Many were surprised last week when Fangraphs ranked the Rockies as having the 19th best third basemen in the league. After all, can a club undecided on whether to start a converted catcher, career utility guy or a 21-year-old with exactly zero MLB at-bats at the hot corner really be in a better situation than 11 other teams in the league?
It used to be that in order to be a contending team, you needed to get power at the plate from both of your corner infield spots. Now, if you want to get power from your third baseman, you're going to have to accept a deficiency somewhere else. (Unless your third baseman is named Adrian Beltre, Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez, David Wright or Evan Longoria if he's healthy.)
You need look no further for evidence of this than the top third baseman in the game, Miguel Cabrera. There is no question that Cabrera is an outstanding offensive player, winning the Triple Crown in 2012 erased any doubt about that, but he is bad defensively. Really bad. Like, Jordan Pacheco-level bad.
Looking at the Fangraphs third base rankings, it becomes clear that a top player at that position is no longer a necessity to contend for a playoff berth or even a championship. The Braves, for example, are expected to have a solid, contending team this year with Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson replacing the retired Chipper Jones at third. Similarly, both Los Angeles teams expect to be contenders with Alberto Callaspo and Luis Cruz as their primary third baseman.
Let us pause for a moment to honor the once-proud Phillies who will sending Michael Young and his .312 on-base percentage and lousy glove to man the hot corner in 2013. I'm certainly glad the Rockies didn't trade Eric Young Jr.for that guy.
The point is, there are some teams out there with really bad third basemen. These aren't the good, old days when even a mediocre Rockies squad had a solid option at third with a guy like Jeff Cirillo or Todd Zeile.
Part of the problem is the lack of a league-wide definition of what kind of player you want at third base. Obviously, every team would like to have a guy like Beltre, a Gold Glove level defensive player with a legitimate middle of the order bat, but there are only a few of those at any given position in the league.
At, say, shortstop, teams are going to pretty much always going to go with an all glove, no bat type of player rather than the reverse. However, at third, teams seem to be undecided as to whether to prioritize offense or defense.
Looking at the projected starters at third throughout the league, nearly half of them played somewhere else defensively at some point in their careers, including top players like Cabrera, Pablo Sandoval and Kevin Youkilis as well as both of the Rockies' incumbent third base options.
It has become the position to which teams will move middle infielders who are sub par defensively, but have bats worthy of a lineup spot. On the other hand, we've seen top-level bats in guys like Ryan Braun and Albert Pujolsmoved off of third base because of poor defense.
The offense/defense question is a key one for the Rockies in deciding to whom to give the bulk of the starts at third base. Will it be Pacheco, who was fifth in the National League in batting average in 2012 but is poor defensively, or Nelson who will likely offer less of a threat at the plate but be better defensively? Or does Walt Weiss go with Arenado, who hasn't played above AA but likely has the highest ceiling both offensively and defensively?
Given the distribution of playing time throughout spring training, Weiss and the Rockies seem to be leaning toward the more solid defense of Nelson rather than Pacheco, who got the most starts at third in 2012.
Each of the Rockies third base options brings things to the table, but also takes things off of it. The position may seem to be a mess right now until Arenado (hopefully) establishes himself, but a mess at third base seems to be an apt way of describing the state of the position across the league.