Before the offseason started, it looked like a fine time to be in the market for a third baseman. Want to shop at the top of the market? The top position player to reach free agency, Anthony Rendon, calls third base home. The second-best position player in free agency does too. In the market for a Honda rather than a BMW? Mike Moustakas, Eric Sogard, and Starlin Castro all spent time at the hot corner in 2019. Looking for a fixer-upper? Take a gander at Travis Shaw, Maikel Franco, or Brock Holt.
Even if you weren’t going to sign someone out of that group, the trade market seemed open as well. Kris Bryant, who can play a lot of places but is most comfortable at third, was rumored to be available. Nolan Arenado could be had if you could whisper the right words in Jeff Bridich’s ear — presumably words involving the names of a few prospects and maybe a negotiating class about the value of opt-outs. You could have Zack Cozart for cheaper than free (act now and receive a bonus Will Wilson!) if you wanted to bet on an improbable rebound.
But the heady days of third basemen flowing like wine are gone. When Donaldson signed with the Twins, he took the last obvious move away from teams looking to upgrade at third. Rendon is in Anaheim, the mid-tier options have all accepted deals, and Holt and Brad Miller are probably the best two third basemen available. Even the trade markets have cooled; Cozart is now available for free (rather than at a pickup), but Bryant’s market never got going and the Cardinals appear to be Arenado’s only suitor.
For teams still missing a third baseman, it’s looking grim. Because while it felt like there was a tsunami of available talent, baseball is a zero-sum game. Short of some new prospects to fill the ranks, Anaheim’s gain is Washington’s loss, and so on. Yes, there were a lot of third basemen available this offseason, but there were even more teams looking.
There are six teams that can credibly be called contenders and still need help at third base. Let’s walk through each of their situations and see what’s likely to shake out.
We’ll start at the top, the defending world champions who employed Rendon for most of the past decade. They had Rendon’s salary coming off the books, a hole at third, and playoff money presumably burning a hole in their collective pockets. When Rendon signed with the Angels, they seemed like a natural landing spot for Donaldson, but that ship has sailed.
The Nationals backfilled third base by retaining some old friends. Asdrubal Cabrera has been asked to play shortstop at times over the past several years, and has the chops to handle third, if not the impact bat to stand out. Howie Kendrick played 100 innings at third in 2019, and all it takes is an imaginative manager and a willingness to let someone best suited to be a DH handle grounders to get him back out there in 2020. Starlin Castro, acquired as part of the Nationals’ Oprah-style everybody-gets-a-contract run on mid-tier veterans, will spend most of his time at second (as might Cabrera and Kendrick!) but can moonlight at third.
Piecing together enough innings and plate appearances to handle second, third, and some amount of spot work at first base won’t work; there are simply too many wizened knees and balky backs, too much wear and tear on old legs to expect that to hold up all season. That’s where Carter Kieboom comes in.
If you’re feeling generous, you could say that Kieboom is the reason the Nationals bought a veteran sampler platter instead of going gourmet. He’s their top overall prospect, and while he’s under-qualified for shortstop, he can handle both second and third. After batting .303/.409/.493 at Triple-A Fresno last year, he should be on the major league team early in 2020.
There are downsides. That line isn’t as good as you think in the offense-mad PCL; it was only good for a 123 wRC+. His defense comes and goes. The team will likely play some roster games with him to preserve a year of service time, and he looked anxious during a cup of coffee in 2019. For a team locked in a four-way division race, where every win helps, Kieboom is quite a risk.
But overall, the Nationals look like they’ll be okay even without Rendon. They didn’t sign one of the big boys, but they found enough part-timers to piece together at-bats, and the advent of 26-man rosters will make it defensible to keep Cabrera, Kendrick, Castro, and Eric Thames around to rotate through various infield spots.
Third base danger rating: two out of five.
The Braves found themselves in a similar position to the Nationals, at least superficially; a superstar third baseman departing, and a top prospect ready to step into the resulting gap in the line. Austin Riley was forced to play the outfield last year, and while he struggled overall, he showed flashes of the colossal power that is his calling card.
But unlike the Nationals, the Braves can’t call on a cavalcade of proven performers to backstop their rookie. Johan Camargo has been a useful glue guy in recent years, but he was both terrible and hurt in 2019, and he’s a wild card heading into 2020. He fractured his shin late in the year, so maybe that was the cause of his struggles — but he also got demoted to the minors earlier in the year while still healthy, so it’s not like the shin was the only problem.
Aside from that, the cupboard is bare. Are you into Yangervis Solarte? Do you hunger for more Danslie Swanberson, the two-headed chimera of infield defense that occurs when Charlie Culberson plays third next to Dansby Swanson at short? It’s not an inspiring slate.
If Riley struggles, the Braves will be in quite a bind. Camargo is the obvious fallback, and he’s a real threat to produce a below-replacement-level season (he did in 2019, for example). I’d like to see the Braves take a flier on someone like Brock Holt or Matt Duffy, a cromulent veteran who can play second base and outfield in a pinch but who gets most of their reps at third. Like the Nationals, the Braves are locked in a fearsome division race, and at the moment, they have some catching up to do to pull even with the Mets and Nationals.
Third base danger rating: four out of five.
Boy, the NL East sure is exciting. The Phillies are, in my mind, the clear fourth-best team in the division, but they’re good enough to contend if a few things break right in 2020. They’re on this list because they project for a grim 1.4 WAR at third in 2020, tied for 28th in baseball, which is about as bad as it sounds.
