We've only got a few days left in the season, which has become shockingly interesting over the past couple weeks, but that doesn't mean that we'll stop looking ahead towards the future yet. Today we're moving on to the market for third basemen, which is expected to be pretty weak this winter.
Let's take a look at exactly what that weakness looks like, though. If you want to sort through the other previews, we've already covered catchers, first basemen and second basemen. After this, we'll move on to shortstops, center fielders and corner outfielders over the next week or so.
THE FREE AGENTS
Ramirez has a $16 million mutual option for 2012 with the Cubs, but his agent has already told reporters that the third baseman will decline his side of the option and hit free agency. Without a clear replacement in-house, Chicago may still want Ramirez around, but he's likely a goner after telling ESPN Chicago that he'd like a multi-year deal with a contending team. Betemit is the most obvious alternative to Ramirez at this point, although he's regarded as a poor defender. Omar Infante would presumably have been considered a good alternative to Ramirez as well, but the Marlins signed a two-year deal with him earlier today.
There are some intriguing bats here and a couple of solid utility guys, which is about what you'd expect from the market for back-up third basemen. Punto and Hairston both had strong years as role players this season and could fill similar roles next year, and I imagine that some teams will still be intrigued by the likes of Jose Lopez or Chavez.
It's tough to predict what the Dodgers are going to do this winter. Blake's proven to be a pretty solid investment for the Dodgers over the past couple seasons (Santana trade withstanding), but he played in just 63 games this season and turned 38 last month. I'd expect the Dodgers to decline Blake's option and slide Juan Uribe over to third, although that's just speculation. As for Encarnaction, he's not much of a third baseman, but he continues to show legit plus power and likely will be back in Toronto next season; I expect Toronto to use EE at the DH spot, though.
THE TRADE CANDIDATES
A few different options here. The Angels have an abundance of infielders with Callaspo and Izturis. The Rangers could still be interested in shedding Michael Young's salary, which would presumably be easier now that he's under control for one less season while coming off an exceptional performance. Prado could get bumped from Atlanta's everyday lineup if they go in a different direction in left field, and Kouzmanoff is expected to battle Ian Stewart for Colorado's 3B job.
Some guys are cheaper (German, Baker) than others (Figgins, Inge, Teahen), but any of the expensive guys would qualify as a salary dump at this point. German continues to show strong OBP skills in the minors, while some team could get suckered into the name value of a guy like Teahen or Aviles. And then there's Baker, who may still be "untouchable" to a very, very mediocre team.
Stewart is probably the most likely to get dealt among these guys, as many of them are still considered building blocks by their respective teams. But none of these third basemen have established himself at the MLB level yet, and some of them are blocked by superior players, too.
THE BIG WILD CARD
This is probably one of the more obvious wild cards that we'll see in this series, to be honest. We've heard speculation recently that the Mets will be taking offers for their star third baseman this winter, especially if the club is successful in its attempts to re-sign shortstop Jose Reyes. The Mets are expected to lower their payroll this winter, and trading Wright would be one of the easiest ways to do that.
Wright, 29 in December, was once considered one of the best players in the game, but he's seen his status dip to a career-low in 2011 after the worst season of his career. A solid 6-8 WAR player at his peak, he sat in the 3-4 WAR range in 2009 and 2010 before cratering to just 2.0 WAR in 99 games with New York this season. It's the worst single-season WAR mark of his career, and it's left many in the game are wondering if this is the beginning of a sad decline.
There are reasons to believe that Wright can bounce back, particularly if he's totally healthy and his BABIP goes back up, but with $30 million owed to him through 2013, it's not surprising that the Mets would be curious to see how other teams value their star. If the Mets can get a premium prospect or two in return for Wright, they may be better off taking the prospects while walking away with $15 million shaved off their 2012 payroll.
Most people expect that the Brewers will be scrambling to figure out their first base situation this winter, but it's worth noting that third base is a place where they should improve next season. This season, only two teams got less offensive production from their third basemen than the Brewers, but the club should improve there next season with Green in tow. A converted second baseman, the 24-year-old Green posted a strong .336/.413/.583 line in 120 games with Triple-A Nashville this season before getting the call a couple weeks ago. He still hasn't gotten much of a chance, but his breakout season has many scouts believing that he's a potential regular, and even that would qualify as a massive upgrade for the Brew Crew.
Looking at his overall numbers, Morel looks like a pretty bad player. That's what makes him such a perfect sleeper. From the beginning of the season through August 3, Morel hit just .250/.267/.300 with 1 home run and a 1.2% walk rate. Yes, that's just 3 walks in 248 PA's. Just look at what he's done since then, though: .253/.331/.488 with 9 homers and a 10.3% walk rate in 185 PA's. An above-average defender at third, Morel could end up being one of the better third basemen in the AL if he's showing some pop and walking a tenth of the time.
People don't always grasp the value of great defense at third base, which is part of how someone like Adrian Beltre went so underrated for so long. The 31-year-old Hannahan may never be a good hitter, but boy can he pick it at the hot corner. A former minor league shortstop, Hannahan's posted elite UZR and DRS marks in over 350 games at third base, and he turned in a solid league-average offensive performance this season. In full-time playing duty his hitting might not be great, but in this market there's value in a plus defender with slightly below-average offense.