What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position. The author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.
Evan Longoria is good at baseball. Evidence:
The third base graph looks more like the first base graph than it does the catcher graph. There’s a thin top tier, and then a pretty large middle tier (that you can break up into two and three win players) and then a hide-your-eyes bottom tier. By and large, the teams in the bottom half have a couple different directions in which they could go, so things could look a touch different at the end of the season, with the Braves being the notable exception. Let’s not expend a lot of words in the intro though, as there are many words expended below!
Old people are fond of saying that they “don’t make ’em like they used to,” but Longoria is proof positive that they in fact do make them like they used to. Since 1900, there have only been five third basemen who piled up more WAR than did Longoria through their age-27 seasons, and you’ve heard of all of them. Mostly because all of them are in the Hall of Fame. Longoria doesn’t really steal a lot of bases, but he does just about everything else at a star level. If he suits up for a full season, you can mark him down for at least a six-win season. That’s something that only a few players in the game today can say.
When you face up to things, you find that Wright is one of the best hitters in all of MLB. It would be facetious to deny him that, especially when he’s posted back-to-back six-win seasons in the past two seasons, and he did so last season in roughly two-thirds of an MLB season. After 2011, it looked like Wright was facing the start of his ending, but like every truly great MLB player, he looked his injuries right in the face and didn’t blink. During this MLB season, he will have to face the fact that his hitting statistics are likely to regress, but he should save face if he can suit up for a full MLB season. And even if Flores steals a little MLB playing time at the hot corner, expect Wright to faithfully face the media before and after each MLB game with a smile on his face.
What can I say about Beltre that Dave Cameron didn’t say last August? Not much, obviously. Dude is good. Third might be two spots too low here.
No, Donaldson is probably not going to be worth nearly eight wins this season. Yes, that is perfectly fine, as he isn’t going to turn into a pumpkin again either. By transforming his plate discipline, Donaldson was able to constantly put himself in position to do damage, and he frequently did. He helped carry the A’s to the postseason, picking up the slack for the middling and/or injured Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick. Behind him, he has a pair of decent backups in Callaspo and Punto. Unfortunately, Callaspo doesn’t match up with Donaldson platoon-wise, but he’s still a decent option if Donaldson needs a breather now and then. Hopefully that won’t happen too often, as even a deflated Donaldson projects to be Oakland’s best hitter.
Just like last season, the Giants are incredibly thin behind the newly-thin Sandoval, so the hope will be that he can stay healthy all season. In 2013, he took a step forward in that direction, as he suited up in 141 games, 137 of which he started at third base. Unfortunately, it didn’t help him in the value department. While Sandoval stayed remarkably consistent at the plate, he backslid defensively. Going back to his hitting though, Sandoval has achieved a level of consistency that is pretty admirable — at least as far as his strikeouts are concerned. For five straight seasons, he has struck out between 13.1 and 13.5% of the time. That is all the more incredible when you consider the fact that he has swung between 55.6% and 57.7% of the time. That makes him consistently one of the freest swingers in the game, but yet he is able to maintain a pretty good strikeout percentage thanks to his outstanding plate coverage. This makes Sandoval, to me, a pretty fascinating player. Whether or not he’s a star player will depend on how hard he hits the ball. While his K% has stayed static, his ISO and SLG have vacillated from year to year.
Last season, Machado was a borderline Most Valuable Player Award candidate. A ton of that value though, came from his defensive range. Look at his UZR component stats:
- Double Play runs above average (DPR): 0.9
- Range runs above average (RngR): 28.6
- Error runs above average (ErrR): 1.7
His DPR ranked 14th, and his ErrR ranked 33rd, but his RngR ranked first in baseball by a very wide margin — six runs overall, and 7.2 runs among third basemen. Given Machado’s knee injury, this seems like relevant information. It would be reasonable to think that Machado will be limited when he returns, and that even if he returns for Opening Day, he still won’t play every game, and won’t be as good when he does play. If he wants to maintain that six-win pace then, he’s going to have to hit a lot better. While he has shown a proclivity for doubles, that didn’t help his wRC+ all that much. And let’s be frank, 50 doubles sounds cool, but it’s not all that rare — there have been 40 50-double seasons since 1996.
