You know the expression: Two's company, but three's a crowd. The adage is true, who needs three when two will do? The Rockies enter this off-season with three capable third basemen -- Chris Nelson, Jordan Pacheco, and Nolan Arenado -- an enviable position given that many teams are struggling to find even one. Given their depth at the position and their lack of depth in, say, pitching, the Rockies should consider trading one of them this off-season, but which one?
Right off the bat we can simplify things by reducing our pool of third basemen by one. The decision is really between moving Nelson or Pacheco; Arenado, who is expected to make his debut next season, is unlikely to go anywhere. It's hard to envision a scenario in which a team received enough top-tier, inexpensive talent to justify dealing its top prospect before he's even had a major league trial. The Rockies will hold on and see what Arenado can do.
It was a stroke of luck that the Rockies find themselves in this position in the first place. The club took a risk relying on utility infielder Chris Nelson and rookie Jordan Pacheco to man the hot corner this season. Working without a net, they traded or released the four players who got the most time at third in 2011, including Ian Stewart and Ty Wigginton. They spent only $960,000 filling the position this season, and the position combined to hit .302/.344/.437 (.771 OPS), the club's best offensive showing at the position since 2008, when Garrett Atkins and Ian Stewart split duties. Their hot corner defense, on the other hand, was dead last in the league by a considerable margin, with a -22.3 UZR, an assessment corroborated by the other major defensive systems. Say what you want about the imprecision of fielding stats, but that's a staggeringly significant condemnation of the defense.
The combination of decent offense and inept defense pushed the Rockies towards the replacement level, with a 0.3 and 0.2 fWAR respectively. Nevertheless, the two may have some appeal on the trade market given that there will be several teams, including the Phillies, Reds, and Cubs (and possibly White Sox and Mets) that will be shopping for a third baseman. They will find limited options on the winter meat market. There is mainly tired veteran talent on the list of likely free agents, with creaky Eric Chavez leading the way, followed by desperation guys like Ty Wigginton and Placido Polanco. Nelson or Pacheco are considerably younger and cheaper alternatives than the aging and ailing available and both are at the peak of their market, making it a good opportunity to move either player -- which, given the eventual arrival of Arenado, they will likely do eventually regardless. The Rockies certainly don't have to make a trade -- the two players are still cost controlled -- but they are deep in utility players (Tyler Colvin, Jonathan Herrera, Eric Young, and DJ LeMahieu among them), there is really no need to carry so many of them once Nelson or Pacheco is pushed out of the starting lineup.
The main reason the Nelson-Pacheco experiment worked to the extent it did is because both players performed better than might have been expected given their records. Nelson is the proud owner of one of the largest collections of injuries west of the Mississippi, among them surgery on both wrists while in the minors. His left wrist was again an issue early in the season, which contributed to a streaky performance (he was hitting only .219/.313/.288 before his initial trip to the disabled list), but once he returned he hit a solid .284/.333/.505. Even those strong numbers were undermined by a slump keyed by a twisted ankle. He hadn't quite gotten through with that when he suffered another, more serious threat to his health, an irregular heartbeat. You might think a player who had to have his heart shocked back into rhythm might be somewhat debilitated by the whole experience, but Nelson recovered to hit .345/.379/.503 after returning.
It's hard to say which is the real Nelson. With a .301/.352/.458 slash line for the season, he out-performed Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections of .270/.312/.427, which provides a sense of just how far he exceeded reasonable expectations, and also how far he might revert. He also doesn't hit for power and that's something that teams traditionally seek at the position. A team like the Rockies might get enough of a power-lift from Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and the thin mountain air to supplement Nelson, but once Arenado is ready to assume the position, Nelson is just a Rockies utility guy, whereas if he's traded he could be someone else's starter. Nelson's biggest weakness is his defense-even though he can play second or third, he's not very good at either position. Still, he's a cheap option coming off a good season, due just $480,000 next season.
Teams may prefer Pacheco because of the success he had this season, but he's more difficult to evaluate. You can scream "small sample size" about anyone's rookie season, but Pacheco's in particular should invite skepticism in that he exceeded all expectations offensively. Pacheco had just enough at bats to qualify for the batting title and finished sixth in the National League batting race, hitting .309/.341/.421. In doing so, he greatly exceeded his PECOTA projection (.259/.313/.367). It's fair to wonder how much of that was the hitter-friendly environment at home and a push from the BABIP Fairy (.344). One thing is certain, though-he's a contact hitter, not a power hitter. While his ISO improved slightly from .99 in Triple-A Colorado Springs, to .112 in the majors, it's considerably below league average, especially when you consider where he played.
Defensively, Pacheco's limitations make him downright confusing when it comes to figuring out how he fits on a roster. With pitchers crowding reserve position players off the bench, most teams need their infield reserves to be able to play up the middle, but Pacheco's not really a middle infielder, even though he's shown up at second a couple times in the majors. He's not a great catcher either, having been converted to the position in Low-A ball. His UZR at third base this season was -9.5, which was better than Nelson's, but still a hard sell for a starter at the position who hits like he does. Yet, if a team were to carry him as a reserve instead, given Pacheco's defensive limitations they would still have to carry all the usual back-ups as well.
Pacheco might be most valuable to a team that is weak at the infield corners or catcher, because though he might drag you down as a regular starter at any of those positions, he could rotate between them as required, displacing the typical light-hitting backup. That's a deployment not used too often these days, but in the 1970s and 80s John Wockenfuss and Joe Ferguson played catcher and outfield for the Tigers and Dodgers, respectively. Mike Heath primarily caught, but he was spotted almost everywhere else at times, and there were catcher-third basemen like Bill Sadakis, Bob Brenly, Marty Castillo, and Floyd Rayford.
Pacheco and Nelson both have some value this off-season because of the scarcity at the positions they play and because of the success they had this season. The Rockies have enough depth that parting with one of them now will be of greater benefit than hanging on to both for another season trying to evaluate if and where they fit into the puzzle. In a perfect world, they would get pitching in return while Arenado becomes the franchise third baseman they've been longing for. As far as dreams go, the old two's company adage doesn't apply: The more the merrier when wishing on favorable outcomes for an organization's future -- but then, dreams don't take up space on the bench.