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Hole at Third Is Becoming a Bottomless Pit for Offense

May 22, 2005|Tim Brown

It is not too much to ask the owner of the Dodgers for a third baseman who can hit and catch, who can stand behind Milton Bradley and force fastballs to the last run producers in the lineup, and ease a small part of Jim Tracy's daily torment.

We were all thrilled Saturday, when a Dodger third baseman -- Antonio Perez, this time -- stepped in during the seventh inning, fouled off a couple of two-strike pitches from John Lackey and then drove in the Dodgers' only run since Wednesday.

The moment could not have been more touching had tears streamed down the faces of every one of Jim Colborn's pitchers. Ushers swooned. Women clutched their babies.

And yet it served only to illustrate the disaster third base has been for the team that fell out of the Adrian Beltre negotiations, or pulled out, or forgot to return a phone call, or whatever the story is today.

Perez was Tracy's sixth third baseman since Beltre left. He was the sixth since May 3, as a matter of fact, and the fourth since May 11. This is not a position, it's a bowling shoe; spray it with Lysol and give it to the next guy.

Since April 21, the day after the Dodgers were 12-2 and charting the parade route, their third basemen are batting .184. In those 28 games, 18 of them losses, they have nine runs batted in, or one fewer than one Yankee third baseman had in one game against the Angels.

Over the better part of two months, 42 games' worth, the Dodgers have gotten a league-worst .199 average out of what typically is an offensively oriented position, and two home runs, both by Jose Valentin, both in the season's first week.

While we're all for giving the underprivileged a chance, and it is a joy to follow along with prospects Willy Aybar, Joel Guzman and Andy LaRoche in Baseball America, there's a division to be won, there's faith to be rewarded and there's a third baseman in Florida who appears to be available.

Fans of Frank McCourt's baseball team attend his baseball park 47,000 at a time, so now it's time for him to return the gesture, load up some of that dry powder he talked about over the winter, and have his general manager go get a third baseman.

A National League general manager said this week the Florida Marlins are amenable to trading Mike Lowell, and that's as good a place as any to start. Lowell is 31, three times an All-Star, will hit somewhere around 30 home runs and makes plays at third. He is expensive --

$8 million annually through 2007 -- but that shouldn't bother McCourt, whose payroll is about $87 million, or about $13 million less than he said we should expect. If $8 million is too much or three years too long for the organization whose prospects are stacked up over third base, and if Odalis Perez's injury and Scott Erickson's ineffectiveness make starting pitching the greater priority, then Joe Randa is making $2.2 million in Cincinnati, and the Reds are done in the NL Central.

General Manager Paul DePodesta offered the reminder that the Dodgers remain among the league leaders in runs scored, and it bothered him little that they have scored three or fewer runs 19 times in 29 games. Third base, he said, is not yet the pressing issue.

"I'm looking at it as an opportunity, a great opportunity, to find out more about our young kids," he said. "If we can't try to break in a kid when we're leading the league in runs, then when can we? I'm not saying that'll go on indefinitely. We'll see how it goes over the next six weeks, eight weeks. If we find out that we need help, then certainly we'll look to do something."

For his purposes, DePodesta splits the season into three parts; the first two months are spent analyzing the roster, the second two months repairing it. We're 10 days from June, the reparation period.

Here's what he might consider: There is a third-base problem and there are depth problems, not all of which will be solved by the return of Jayson Werth, and a winnable division is beginning to drift away. Tracy had to take his only shot at the Angels with two on in the seventh inning Saturday, when Olmedo Saenz batted against right-hander Brendan Donnelly, a matchup that favored Mike Scioscia. His other option there: Oscar Robles.

So, the early days of the season come and go, the Dodgers trudge from the field, and if you're not sure who's playing third base today, well, welcome to the manager's office.

It's Perez. Or Saenz. Or Robles. Or Mike Edwards.

"I think you're looking for as much consistency as you can get from a defensive standpoint," Tracy said late Saturday afternoon. "And you're looking for enough offensive production to take some of the onus off a leadoff man and three other guys in the middle of the lineup. You need an awful lot from them. That's a little much to ask from four guys -- [Cesar] Izturis, Bradley, [Jeff] Kent, [J.D.] Drew. It's not an easy answer. It's not. That's something I wrestle with every single day."


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