#7 Blue Jays
Last season, I wrote that we need to let go of the notion of Lawrie as a superstar, and I think that is still valid. But Lawrie did hit much better following that post, to the point where he almost finished the season as a league-average hitter. It was enough to pump up his projections for this season. I’m still skeptical though. Over the past two seasons, Lawrie’s walk rate has been below average and his isolated power has been either below average or average. His speed dropped back a notch last season as well, particularly in the stolen base department. Again, Lawrie is not a scrub, and there are legions of players who never reach 6.3 WAR in the majors, but I’m not sure Lawrie is going to be good enough to justify the strong position the Blue Jays find themselves in here.
For a guy with a fragile reputation, Zimmerman has suited up at least 142 times in four of the past five seasons. However, he has already battled shoulder problems this spring, and he has had trouble throwing the ball to first in recent seasons. If not for Adam LaRoche, Zimmerman would probably be the team’s starting first baseman. He’ll probably slide there full time next season when LaRoche can once again be a free agent, but for this season, he’ll have to find a way to grit out another 250 or so throws. While Zimmerman has not handled his deteriorating defensive abilities well, he has been able to be a plus hitter even with a diminished power profile. It’s been three full seasons since he posted a .200 ISO, but during that time he has still posted a 122 wRC+, good for 10th among qualified third basemen (ninth if you take Hanley Ramirez out of the mix). Expect Zimmerman to keep right on producing this season.
Headley has been one of my favorite rebound picks this season, as once he got over his injuries last season he hit pretty well. The only problem with that line of thinking though is that he is already playing hurt this season. Headley finally played in two minor league games yesterday, and hopefully will be on track to start the season with the Padres. But the fact that he has already battled an injury and we are exactly zero games into the season isn’t exactly comforting. If he’s out for an extended period, Jedd Gyorko might slide over to the hot corner, but no matter where Gyorko plays, Headley being out of the lineup for an extended period means a whole lot of Amarista in the lineup, and that is cringe inducing.
When he was coming up, the book on Arenado was that he could hit, but the glove might be a problem. A season with 122 RBI will get you praised for your bat, even if it’s in the hitter-friendly California League. That profile didn’t hold up when Arenado finally graduated to the Show, however. He proved a defensive wiz last season, but his bat was suspect. Even in hitter-friendly Coors Field, Arenado managed a below-average HR/FB rate. Arenado was pretty underwhelming offensively throughout his rookie campaign. He posted a better wRC+ in the second half, but it was almost all BABIP-fueled, as his BB/K actually got worse in the second half (and it wasn’t exactly good in the first half). Arenado has a bright future in Colorado, but the only way he gets the Rockies higher up on this list is if he hits better.
New year, new challenge for Carpenter. This year, his challenge is to be the full-time starter at third base. After last season, it should be a piece of cake for him, but I suppose you never know. Carpenter does only has 50 starts at the hot corner in the majors. Still, assuming he isn’t a disaster there, he should be a plus. He isn’t going to hit as well as he did last season, but even his 2012 level (126 wRC+) would be pretty valuable over a full season. And Carpenter cut his strikeout rate by nearly five percent last season, and he probably won’t give all of that back. He also has a history of high batting averages on balls in play, so regression there may be lighter than projected as well. The Cards’ lower than you would think rank here is mostly a function of the fact that Carpenter isn’t projected to get all of his playing time at the hot corner.
With the Mark Trumbo acquisition, the Dbacks outfield is once again pretty crowded, so Prado should see his left field playing time cut down even more from the 30 games (26 starts) he logged there last season. We are in fact not projecting him for any outfield time this season, as Trumbo, Gerardo Parra, A.J. Pollock and Cody Ross should have things well in hand. That’s good news for Arizona, who can leverage Chavez as a pinch hitter and designated hitter rather than as a starter. That’s not to say he can’t sprinkle in a few games now and then, but even though Chavez hit well last year, the team is best served if he isn’t needed in the lineup. As for Prado himself, the five-win seasons are probably a thing of the past, as he isn’t quite the fielder he is at third base as he is in the left field. He’s still a plus fielder at third, but not enough to make him anything more than a solid regular.
