With the exception of Scott Rolen, the early part of the previous decade was a relative down period for the hot corner. Eric Chavez, Corey Koskie, Eric Hinske, Hank Blalock, Aubrey Huff, Aramis Ramirez and Adrian Beltre were among those that were expected to be stars at the position long-term, but injuries derailed Chavez, Koskie and Blalock, and contact, consistency and defense issues forced Hinske and Huff to new positions while failing to totally maintain their breakout offensive performance.
Only Beltre and Ramirez really played as expected. But Beltre primarily only as a defender; his offensive performance has fluctuated from MVP-quality to league average, mostly closer to the latter. Ramirez, on the other hand, broke out with a monster season before the league figured him out, only to make the proper adjustments and re-emerge as one of the best third baseman in the game.
Other top third base prospects of the day either moved off the position, such as Mark Teixeira and Michael Cuddyer, or simply didn't develop as expected for whatever reason, such as Sean Burroughs and Drew Henson.
The position got some help when Alex Rodriguez moved to the position and Chipper Jones returned from his trip to left field, but more importantly, a major influx of quality young third baseman entered the league in the past five years. Headlined at the top are the superstars, three of the games most recognizable stars: David Wright, Evan Longoria and Ryan Zimmerman.
Wright has been among the best players in the game since becoming an everyday player in 2005, he's averaged 5.92 WAR in the past five years. His numbers suffered last year, but most projection system peg him for at least five wins above replacement again in 2010.
Zimmerman finally came into his own as a hitter last season, his bat catching up to his elite glove as he managed to improve his power output while becoming more selective at the plate. Put it all together and he's been worth 4.63 WAR per year in each of his first four full seasons, a number that most projection systems expect him to eclipse by a comfortable amount.
Longoria is the youngest of the group at just 24, but he could end up being the most special player in the group. Combine a sparkling glove with big time power and a developing approach at the plate that's already pretty good, and he's been worth 12.5 WAR over his two seasons with the Rays, despite only playing in 122 games in his rookie season.
What you're looking at here are three of the best young third baseman to enter the game in a long time, three established superstars that excel in all facets, all of whom are 27 or younger, with two guys that won't be 25 for essentially the entire 2010 season.
But if any of these guys falter, there's good reason to believe that the position's depth should make up for it. Rodriguez should stick around at third base for a few more years, and other veterans like Jones, Rolen, Beltre, Ramirez, Chone Figgins,and Michael Young should continue to play the position well through the earlier part of the decade.
More importantly, other young guys have emerged beyond the Wright/Zimmerman/Longoria power trio. Pablo Sandoval and Mark Reynolds are two of the most unique players to come along in a while, and few things would give me more pleasure than knowing that big Panda would be manning the hot corner for most of his career while one of the best hitters in the league was also the game's most prodigious strikeout hitter.
Kevin Kouzmanoff and Andy LaRoche have emerged as solid regulars that could close in on stardom if they can take strides offensively, Kouzmanoff needs to become more patient while LaRoche is still waiting for his power potential to consistently come up in game situations. And there's always Alex Gordon, who really shouldn't be written off just because he initially hasn't lived up to his hype, he was already a solid everyday player before his disappointing, injury-filled 2009 campaign. (My apologies to Ian Stewart and Brandon Wood, I knew I would miss some guys.You belong in this post. Thanks to the commenters for pointing it out. )
That's without even going into the best third base prospects in the minors, such as Pedro Alvarez, Josh Vitters, Matt Dominguez, Josh Bell, and Lonnie Chisenhall.. Not to mention other guys like Wilmer Flores and Mike Moustakas, along with players that could end up at the position like Tim Beckham, Carlos Triunfel, Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier. There's no lack of potential impact talent at the corner in the coming years, to put it one way.
The hot corner has certainly seen its fair share of stars, but I think that we're looking at the best crop of third basemen in the game as long as I've been alive, probably since the days of Wade Boggs, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Pedro Guerrero, Craig Nettles and Bill Madlock.
Oh, and while I'm on the topic, did I mention that the consensus top position playerin college baseball, Anthony Rendon of Rice, also happens to be a third baseman?