The first priority for several teams this spring is second base. This is a cyclical thing. Certain positions in certain years have more questions than usual, and this season, it seems to be the turn of second base. It's likely that 20 teams will open the 2006 season with a different primary second baseman than the one they had to start 2005. The position is disrupted to the point that the likely starting second baseman for the United States team in the World Baseball Classic, Michael Young, is a shortstop for his team, the Texas Rangers.
It's not that there is an obvious lack of talent at second base, it's more of an uncertainty: 11 teams, seven of them contenders, have questions at second. Young Aaron Hill can hit, but how much will the Blue Jays miss Gold Glover Orlando Hudson, who is a game-changer defensively? Is new Red Sox Mark Loretta the guy who slugged .495 in 2004, or the one who slugged .347 in 2005? Is rookie Josh Barfield going to win the job for the Padres, and if he doesn't, which of the veteran backups -- Mark Bellhorn, Eric Young, Bobby Hill -- will? Was last season an indication that new Twins second baseman Luis Castillo's body is starting to break down, and his speed and range have started to drag slightly?
The Rangers love Ian Kinsler, especially on defense, replacing Alfonso Soriano. But can they win a very competitive division with a rookie at second base? Who is the Marlins' second baseman, and will it be Pokey Reese, who batted 20 times last season (including 12 for Inland Empire), if none of the kids wins the job? Is Baltimore's Brian Roberts completely healed after a serious injury to his left elbow Aug. 20? The Brewers' Rickie Weeks really can hit, but will his defense be better this year? Is Jose Lopez going to be Seattle's second baseman, or will Fernando Vina, who didn't play in the major leagues in 2005, and has failed to play at least 150 games in a season since 2002, really make a bid for a starting job?
Then there are the Mets, one of the favorites to make the playoffs. Their second baseman is Kaz Matsui, but he is coming off a season that was filled with injuries. In addition, he had to deal with booing from the home fans and with criticism about his unwillingness to hang in on the double play. Bret Boone is in camp; he supposedly is in terrific shape, and determined to show that he's not done after last season, when he was released by the Mariners and Twins. Anderson Hernandez, 23, is marvelous defensively, but is he ready to hit in the big leagues?
The Cardinals are the favorite to win the NL Central, but, with the loss of Mark Grudzielanek to free agency, spring training should determine whether Hector Luna or Junior Spivey, with Aaron Miles on the outside, is their second baseman. Spivey has played next to shortstop David Eckstein before, and they did well together. Luna, says manager Tony La Russa, "is a big talent. He has the potential to steal 30 and hit 15 homers."
And then there are the Nationals, whose second base situation might be the most complicated of them all. They acquired Soriano at the winter meetings to add production to the lowest-scoring lineup in the major leagues in 2005. They have Jose Vidro at second base, so they want Soriano to play the outfield. But he said he doesn't want to move because he's more comfortable at second base; Soriano's offensive numbers are even more impressive when compared to second basemen than when they're compared to outfielders. A year away from free agency, Soriano says a move to the outfield could damage his value.
Vidro is coming off a knee injury that limited him to 87 games last season. When he's healthy, he's their best second baseman given that Soriano's defense is, at best, questionable. The Nationals likely will spend most of spring training trying to find an answer. Manager Frank Robinson will have the final say, but an unhappy Soriano in the outfield isn't going to do much for his or the team's morale, or for his needed production at the plate. It's possible that Soriano will be traded, or, if Vidro is healthy, he could be dealt.
Keep an eye on that, and watch six or seven teams who are hoping to make the right call at second.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.