by Rob Leibowitz
Third base is something of a source of frustration. Many teams have utilized high draft picks to acquire players at this position, but as these acquisitions get closer to the Majors, the players have failed to sparkle.
Frazier hanging around
For example, the Miami Marlins almost made Matt Dominguez their starting third basemen to begin 2011. Instead, he failed to make the opening day roster, receiving just a cup of coffee in the Majors, and was subsequently mediocre at Triple-A. Dominguez's best attribute remains his glove, which is plus for the position. He can make contact at the plate, but it is not good hard contact and overall the third sacker has not developed the power expected. And, it does not help Dominguez's batting average that he is not a particularly fast runner either. Entering 2012 at age 22, this is Dominguez's second go-around at Triple-A. Given the acquisition of Jose Reyes and the subsequent shift of Hanley Ramirez to third (and not going anywhere probably until after 2014), it is possible that Dominguez has now become trade bait or worse, an organizational player. He is, however, still young, and could yet enjoy a breakthrough and interest from another organization that will give him a shot. If any injuries occur at the MLB level, he could still get a shot with the Marlins, too.
The Marlins are not only frustrated team. The Chicago Cubs' Josh Vitters was once thought to possibly be the next David Wright. Instead he is quite comparable to Dominguez. In fact they are separated by a single day in birth. (Where the comparison fails is defense). Vitters, too, is right-handed and makes a lot of contact but is overly aggressive at the plate (sub-5% walk rate) and barely topped .300 in OBP despite hitting. 280. He also has not developed the power expected of him, though Vitters is coming off of his best power-hitting season of his career with 14 homers in Double-A ball. While Vitters remains at third for the time being, his best position may be DH. Vitters showed a bit more growth this year than Dominguez, who remains static, but I am not all that optimistic. Vitters does, at least, have an avenue to the Majors as Ian Stewart is coming off of a dreadful season and is something of an enigma himself. It's possible, however, that the twosome could be a decent platoon combo.
Todd Frazier's climb to the Majors has not been as frustrating as Vitters' or Dominguez's. In fact he received semi-regular playing time last year for the Cincinnati Reds when Scott Rolen went on the disabled list. However, the former first round pick has lost quite a bit of his luster. He is just shy of 26 years of age and has been unable to translate the plate discipline/contact-making skills he showed in the lower minors to the upper minors, let alone the Majors. While Frazier maintains good power - possibly 20+ per season potential - he is now a right-handed hitter with mediocre contact skills, which has him looking more and more like a platoon or utility player. Frazier could be useful as a super-sub, playing a variety of infield and outfield positions, effective against left-handed pitching. If he can start to translate some of his minor league skills, then he could yet be a regular, but at his age, his window of opportunity is small.
The St. Louis Cardinals' David Freese is coming off of an excellent post-season, but still will have to look over his shoulder at both Matt Carpenter and Zack Cox. Carpenter doesn't have Freese's power, but he is a good doubles hitter with very advanced plate discipline. On more than one occasion he has been known to draw more walks than strikeouts. Last year he hit .302/.419/.465 in Triple-A Memphis while making contact 87% of the time and walking 16%. Carpenter plays good enough defense to man 3B in the Majors and has nothing left to prove in the minors. This is a skill set that is worth a look at the MLB level. At 26 years of age, he needs to get his chance soon. He could also end up as trade bait in an organization that is deep in young third basemen.
Cox was reportedly the best college hitter in his 2010 draft class. Several teams passed on his price tag and he eventually fell to the Cardinals at the 25th overall pick. 2011 was his first full season in the pros and he played generally well advancing as far as Double-A after dominating A+ ball to the tune of .335/.380/.439. He translated his skills well to Double-A with his batting average regressing (he had a .388 BABIP in A+ ball) and hitting .293 overall. Cox has a good swing and makes hard contact, but does not appear to be a 20+ HR threat yet and has not shown quite the plate discipline expected of him. He has the glove to stay at third, though there is some talk of moving over to second base. If he can handle that position, it is possible that his bat would be a better match there and would actually be a quicker path of ascension for him in the Cards' organization. Right now, his upside looks like a solid regular to me, not a star given limited speed, power, and mediocre OBP skills thus far.
