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Seeing Red at the Hot Corner for 2010

The third base position in Cincinnati has been a busy place in 2009. Edwin Encarnacion began the year as the club’s starter before injuries and a subsequent trade to Toronto ended his storyline. Other players such as Adam Rosales, Drew Sutton, and Paul Janish have also spent time there, although the latter’s batting average of .217 tops the trio.

The trade of Encarnacion was made to bring in veteran Scott Rolen, a good defensive player who was having a solid offensive season with Toronto. Since coming back to the National League, Rolen has hit just .263/.342/.364 in 114 at-bats, and he was slowed with post-concussion symptoms after a beaning in one of his first games with the Reds.

Rolen is signed to a hefty contract for 2010 – and the Reds also paid a large price in young arms for him – so he’ll be the everyday guy next year, if healthy. That leaves the status of two upper-level third base prospects in limbo. Both Todd Frazier and Juan Francisco are near-MLB-ready. In fact, Francisco was called up to the Majors in September.

Both players began the year in double-A. Francisco spent the majority of time at the hot corner. He hit .281/.317/.501 with 22 homers in 437 at-bats. The left-handed hitter was then promoted to triple-A where he hit .359/.384/.598 with another five homers in 92 at-bats. That earned him his first big-league shot. On the downside of Francisco’s numbers, the 22-year-old prospect walked just 4.3% of the time in 2009, which sadly is a career high for him. A rate like that (along with a K rate of 22%) will not translate into much success in the Majors, regardless of how well he’s done in the minors. Francisco’s glove at third base also begs for the DH role in the National League.

Frazier moved to the outfield to accommodate Francisco in double-A in ’09. He’s also seen time at second base. His best position, though, remains third base. The 23-year-old prospect hit .290/.350/.481 with 40 doubles in 451 at-bats in double-A. A late-season promotion to triple-A resulted in a line of .302/.362/.476 with another five doubles in 63 at-bats. Overall, he also slugged 16 homes. His walk rate of 8.6% is not great, but it’s double what Francisco had to offer. Frazier’s strikeout rate was also about 10% lower than his teammate’s.

Neither player will see much time at the hot corner in Cincinnati in 2010, barring an injury to Rolen. Both players are still young, though, and someone will likely have to take over in 2011. The safer bet for that job would be Frazier as he is a better overall hitter and fielder. Francisco potentially has a higher upside but the walk rate is a huge concern, as the only big leaguers with a similar walk rate and strikeout rate are Clint Barmes of the Rockies and Aaron Rowand of the Giants.

Frazier could be a valuable player for the Reds, as well as fantasy managers, in 2010. He has a solid approach that leads to excellent gap power (that could easily turn into HR power with more experience) and he has the potential to hit for a solid average. His defensive versatility would also make him a flexible resource at numerous positions (2B, 3B, OF). Francisco’s three straight 20+ homer seasons may be more enticing, but Frazier remains the safer bet.