Here’s a closer look at the corner-infield positions in the AL West:
The Angels are set at third base after signing Anthony Rendon to a seven-year deal last season, but first base is more of a question mark. Jared Walsh is coming off a breakout rookie season offensively and figures to share first-base duties with veteran Albert Pujols. Rendon was recently ranked as the No. 1 third baseman in the Majors and will be backed up by a utility player such as Robel García or Franklin Barreto. Second baseman David Fletcher could also shift to third on days when Rendon needs a break. Walsh, a left-handed hitter, is expected to get most of the starts against right-handed pitchers, with Pujols likely to start against lefties. Pujols, 41, is in the final year of his 10-year contract with the Angels.
Walsh will have to prove that his breakout was real and wasn’t aided by the shortened 60-game schedule in 2020. Walsh, though, did have solid numbers, hitting .293/.324/.646 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 32 games, and he has a strong track record in the Minors despite being a 39th-round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft. It's also unclear how much playing time Pujols will get at first, but he can also still serve as designated hitter on days when Shohei Ohtani is unavailable.
-- Rhett Bollinger
The Astros have two of their most accomplished and established stars at the corners with Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman. Gurriel, 36, was set to be a free agent entering this year before the Astros signed him to a one-year deal with an option for 2022. Gurriel, a Gold Glove finalist in ’20, remains a solid presence at first, though his offensive numbers suffered a huge drop off last year. Bregman is still one of the top third basemen in the game despite also having a down year in ’20 at the plate.
Can they bounce back? Gurriel, a force in the lineup during Houston’s run to the World Series in ’17 and ’19, hit .232 with six homers and 22 RBIs in a shortened season and struggled to drive the ball in the playoffs (5-for-44 with no extra-base hits). The Astros can only hope he didn’t get old overnight. Meanwhile, Bregman added 27 pounds this winter while looking to bounce back from a ’20 season in which he hit just .242 with six homers and 22 RBIs. That came on the heels of a second-place finish in the ’19 AL MVP race.
-- Brian McTaggart
The cornerstones of the franchise happen to reside at the corner-infield spots for the A’s. The two Matts -- Chapman and Olson -- have formed a dynamic duo that fortifies the A’s infield with superb defensive play. The two-time Gold Glove winners also pack a punch in the middle of the A’s lineup, with Chapman posting an .851 OPS over the past three seasons and Olson slugging 103 home runs in just 419 big league games. Though Chapman was limited to 37 games last year due to season-ending hip surgery, the third baseman has been progressing well in rehab this offseason and is expected to be fully healthy for Spring Training. Olson will be looking to rebound from a tough .195 batting average last season, however his power numbers were still there with 14 homers over 60 games. While the A’s expect Chapman and Olson to man the corner spots for most of 2021, the A’s have two utility players on the roster who have experience playing both positions in Chad Pinder and Vimael Machín should either starter need a spell.
Chapman is expected to be a full-go for the start of the season, but it remains to be seen what type of impact, if any, the hip issue could have on his mobility on defense. Athleticism is a key part of Chapman’s game as it enables him to make those spectacular plays that A’s fans have grown so accustomed to watching him make over the past few years. Should the A’s decide to ease Chapman back early on in the season, Pinder, who filled in nicely to end last season and in the postseason, could see some more time at the hot corner.
-- Martín Gallegos
Defensively, the Mariners’ corner infield is probably the second best in the AL West behind the A’s elite tandem. Evan White dethroned Olson last year by winning the Gold Glove at first base -- becoming the first rookie first baseman to win since the award began in 1957 -- and Kyle Seager remains above average at the hot corner. White and Seager will hold their respective spots on the depth chart entering Spring Training, but this could be their final season together, with the 33-year-old Seager entering the last year of his high-priced contract.
How will Ty France fit into the infield plans? The Mariners say that France’s elite bat makes him an everyday player, and he’ll see the bulk of his action at DH. But he also profiles as Seager’s heir apparent and will get work at second base -- and quite possibly at first -- in camp. France, who’s played 171 games at first in the Minors, could give the Mariners some insurance in case White shows he could benefit from more Minor League development after slashing .176/.252/.346 with a 67 OPS+ as a rookie last year.
-- Daniel Kramer
The corner-infield positions are two of the more unknown for the Rangers right now, and there are a couple of directions they could go for each. First base is more stable, though. Texas acquired Nate Lowe from the Rays this offseason to take over first, but Ronald Guzmán’s Dominican Winter League performance -- hitting .360 and winning league MVP -- could create more competition at the position. Lowe hit .251/.322/.447 with 11 home runs and 30 RBIs through his two seasons in Tampa Bay. He can add a consistent left-handed bat to Texas’ offense, while Guzmán has been inconsistent. Guzmán is also out of Minor League options, so that adds another wrinkle to the competition.
“We made the deal with the expectation and hope that Nate would lay claim to the job,” said Rangers president of baseball operations Jon Daniels. “There is a level of competition. I love what Ronald's done this winter, not just the stats because he performed in the offseason, you know, fall or winter ball, before. He's in a good spot, so, yeah, would love to be forced into a tough position having too many good players. That's always a good position to be in.”
Third base is the real question going into Spring Training. The Rangers dealt long-term infielder Elvis Andrus to the A’s on Saturday and the open competition at the position got even less clear. Veteran infielder Rougned Odor will factor into conversations, along with Charlie Culberson and Sherten Apostel, and Daniels was clear that the club wants top prospects like Apostel and Josh Jung to spend more time in the Minor Leagues to develop. Daniels also said it’s likely that the club will add another third baseman before the start of Spring Training, though it’s unclear in what capacity the deal would be.
“I don't plan on [Jung] breaking with us, unless he just goes nuts in Spring Training and earns it,” manager Chris Woodward said. “But I like the opportunity that a lot of guys have to win the job.”
-- Kennedi Landry