Rotation play: Nomar could go third
Concern about Betemit, La Roche might also benefit Loney
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Will Nomar Garciaparra move across the infield to become the Dodgers third baseman, after all?Manager Grady Little said it's premature to shift into Plan B one week into exhibition games, but with nobody taking charge at the position, neither would he rule it out. Garciaparra is the logical fallback option if management is not satisfied with youngsters Wilson Betemit, Andy La Roche and company at the hot corner. Moving Garciaparra not only would put an All-Star bat at third base, it would open first base for James Loney, the Triple-A batting champ last year who has nowhere to play if Garciaparra stays at first. Last spring, Garciaparra made an impressive transition learning to play first base, where he had never appeared professionally. The longtime shortstop has played 34 games of Major League third base, for the Chicago Cubs in 2005. "It's not on my radar screen yet," Little said. "I know he's done that. We just moved him to a new position last year, so I'm really hesitant to consider it right now. But we might do anything when it gets down to it to make us the best team we can be. I'm not ruling anything out." Garciaparra has his infielder's glove ready and said he would move again if asked. When he re-signed with the Dodgers over the winter, he told the club he was open to changing positions again if the club believed it would enhance the chances of winning. He said it was not necessary for him to approach Little and volunteer. "Grady knows I would do it," he said. Then-Chicago manager Dusty Baker didn't know Garciaparra would be so willing to take one for the team back in 2005. Exclusively a shortstop the first eight years of his career except for one game at second base as a rookie, Garciaparra had never played third base until 2005 with the Cubs and he did it with only one day of practice, voluntarily. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez pulled a quadriceps muscle on Aug. 24, a Wednesday. That night, Garciaparra went into his manager's office and told him if he needed a replacement at third base, he would make the move. "Dusty asked, 'Really?' I said, 'Really,' " Garciaparra recalled. The Cubs were off the next day, but Garciaparra went to Wrigley Field and had coach Chris Speier hit him ground balls at the new position. The following day he started there and played 34 games the rest of the way, committing six errors. "I came to Wrigley that off-day to see Nomar take ground balls from Speier because I wanted to see his movement and his footwork and how he threw from a different arm angle," recalled Baker, now an ESPN analyst. "At first, things moved a little quick for him over there. But he played a very good third base for a guy who hadn't played there. If a guy can play shortstop the way he can, he can play third base. Now he's played a very good first base. Third and first are similar positions, just opposite. It's not like moving a guy in from the outfield."
The thought of Garciaparra joining shortstop Rafael Furcal on the left side of the infield would be a ground-ball pitcher's dream come true. Plan A for the Dodgers has been for Betemit to be the regular third baseman, although so far this spring he's 0-for-9 with four strikeouts and two errors. He did not play Tuesday. He hit 18 home runs last year, splitting time between Atlanta and Los Angeles last year. He committed seven errors in 79 games and he has a strong throwing arm. He's a switch-hitter who struggled badly batting right-handed but, at 25, has upside potential.So, too, does La Roche, one of the top prospects in the system. He swings the bat with authority and has hit with power at every level. He was drafted as a shortstop and had a brief tryout at catcher, but has been primarily a third baseman in the Minor Leagues. He'll get dirty and sacrifice his body at third, but he'll play because of his bat, not his glove. This spring he's 4-for-15 (.267) and also has two errors, having gone 1-for-5 with two strikeouts as the designated hitter Tuesday. Knowing general manager Ned Colletti's preference for veterans, it is a real longshot that La Roche could win the job outright out of Spring Training without even one previous game of Major League experience. Olmedo Saenz can play third base, but his primary job is pinch-hitting. Wilson Valdez can play third, but he's primarily a shortstop. Also in camp are non-roster infielders Fernando Tatis and Damian Jackson, but neither is considered an everyday option, and veteran utilityman Ramon Martinez, who had a two-run single Tuesday. Loney, who hit .380 last year at Triple-A, is hitting .312 this spring.
ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.