Speaking of the 2010 draft, it brings us to Jedd Gyorko (San Diego Padres). Gyorko was selected a round after Cox but has actually shown quite a bit more with the bat thus far. Between two stops including Double-A, Gyorko belted 25 homers while making contact more than 20% of the time while also walking 10% of the time too. I'm not sure the power will translate completely to the Majors, especially given the home park, but he should be good for at least mid- to high teens home run power per season. How well Gyorko will hit for average is also up in the air. Yes, he makes good, hard, line drive contact, but he is quite slow and it may cost him somewhat. The righty has enough leather to stay at third base in the short term and could push Chase Headley for playing time later this year. Right now I am thinking Gyorko is a .260's to .280's, 15 to 20 HR per season type, which is an upgrade from Headley indeed.
One of the more interesting Rule 5 draft picks was the Baltimore Orioles' pick of Ryan Flaherty from the Cubs. Third base is technically his position, though he is blocked there currently by Mark Reynolds, and there are divided opinions regarding whether Flaherty is actually a better defender at second or third. Regardless, because of his experience in the middle infield and the outfield, the Orioles could elect to keep him on the 25-man roster rather than offer him back to the Cubs and that is of course due to his well-rounded offensive game. He makes consistent contact, draws walks and has legitimate 20+ HR power per season. Before I sound like I am gushing, there are some caveats. First, Flaherty is already 25 years of age and in his first, albeit small sample size, exposure to Triple-A pitching, struggled to translate his skills, and he could be exposed against MLB pitching, especially at first.
The Boston Red Sox's Will Middlebrooks has actually been living up to expectations, and perhaps even exceeding them with a 25 HR three-level performance last season. He has limited Triple-A experience and will require at least a half-season there but is already a far superior defender to Kevin Youkilis at third base. Middlebrooks has plenty of raw power and projects to be a mid-twenties or better per season type, but right now I am a skeptic. Why? Well, he is a right-handed hitter who strikes out a quarter or more of the time and rarely draws walks. In other words this screams “wrong side of the platoon split” player who may struggle to hit .250 in the Majors. There are lower-ceiling players in this article who are better bets.
Chris Dominguez, 25, could see some playing time for the San Francisco Giants later this season, but after hitting .244/.272/.403 at Double-A his window of opportunity is just a sliver. He generally has good power, is not terribly slow and handles the hot corner. However, he is ultra aggressive at the plate, rarely walking and striking out about a quarter of the time. In other words he is Will Middlebrooks without the pedigree and without youth on his side.
The Giants also have former first round pick Conor Gillaspie who I once felt was going to be “Bill Mueller minus the glove”. Well, he did get his first cup of coffee in the Majors last year and did show doubles power and high single-digit to low-teens pop as well a pretty good batting eye. While Gillaspie is a more complete player than Dominguez, he is 24 years old and has pretty much already hit his ceiling. There may not be much room, if any, in the Giants lineup for him and he could end up as trade bait. His bat better fits a middle infield position, but his glove won't play there.
More glove than stick
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have often thought in the past that they had developed their third basemen of the future. Instead we've seen the likes of Dallas McPherson and Brandon Wood come and go while non-traditional non-power-hitting types of Alberto Callaspo and Maicier Izturis continue to man third base. Enter Luis Jimenez. He is far from a top prospect, and he is never going to be noted for his on-base skills, but this very aggressive righty makes a lot of contact and has pretty good power, possibly 20+ per season level power. He will advance to Triple-A this season and could push for MLB playing time later this season if he continues to hit and play sharp defense.
Brandon Laird, kid brother of Gerald, was featured in last year's piece and did indeed make the Majors in 2011 due to Alex Rodriguez's injury woes for the New York Yankees. Now 24, Laird continued to show power in Triple-A but has failed to make substantial improvements to his overly aggressive approach. In two seasons at Triple-A he has failed to draw walks at even a 4% rate. Laird the younger did at least show more power and make better contact in his second tour of duty, but managed just a .260/.288/.422 line. He may get some more injury-related call-ups, but he does not look like a future MLB starter, let alone a bench player, at the moment to me.