Yes, Alvarez strikes out a lot. No, it doesn’t stop him from being a productive player. In the Wild Card era, Alvarez has two of the eight most productive seasons among qualified hitters with at least a 30% strikeout rate. Would he be more aesthetically pleasing if he put the ball in play more frequently? Maybe. But Alvarez is pretty slow, and he hits more ground balls than fly balls when he does put the ball in play, and he already grounds into a pretty fair number of double plays (three straight seasons with at least 10 GDPs). So, you know, careful what you wish for.
This seems low for Seager, but I think I generally overrate Seager because he’s been the only good position player on the Mariners the past two seasons. No, seriously. It’s a job to which he’s ill suited, and with Robinson Cano around this season, he shouldn’t have to wear it again. The projections see him holding the gains that he made last season, when he improved his walk rate and posted a second straight season with a line drive rate over 20%. For a Mariners team that can’t seem to hold onto anything good for very long, that’s a comforting thought.
Here, we begin a string of teams whose starter clocks in with a projected WAR of less than 2.5. The Indians’ starter though, isn’t going to start all season, and that makes Cleveland the most interesting team on this list. In Santana, the Indians have the ultimate wild card. If Chisenhall continues to not hit and Yan Gomes continues to hit, then Santana may find himself in the lineup at the hot corner more frequently than we have him listed here. Santana’s transformation to third baseman has gone smoothly thus far, and it seems like manager Terry Francona will be able to put him out there at least once a week, if not more. Of course, Chisenhall can forestall that plan by consistently hitting the ball with authority for once. Or by consistently getting on base. You know what, we’ve covered this. Either way, the Indians have developed a backup plan, and that’s a good thing.
Problems with his left knee kept Ramirez off the field more than usual last season, which isn’t all that surprising considering it was his age-35 season. When he was in the lineup though, he was still pretty good, as evidenced by his .283/.370/.461 triple-slash line and 132 wRC+. The projections expect some regression this year, but they have been expecting some regression for quite some time. The reality is that Ramirez has posted at least a 125 wRC+ in nine of the past 10 seasons, and at least a 132 wRC+ in three of the past four. His porous defense will always keep him from being a superstar, but expect him to keep hitting as long as he’s healthy. As far as backups go, you could do worse than Francisco — his projected .321 wOBA is better than any of the “regular” backups listed here (ie, minimum 100 plate appearances).
Hell hath no fury like a Uribear scorned! After two years with a wRC+ in the 50s, Uribe went out and tallied a 116 wRC+, the best mark of his now very long career. He also tallied a career-best 24.0 UZR at the hot corner. In short, he had the best season of his life at age 34. Now, we’d be foolish to assume that he’s going to do this all over again, but Uribe is like a bad penny. Or a good penny if you’re a Dodgers fan. Expect him to keep turning up regularly in the Dodgers lineup, because while Don Mattingly isn’t smart enough to know how to shave his sideburns, he is smart enough to know that Figgins should never get off the bench.
Frazier was pretty good last season. He improved his walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, and he doubled his stolen base total from the previous season. OK, going from three to six steals isn’t really a big deal. What is a big deal is hitting the ball with authority, especially for a power-producing position such as third base, and unfortunately Frazier didn’t do that at the same rate as he had in 2012. The projections don’t see much of a rebound either, and if they’re right, it may be that Frazier is a little stretched as a big league regular. The Reds need Frazier to rebound though, as his two backups are a 34-year-old who has been worth negative WAR in each of the past two seasons and a 25-year-old rookie who wants to be a third baseman but is really a first baseman.
