Who has the best infield in baseball? It's not a question that is often asked, as is "who has the best bullpen?'' or "who has the best backcourt in the NBA?'' or "who has the best defensive line in the NFL?'' It is, however, a good time to ask the question because the Cardinals infield is having a phenomenal season, led by MVP candidates Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, fellow 2004 All-Star Edgar Renteria and sparkplug leadoff man Tony Womack.
That is the best infield in the game this year, but a close second, and the one you would build around for the future, belongs to the Texas Rangers. They have three players who, at this rate, might finish in the top 10 MVP balloting: shortstop Michael Young, third baseman Hank Blalock and second baseman Alfonso Soriano, all 2004 All-Stars. Add in first baseman Mark Teixeira, Texas' hottest hitter in the second half, and you get amazing production from a group that lately, and fittingly, has been hitting 1-2-3-4 in the batting order.
"They're the whole package,'' says Rangers manager Buck Showalter. "The one thing they all do is post up every game. Give them a day off and you've got a fist fight on your hands.''
Through Tuesday, the Rangers' infield was all hitting .270 or better. More impressive, they are all on pace to hit 20 home runs. The only teams in baseball history to have an all 20-home run infield was the 1940 Red Sox (Jimmie Foxx at first, Bobby Doerr at second, Joe Cronin at shortstop and Jim Tabor at third) and the 1986 Tigers (Darrell Evans, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Darnell Coles). The 1996 Orioles got 20 each from Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken and B.J. Surhoff, but Surhoff hit 18 home runs that year as a third baseman, the rest as an outfielder.
What separates this Rangers infield from that Orioles infield is age. Blalock is 23. Teixeira is 24. Young is 27. Soriano is 28. "These guys are going to be together for a long time,'' says Showalter. Blalock is signed through 2008. Young is signed through 2007. Teixeira is signed through 2006. Soriano's contract is up after this year, but he is two years from free agency, and the Rangers have no intention of letting him get away. And, after initial thoughts of trading him soon after acquiring him, he is a significant part of their plans. "Every time he comes through that (clubhouse) door, he has a big smile on his face,'' says Showalter. "Every game he plays is like the first game that he played in Little League.''
It's that attitude that also separates this infield from the others. When the Rangers chose to grow their infield grass high this year to help their beleaguered pitching staff, Young said "I don't care if they grow it up to my knees, let's play.'' Blalock, like Young, has emerged as a no-frills team leader: when asked what song he wanted played on the public address system for each of his at-bats, Blalock didn't want one, saying, "Hey, I'm a hitter, not a musician.'' Teixeira is built similarly; that is, he thinks first and mostly about winning.
"What separates our guys from some others is the ability to defend,'' says Showalter. "That's what you have to do in this organization if we're going to run you out there every day. Hank gets better every day at third. Soriano hung in there and made a great double play the other day even though he knew he was going to get hit, Michael Young is very solid. He relays the ball as well as anyone in the league. He knows when he needs to hurry and when he needs to slow down. All infielders need to have an internal clock. Michael has adjusted his clock. And Mark Teixeira has a chance to be a Gold Glover at first.''
He may not be at first base next year. "I could see him playing right field and playing Adrian Gonzalez at first,'' says Showalter. Gonzalez, 22, a brilliant defensive first baseman, is swinging well at Triple-A. Teams looking to deal ask about him constantly, but the Rangers are reluctant to move him for a pitcher because he might be their primary first baseman in 2005.
No matter who is at first next year, the Rangers are going to have an excellent infield. This year, it is the best in the American League. And with one more home run by Soriano and six more by Young, the Rangers will have the second, all-time home run infield in history. More important, they have an infield that plays the game the right way. No question about that.