Around the Horn: Corner infielders
Crede's back only thing that has slowed him down
The following is the second in a series of weekly stories on MLB.com examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Corner infielders.
CHICAGO -- If numbers truly don't lie, then Joe Crede has positioned himself as one of the high-impact players in all of baseball for the 2007 campaign and beyond.
Maybe this particular assessment stands as a little much for Crede to live up to during his upcoming fifth full season in the Majors. But there's little doubt Crede has developed into one of the game's most complete third basemen based on his performances over much of the past two years.
It's a growth process for Crede that has not gone unnoticed by the rest of baseball.
"Wherever we went last season, people from other teams would tell me how Joey really has turned into an elite player," said White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker. "Joe Crede really has a huge amount of respect from people in the game.
"Not only is he a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player at third base, but he also has become an offensive force. Now, he's got to turn around and create a run of years back-to-back doing the same thing. I don't see a reason why he shouldn't."
If Crede needs any advice on playing at an All-Star level for close to one decade, he only has to follow one of his throws from third over to first base and watch Paul Konerko lead by example. But at the moment, the focus is on the growth process involving Crede, from a solid but somewhat inconsistent performer offensively to a near-miss All-Star in 2006.
Crede's ascension actually began in the final month of the 2005 regular season, when he hit .379 after returning from a fractured middle finger on his throwing hand on Sept. 10. Crede, who turns 29 on April 26, hit .368 in the American League Championship Series, with two home runs and seven RBIs, and would have earned the Most Valuable Player nod if not for Konerko's stellar effort. Crede then hit .294 with two home runs and three RBIs in the World Series, and a star was almost born.
That star status was cemented by a steady and oftentimes spectacular showing in 2006. Crede hit .283, a career high in a Major League season with more than 400 plate appearances, and set single-season bests with 30 home runs and 94 RBIs. The AL Silver Slugger winner at third base joined Konerko, Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye as the first White Sox quartet to hit at least 30 home runs in the same season.
Aramis Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and Troy Glaus were the only other third baseman to top 30 home runs in 2006, putting Crede in fairly exclusive power company at his position. If not for a dip to a .179 average in September, when chronic back problems flared up and contributed to a 3-for-40 finish over his last 13 games, Crede just might have joined baseball's seven other third baseman who topped .300.
Even when Crede struggled to find consistency in past years, he was known for his clutch hitting and his stellar defense. Crede's walk-off home run against Cleveland's David Riske, a teammate of Crede's last year, during a Sept. 20 victory still serves as one of the team's top highlights from 2005's championship season. Crede batted .346 with runners in scoring position last season, batted .351 with runners in scoring position and two outs and batted .364 with the bases loaded. His .978 fielding percentage not only was a personal best but ranked third among AL third baseman.
Chicago White Sox
Offseason focus on Crede has centered on his back, with Crede electing to go through intensive physical therapy instead of surgery to improve two herniated discs. Crede remained the only arbitration-eligible player among the White Sox until Jan. 16, when he signed a one-year, $4.94 million deal -- a significant increase from his previous $2.675 million salary in 2006.
By his own admission, Konerko came close to leaving the White Sox through free agency during last year's offseason. In the end, he came back home via a five-year, $60 million deal. In Year 1 of this long-term deal, the White Sox captain hit a career-high .313 with 35 home runs and 113 RBIs. Konerko reached at least 35 home runs and 100 RBIs for his third straight season, and his average increased for the third straight year.
Konerko also was named an All-Star for the third time and was one of six AL finalists for the Hank Aaron Award. He posted a .366 average with runners in scoring position and produced a .995 fielding percentage as one of the AL's steadier defensive first baseman. There simply weren't many flaws on the resume of this consummate but low-key leader.
"Paulie definitely is one of the elite players in the game," said Walker succinctly of the second-highest home run producer in White Sox history (238) and owner of the sixth-best franchise RBI total (776).
This duo gives the White Sox a corner-infield tandem rivaled only by the likes of Texas' Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock, St. Louis' Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen, the Cubs' Ramirez and Derek Lee or the Mets' Carlos Delgado and David Wright, to name a few. It's a combination that might not be together with the White Sox for the long term, although the White Sox have control over Crede for the next two seasons. But Crede and Konerko are sure to be at the forefront of the team's success once again in 2007.
Numbers don't lie and neither does the naked eye when watching their high-impact performances.
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.