Newest star gathering is at 3rd in NL

April 16, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

At this decade's start, the trio was hyped as the Holy Trinity of Shortstops.

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra.

Quickly, Miguel Tejada joined them, beginning his streak of five straight 100 RBI seasons in 2000.

We were told that these twentysomethings would be among baseball's best players for years to come. They could do it all -- at the same position in the same league.

The experts were right.

We were also told we might not see something like this ever again.

Fast-forward to 2006.

Tejada and Jeter are still among the American League's elite shortstops. Rodriguez, perhaps baseball's best player, switched to third to play alongside Jeter with the New York Yankees. Garciaparra has moved to first base with the National League's Los Angeles Dodgers, but he hasn't been able to shed the injuries that have derailed a splendid career.

Three of the four are still superstars. But the Orioles' Tejada is the youngest, and he turns 30 next month.

So the halos soon may have to be passed on. The potential new baseball deities, however, have taken a few steps to the right of shortstop while rising in the National League. By the end of this decade, we might be witnessing a new baseball trinity.

The Florida Marlins' Miguel Cabrera, the New York Mets' David Wright and the Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman. All three play third base in the NL East.

Cabrera, who switched back to third from the outfield this year, turns 23 on Tuesday and likely will hit his 100th homer this season. Wright, 23 in December, has one full season in the majors, but he batted .306 with 27 homers and 102 RBIs.

Then there's Zimmerman, 21, who was at the University of Virginia this time last year. He isn't projected to have the same power as the other two, but scouts say he is a .300 hitter and Gold Glove winner in waiting.

Comparisons to Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen have been thrown around when talking about this new wave. Lofty, maybe unachievable, praise.

The potential, no question, is there. But this trio is too smart to mention itself in the same breath as the Big Three/Four Shortstops of 2000.

"A lot of people have done it for a month or, in my case, a lot of people have done it for a year and a half," Wright said. "But when we start doing it year after year, then you have that argument. But until we get to that level, there is just no comparison to Jeter, Nomar, A-Rod and Tejada. Maybe in a few years we'll have that argument."

If they stay in the same places and continue to improve, the arguments that swirled around the shortstops will eventually entangle these guys.

Who's better? Is defense more important than offense? Is leadership? Which one unfairly gets left off the All-Star team?

"I don't think about the All-Star games or any awards or anything like that," Zimmerman said. "But I think any high-level competition makes it more fun. You can make it a little rivalry between you and your other position players in the league."

It looks as if the National League's not finished producing potentially star third basemen.

The Cincinnati Reds' Edwin Encarnacion, 23, is in his first year as a starter. Ian Stewart, 21, is considered the best overall prospect in the Colorado Rockies' system, the Dodgers' Andy LaRoche, 22, is nearly ready for the majors and the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun, 22, is another first-rounder with big potential.

While Chipper Jones is injured, the Atlanta Braves have Wilson Betemit, 25, playing third -- and that's only because they traded Andy Marte, the heir apparent to Jones, in the offseason.

Marte, 22, is now in the Cleveland Indians system and, along with the Kansas City Royals' Alex Gordon, 22, is considered a future third base star in the AL.

Many things can happen between promise and results, of course. Baseball proves that every season. But players such as Cabrera, Wright and Zimmerman already are successful. And they are -- quietly, anyway -- rooting for each other.

"Having younger guys on other teams makes it easy for all of us, because we can talk to each other, to talk about what it is like," said Zimmerman, who played just 67 games in the minors. "It's hard for young guys sometimes, and there's not too many of us around. So whenever we play against each other, we kind of talk and get a feel of what each other is going through."

Maybe the experts who hyped the great crop of AL shortstops six years ago were wrong after all.

No doubt Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar and Miggy were a sight to see.

But maybe, just maybe, that much talent at one position at one time in one league can happen again. A lot would have to go right, but it's not impossible.

"If we can all keep doing what we are doing and keep improving it will be fun," Zimmerman said. "Fun to watch us three."

Dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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