When the Seattle Mariners signed Chone Figgins over the winter, it was widely assumed that he would replace the departed Adrian Beltre at third base. However, when spring training opened, the team had Figgins playing second base, while last year's second baseman Jose Lopez had moved over to third base. This move appears to be part of a growing trend in Major League Baseball.
More and more, teams are realizing that if you can play a quality third base, you probably have the skills to transition to second, and vice versa. While the traditional view has held second base as a premium defensive position (one of four "up the middle" spots that has generally been regarded as a spot for a good glove guy), modern defensive statistics such as Ultimate Zone Rating suggest that there just isn't much of a difference between second base and third base.
A year ago, 26 players played at least 50 innings at both second base and third base, and it wasn't just utility infielders playing part time; Alberto Callaspo, Adam Kennedy, Martin Prado, and Ian Stewart were among the everyday players who spent a decent amount of time at both second and third. As a whole, these players were one run above average at second base per 150 games played and two runs below average at third base per 150 games played. It's a difference so small as to not be important.
Indeed, it is becoming more and more common for teams to see these positions as interchangeable. The Twins will use second baseman Nick Punto and Brendan Harris as a third base platoon, while the Cardinals signed Felipe Lopez to play both positions for their squad. The mystique of second base as a spot for glove guys and third base as the place where power hitters go is breaking down, as teams find that if you can play one, you can play the other.
Dave Cameron is managing editor of FanGraphs.