#19 Red Sox
In his first season, Middlebrooks was pretty good. In his second season, Middlebrooks was much less good and stuff. However, much of that badness was localized in the first half. He was hitting just .201/.234/.408 when he was sent down at the end of May, and when he got a brief call-up, he didn’t help himself any, as he hit just .138/.194/.276 in 31 plate appearances. He was once again sent for a ride on the Pawtucket shuttle, and he stayed down with the PawSox for nearly two months. When he returned on August 10, he proceeded to hit .276/.329/.476 in the 158 PA from then until the end of the regular season. That’ll play, and if he can just do that consistently, he might actually lock down the job for a couple of seasons. Of course, he didn’t hit at all in the postseason, so apprehension is still the dominant feeling whenever someone mentions Middlebrooks’ name to me. If he once again can’t hack it though, the team has Cecchini (51st on Marc Hulet’s 2014 top 100 prospects list) knocking on the door.
Moustakas may be have had an up and down career to date, but the projections aren’t ready to give up on him just yet. He still plays good defense, and he if he stops popping up one out of every six balls in the infield, he might just see a power spike as well. Just in case he doesn’t though, the Royals imported Valencia this offseason. One thing I can say, with confidence, about Valencia is that he brutalizes left-handed pitching (PS – check out the cool new splits features!). If he is leveraged properly, the Royals won’t suck at the hot corner this season, and after Moustakas’ showing last season, that’d be a big improvement.
Dominguez has been popping up as a sleeper this spring, and with good reason. As Chad Young detailed in his 10 Bold Predictions, Dominguez dramatically cut down on his infield fly balls in the second half, from 20.4% in the first half to 8.6% in the second half of what was his first full major league season. If he can maintain his second-half pace, which was well below league average, he’ll stand a good chance to be much better in 2014. The projections are bullish as well, as they project Dominguez to be twice as valuable as he was last season. As a reminder, the Marlins flipped him for the last 81 games of Carlos Lee’s career. In a related story, you’ll find the Marlins at the bottom of this and just about every other list that deals with the quality of a Major League Baseball franchise.
Perhaps there should be some extra credit for Castellanos here, as his ascendance (as well as Prince Fielder’s departure) give Detroit the opportunity to move Miguel Cabrera back to first base. Cabrera probably won’t be more valuable by WAR given the positional adjustment, but he might stay on the field longer, and that’s a big plus. As for Castellanos himself, he has seemingly been on prospect lists forever, but he’s only going to be 22 this season. That he’s already projected to be average is pretty sweet.
“Post-hype sleeper” is a term we toss around a lot, but it is apt for Olt. Olt might never pan out in the majors, but he had carried a bunch of hype with him before concussion and vision problems derailed his 2013 season. Partly because of these maladies, he only posted a 48 wRC+ for the iCubs after he came over in the Matt Garza trade last summer. If he can get past this problem, as well as a shoulder injury in camp, he probably will advance to the top job quickly. However, those are two question marks and March isn’t even over and Olt is 25 this year and he wasn’t scheduled to play his first game at third base until today, so for now we’ll keep things conservative. Valbuena and Murphy are nothing more than placeholders, so they won’t stand in Olt’s way. In a best-case scenario, Olt will ascend quickly and lift the Cubs closer to the middle of the third-base pack. But the projections are bearish, and until we see some light at the end of his tunnel, so will our playing time projections.
If the projections are accurate, the Angels should stop trading center fielders to the Cardinals. Freese is projected to be worthly nearly a win less than is Peter Bourjos. Then there’s also Randal Grichuk to consider, as over the course of a season, he is projected to be nearly as valuable as Freese. You could do worse than Freese, obviously — otherwise the Angels would rank 30th — but Freese has generally been overrated throughout his career, and he’s also never played a full season. That’s bad news for Anaheim, who has an underwhelming collection of reserves.
This might be the most fluid position both on the Yankees and among the third-base ranks. No other team has as many players listed here as do the Yankees. Fluid, of course, is not a synonym for pretty. Johnson may be the starter, but he may need to log time at first and/or second base. Sizemore could see time, but he could also end up back in the trainer’s room like he has the past two years. Anna could see time here, but if/when Brian Roberts breaks, he could see plenty of time at second base. And then there’s Nunez, who the Yankees can’t seem to quit. Johnson isn’t horrible, and Sizemore was good for a hot second three years ago, and Anna might be a nice little player, and…And this still might be a disaster.
