Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.
What’s all this, then? For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.
Third base is a little deeper than it used to be, and only a handful of teams have little to no hope of being productive at the position. The devil is in the details at the hot corner, as there has been very little turnover among the top 20 teams here. Teams that have quality reserves or prospects coming up the pipeline see a bump here, as we’re looking holistically at the position and not just at the nominal starter. This is an important consideration across the diamond, but particularly so at third given how physically demanding the position is. Only six third basemen suited up in 150 or more games last year. Compare that to 13 at second base and 11 at first base and shortstop, and it becomes clear that depth is important at third base. Unfortunately, most teams don’t have adequate depth, hence the bump for the teams that do.
Let’s get on to the rankings!
What, you were expecting someone else?
At 6.5 WAR, he’s more than a full win ahead of the primary player on the second-place team (Beltre), and nearly two wins ahead of everyone else in the game. He doesn’t even have the worst defensive projections this year (Michael Young and Trevor Plouffe, come on down!) He is projected to have a slight drop off from the past two years, but it’s unlikely that anyone in Detroit is going to complain.
When the team needs extra support defensively, they will turn to Santiago or Worth, but don’t expect too much of that — he was only removed from 11 games last season. He wasn’t taken out of a game that he started until the second half. Two of the games that he was removed from were the last two games of the season, and another was for the ninth inning of the first leg of a Sept. 23 doubleheader that Detroit was trailing 10-2. In other words, expect to see Cabrera on the field.
This one suffers a little bit because Longoria’s playing time isn’t what you would expect from a star-level player. And that might not be fair, considering the fact that Longoria will only be 27 years of age this season. On the other hand, in the past two seasons Longoria suited up for less than 65% of Tampa Bay’s games. So while he may not be as brittle going forward, it’s OK to be a little conservative. When he’s not in the lineup, manager Joe Maddon is going to mix and match. Aside from Longoria, Maddon started seven other players at third last season, so while our depth chart has four names — more than every other team besides Anaheim — any non-Longoria playing time may end up even more chopped up than that. But predicting what Maddon will do is near impossible, so we’ll just stick with these four.
Beltre is enjoying quite the career renaissance. Though he’s been a full-time player since 1999, three of his four best seasons have come in the last three years. From age 31-33, the only third basemen since 1947 who posted more WAR than Beltre were Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez, Graig Nettles and Harmon Killebrew. When he inevitably misses a couple of weeks with a hamstring injury or what not, prospect Mike Olt is going to get a shot, and he projects to be one of the better backups in the game this year, which only bolsters Texas’ standing.
Neither Steamer nor ZiPS is real bullish on Wright duplicating his 2012 performance. While a .352 wOBA would be a career year for many players listed in this post, it would be the second-worst of Wright’s career. Some regression is certainly to be expected for Wright, who just had the second-best season of his career in terms of WAR. Still, even if he does come back to the pack a little bit, he still is well above average for the position. His backup, Turner, is good enough to not embarrass himself, as he can be counted on for league average offense and passable defense. You could do worse from your backup — especially when said backup is not going to log much third-base time in a perfect situation.
The Padres moved the fences this year, but Steamer and ZiPS don’t know that, so this could end up being a conservative projection. Headley should of course be expected to slip back from his career year, but he is still going to be very good. Also of note here is that if they are judicious with how they use Forsythe, they should get much better production than the .304 wOBA listed here. Forsythe has shown in his short time in the majors to be a lefty killer. Headley hits lefties just fine too, but if he needs a day off here and there, it should come against lefties in order to maximize value for both players.
There is little concern about Sandoval producing in the batter’s box. Through age 25, only 15 third basemen since 1947 have a better wRC+ than Panda’s 126 mark. That’s a mark that places Sandoval ahead of where Scott Rolen, George Brett, Ron Santo and Paul Molitor were through that point in their careers, to name just a few. But will he stay on the field? He has failed to make it to 500 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons, and the Giants don’t really have any depth at the position — Arias and Abreu are borderline major leaguers. If Sandoval can stay on the field all year, San Francisco probably winds up in the top five here, but there’s no guarantee that he will — even our projection of his playing time could be seen as optimistic given the past two seasons.
