Much like shortstops within the division, the National League East also featured some of baseball's most productive third basemen.
In Atlanta, it was the veteran Chipper Jones who had another injury-plagued, but strong season. In Washington D.C., Ryan Zimmerman made a strong run at last seasons' National League Rookie of the Year Award also having a stellar year. While the Nationals 2007 outlook isn't very bright, their production at the hot corner looks promising.
The N.L. East also featured arguably the National League's two best third baseman.
In New York, it was 23-year old David Wright. After having a terrific 2005 season, his first full year in the majors, Wright improved, setting career bests in batting average and slugging percentage while tying his career high in OPS. Wright drew comparisons to a young Scott Rolen back in his minor league days and it appears that comparison is looking pretty accurate today.
In Florida, it was also 23-year old Miguel Cabrera. For Cabrera it was his 3rd full season in the majors, as he set career bests in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. Take a look at Cabrera's list of similar players and some impressive names appear including Frank Robinson, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.
The future for each third baseman is bright, but which would you rather build your team around?
Though Cabrera was slightly the better player in terms of overall value last season; the two were awfully close in production.
Let's start with Wright first:
Wright's minor league career can be summed up in one word pretty well: Steady.
A supplemental pick of the first-round, the Mets held the 38th pick of the draft and selected Wright out of Hickory High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. Wright was widely regarded as one of the 2001 draft's most promising high school hitters. John Sickels thought Wright "could wind up being a steal in this slot."
Wright began his professional career in 2001 playing rookie ball for Kingsport. Wright would have a solid season as an 18-year old hitting .300/.391/.458 with 4 home runs in 120 AB's. Strong plate discipline was present as Wright walked in 11.6% of his plate appearances. The Mets challenged Wright as they promoted him to Single-A Capital City for the 2002 season.
Wright would have sophomore slump-type season in 2002 for Capital City hitting .266/.367/.401 in 496 AB's showing a decrease in power. He did however manage to increase his walk percentage and cut down on his number of strikeouts.
Wright's season was good enough to convince the Mets another promotion was necessary as he was bumped up to High-A St. Lucie for the 2003 season.
Wright would have a strong bounce-back year in 2003 hitting .270/.369/.459 in 466 AB's showing the same keen eye at the plate walking in 13.1% of his PA's and reducing his strikeout rate for the third season in a row. Best of all, Wright's power was resurfacing as he set career high's in ISO (.189) and home runs (15). Wright's performance not only earned him a promotion to AA, but also earned him a spot as Baseball America's 75th best prospect heading into the 2004 season.
Everything was in place for a possible breakout season for Wright in 2004 and that's exactly what happened at two different levels of minor league play.
Wright's promotion to AA Binghamton lasted 60 games as Wright hit a robust .363/.467/.619 with 10 home runs in 223 AB's. Wright showed improved plate discipline walking in 14.3% of his PA's and reduced his strikeout percentage for the fourth season in a row, this time cutting it down to 15.1%. Wright set career highs in every rate statistic and was promoted to AAA Norfolk midseason.
Wright came back down to earth a bit after the promotion, but still managed to mash at the AAA level as a 21-year old. Wright hit .298/.388/.579 for Norfolk setting a career high in ISO as he hit 8 home runs in 114 AB's. Wright once again reduced his strikeout rate and walked in 11.9% of his PA's showing terrific plate discipline at the highest level of minor league play. His performance earned him a spot as the #21 prospect on Baseball America's list of the Top 100 Prospects in 2004.
Wright was later called up that 2004 season for 263 AB's with the big league club. He hasn't looked back since.
Let's move over to Cabrera:
Cabrera was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Marlins in 1999 and made his professional debut at the age of 17 in rookie ball for the GCL Marlins. Originally brought up as a shortstop, Cabrera hit .260/.344/.352 with 2 home runs in 219 rookie ball AB's. Cabrera's batting line wasn't by any means eye-popping, but the Marlins challenged him and promoted him to Low-A for the rest of the season where he would hit .250/.294/.313 in 32 AB's.
Cabrera's professional debut wasn't very loud, but he did play the majority of his games in the pitcher-friendly Gulf Coast League and the Marlins liked what they saw from the teenager. As a result, they promoted Cabrera to A-Ball Kane County for the 2001 season.
Cabrera would have a much better sophomore season in 2001 hitting .268/.328/.382 for Kane County showing more power and plate discipline as he improved his contact rate. Cabrera's season was hardly elite compared to others in the minor leagues, but his 2001 season was good enough to earn him a promotion to High-A Jupiter and a spot on Baseball America's Top 100 prospect list of 2001, Cabrera listed at #91.
Cabrera would show improvement as a 20-year old at High-A Jupiter hitting .274/.333/.421 with 9 home runs in 489 AB's. Cabrera's shortstop playing days were over as he was moved to third base where he would see a slight hit in his walk percentage, but for the fourth consecutive year reduced his strikeout rate. Baseball America still liked what they saw in Cabrera as he was named their #38 prospect on their Top 100 prospect list of 2002. Cabrera's career year earned him a promotion to AA.
Cabrera had improved at every level of play and it was expected that he produce at the AA level given his recent minor league history, but no one expected him to have the year he had at AA Carolina as a 20-year old.
Cabrera would hit .365/.429/.605 with 10 home runs in 266 AB's for Carolina in 2003. While his strikeout rate increased only slightly, his walk percentage took a significant 3% jump as he walked in 10.2% of his PA's. He also started hitting for power at a new level of power as he increased his ISO nearly .100 points from the previous season.