The Seattle Mariners' Alex Liddi was also featured in last year's piece. Unlike his counterpart Laird, this 23-year old had a breakthrough season, particulary in the power department. He smashed 33 homers between Triple-A and the Majors while also improving his walk rates and not significantly increasing his strikeout rates at a higher level of play. That said, this righty still strikes out about a quarter of the time and like he did at Triple-A (.259) he is not likely to hit for average in the Majors. Though as we know from Mark Reynolds, if he can translate the power and a team can fill its batting average needs elsewhere, he could be a worthwhile fantasy pick.
Liddi is not the only third basemen in the Mariners' upper minors. They have Vinnie Catricala and Francisco Martinez, too. Catricala is only a third basemen in name. Given the presence of the Liddi and Martinez, and his sub-par defense, it is just about 100% certain that Catricala will shifting from third base this spring. Still, that's where he played mostly last year and that's where I'll keep him for the purposes of this piece. The 23-year old perhaps has the best chance of being a success in the Majors due to plate skills,combining good power (25 homers, 14 of them at High Desert however) and good all-around plate discipline - making contact and drawing walks resulting in batting averages around .350 at each of his two 2011 minor league season stops. He'll advance to Triple-A this year and, given his pace, could quickly force his way into the Mariners' lineup at a position to be determined later.
Martinez, meanwhile, is the best raw athlete of the Seattle trio. The Mariners acquired the 20-year-old from the Detroit Tigers in the Doug Fister deal and elected to keep him at the Double-A level (where the Tigers had him). He is still quite raw in his plate discipline, and his power has not come around yet (as you would expect of a 20-year old in Double-A), but he has projectable frame, above average bat speed and the makings of at least an average third basemen defensively, if not better. For now I am cautiously optimistic given that he has held his own despite his age at a high level of play, but that has been said about quite a few other players with good raw tools in the past, too.
For as long as David Wright is with the New York Mets, he will be a fixture at the hot corner. Zach Lutz, however, is an option who has enough of a bat to potentially force his way onto the MLB roster. 2011 was something of a lost year due to injuries (an understatement - much of Lutz's pro-career has been spent on the DL to non-chronic, just continuous injuries). Still, over 250 plate appearances in his first extended exposure to Triple-A he showed his power (.205 isolated power) while drawing walks 11% of the time. A .388 BABIP says his .295 batting average was well over his head, especially given a strikeout rate greater than a quarter of the time. If he can tone down the strikeout rates to be more consistent with his earlier seasons while maintaining the power, he could be interesting, but he is probably more of a wrong-side platoon player and back-up infielder/pinch-hitter type. Expect to see him up and down with the big club a few times this season provided he is not already on the DL.
Over with the Texas Rangers, Adrian Beltre is signed long-term through 2015 with an option for 2016. That means Tommy Mendonca may need to shift positions or could end up as trade bait. Beltre's presence certainly impacts how much impact Mendonca could have this season, but nevertheless the nearly 24-year-old will be advancing to Triple-A after slugging 25 home runs in Double-A last season. He is an aggressive hitter who draws few walks and who also struck out more than a quarter of the time, but at least has the benefit of being a left-handed hitter and is also considered a pretty good defender. I mention Medonca as someone to watch in case there are injuries at the MLB level.
The Oakland Athletics will be opening 2012 with Scott Sizemore as their third basemen. He did a credible job last season, but not an overwhelming job by any stretch of the imagination and playing time will constantly be vulnerable. This may present an opportunity for Stephen Parker, who will be advancing to Triple-A for the first time this season. He is a left-handed hitter noted for his ability to get on base. Parker makes a fair amount of contact, hits some doubles and in 2010 did manage to hit 21 homers, but he profiles perhaps best as a high-teens per season home run type. His progress is worth monitoring given the volatility of the A's third base situation.
Possible MLB Phase Draft/Auction Sections:
Ryan Flaherty, Matt Carpenter
Possible Minor League Draft Phase Selections:
Zack Cox, Jedd Gyorko, Will Middlebrooks, Luis Jimenez, Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez, Vinnie Catricala
Possible In-Season FAAB Pick-Ups:
Matt Dominguez, Josh Vitters, Chris Dominguez, Conor Gillaspie, Zach Lutz, Tommy Mendonca, Stephen Parker
If there are any third basemen who were not included in this piece who you would like me to discuss, feel free to comment below or post to the Mastersball.com forums.