Now locked into his long-term contract, Zimmerman doesn’t need to sweat too much in what would have been his contract year this season. But while he can feel secure in his deal, he still has something to prove. Last season, his walk rate was its lowest in the past four campaigns, and his strikeout rate was a full-season career worst as well. His offense was still well above average for his position, but in the past two seasons, he’s been a lot more Dr. Donald Blake than he has Thor Odinson with the leather. It’s not just the advanced metrics either — his rating in the Fans’ Scouting Report has dropped in each of the past two seasons as well.
Backing him up is Lombardozzi, who is a decent hitter against right-handed pitching, but at least last year could not handle lefties at all — albeit in a small sample. Finally, we’re projecting that super prospect Rendon gets his first cup of coffee. That might be aggressive for Marc Hulet’s 39th-best prospect given that he only has 160 professional plate appearances, but he has already graduated to Double-A and has made a favorable impression early in camp. If he can stay healthy, we could see the beginnings of a position crunch in Washington. Good thing that third year on Adam LaRoche’s deal isn’t guaranteed.
#8 Blue Jays
Is this the year? Is the time right for Lawrie to breakout this year? Blue Jays fans certainly hope so, because no matter how many new faces this team has, they are still going to need Lawrie to produce like the All-Star everyone believes he will eventually be. Fortunately, in Izturis they have a little buffer should Lawrie fall into a funk. Hopefully new/old manager John Gibbons resists the veteranness charms of DeRosa, but then again, he will only fall for them if Lawrie stays hurt (he is hurt right now, but is expected to be ready for opening day) or falls off a cliff. If the latter, Toronto fans could be forgiven for throwing his clothes out the windows. But if he becomes the player everyone expects him to be — despite his disappointing 2012 campaign, Keith Law still ranked him as the 11th best player under the age of 25 this offseason — they will undoubtedly be hoping that they die together.
People like to talk about how you can’t kill Paul Konerko or Mariano Rivera, but what about Ramirez? Following 82 and 124 game-seasons in his age-31 and 32 seasons, the undertaker was getting the nails ready for Ramirez’s coffin. But in the two seasons since, he’s only missed 26 total games, and only Cabrera, Beltre and Headley posted more WAR. Last season was, in fact, the best season of his long career. His 2012 season is probably not repeatable from both an offensive and defensive perspective — last season was the first season since 2007 in which he posted a positive DRS or UZR — but that Ramirez is still going to be hard to kill. As an added bonus, Green wouldn’t be a total disaster as a backup if some malady does befall Ramirez — ZiPS sees him being worth 1.5 WAR with a whole season’s worth of playing time. Obviously that doesn’t shine through here, as he is slated for just 35 plate appearances as a third baseman here, but he has a decent batting eye and decent pop for a backup.
Given the fact that he helps the Dbacks place tenth here, Prado clearly isn’t chopped liver. But if Arizona misses the postseason, and this is all the team gets from Prado, the 37 people who root for the Dbacks are probably going to be pretty upset with the Justin Upton trade. Possibly cutting into Prado’s value is that the team also signed Chavez, and you don’t give Chavez $3 million guaranteed for 10-15 games. He’s going to play, and while he will probably see some time at first base and DH, his natural position is third base. All of this is probably going to conspire to keep prospect Matt Davidson on the farm all season, which is why we didn’t list him here.
Last season, Freese rewarded the Cardinals with not only his healthiest season but also his best season, even from a rate perspective. His presence as a three-four win player makes third base that much deeper, as before last year Freese had never played 100 games in a major league season. Despite the breakthrough, there are reasons to think that the peak will be short-lived. For one thing, he’s going to be 30 this year. In addition, his swinging strike percentage jumped from 9.0% to 11.3% last year. He should still be a good player, but another All-Star campaign should not be expected.
