Finding Value at Third: Pablo Sandoval and Edwin Encarnacion

If we can assume relative health of the available third basemen heading into 2012, the position isn’t such a black hole as it appeared to be going into 2011. But taking an early look at the average draft position (ADP) on Mock Draft Central of those qualifying at the hot corner, it seems you’ll have to strike early or pay dearly if you want anyone who occupies the first couple of tiers.

It’s likely no surprise that Jose Bautista is the highest on the list, and among third basemen, he’s very much in a class by himself. But as it stands, Evan Longoria is even sniffing the first round with an ADP of 12.6. Coming off the board in rounds three and four are David Wright, Adrian Beltre, and Ryan Zimmerman, in that order. In standard leagues, that’s very much your first and second tier — gone by the end of the 4th round.

While you certainly need a plan heading into any draft, third base strikes me as particularly important. You have to ask yourself some basic questions about risk and reward, and you should probably do it well in advance of draft day. Do you believe Brett Lawrie will realize his potential over the course of a full season (speaking non-dynasty here)? Do you think you can get 550 plate appearances from Alex Rodriguez and do you think his bum hip won’t affect his power production? Are you willing to ride the Aramis Ramirez Experience Roller-coaster? They’re all going in round 6.

Looking for value relative to drat position at third base, there are a couple guys that pop out at me — Pablo Sandoval and Edwin Encarnacion.

Let’s take the Panda first. Sandoval is being drafted right around the end of the 7th round to early 8th round. That’s still a pretty high pick for a guy that only played 117 games last season, but despite losing a month and a half to injury, he still produced a .311/.357/.552 line with 23 home runs, 70 RBI and 55 runs scored. His injury was a fluke, not the nagging variety one might worry about (see Rodriguez, Alex; Youkilis, Kevin) and he was every bit as good at the dish when he returned (.315/.353/.557).

Sandoval did have a .320 BABIP, but that’s still right in line with his career rate of .323, and according to his hit trajectory, his expected BABIP was .303, so while he may have had a lucky bounce or two, he wasn’t that lucky. Something that was curiously high was his 16% HR/FB rate which rebounded from a woeful 7% the year before but his breakout campaign in 2009 saw his HR/FB rate at 14%. It’s hard to say he’s likely to repeat 16%, but I’m also not prepared to suggest he’ll come down to his 11.7% career rate. My expectation would be something in the 13-14%, which shouldn’t hurt his HR totals much.

He is continuing to swing at just about everything thrown his direction, with a 47.7% O-Swing rate, but he’s one of the rare bats that can get away with it as he makes contact on just about 80% of those swings versus a league average of 68%. He still has excellent contact skills, and even if we see a tad amount of regression in his BABIP and HR/FB rates, he ought to produce well enough to be a relative bargain should he slip into the 8th round. If he stays on the field, you can practically take a .300 batting average and 25 home runs to the bank along with pluses in RBI and Runs. Having that kind of production at a position rife with landmines with something in the 83-87 pick range is a pretty decent investment.

On the far other end of the draft is Edwin Encarnacion, who is currently being drafted roughly in the 19th round or so, having an ADP of 228 according to Mock Draft Central. Now, I know that Encarnacion isn’t necessarily Adrian Beltre with the glove, but his bat certainly doesn’t represent a throw-away flier pick. Encarnacion projects around .260/.335/.460 with HR’s in the high teens and 60-ish RBI and Runs.

But Encarnacion comes with a resume of a couple 20+ home runs in shortened seasons in the past and there’s certainly potential that he could produce a big year if he can stay on the field and get himself 600 plate appearances, which he has yet to do as a professional. He’s likely going to have the burden of defense removed from his responsibilities, and if you trust the small-ish sample from 2011, that could mean big things as he was apparently more comfortable at the dish when he didn’t have to worry about his defensive foibles at third base:

If you can find an actual starter at third base in the 19th round that has potential to hit 20 home runs and not represent a black hole at any of the regular counting stats, you’ve done pretty well, and if you’re at all a believer in Encarnacion’s bat and how he might perform without third base responsibilities, he’s certainly a good target.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

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Sandoval is working out with the same outfit he trained with last winter in Arizona. He even skipped a trip to his home country of Venezuela, partly out of security concerns after the kidnapping and rescue of Wilson Ramos, but partly due to his enthusiasm for improving on his improved conditioning last year. He also had Lasik surgery on his eyes that had been a big source of irritation with him.

Expect another great season from Pablo!