Although it's tough to tell when exactly it happened, third base has slowly become the cornerstone position in Major League Baseball. In 2013, four of the top-ten position players in terms of fWAR were third baseman, and had David Wright played in more than 112 games, we could likely say that half of the top-ten man the hot corner on a regular basis. Even past that, Adrian Beltre and Juan Uribe both totaled more than five wins above replacement and there were 12 third baseman in total that topped the three-win mark. And last year was no different, with six third baseman finishing within the top-16 position players.
These players are middle of the order hitters, and most of them add value with the glove, a trend that we may see increase as teams continue to use the shift and third baseman have to function more as shortstops for periods of time. Because of the growing importance of the position, we haven't seen many of the top players even reach free agency in recent years. Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson came to their current teams via trades and Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Todd Frazier, Kyle Seager, Ryan Zimmerman, Chase Headley, Nolan Arendao, Pedro Alvarez, and David Wright all were drafted and developed by their current clubs, with Longoria, Wright, and Zimmerman already having signed extensions. The only marquee free agent third baseman in recent memory was Adrian Beltre, and due to the up and down nature of his career at that point, he was a steal for the Red Sox at one-year, $10 million, and again for the Rangers with his more recent five-year, $80 million signed prior to the 2011 season.
Last winter, the only thing resembling a big-name signing was the Yankees' $12 million deal with Kevin Youkilis, but past that it was essentially part time players and backups. This year's market is a little better -- though teams looking to make a splash and add an impact player should probably look to another position.
Yes, the best player on the third base market is actually a shortstop. And truthfully, given the lack of current talent at the position, he's almost assured to find a team that will pay him to play shortstop. On the other hand, if a team is looking for a real upgrade at the hot corner, Peralta is the best bet. Before a 50-game PED suspension last year, Peralta was on his way to the best season of his career, hitting .303/.358/.457 (good for a 123 wRC+) with 11 home runs in just over 100 games. While he's not the prototypical bopper some think of at third, he has a career .152 isolated power and health permitting he should hit 15-20 home runs next year. In the field he's not a plus defender by any stretch, but the defensive metrics have pegged him between slightly below average and slightly above average over the past three seasons, and it jumps to logic that he would be a better defender at the hot corner. Age is a concern -- he'll be 32 next season -- though you'll see that he's actually one of the younger players out there in terms of third baseman. Because he probably will sign as a shortstop (and Neil Weinberg wrote a better and more in-depth look at him) we won't spend more time on Peralta, but the guess is that he gets a two or three year deal in the neighborhood of $12 million per year from a team like the Cardinals or the Mets.
The next best
If we judged players based on just a one-year sample, Uribe not only would be in the elite tier -- he would be the elite tier. As hard as this to grasp, this past season Uribe was one of the best players in baseball on a per game basis. Consider that FanGraphs credited him with basically the same total of wins above replacement as Adrian Beltre, but Uribe played in 29 fewer games than the Rangers’ third baseman.
Of course, we don’t just evaluate players on one-year samples when there is more data available. Let’s look at some differences in Uribe’s play last year against his first two seasons in LA:
The difference is substantial, and actually somewhat scary to anyone interested in securing his services. On the positive side, he appears to be very good in the field registering quality defensive numbers each of the past three years. What teams now need to figure out is whether or not Uribe can hit. In his defense, most evaluators do say that Uribe came into Dodgers' camp in noticeably better shape last year and that his improved conditioning returned some of his former bat speed, so maybe there is some cause for the drastic uptick in production. Then again, he'll be 35 next season and there is certainly no guarantee that he'll be motivated to be in shape again. Still, it may be a worthy gamble on say a one-year, $9 million contract -- that's relatively low risk with the potential for big rewards if he's anywhere as good as the player we saw in 2013.
It gets rather ugly after that. Excluding minor league free agents, only Mark Reyonlds is on the right side of 30-years-old, and the majority of the field are in their mid-to-late 30's. Michael Young garners a fair amount of criticism in sabermetric circles (with good reason), but he actually might be the next best target out there. He's at least a durable, league average bat, though his poor defense makes him barely a replacement level player.Reynolds and Eric Chavez both could be nice bench pieces for teams that want a player that can pass at both corners and add some power to a roster, but neither should be given full-time gigs at this stage in their careers. Outside of that it's really just utility players that can play third base, not true third baseman, like Jerry Hariston, Brandon Inge, Jamey Carroll, and Placido Polanco.
The most intriguing target yet again may be Youkilis. Remember, he's just two years removed from a 3.5 win season and his patience is not a trait that he will lose with age.He's probably better suited for first base now, but if he can come close to regaining his value with the bat (and stay healthy which may be the more difficult part), a team should have no problem sticking him there.
In total, it's not a great market for teams looking for a third baseman. If we assume Peralta signs to play short, which we do, it boils down to Juan Uribe and a bunch of aging veterans that offer little upside, making this the weakest positional crop of 2013 free agents. With that knowledge, maybe there will be a team that floats a mid-level third baseman hoping for a big return, especially if a team like the Dodgers get desperate enough. No, I can't say it would surprise me at all if the best third baseman acquired this offseason is someone from off our list -- yet another thing that makes baseball so much fun.
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