If the Los Angeles Dodgers' third base puzzle was an Abbott and Costello baseball skit, they could rename it, "Cruz on Third?"
It took Luis Cruz 11 years, with intermittent appearances in the majors with Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, to get to the big leagues. Now he looks to be the cornerstone of the Los Angeles Dodgers infield. Or is he?
With the acquisition of Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston, Jr., and the ongoing battle at shortstop between Hanley Ramirez and his glove, third may be up for grabs as the new season begins.
Cruz, who wallowed in the minors from 2001 to 2012, seemed to come out of nowhere when he emerged last year as a clutch-hitter and solid fielding third baseman.
A trained shortstop who was initially brought in to back up Dee Gordon, Cruz migrated to third and looks to be the Dodgers' choice at the position when the new season begins.
Frankly, he really didn't have to do much since he replaced the slogging, overpaid Juan Uribe, who has been underperforming since becoming a Dodger in 2011. Yet, Cruz combined deft defense and fine offensive stats, quickly converting fans and critics alike into his proponents.
In 92 games during the closing months of the 2013 season, Cruz logged a .297 batting average and drove in 40 RBI while holding up the back of the order. He played 51 games at third with a .984 fielding percentage. Dodgers fans rallied around the 29-year-old Cruz whose .325 average with men in scoring position showed great grit.
The Dodgers have been in need of a solid third baseman since Casey Blake left the team in 2011. The steadfast Blake played for a variety of teams before settling in with the Dodgers, but he seemed more workmanlike than stellar. His batting average hovered around .260, and his fielding percentage was a sub-.960.
Unfortunately, Cruz may not be battling his own efforts but those of shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Should the uneven-fielding Ramirez continue his errant play at short, Dodger Manager Don Mattingly may be forced to move him to third, usurping Cruz.
Ramirez wields a big bat and even bigger star power. A former NL Rookie of the Year, he led big-league shortstops with 124 home runs and a .521 slugging percentage from 2006 through 2010. But, he is often slow to the ball at short, and with the fleet-footed Gordon returning after an injury, Ramirez could take over the hot corner if only to retain his place in the lineup.
Cruz also battles others who have experience at third, including Uribe, newly acquired Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston, Jr. The light-hitting Punto has played over 2000 innings at third, so he could be a defensive stopper.
So far this Spring, third looks like Cruz's to lose as he has turned in a solid .308 batting average and swatted two home runs. Hairston's springtime average is .174, and Punto's is .316, but both players will probably play a number of positions including left field and second base, respectively.
Cruz, for his part, remains emboldened by his previous success and told Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, "I don't have any doubt I can do it again."
Historically, third base is reserved for power hitters, and the Dodgers haven't had anyone like that since Adrian Beltre.
During his long, minor-league tenure, Cruz batted a mediocre .261, and there remains concern about his playing a full year at the position.
Will he be able to maintain his clutch hitting and solid contact in 2013 or be relegated to the bench?
The Dodgers, for one, are betting Cruz is no joke.
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