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Arenado highlights talented young infielders

Gold Glove winner aims to emulate play of role model, fellow third baseman Beltre

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Watch Colorado's Nolan Arenado closely at third base and you just might see some Adrian Beltre in the stylish, consistent excellence that brought him a 2013 Rawlings Gold Glove Award -- the first ever for a National League rookie at the demanding position.

If there's some Adrian in Nolan's game, there is a good reason for that. Arenado grew up in Southern California admiring Beltre during his early years as the Dodgers' charismatic third baseman -- and Arenado has continued to be amazed by the man's artistic play for Seattle, Boston and now Texas.

"I'm a huge fan of Adrian Beltre," Arenado said. "I've always looked up to him, being a third baseman. I love the way he plays the game, everything about him."

According to the calculations of Baseball Info Solutions, Arenado's 30 runs saved last year were surpassed only by Baltimore's Manny Machado, with 35, at third base. The Orioles sensation had the advantage of playing 156 games, 26 more than Arenado.

After spending most of April at Triple-A Colorado Springs, Arenado had a .973 fielding percentage, matching Machado, and finished second in the NL in putouts and assists at the position. Boston's Frank Malzone in 1957 is the lone American League rookie third baseman to win a Gold Glove Award.

Arenado, who turns 23 on April 16, and Machado are part of a remarkable crop of young infielders performing almost routine magic with their elastic bodies, flashing leather and strong, accurate arms.

An era of defensive brilliance is dawning across the landscape, calling to mind the 1980s mastery of Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell, Davey Concepcion, Mike Schmidt, Buddy Bell, Ryne Sandberg, Frank White, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez and Don Mattingly.

Machado, a year younger than Arenado, is the reigning AL Gold Glove Award winner at third. Atlanta shortstop Andrelton Simmons -- the game's premier defender by most analytics evaluations last season -- is 24 and an NL Gold Glove Award winner. Boston's Xander Bogaerts is gifted enough to thrill New England fans at third or shortstop.

The 2013 Gold Glove Award choices at first base were Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, 26, and Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, 24.

Second baseman DJ LeMahieu, 25, claimed the Rockies' Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award based in part on sabermetrics while playing alongside Gold Glovers Arenado and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez.

Along with these showstoppers, the group of brilliant, 25-and-under infielders includes first basemen Anthony Rizzo and Freddie Freeman, shortstops Elvis Andrus, Jose Iglesias Jean Segura and Didi Gregorius and third basemen Matt Dominguez and Brett Lawrie.

News that he'd become the first NL rookie third baseman to claim a Gold Glove Award hit Arenado with the force of a line drive off the bat of Hanley Ramirez.

"It's a great honor," Arenado said. "It kind of blew me away. It's so special. To be blessed like this so soon in my career is unbelievable."

Born in Newport Beach, Calif., raised in nearby Lake Forest and drafted out of El Toro High School in 2009, Arenado was introduced to the game by his father, Fernando, who gave his son another role model.

"My dad is from Cuba," Arenado said. "Roberto Clemente was one of his favorite players. My dad loved how he always played hard and played for his country. You hear so many great things about him, off the field and on the field, you want to be like Roberto Clemente. He set a very high standard."

Arenado has a living, breathing model for conduct next to him in Colorado's infield. Troy Tulowitzki, a two-time Gold Glove Award winner at 29, was limited to 121 games by a broken rib last year but led NL shortstops in fielding percentage at .986.

"I know he's happy for me," Arenado said of Tulowitzki. "He's helped me a lot along the way. He's done so much for me. We try to communicate as much as we can. ... I'll try to take some of those balls [in the hole] to help him out."

With 2006 AL Most Valuable Player Award winner Justin Morneau signed to replace icon Todd Helton at first, and LeMahieu at second, Rockies manager Walt Weiss will go to work this season with a dream infield for ground-ball pitchers.

The quartet saved 51 combined runs last year -- five by Morneau with the Twins and Pirates, 10 by LeMahieu, six by Tulowitzki and 30 by Arenado.

The Orioles, with 41 runs saved, had the best defensive infield in 2013. The Dodgers led the NL with 38 runs saved by their infield.

The great Beltre, who takes his place historically at third with the likes of Brooks Robinson and Schmidt, had a down year for him, inhibited, whether he'd admit it or not, by knee issues. Noting that Beltre played 146 games while physically impaired only served to elevate his place in Arenado's view.

"I talked to him one time at third base," Arenado said. "I don't think I was able to tell him how much he meant to me."

Beltre, a quiet man around the media who comes alive behind closed doors in the clubhouse, no doubt would be delighted to hear the positive impact he has had on one of the game's blossoming stars.

While Arenado has swiftly moved into the elite class of defenders, the rock-solid Rockies athlete admitted he has ground to cover offensively.

"I'm working on it," said Arenado, who needed a productive second half to lift his slash line to .267/.301/.405. "One thing I can't do is hit like Adrian Beltre. I don't think I'll be going down on one knee with my swing."

That's one part of Beltre's exquisite game that is virtually impossible to imitate or replicate.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for
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