Think about the starting third basemen on your favorite team. Are you happy with that player? You probably are! (Or, at least, you should be.) We are witnessing a Golden Age at the hot corner.
Everyone is awesome (at third base)!
Third base is a position that has traditionally featured less overall talent than other, sexier positions. Third basemen often lack the flashy athleticism of up-the-middle players or the pure brawn of other corner positions. Obviously there are always exceptions, but with just 15 third basemen in the Hall of Fame, the position has far less representation than all other positions except for catcher (of which there are also 15).
Last season, though, there was a third base renaissance. A 3.0 fWAR player is a pretty good starter, and a record 20 third basemen achieved that mark in 2019. Even adjusting for era (given that there weren’t always 30 MLB teams), this is the highest percentage of 3.0 fWAR third basemen per team in MLB history.
The Most 3.0 fWAR 3B Ever!
|Year||3.0 fWAR 3B||3.0 fWAR 3B/team|
|Year||3.0 fWAR 3B||3.0 fWAR 3B/team|
Given that most teams only have a few players with at least 3.0 fWAR on the whole roster, 2⁄3 of the league features one of their best players at third base. Well, 18 teams really. The Astros (Alex Bregman/Yuli Gurriel) and Yankees (Gio Urshela/D.J. LeMahieu) both doubled up. Gurriel and LeMahieu only played 42 and 52 games at the position, respectively, so they aren’t true third basemen. Still, they represent three-win players who could play third, if hypothetical trades spread the wealth a little.
3.0 fWAR is an admittedly arbitrary cutoff, but it paints a picture of how many teams should be satisfied at third. In fact, there are five more with 2.4-2.9 fWAR. Of course there’s a pretty significant gap between a nice player like Hunter Dozier and a stud like Matt Chapman, but this is also a historically great time for the studs. There were seven 5.0 fWAR third basemen in 2019, tying a record set in six previous seasons including 2018 and 2016.
What does this means for free agency?
This is great news if you happen to be 1) a third baseman, and 2) employed. If you’re a free agent, however, you might not be thrilled. Given that so many teams are stacked at the position, it could mean fewer bidders for Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, and Mike Moustakas.
Here are the 12 teams that did not feature a 3.0 fWAR third baseman:
- Baltimore Orioles
- Detroit Tigers
- Milwaukee Brewers
- Minnesota Twins
- New York Mets
- Philadelphia Phillies
- Pittsburgh Pirates
- San Francisco Giants
- Seattle Mariners
- Tampa Bay Rays
- Texas Rangers
- Toronto Blue Jays
In theory, all of the above might look for a third baseman this winter, which is more than enough teams to establish market competition. In fact, we can throw two more teams onto the list, because their third basemen are free agents:
It’s not that simple, though. We can eliminate several potential buyers for the following reasons:
Teams that have a decent third baseman
Remember from a few paragraphs ago that there were five more 2.4-2.9 fWAR third basemen? These include Mariners’ Kyle Seager, Twins’ Miguel Sano, Phillies’ Scott Kingery, Mets’ J.D. Davis, and the ex-Brewer Moustakas.
There are a few additional teams we can rule out pursuing a third baseman. The Blue Jays have Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. who is the face of the franchise— 0.4 fWAR be damned. The Giants have Evan Longoria under contract for at least three more years. The Brewers’ Travis Shaw had a lost season due to injuries, but we have to figure his presence likely rules out a Milwaukee-Moustakas reunion.
We can absolutely cross the Blue Jays, Giants, Mariners, and Twins off the list of searchers, and probably the Brewers as well. Davis spent a lot of time of left field, mostly to accommodate Todd Frazier, who is now a free agent. Jeff McNeil can also handle the hot corner, so between the two of them, it’s unlikely the Mets will sign a third baseman either. Kingery is a super-utility for Philadelphia, so he’s not tied down at third. They do have Maikel Franco, though, unless they decide to non-tender him. Either way, the Phillies probably won’t look for a big name at third.
With Milwaukee, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, Minnesota, Philadelphia, and New York crossed off, we’ve whittled our list down to seven suitors.
The Orioles, Tigers, and Pirates combined for 315 losses last season. Developing a third baseman for the future (as well as all other positions) is a much higher priority than their present situation. Besides, Hanser Alberto was one of the few bright spots in Baltimore, and the Pirates have top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes in Triple-A. The Tigers have... no one really, but again, they don’t care right now.
That reduces our list to just four teams who could feasibly drop money on a third baseman, but one of them is...
Theoretically, a 96-win team such as Tampa Bay should seek to add to their roster. They have the defensively questionable Yandy Díaz and the offensively questionable Matt Duffy at third. Joey Wendle and Daniel Robertson are in the mix as well, but they could certainly stand to upgrade. Imagine how ferocious that lineup becomes if they add Rendon!
Of course, this will never happen. Their payroll hasn’t ranked above 27th in MLB since 2012. Last season, their $64 million payroll was dead last. There’s simply no way they would shell out actual American currency for such frivolities as talented baseball players.
The three remaining teams
This leaves just three clubs who can reasonably be expected to look into third base upgrades: the Braves, Nationals, and Rangers. Given that Rendon and Donaldson are both tied to qualifying offers, it makes a ton of sense for their previous teams to resign them. That would leave the Rangers free to sign Moustakas to whatever contract they choose. The buyer sets the price if there’s no competition.
This is admittedly a little too reductive. Other surprise teams might enter the fray, such as the White Sox or Diamondbacks. Both of those clubs have quality third basemen (Yoán Moncada and Eduardo Escobar) who can slide over to second base. Maybe a big spender like the Dodgers could get involved as well.
Ultimately, if the prices on these free agents drop enough, all bets are off. That would be horrible for the free agent market in general, and more importantly the overall health of the sport. Sadly, that seems a likely outcome when we try to find a spot for each free agent puzzle piece. There just aren’t enough fits to go around.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.