Behind him it’s trick or treat, as Wigginton just won’t go away despite the fact that he’s been awful at everything for the last four years. Any game he plays is a negative, but he found his way to start 21 games for the Phillies last season at third, and something similar may happen again this season. Carpenter would be the treat side of this equation, but with him expected to get time at second base and probably in the corner outfield spots as well, his time at third may be limited.
The reports circulated by Bobby Valentine regarding Youkilis’ demise were greatly exaggerated. With that said, Youkilis is no longer an everyday player. The last time he posted 600 plate appearances in a season was 2008, and he has missed at least a quarter of each of the past three seasons. For the Yankees, that is sort of the brittle replacing the brittle. In that sense, we are definitely taking the conservative approach to Rodriguez’s playing time. Quibble with that if you like, but at this point it seem highly unlikely that Rodriguez is going to be a major contributor to the 2013 Yankees. That leaves most of the burden on filling in around the edges to Nunez. Nunez has yet to play even average defense at third, and he hasn’t been average overall. So yeah, New York fans should cling to the hope that Youkilis can stay healthy.
Who’s that on the loose? It’s not a moose, it’s the Moose! OK, so Moustakas hasn’t come anywhere near the .347/.413/.687 line he posted in Double-A in 2010 offensively, but he was the best third-base defender last season. In fact, his 16.8 UZR was the 13th-best mark for a third baseman in the UZR era. The offense was a different story though. The only qualified third baseman who swung at a higher percentage pitches out of the strike zone last season was Beltre. But whereas Beltre hit 36 taters, the Moose only hit 20. Perhaps more concerning than that though is that Moustakas’ offensive performance declined sharply as the season progressed — from a 120 wRC+ in the first half to just 57 in the second. Scrolling through his Rotoworld page, one finds both knee and groin injuries in the second half, so perhaps that is partially to blame, but it is worth watching nonetheless. Behind him is a mystery. Tejada may make the team, and Johnson’s playing time at third would seem to be directly tied to that decision. Either way, nothing good is going to be happening there on days Moustakas isn’t in the lineup.
Something funny happened when we were filling up our tattoo needle to imprint “BUST” in olde English across Alvarez’s forehead — he went out and hit 30 homers. That may not sound incredibly impressive, but keep in mind that only 26 of 143 qualified hitters reached that plateau last season. Yes, Alvarez still struck out a lot, but you can’t have everything, you know? It’s unlikely that Alvarez ever becomes the star you would hope that the second overall pick in the draft becomes, but last season put him on the trajectory to have a solid career. After all, he’ll still be just in his age-26 campaign in 2013. Behind Alvarez are two flavors of “no thank you” in Inge and Harrison, though they both at least carry good defensive reputations.
We have our first mystery position. Donaldson is theoretically the starter here, but teams don’t generally trade for a guy like Lowrie in February when they think that their infield situation is just fine and dandy like sour candy. So it stands to reason that Jed Lowwwrie is going to see plenty of action at third. Maybe it ends up in an equal job share, maybe Donaldson ends up playing more because Lowrie is needed elsewhere in the infield, we can’t really say for sure — the future has not been written. One thing that we can be confident in, however, is that no matter how the playing time shakes out between Donaldson, Lowrie, Sogard and company, is that it’s unlikely that the end combination results in a star performance.
#16 Red Sox
Middlebrooks may have the highest error bars of any third baseman listed thus far. On the one hand, his 2012 campaign was felled by a broken wrist, and he already had a wrist scare once this spring. On the other hand, he was worth 2.1 WAR in just 75 games/286 PA last season, so should he be healthy all season, he could blow well past the projected 2.8 WAR here. Or that projection could of course prove to be deathly accurate. After all, Lawrie didn’t have a six-win 2012 after posting 2.7 WAR in his abbreviated — more abbreviated than Middlebrooks’ too — 2011 campaign. It’s just not that simple. But Middlebrooks may prove to be a dangerous player. As I mentioned in my FanGraphs+ profile for him (what, you haven’t purchase FG+ yet? You better get on that cousin), his low walk rate isn’t indicative of a lack of patience. The Sox have to hope that Middlebrooks does stay healthy, because if he doesn’t, no one is going to want firsts, let alone seconds, of the Ciriaco-Holt pu pu platter.
