Shortstop was not a pretty affair for the AL East. Between Derek Jeter's glove, Sean Rodriguez' bat, and the Red Sox' gamble on Mike Aviles' everything, it's the sort of thing we would all be happier to move on from.
So let's do that, and head instead to a position of strength. From tomorrow's star in the Jays' Brett Lawrie, to yesterday's MVP in Alex Rodriguez, the names are big, the bats are big, and in some cases, the gloves aren't bad either. In fact, it's not easy to exclude any of them from a top-10 list of third basemen.
But which one is the best? How do they all stack up? Is the new guard ready to supplant the old guard? Or do the long-term veterans have something to say about that?
Blue Jays: I won't deny that I'm a sucker for prospects, so perhaps I overrate him, but Brett Lawrie is quite the exciting player for the folks up in Toronto. After absolutely destroying the competition at Triple-A Las Vegas as a 21-year-old, Lawrie was promoted and...quickly destroyed the competition in Toronto. In just 43 games, Lawrie produced what most third basemen might over the course of an entire season, amassing a 2.7 fWAR on a line of .293/.373/.580 and strong (small sample size) defensive numbers.
Of course, Lawrie has to guard against the sophomore slump that effects so many players as pitchers start to pay attention and develop specific approaches to deal with them, and his defense wasn't ever expected to be anywhere near Longo's level. But even if he does drop off some in 2012 (which is by no means a given), it's hard to doubt that he will still be one of the better third basemen in the league for a while to come.
Rays: The real class of the league at the position, Evan Longoria suffered through a bit of a down year thanks to a .239 BABIP in 2011, but still managed to finish the season with a MLB-leading 6.1 fWAR at the position thanks to his typically excellent defense and an impressive (under the circumstances) .365 wOBA. With his foot expected to be healthy again after some minor offseason surgery, entering his prime, and likely with a little more luck, Longoria seems likely to stay atop the charts.
Red Sox: Quite frankly, the Red Sox' third baseman never seemed quite right last year. Hampered by a hip injury and ultimately a sports hernia, Youk was still effective with a .366 wOBA and some fringe-average defense at third, but he wasn't Youkilis. The hope is that a healthy Youkilis will return to his pre-2011 form, and even though it seems like he's been around (and older) forever, the fact is that Youkilis is still 32 years old--not young, but not so old that we should be discounting his recuperative ability.
It seems unlikely that Youkilis will be the best third baseman of the bunch next year, but with a decent bounce back, he could certainly get back into the conversation.
Yankees: Where once Alex Rodriguez would have been a shoe-in for the best third baseman in the division, if not the best player in the game, now he's surrounded by question marks. Before his knee surgery, he was playing well, if with BABIP-inflated offensive numbers. Afterwards, he wasn't even a shadow of the A-Rod we had all grown to hate and fear over the past decade.
The fact is that A-Rod is 36, and all these years of major league play may well finally be catching up to him. The chances that he actually reaches his former heights seem relatively small, but even playing 150 games at a midway point would be a big boost for A-Rod. But as the player that we've seen over the last couple of years, Rodriguez is actually in danger of falling behind the pack if things fall right for Youkilis and Lawrie. He's not bad by any means, but he'll have to prove that he's still A-Rod.
To answer the earlier question, yes, it does seem as though the old guard has been supplanted. Evan Longoria is likely untouchable as the king of the hill, and if Brett Lawrie can reproduce something akin to his 2011 season in longer form, there's little stopping him from joining Longoria.
Still, the mantra of "spring brings new hope" is not limited only to teams, but players as well. A healthy Kevin Youkilis could find himself back in the conversation, while it's hard to imagine Alex Rodriguez is ready to simply accept his decline as fact. The fact is, past Longoria, there's no telling how any of these players will sort out. All we can be sure of is that the level of competition will be very high indeed.