But even though they don’t have much of a projection, they do have a plan. After cutting Maikel Franco loose after years of hope, they’re turning third base over to Scott Kingery. He’s been inconsistent in the majors, but his 2019 worked overall, and between his minor league track record and team-friendly contract, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to make third base work. I’m mixed on Kingery, but not as down as Steamer, which projects a 79 wRC+.
If Kingery isn’t the ticket, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see Alec Bohm in 2020. Bohm, the team’s top prospect, combines the physique of a bulldog point guard (he’s listed at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds) with the bat control of, well, someone with good feel to hit. He outclassed the competition at three stops in the minors last year, and it wouldn’t be wild to see him in Philadelphia before season’s end.
If we’re being honest, the Phillies are fringe contenders this year. But between Kingery and Bohm, they have enough future potential at third base that it’d be foolish to look for a long-term solution. I wouldn’t have hated seeing Eric Sogard or even Cabrera, but the team signed Josh Harrison in case things get truly desperate, and unlike the Nationals and Braves, they have two shiny prospects to try out, mitigating the risk of one not panning out.
Third base danger rating: two out of five.
Look, I don’t know. The Rays might give Yandy Díaz 400 plate appearances at third this year. Joey Wendle will get some run there, though he looked quite bad in 2019. Michael Brosseau is on the team to mash lefties, but Díaz is right-handed, too. Daniel Robertson will probably get starts. This whole situation looks like a mess.
But it’s the Rays. They manufacture acceptable batting lines out of duct tape and castoffs from other teams. They bargain-hunt midseason if it doesn’t work out, or create okay-hitting rookies out of minor league dross. Maybe Taylor Walls will hit well enough to warrant a promotion. Maybe they’ll moonlight Willy Adames at third if they go completely crazy and promote Wander Franco. Maybe they’ll just spin moonbeams into an apparition of Mike Schmidt.
Third base danger rating: the Rays are magical.
Including them on this list is a stretch. Matt Carpenter was pretty terrible in 2019, but he projects as an above-average bat, and his defense perked up last season, both by advanced metrics and the eye test.
That doesn’t even consider Tommy Edman, who took Carpenter’s job in 2019. Edman will play some outfield as well as back up Kolten Wong, but he did nothing but produce after being called up last year, and the underlying numbers looked, if not great, at least acceptable. He probably won’t BABIP .346 again this year, but between the defense, the sneaky-average power, and the feel to hit, he looks like a solid regular.
So why, then, are the Cardinals on this list? Because they’ve been so heavily linked to Arenado. The team projects as middle-of-the-pack at third, and looking at Arenado indicates that they’d rather be top-of-the-pack. They’re a team built mainly out of good-but-not-great players, which means they crave stars to put their average players around. That drove the team to swap two surplus outfielders for upside in Matthew Liberatore, and it might drive them to swap Liberatore and others for Arenado.
The Cardinals don’t have a gaping hole at third base the way that some other teams on this list do. But they have a glaring lack of star power, and third looks like the most likely way they could address it this year.
Third base danger rating: one out of five. (Looking for a superstar rating: four out of five.)
With most of the other teams on this list, I’ve been nitpicking. Washington’s plan of throwing enough at the wall that something will stick isn’t half bad. The Phillies have upside; the Rays and Cardinals have a wall of bodies that will probably be at least league average. The Braves — well, okay, I don’t like their situation, but they at least have Riley’s upside. None of these teams are anchored around a third baseman, and aside from the Cardinals, none of them need or want to be.
But the Brewers. Hoo boy, the Brewers. They stormed into the playoffs in 2019 on the back of a scorching September, but their year-long stats won’t wow anybody. They gave pretty much all of their plate appearances at third to Travis Shaw and Mike Moustakas in 2019. Those two are both gone, to the Blue Jays and Reds respectively, and the team has replaced them with two players best described as aspirational.
Eric Sogard was awesome in 2019. His underlying numbers were below average, though, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s an 80 wRC+ scrub rather than a 115 wRC+ stud. He’s the kind of player you’d love to have to fill a utility role on a contending team, but who is probably overmatched as an everyday starter.
Jedd Gyorko is more up my alley. He works as a platoon partner for Sogard (Gyorko has absolutely mashed lefties throughout his career) and has been at his best throughout his career when getting limited reps to keep fresh. His salary is less than half of Sogard’s, which makes walking away from him easier, but his upside might be higher. He’s even somehow younger than Sogard, a fact I had to check twice.
But for a team that is contending for the NL Central crown, a team that was so overloaded on third basemen that it played Shaw and Moustakas at second in recent years, this new platoon situation feels like a letdown. There were copious options for decent veterans. Moustakas is playing second base for a divisional rival now, but presumably the Brewers could have sprung for him.
There are no prospects in the pipeline. Keston Hiura could probably handle third, but he’s ensconced at second, and no one looks to be pushing him off the position anytime soon. Ryon Healy — Ryon Healy!!!! — will probably get some playing time at the position in 2020, and my 70-year-old father looks more fleet of foot than Healy, though in fairness my dad has a brand new titanium knee helping him out. Healy can hit better than my dad, but he shouldn’t be part of the third base rotation on a contender.
This situation feels like it shouldn’t have happened. The Brewers have a superstar in Christian Yelich. They have credible second bananas in Hiura and Lorenzo Cain. They have a few exciting young starters and a few exciting young relievers. They need average depth across the diamond to complement those strengths. And by failing to do anything concrete to fix third base, they’ve failed at that task.
Third base danger rating: five out of five.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.