#26 White Sox
The White Sox are building for the future, and Davidson is a solid building block in that regard. In the past five years, there have only been eight seasons of age-23 or younger third basemen who have posted 2.0 WAR (generally a proxy for league average) or better, and two of those seasons were Lawrie. Of course, one of the other seasons came from Gordon Beckham, so the list isn’t exactly infallible. But having a young third baseman, specifically one with power, is a good thing. Davidson might not light the world on fire this season, but he certainly has a chance to be a part of the next good White Sox team.
Attention: All dedicated readers will now be rewarded with a graph. Conversely, fickle readers who were just scrolling down to the comments will be punished by having to momentarily glance at a graph!
If the title of the graph isn’t clear enough, this is the differences in projected 2014 wOBA between the FANS projections and the combined Steamer/ZiPS projections. In general, the FANS are more optimistic — they’re only more pessimistic on six of the 30 projected starters, and only a little pessimistic in four of those six instances. But one starter who they are most optimistic — at least in comparison — is Asche. Only Headley squeaks past him in this regard, and only by .001. Now, it would be easy to dismiss the FANS as wide-eyed optimists and/or a collection of homers, but as we’ve seen, the FANS projections actually acquit themselves pretty decently. So perhaps we’re being a little hard on Asche, and he’ll do better than his projection here. That would be good news for Phillies fans, especially given the news that Franco is probably headed across the diamond to first base. Or maybe Asche is going to be the same guy who posted a .302 on-base percentage in his major league trial last season.
Among the reasons to dismiss the Braves’ chances at contention this season would be their handing of the third-base job to Johnson once again. While there is no doubt that Johnson was good last season, he certainly wasn’t elite. Of the 28th third basemen that tallied at least 400 plate appearances last season, Johnson ranked 13th. Middle of the road, to be sure, and the season was propped up by an untenable .394 batting average on balls in play. While Johnson has generally generated an above-average BABIP, it’s probably going to come back down this season, and when it does, so too will Johnson’s production. Johnson also was able to improve his defensive performance last season by limiting the errors he made on the field, which is probably the only way he can since his range continues to decline. In other words, if Johnson can continue to do everything in his power as good as he possibly can, he will be a decent third baseman. But he probably will not continue to do so, and as such will end up being one of the worst.
In 2012, Plouffe was good, in the sense that his contributions to the Twins were far enough above replacement level that he briefly escaped that tag. This came largely thanks to a seemingly unsustainable power spike, which he shockingly did not sustain last season. Since he’s still cheap — he’ll only earn $2.4 million this season — and the Twins aren’t really trying to compete, they decided that the best thing would be to bring him back for one more spin while waiting until Miguel Sano is ready. That plan blew up in their collective face when they finally succumbed to the fact that Sano needed Tommy John surgery, and it now seems that the declining number of people who spend time attending games at Target Field will be “treated” to seeing either Plouffe or some equally inadequate stand-in for at least the next two seasons, because any time that you can run in place while waiting for a prospect who has not yet reached Triple-A and now has a major injury that could force him across the diamond when he actually returns to playing baseball a year from now to magically save your franchise, you gotta do it.
You’d be forgiven if you thought the principals here had already retired. After last year’s retread — Placido Polanco — didn’t work out, the Marlins moved on to a new group of sure-to-not-work-out retreads. McGehee didn’t even play in the majors last year, and Wigginton was jettisoned before the first half ended. Lucas is still around, and he may be able to contribute defensively and on the bases, but even his meager offensive output last season may have represented a high-water mark. He was a nice story last season, but the story of a 31-year-old rookie is always a better story if the player in question isn’t playing for your favorite team. As a result of this cornucopia of suck, the Marlins rank dead last here for a second-straight season. Sorry, Marlin fan.
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