Seager was one of the pleasant surprises not just for the Mariners but across the game last season. He was just one of four 20-10 players at the position (Hanley Ramirez, Headley and Wright being the others). But Steamer and ZiPS see his 2012 line as where he plateaus rather than where he grows from, at least at this juncture. The Fans are much more optimistic, and the nice guy in me wants to agree with them more than the cold, unfeeling computer programs, but the cold, unfeeling computer programs are probably correct. With his opportunity to murder the Red Sox reduced from 19 games to just seven, Andino loses most of what little value that he had.
Thanks to Scott Rolen’s presence and Reds manager Dusty Baker’s love for veterans, Frazier spent at least part of the past four seasons toiling in Triple-A. Assuming good health, he should break free of that pattern this year. Frazier should be a very solid option, but since he did play 128 games in the majors last year and is already in his age-27 season this year, it’s unlikely that he ever blossoms into a star. Also potentially dangerous for his playing time is Hannahan. Even though the right-handed hitting Frazier has a superior wRC+ to Hannahan versus right-handed pitching — 108 to 87 — Frazier does in fact hit right-handed, while Hannahan hits left-handed. Hannahan also generally flashes some mighty leather (though he didn’t last year), so expect Baker to tout platoon advantage and sneak Hannahan into the lineup against right-handed pitchers because a) the defensive thing and b) Hannahan is six years older than Frazier, which to Baker makes him way better.
It seems like just yesterday Chisenhall was a top-25 prospect, but the bar has been lowered significantly after a 2012 season that saw him lose a spring training battle to Hannahan. The Chiz Kid didn’t see the majors until the end of May, and he performed admirably in his 151 PA, but he missed the bulk of the second half after fracturing his right ulna bone. If he wrestles 600 of the 700 PA away from Aviles and Raburn, he stands a chance at being a three-win player, but that pair figures to work their way into playing time somewhere, and Chisenhall is now low man on the totem pole in the Indians’ infield, so his playing time is going to be the one that takes a hit.
Callaspo is sort of the poor-man’s version of Moustakas in that he plays excellent defense, but not excellent enough to make him an All-Star talent. Unlike Moustakas though, Callaspo will be 30 this year, so there really isn’t any hope that he suddenly finds his stroke offensively. Behind him, Romine is interesting in the sense that he is a product of a near-barren Angels’ farm system, but not really for any reasons beyond that. The only thing you should do if Hall or Harris see significant playing time is shudder.
If there was one guy whose 2012 performance absolutely screams mirage, it’s Cruz’s, as he failed to draw a walk in any of his final 119 PAs last season. Ignorance was bliss this offseason though, and the Dodgers made no effort to upgrade the position over the winter. With Ramirez playing shortstop the majority of the time, the left side of the Dodgers infield defense has an opportunity to be a complete sieve this season. Cruz is at best Los Angeles’ third-best option at the position. Ramirez should really be manning the hot corner, but with him committed at shortstop, the next-best internal option would be Hairston. Alas, neither he nor Punto figure to see much time unless/until Cruz falls on his face in the early going.
In a perfect world, the Orioles would have traded J.J. Hardy to the Cardinals like I told them to do. Baltimore wasn’t listening though, and so not only will we have to watch Ronny Cedeno a lot this year, Machado will start his first full season in the majors at a position where he is not able to accrue as much value as he should. Machado’s bat profiles just fine at shortstop, but at third base — at least presently — it is below average. If Machado does find his way to shortstop every now and then, or just needs a day off, Baltimore skipper Buck Showalter will have the option to play an offense-only option in Wilson Betemit or a defense-only option in Ryan Flaherty.
