Third Basemen seem to be in the news a lot this off season. In the American League East, for example, the Red Sox, who went from defending the title to claiming the cellar in one season, are trying hard to woo Pablo Sandoval away from the World Champion San Francisco Giants. They have tried for three years to make Will Middlebrooks into their third baseman and seem to have finally given up on the experiment.
They have also been rumored to be looking at the Yankees Chase Headley, who is a Free Agent, for that spot. While all this is going on, they have Brock Holt, who was one of their only bright spots offensively last year, who played 39 games at third while playing every other position except pitch and catch, without a starting position.
The Yankees, of course, just unloaded Zelous Wheeler, who played 37 games at third for them last year, to Rakuten of the Japanese Pacific League, while anticipating the return of Alex Rodriguez. Rodriguez is an unknown quantity at this point, not having played a full season since 2012, when he hit only .272 in 122 games and just having been through major surgery on his hip at age 39, he will be 40 in July. The Yankees are also rumored to want to get Headley back because of their concerns over ARod’s ability to come back after the lengthy absence.
Of course, the Yankees still have Martin Prado, who they got from the Arizona Diamondbacks late last season and who played 110 of his total 143 games between the Yankees and D’Backs at third base last year. He is a 9 year veteran with a career batting average of .291. He has played several positions in his career but has played 414 at third.
After his second major injury in two years, the Orioles third baseman Manny Machado will be coming back, hopefully at full strength. He hit .278 in just 82 games in 2013 but tore a ligament in his right knee in a game against the Yankees on August 11. He had an operation and missed the rest of the season but is expected to be ready for spring training. He had missed the first month of the 2014 season after injuring his other knee in September of 2012. He has that rare combination of hitting and fielding ability not found often in today’s third basemen.
Most major league teams worry more about having a third baseman who can hit and is a passable fielder rather than a good fielder who is a passable hitter. Fielding ability is secondary for third basemen. In the American League East last year, third basemen who played the bulk of the games for their teams averaged just 2.54 chances per game compared with shortstops who averaged 3.7 per game and second basemen who averaged 4.97 per game.
The bunt, which used to be one big reason for having an agile, good fielding third baseman in the American League, has all but disappeared. In addition, with the increase in the number of defensive shifts used, a third baseman spends a lot of his time in the shortstop or short right field position.
The old adage that a baseball team has to be strong up the middle is more true than ever today. The increase in velocity of pitchers contributes to more balls being hit up the middle instead of being pulled down the lines.
With the lack of emphasis on fielding for third basemen these days, it’s no wonder Pablo Sandoval is almost the biggest story in baseball these days. He has the additional advantage of being a switch hitter but last year hit only .199 against left handed pitching but .317 against right handed pitching. His problem with fluctuations in his weight and the fact that he has gained an excessive amount of weight during the season may make some teams afraid of long term contracts with him due to the possibility of injury.
Whatever happens with Sandoval, Headley, Rodriguez, Machado or the rest of the third basemen out there, most major league teams want a third basemen that can deliver runs and also, by the way, stop a ball at third occasionally.