's Aramis Ramirez was considered one of the top prospects in baseball last year. Baseball America had him ranked #5, right behind Ben Grieve, Paul Konerko, Beltre and Kerry Wood. Not bad company. He earned that accolade by hitting 29 homers and driving in 114 while playing great defense at High A Lynchburg as a 19 year old. The Pirates decided he should skip AA and promoted him last year to the big club after a brief, less than impressive start in AAA.. He struggled through his 251 ABs hitting a lowly .236 and only 6 homers. Worse still was that he lost his batting eye, walking only 18 times while striking out in 72 trips to the plate. Ramirez had maintained a strikeout to walk ratio of nearly 1-to-1 for most of his career, so this was quite a departure from what had been expected. Not wanting Ramirez to struggle again this year, the Pirates signed Ed Sprague to take over at third and contented themselves with sending Ramirez back to AAA for additional seasoning.
The move has paid off. Ramirez has been as hot as cayenne pepper back in AAA Nashville. Currently, he's hitting .338 with 18 homers and 57 RBI and has rediscovered his discriminating eye at the plate, drawing 59 walks while striking out only 43 times. There has been some concern about whether or not he can be an everyday player. Apparently he has trouble focusing when playing everyday, which might be the reason he's totaled 31 errors already. However, all those errors didn't stop PCL managers and scouts from voting him the best defensive third baseman in the league. There is no question the guy can hit and at just 21 years old, he's still one of the youngest guys in the Pacific Coast League. With the the talent he has, the only thing keeping Aramis Ramirez from adding himself to the legion of All Star third basemen is Ramirez himself.
Another potential All Star in the making is San Diego's Sean Burroughs. He burst onto the national scene 5 years ago when as a 13-year old pitcher led the little league team from Long Beach to it's second consecutive Little League World Series. He was hitting 78 mph with his fastball consistently, striking out 10+ in every start and even threw a no-hitter during the tournament. Many thought the son of former AL MVP Jeff Burroughs was going to become a star pitcher in the majors one day. It didn't quite work out that way. It seems young Sean was a better hitter than he was a pitcher - hard to imagine - and decided playing everyday at third was better than playing every 4th ot 5th day as a pitcher in high school. He finished his senior year hitting .507 with 5 homers and 29 RBI in 67 at bats. And just for good measure, he also stole 9 bases. The Padres drafted him 9th overall, but signed him too late to get him into the rookie league last year.
So they started him at Low A Fort Wayne in the Midwest League this year, hoping he could make the transition from an aluminum to a wooden bat while facing the tougher competition. After struggling in May, Burroughs had a 23 game hitting streak that helped bring his season totals to .329 overall, with 4 homers and 61 RBI in 328 at bats. And just for good measure, he's stolen 14 bases. Much like Ramirez, he's still a bit erratic in the field, committing 29 errors so far, but scouts feel that he will be an excellent defensive third baseman, possessing a very strong arm and good range. And like Ramirez, he has a very discriminating eye at the plate, with 59 walks versus 49 strikeouts. Many feel his smooth swing will eventually generate 20 homer power to go along with a high average.
And lastly Florida's Mike Lowell has a decent shot at joining the crowd at third. Lowell was dealt to the Marlins after the Yankees decided to keep Scott Brosius on for a couple more years. This after Lowell hit .304 with 26 homers and 99 RBI in AAA Columbus last year. In spring training, it was discovered that Lowell had testicular cancer. He went for treatment and by all reports has been cured of the illness. Unfortunately for Lowell's performance on the field, treatment for cancer is an incredibly exhausting ordeal and has drained much of his strength. Still, he has managed to hit 4 homers in 151 at bats. He's a decent fielder and has actually improved his judgment of the strikezone this year, which will pay off down the road. By all accounts, Lowell is a tough-minded, determined individual and should be fully recovered by next spring. Still only 25, Lowell has the talent and determination to show he belongs in the elite group. Don't be surprised to see him improve on his AAA numbers in Florida next year.
For at least the next decade, the National League will have a ton (literally) of All Star quality third baseman, more playing than at any time in history. And while these guys will be burning up the boxscores and battling for All Star roster berths, all we can do is enjoy.