Dave Cameron is not enamored by Juan Francisco. Carson Cistulli is. Need I say more? Probably not, but what the heck? Francisco and Johnson are going to have people begging for Chipper Jones to come out of retirement. Expect to read the sentence, “even Chipper at 50% effectiveness would be better than these guys!” quite a bit on the particular corners of the interwebs devoted to the Braves this season.
Before the 2010 and 2011 seasons, Dominguez was a top-100 prospect pretty much across the board, but even after he graduated to Triple-A in ’11 the Marlins wouldn’t give him serious consideration on the big league roster. That was partially due to his paltry offense, and partially due to the fact that the Marlins were “going for it” last year. One wonders if things would have played out differently for Dominguez if he hadn’t been dealt three weeks before Miami gave up on the season and dealt Ramirez. Certainly the players who manned third after Ramirez was traded were not worth playing over Dominguez. With the Astros most definitely not going for it this season, Dominguez will get the chance to see if his bat can be major league quality, or if not if his defense is good enough to overcome his lackadaisical lumber.
Remember, when you read about the Phillies’ continued fall from relevancy this fall that they voluntarily traded for Young. The classiest player of all-time should actually some mild positive regression offensively, but that’s only because he was so awful last season. His backups, Frandsen and Galvis, don’t offer much in the way of offense either, unless you are buying Frandsen’s BABIP-fueled 2012 campaign (hint — you shouldn’t).
#26 White Sox
If you’re a White Sox fan and you’re reading this and thinking, ‘Gee, I guess that Keppinger acquisition didn’t really improve our standing at third base all that much,’ keep in mind that last season Chicago was one of four teams that posted a negative WAR at third base. So, you know, it could be worse. Keppinger is no one’s idea of a star, and 2012 was almost assuredly the best season he will have in his baseball career, but fortunately Brent Morel set the bar really, really low last season. Speaking of Morel, he appears to be on the outs, as Gillaspie has seemingly leapfrogged him on the depth chart.
In 2012, Plouffe hit 24 taters, making him the first Twins’ third baseman to be able to make that claim since Corey Koskie in 2004. Unfortunately, that is really the extent of the positive news. Plouffe’s hands can be best described as rock-like, and he isn’t exactly swift on his feet either. And with an outsized 16.7% HR/FB that he will most likely not repeat this season, Plouffe may do as much to hurt the Twins’ already-slim chances as he does help them. Carroll will do yeoman’s work as always as his backup, but for the most part he is needed elsewhere on the diamond.
The entire 2013 season may turn into one long glance to the minors, where Christian Villanueva will try to become the next Cubs’ third baseman of the future. Certainly, the options at the major league level leave a lot to be desired. It doesn’t speak highly of Vitters that a team which is nominally rebuilding isn’t — publicly at least — committing to a full season of him at the hot corner.
The Rockies are our second choose your own adventure club. I did the entire Rockies’ depth chart, and they just have far too many moving parts to speak confidently about how this season will play out. And that’s before taking into account the team’s dangerously unqualified first-year manager, about whom we have no objective data to help determine how playing time will shake out. For now, we have the 40/30/30 breakdown, which assumes that Arenado doesn’t see the majors until at least June, and then even when he does he doesn’t start every day.
I also will confess to being a big believer in Nelson, and that may color my breakdown here. Nelson doesn’t get high marks for defense, and his history of fragility is a mark against him. He also tallied a .374 BABIP last season, but I remain a believer. Feel free to remind me of this at the end of the season if his performance goes south. I am not a believer in Pacheco, however, and I am skeptical of Arenado, whose reputation soared after an unsustainable and league-aided 122 RBI performance in the California League. But whether or not he is the real deal, he’s likely to graduate to the majors this season.
Looking at these three retreads, it’s fair to wonder if the Marlins are even trying to compete anymore. But of course, we already know the answer to that.