Needing offensive production in their major league lineup, the Marlins were faced with a difficult midseason decision. They could either acquire a veteran run producer for their lineup at the trade deadline, or call up the 20-year old Cabrera who was mashing at the AA level. The Marlins of course called up Cabrera where he also would never look back.
Wright and Cabrera had different minor league careers in terms of production, but each were given shots to succeed at the major league level at young ages and made the most of it. Wright's callup in 2004 gave Mets fans hope for what could be terrific middle of the order production for years to come. Cabrera did much of the same for Marlins' fans during his callup in 2003; the only major difference is that he helped the Fish win a World Championship.
We'll once again start with Wright:
Wright made his major league debut on July 21st, 2004 going 0-4 against the Montreal Expos.
Wright would hit .293/.332/.525 setting a career high in home runs at 14 in only 263 AB's for the Mets in his rookie campaign. Wright struggled a bit to take walks, walking in slightly below 5.0% of his PA's, but made contact and hit for a ton of power.
Wright's debut to the majors was loud and he immediately became a fan favorite. It was an easy decision for the Mets to name Wright their everyday third baseman for the 2005 season and did so.
Wright would have a breakout season in 2005 as he hit .306/.388/.523 with 27 home runs in 575 AB's for the Mets. A couple of interesting things were present here. For starters Wright showed great plate discipline increasing his walk percentage nearly 6% up to 11.0%. The second thing that caught my eye was the increasing strikeout rate. This might be due to the fact major league pitching is much better than minor league pitching, but maybe Wright became more of an aggressive hitter. Just a thought, but the increased strikeout rate made me think a bit. On a side note, Wright didn't make the All-Star team, but finished 19th in N.L. MVP voting.
Last season saw more of the same from the 23-year old Wright as he hit .311/.369/.531 once again showing terrific plate discipline while increasing his power only slightly. Wright would start at third base for the National League All-Star team and finished 9th in N.L. MVP voting. Looking toward next season, it's more than reasonable to expect another stellar year from Wright as he tries to lead the Mets to the playoffs again.
Now for Cabrera:
Cabrera made his major league debut on June 20th, 2003 going 1-5 with a home run against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
After his terrific AA season, Cabrera was called up to the majors where he hit .268/.325/.468 with 12 home runs in 314 AB's for the World Champion Marlins. Cabrera struggled to make contact, striking out in nearly a quarter of his PA's, but it was one heck of a major league debut for the 20-year old.
Cabrera would play his first full year in the majors in 2004 as the 21-year old broke out, hitting .294/.366/.512 with 33 home runs in 603 AB's. Cabrera saw an increase in power and walk percentage while he managed to cut down his strikeout rate. The future was looking plenty bright for Cabrera, who at 21 years old still had room to improve.
Improving is what Cabrera did as he hit .323/.385/.561 with 33 home runs in 613 AB's as a 22-year old. Cabrera would finish 3rd in the N.L. batting race and continued to reach new heights in power while reducing his strikeout rate for the third season in a row.
Expecting Cabrera to improve in his 2006 season was almost silly, but he did so once again, hitting .339/.406/.586 with 26 home runs in 576 AB's. Cabrera managed to cut down his strikeout rate once again, but saw a crazy 3 and a half percent boost in his walk percentage.
I'm assuming most of this had to do with some of the other hitters in the Marlins batting order. Cabrera was intentionally walked 27 times last season and was also hit by a pitch 10 times. I'm also fairly certain he was given the "unintentional-intentional" walk more than a few times by opposing pitchers due to the relative weakness of some of the Marlins hitters around him.
Still, you can't take anything away from Cabrera who just keeps getting better and better every year.
Like Wright, he is a strong bet to produce greatly over his career. Barring any significant Ken Griffey Jr.-like injuries, Hall of Fame Caliber careers are certainly reachable for these two.
Before I go on, I wanted to answer a potential question some of you may be pondering: Why not include Ryan Zimmerman?
Well, given the hype surrounding both Wright and Cabrera along with the fact each have a good amount of major league experience and project almost equally, I decided to go with these two and these two only.
Looking at the result, PECOTA likes Wright, but only slightly.
And this could very well change given one's perception of the importance of defense. PECOTA likes Cabrera in terms of offensive production (28.4 OWARP compared to Wright's projected 26.4 OWARP), but believes Wright's superior defense (12.3 DWARP compared to Cabrera's 9.7 DWARP), is enough to put him "over the hump."
On a side note, Ryan Zimmerman's projected TOWARP of 37.8 over the next five seasons compares very well to the projections of both Wright and Cabrera.
So, David Wright or Miguel Cabrera?
In terms of production only, I like Cabrera, but if I had the opportunity to pick one of the two third baseman to build my team around, I'd choose David Wright without even thinking.
I'd choose Wright for reasons other than just production. David Wright is a gamer and has that blue-collar, hardworking attitude all baseball fans love. He is a professional and a team leader that everyone in the clubhouse loves.
Miguel Cabrera on the other hand still has attitude issues. Incidents that stem all the way from problems with teammates to problems with upper management have already taken place with Cabrera and the Florida Marlins organization. His tremendous talent has masked some of these incidents, but this is probably Cabrera's biggest downfall as a ballplayer. If he could act as a true professional more often, much like David Wright does, Cabrera would be much more valuable as a player, at least in my mind.