Around the Horn: Corner Infielders

Lowell, Youkilis don't cut corners on diamond

The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner infielders.

BOSTON -- If you're looking for the grit of the 2007 Boston Red Sox, the best place to start is the corners of the infield, where you will find two players who value substance far more than style.

Though third baseman Mike Lowell was a newcomer to Boston last year, it didn't take him long to emerge as a leader. Lowell is the type of winning, no-nonsense player who commands respect.

Across the diamond, first baseman Kevin Youkilis mirrored Lowell's professionalism with his own determination. Banged up quite often over the course of his first season as an everyday player, Youkilis never looked at asking out of the lineup as an option.

Traditionally, you look for power at the corners. Lowell (20 homers in 2006) and Youkilis (13) don't have a ton of that, but they make up for it in other ways.

Take, for example, Lowell's glove. How do you quantify how many runs he saves a year? Lowell has tremendous instincts at the hot corner -- not to mention soft hands and an accurate arm. When a ball is hit in his direction, you can pretty much count on the play being made.

While his defense is his most valuable attribute, Lowell can make things happen at the plate as well. His 47 doubles were the eighth-highest total in Major League Baseball last year. Lowell hit .284, a 48-point improvement from his nightmarish 2005 season in Florida.

If everyone stays healthy, Lowell will likely hit sixth or seventh in manager Terry Francona's lineup, and the veteran may rotate with Jason Varitek between those two slots depending on matchups. Lowell also has the type of run-producer mentality that will enable him to hit third or fourth on a fill-in basis when David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez needs a day off.

Just like nobody knew if Lowell would rebound from his rough final year in Florida, it was hard to say last year at this time if Youkilis would be able to succeed as an everyday player. He answered that question quickly, showing he belonged nearly the minute the season started.

Youkilis, as has been well advertised, is an on-base machine. Entering his second full season, he has the eye of a 15-year veteran. Last year, Youkilis drew 91 walks and had a .381 on-base percentage. That gave Francona the flexibility to hit him virtually everywhere in the order, which Youkilis basically did.

Boston Red Sox
Catchers: Backstops aim to rebound
Corner IF: Duo brings professionalism
Middle IF: Pair of newcomers
Outfielders: Manny is still Manny
Starters: Potential to be dynamic
Bullpen: In search of a closer
DH/Bench: Ortiz tops among DHs

The projection for 2007 is that Youkilis will hit second, putting him behind speedy Julio Lugo and in front of the thunder of Ortiz and Ramirez.

A third baseman by trade, Youkilis has seamlessly made the transition to first. In fact, he's probably a better first baseman than he is a third baseman. Youkilis has good range and a smooth glove, and he saved teammates from plenty of errors last year.

He will still get a few starts at third on those days when Francona can actually talk Lowell into taking a rest.

The Red Sox, at this juncture, are unsettled when it comes to who will back up the corner infielders. One option is Eric Hinske, who was acquired in August and is under contract for one more year. Hinske can play first, third and the corner outfield spots.

However, the Red Sox owe the left-handed hitter a very modest amount of money (the Blue Jays picked up the bulk of his salary when the trade was made) which means that Hinske has a very trade-friendly contract.

There's a chance that backup outfielder Wily Mo Pena will play some first base in Spring Training. If that experiment goes well, don't be surprised to see the big slugger get some spot starts at first during the season. The Red Sox are motivated to get Pena as many at-bats as they can in order to ease his development.

Alex Cora specializes as a middle infielder, but he'll likely get some starts at third base, where he does a competent job.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.