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In the Post-Arenado Era, who will play third base for the Rockies?

In the short term, the answer seems clear. After that, things get more complicated

Since 2013, writing the third base “State of the Position” essay was the easiest job at Purple Row. The author simply cited Nolan Arenado and a lot of eye-popping numbers (say, the highest DRS in baseball in 2020 . . .) while writing a quick sympathy note for those on the farm who came up as third basemen but were busy learning new positions.

What a difference two months make.

Arenado is now a Cardinal, and in 2021, the Colorado Rockies will be relying on a new third baseman.

All indications are that Ryan McMahon will earn the starting job, but after that, the picture becomes more complicated.

The Heir Apparent: Ryan McMahon

McMahon came through the minors playing the hot corner. (It’s worth remembering that in 2016, MiLB’s list of best third basemen ranked McMahon third.) In September 2020 when Arenado was placed on the IL, McMahon moved in. Here he explains how much he loves playing there, saying, “I think of myself as a third baseman playing second base.” See for yourself. (Also, check that play against the Dodgers.)

“I’d be lying,” he says, “if I said it doesn’t feel like home.” Prior to February, McMahon had accepted his fate as a displaced third baseman, but in 2021, he’s returning to his baseball home.

Moreover, the data indicates McMahon will be much better at third base than at first or second, his positions for the last two seasons. Here’s what FanGraphs shows:

Source: FanGraphs

Although McMahon has been a slightly above-average first and second baseman, that may improve considerably when he consistently plays third. He is not going to be Nolan Arenado, but he is probably going to hold his own.

There have been concerns about McMahon’s bat given that his strikeout rate (34.2%) was the sixth worst in baseball last year. But the power is there in terms of exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel percentage. Remember: In 2020 only Trevor Story had more home runs than McMahon’s nine homers. Moreover, Thomas Harding has suggested that if McMahon feels more comfortable defensively, he may be more effective offensively.

For Ryan McMahon, this is the year.

The Competitors

The Rockies have also played Josh Fuentes, Chris Owings and Brendan Rodgers at third base.

Fuentes has played 20 innings at third in the 2019-2020 seasons, earning a DRS of 1 (according to FanGraphs). Fuentes’ defensive success at first last year makes him a more likely fit for that position. (In 292.1 innings, he’s earned a DRS of 9 at first. In 2020, he was the most effective defensive first baseman in baseball.) Although Fuentes is good to have as an option, his fit has become at first.

In 2021, Chris Owings looks to be the Rockies’ veteran utility player, given that he’s played all positions except for first base, catcher, and pitcher. Between 2018-2020, he played 178.1 innings at third for a DRS of 3. (Frankly, he is significantly better defensively at second.) Like Fuentes, Owings provides another option for the Rockies at third.

Brendan Rodgers will be spending 2021 on the Rockies roster, presumably at second, but he played 24 innings of third base for the Triple-A Isotopes. His natural position is shortstop or second base. The Rockies 2021 season will have to take a bizarre turn for Rodgers to see significant playing time at third.

On the Farm

The Rockies farm system has a wealth of riches when it comes to third basemen.

Colton Welker (No. 5 PuRP) has been playing some third in spring training, but he has competition for the job. As Jeff Aberle writes, “Even with the recent trade of Arenado, the 23-year-old Welker finds himself competing against a plethora of good players at the corner infield positions to make a major league impact.” In spring training, Welker has appeared in nine games for 17 plate appearances and has earned a slash line of .438/.471.813 for an OPS of 1.283. (I know, I know: Spring training games don’t mean anything, but I wanted to include what we’ve seen so far.) He is expected to start the season in Albuquerque though he may find himself on the MLB roster before the 2021 season ends.

Let’s not forget Elehuris Montero, who came to the Rockies in the Arenado deal. While Montero missed the PuRP rankings, he’s the Rockies #7 prospect according to MLB Pipeline:

While some believe Montero, who has a plus arm, will be able to stick at third base, others expect him to outgrow the position due to his remaining physical projection and because his speed, range and footwork are all fringy. The good news is that he still could have the requisite offensive profile for either infield corner, with the potential to hit for average while contributing 20-plus home runs from the middle of a lineup.

Here’s Montero making a nice play to get out — you can’t make this stuff up — Colton Welker:

In spring training, the Rockies have been playing Montero at third. In four games, he has had five plate appearances for a slash line of .200/.200/.200 and an OPS of .400.

In addition, there’s Ryan Vilade (No. 3 PuRP), a shortstop moved to third base and then the corner outfield. In the Cactus League, Vilade has appeared in nine games for 13 plate appearances and has slashed .364/.462/.364 for an OPS of .825. Vilade is expected to start 2021 in Hartford. Given the Rockies’ depth at third base, it seems unlikely he will return to the hot corner in any meaningful capacity.

Then there’s Aaron Schunk (No. 6 PuRP). He spent 2020 at the Rockies’ alternate site, and saw some second base there but primarily played third. Zach Wilson said of Schunk, “He’s come here and led this entire group with his actions and vocally . . . . He’s performed well there, particularly on balls coming in and throwing across his body.” Schunk will probably start 2021 in Low-A Spokane.

But wait! There’s more!

Julio Carreras (No. 23 PuRP) was signed as a shortstop and spent 2019 in Grand Junction where he played various infield positions. He is expected to settle at third. For Jeff Aberle, Carreras is a well kept secret we’ll all know more about by next year.

Final Thoughts

Yes, the Nolan Arenado deal still stings. No one will be replacing Arenado’s generational talent. But there is reason to be hopeful about the Rockies’ future at third base.