Around the Horn: Corner infielders
A-Rod the one star Yanks could least afford to lose from lineup
The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Every Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner infielders.
NEW YORK -- It was a darker period of the Yankees' offseason, with general manager Brian Cashman addressing the early November state of his club, eyeing a future that the likely American League MVP, Alex Rodriguez, appeared to have opted out of.
Asked to size up New York's third-base options, the GM grinned, resorting to a measure of gallows humor.
"Hello, Wilson Betemit," Cashman said, adding, "Internally, he's our guy until something else comes along."
Not to disparage the 26-year-old Betemit, a midseason pickup who hit four home runs in 37 games down the stretch, but no one would argue that the Yankees project to be far more lethal with A-Rod manning a corner position.
That became official in December, as Rodriguez finalized the terms of a landmark $275 million contract that will keep him in New York through the 2018 season. The package could wind up being worth $300 million if Rodriguez clubs his next 244 home runs in pinstripes, surpassing Barry Bonds' Major League record of 762.
"I feel so fortunate to be playing for the greatest franchise in the world," Rodriguez said. "That's what I've wanted all along. That's where I wanted to finish the career. My whole life has been a huge blessing and a dream."
Rodriguez, 32, was the Yankees' clear offensive leader throughout most of the 2007 campaign, his powerful right-handed swing whipping baseballs into the seats at a frenzied pace and leading his club out of its early-season deficit. So there was little surprise when Rodriguez claimed his third AL MVP Award -- his second as a Yankee, having also secured the award in 2005.
Committed to a new physical fitness regimen and hot right out of the gate, Rodriguez batted .314 with 54 home runs and 156 RBIs in 158 games for the Yankees in 2007, leading the Major Leagues in homers, RBIs and runs scored (143). The season ended on a sour note in the playoffs, but Rodriguez said its impact was still important.
"For me, it's been the most magical and most special year of my career so far, for many reasons," Rodriguez said. "Again, not winning the World Series is very disappointing -- that's why you strap it on every Spring Training and that's why you work so hard in the wintertime.
"But from a personal level, it was very satisfying to be able to come back from '06 and show the world what kind of player I am, on the greatest stage in the world, which is the Yankees."
Since RBIs became an official statistic in 1920, only three other players (none in the past 50 years) have compiled a season with the Major League lead in those three categories -- Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. Rodriguez's .645 slugging percentage was tops in the big leagues, as was his eye-opening ratio of one RBI per 3.7 at-bats.
New York Yankees
That made retaining Rodriguez one of the Yankees' chief priorities -- at least, until the All-Star and his agent, Scott Boras, opted out during Game 4 of the 2007 World Series. But time and a personal telephone call to senior vice president Hank Steinbrenner seemed to heal all wounds in a dramatic turn of events.
"It seemed like the whole thing was a roller coaster," Rodriguez said. "It was very emotional. It was very stressful. All along the line, I knew that I wanted to be a Yankee, and somewhere along the line, I took a couple wrong turns."
Across the diamond at first base, the Yankees have decidedly less star power, though they are still counting on showcasing some thump. Having bid farewell to regulars Doug Mientkiewicz and Andy Phillips via free agency, the Yankees plan to enter 2008 with Jason Giambi, Betemit and Shelley Duncan as their primary first-base personalities.
One year after Giambi was sidelined for two months with a painful left foot injury, there was some question concerning how the former AL MVP would hold up to the rigors of full-time duty at first base. Now 37 and entering the final year of his seven-year, $120 million contract, Giambi seems best suited for life as a designated hitter, with a sprinkling of first-base work mixed in.
A .236 hitter in an abbreviated 83-game campaign that featured 14 home runs and 39 RBIs, Giambi played just 18 games in the field in 2007, despite insisting during Spring Training that his mind-set would be to play triple digits defensively, bellowing, "The Big G is loose!" on the rare occasions former manager Joe Torre saw fit to patrol Giambi around first base.
Manager Joe Girardi seemed to hint last month that Giambi's time carrying a glove could be similarly limited in 2008.
"I always value defense," Girardi said. "I think defense is very important, because you can save a lot of runs, as well as drive in a lot of runs. So we will look at those things as the season goes on, but it's very important to me."
Duncan, 28, became something of a Paul Bunyan-esque folk hero when he burst onto the scene in July, becoming the first player to homer five times in his first 22 big league at-bats since Graig Nettles did so in 1967 and '68.
Addressed in organizational reports as a professional, line-to-line hitter, Duncan showcased better-than-advertised defense at first base and a strong arm from the outfield, batting .257 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs in 34 games for New York.
Though his season was slowed by a hernia that required surgery and his offseason interrupted by a blood-clot scare that required hospitalization, Duncan said that he is expecting to be free and clear in time for Spring Training.
"Everything's going all right," Duncan said last month. "The doctors have told me that I don't have anything to worry about. I'm just looking forward to getting down there and getting it started again."
Betemit is another contender to see playing time at first base, despite picking up the position only after joining the Yankees. Primarily a third baseman, Betemit's opportunities to back up A-Rod -- injuries aside -- should be limited (Rodriguez has averaged more than 157 games in his four years with New York).
First base could present an opportunity to log at-bats for Betemit, who hit .229 with 14 homers and 50 RBIs in a combined 121 games between the Dodgers and Yankees last season. With New York, he hit .226 with four homers and 24 RBIs.
Girardi said he isn't concerned about the potential for having a revolving door of candidates at first base. Sooner or later, he insists the stability will come.
"I was on clubs here in the late '90s -- there were more people than positions to fill, and we made it work and we won championships," Girardi said last month. "And we will try to do the same now. I mean, you never know. I don't think you can ever have too many people."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.