Votebook: Power options at second
Sluggers now fill position formerly known for glovework
Second (base) things first ...Has this become the new power seat of the modern infield, countering historical trends and perceptions? Put it this way: When Bobby Grich wormed himself into a four-way tie for the AL homer title of the strike-shortened 1981 season with a meager total of 22, he became the first second baseman to lead that league since its birth season of 1901, when the Philadelphia Athletics' Nap Lajoie was tops with 14.
Or this: Boston's Dustin Pedroia last year became the first second baseman named American League Most Valuable Player since Nellie Fox in 1959 -- when he had a typical second baseman's total of two home runs.Second basemen have always been asked to bat softly and carry a big mitt. They've traditionally been the eighth-place hitters in lineups. That was Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski's specialty until a World Series-ending homer altered his image. Now look at the second sackers' fraternity, no longer a collection of sad sackers: In the AL, Toronto's Aaron Hill and the Yankees' Robinson Cano rank first and second in base hits, and Ian Kinsler has been a Texas wrecking crew. In the NL, the Phillies' Chase Utley has a 1.145 on base-plus-slugging (OPS) average and leads the position in the Triple Crown categories (.342-8-21). Oh ... the Pirates' Freddy Sanchez, the Mets' Luis Castillo, the Dodgers' Orlando Hudson and the D-backs' Felipe Lopez are also banging .300-plus. Obviously, deciding which box to check on the 2009 All-Star ballots and whom to send to St. Louis for the 80th Midsummer Classic on July 14 is not an easy task. Of the aforementioned position headliners, the two biggest surprises have to be the New York tandem of Cano and Castillo. Cano's fast start contradicts his usual getaways. He began this season as a career .237 hitter in the season's first month, and was particularly quiet last April, going 16-for-106 (.151). This year, he hit .366 that month. To Yankees manager Joe Girardi, the difference has been pretty basic: "He's swinging at pitches he can handle and he can drive, and working the count. That's great, because Robbie is a dangerous hitter when he swings at good pitches." Said Cano: "It was pretty important for me, because last year I started the season so bad. I wanted to start having fun from the first day of the season, and right now, that's happening. "It's just the beginning. I'm just going to keep working hard. Having a good year, this is the way to start." Castillo virtually had to talk his way back onto the Mets, who were displeased enough with his conditioning and play in 2008 to consider alternatives. "A big concern of ours," Mets manager Jerry Manuel conceded, "was that we knew that if we had to get anybody out to a good start, it had to be Luis. We made a concerted effort to do that, starting in Spring Training." The only caveat appears to be Castillo's solution to frequent leg problems: Stop running. The former two-time NL steal champ, who amassed 193 stolen bases from 1999-2002, has yet to attempt a theft; even during the otherwise sordid '08 season, he was 17-for-19 in steal attempts. Toronto has not had a middle infielder elected to an All-Star start since Roberto Alomar, also a second baseman, in 1994. But Hill could continue to make a compelling argument. Rather than being an unexpected shock, Hill's performance is a welcome flashback. He batted .291 with good pop (66 extra-base hits, 78 RBIs) in 2007, but he missed the final four months of last season with a severe concussion. "Hill has had a great start," said Toronto manager Cito Gaston, starting the All-Star drumroll for his guy. "We just hope he continues to swing the bat as he has. Who knows? Maybe he'll get a little trip over to St. Louis." Aside: Gaston was in his first incarnation as Blue Jays skipper when Alomar got the vote in '94. Utley, already a three-time All-Star, is on track to land his fourth consecutive berth with his affirmative rebound from late-November right hip surgery. Originally not expected back until mid-May, Utley checked in midway through Spring Training and got off to an April that virtually matched his first-month blaze a year ago (.360, 11 homers). "He works hard," said Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel. "He stays after it. He loves to play and he's determined. His determination is off the chart. He puts everything he's got into it." Utley is also one of those guys you have too see daily to appreciate -- as new teammate Raul Ibanez quickly learned. "Chase is a true professional," said the former Seattle outfielder. "He's amazing. His work habits are something to admire. Watching him every day is inspiring. He wants to be the best and he strives for it." A fourth straight All-Star start would match the Phillies record of Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt (1981-84). The last NL second baseman to start four straight All-Star Games was Craig Biggio, 1995-98. Generally, this position is not the domain of rookies. But the only one on the ballot has been making a solid first impression -- the White Sox Chris Getz is batting .333 while showing remarkable plate discipline, with four strikeouts in his first 63 plate appearances. Getz, coping for a week with a fractured bone in the middle finger of his throwing (right) hand, has settled in as the Sox leadoff hitter, despite his inexperience at that role. "I'm not a prototypical leadoff guy," said the 25-year-old Midwest (Southfield, Mich.) native. "I'm probably still more of a prototypical two-hole hitter, but I can still hit leadoff and make a positive impact on a team.''
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.