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September 16, 2013

Five to Watch

Hot Corner Conundrums

by Ben Carsley

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Some would say that forecasting 2014 rosters in September 2013 is a fool’s errand. These people either a) don’t know fools, b) don’t run errands, or c) don’t play in dynasty leagues. For as any experienced owner knows, if you’re not already thinking about your keepers for 2014, you’re doing it wrong.

With that in mind, now is as good a time as any to take a look at five tenuous third-base situations around the league. While there are some potential future fantasy studs listed below, many of these youngsters face uncertain playing time and roster security headed into next year.

Given that the best third basemen about to hit the market include the likes of Kevin Youkilis, Eric Chavez, Michael Young, and Juan Uribe, you can expect that many teams will be looking internally to fill their holes at the hot corner.

Arizona Diamondbacks
The Incumbent: Martin Prado/Eric Chavez
Potential Challengers: Matt Davidson, Chris Owings

Thanks to the defensive versatility of Mr. Prado, the Diamondbacks have one of the most unique third base situations in baseball. The D’backs’ lineup is currently configured so that Prado generally plays third base against lefties but often shifts to left field or second base against righties, allowing Chavez to man the hot corner. With Chavez potentially set to depart this offseason and two of Arizona’s better prospects knocking on the door, fantasy owners will have plenty to pay attention to what happens this offseason and next spring.

Those two youngsters are Davidson and Owings: powerful prospects with significant swing-and-miss to their games, but with tantalizing upside nonetheless. Davidson is perhaps the best bet to see playing time at third base when Prado isn’t there next season. The 22-year-old hit .280/.350/.481 in Triple-A this season, and while the average was buoyed by a .359 BABIP that slugging percentage is legitimate. Owings has zero professional experience at third base but is a good defender at short and (pure speculation) could likely make the shift to third without issue. However, fantasy owners should hope he wrestles the shortstop job from Didi Gregorius, as he’s a much more exciting offensive option.

Due to Prado’s versatility, any playing time at the hot corner will be tied to Arizona’s outfield options as well. One would assume that Cody Ross, Adam Eaton and Gerardo Parra would roam the outfield when Prado plays in the infield, with A.J. Pollock serving as a reserve. However, against tough lefties it would make sense for Parra to sit with Prado in left and Davidson or Owings starting at third.

Overall, the bet here is that Davidson factors significantly into Arizona’s 2014 plans, playing against lefties and serving as a source of right-handed pop off the bat. That he can play first base helps as well, although he’s obviously not replacing Paul Goldschmidt any time soon. Those in mixed leagues may not be able to use Davidson immediately, but his power makes him an intriguing play in deep or NL-only leagues.

Boston Red Sox
The Incumbent: Will Middlebrooks
Potential Challengers: Xander Bogaerts, Garin Cecchini

It’s been a tale of two seasons for Middlebrooks. The power-hitting third baseman entered 2013 viewed as a middle-of-the-order threat for the Red Sox and as a popular (if divisive) up-and-comer for fantasy owners. Middlebrooks made his detractors look wise early in the season, hitting just .198/.228/.389 from the beginning of the season though June 20, when he was demoted to Triple-A. After a solid but uninspiring 45 games back in Pawtucket, the Red Sox decided to give “WMB” another shot in the majors anyway. They’ve been handsomely rewarded, as Middlebrooks has hit .308/.371/.519 since returning on August 10.

One would assume that said resurgence means Middlebrooks has a firm grasp on the job for 2014, and that probably is a safe bet. Bogaerts is the biggest challenger, but with Jose Iglesias dealt to Detroit and Stephen Drew’s impending free agency, Boston’s top prospect is more likely to assume the starting shortstop duties than to man the hot corner. That being said, the Red Sox will likely at least move to acquire a veteran infielder who could play in Bogaerts’ place if the youngster struggles: as talented as he is, he’ll likely finish 2013 with fewer than 50 MLB plate appearances and just 60 games in Triple-A.

Said scenario, even if it doesn’t involve a returning Drew, wouldn’t immediately threaten Middlebrooks but would invite the possibility of Bogaerts shifting back to third should WMB struggle and another player serve adequately at short, which is basically the scenario that unfolded this year with Iglesias. Middlebrooks also has to keep at least one eye over his shoulder thanks to the outstanding season of Garin Cecchini, who’s at least a year away but who provides average and OBP as opposed to Middlebrooks’ defense and power.

Overall, Middlebrooks is still likely to enter 2014 as the Sox’ third baseman, and a .265/.330/.475 line is, in my opinion, within reach. His job may not be as secure as you think, though, and that’s something to keep in mind as the offseason unfolds and as you begin locking your keepers in place.

Chicago Cubs
The Incumbents: Luis Valbuena/Donnie Murphy
Potential Challengers: Junior Lake, Christian Villanueva, Mike Olt, Josh Vitters

In all but five games this season, one of Valbuena, Murphy, or Cody Ransom has started at third base for the Cubs. There’s no real point in analyzing their respective or collective offensive output here, because these players aren’t worth owning even in deep NL-only leagues. The good news for fantasy owners is that the Cubs have a bevy of intriguing third base options rising through the minors, and that Chicago’s 2014 hot corner depth chart should be infinitely more interesting.

While he’s spent nearly all of his time in the majors in the outfield, I would argue that the man currently on the major league roster most likely to steal starts at third base early next season is Lake. Thanks to a BABIP of .389, Lake is currently posting a .310/.352/.470 line and making a strong case to factor prominently into the Cubs’ 2014 plans. Three other prospects on the 40-man are also poised to force the issue, and each provides varying levels of fantasy appeal.

Former first-rounder Vitters has continued to hit in the minor leagues this season, but he’s received just 100 PA in Triple-A to this point and his 2012 MLB debut was disastrous. The recently acquired Olt has seen his stock plummet this year, hitting just .201/.303/.381 and raising concerns about his propensity to strike out. And Villanueva, another former Texas farmhand, has had an uninspiring year in Double-A. He’s also probably the least-enticing fantasy option of any listed here other than Valbuena.

The bet here is that Olt starts the season in the minors with either Valbuena or perhaps Lake starting for the first six weeks, but that the former Ranger will get the starting nod before too long. He possesses 25-30 homer upside, which would make him relevant in any fantasy league, although it’s possible the swing-and-miss will make his power play down. But with Javier Baez and Kris Bryant waiting in the wings, anyone the Cubs roll with in 2014 won’t have very long to make an impression. This is a situation keeper league owners are best off avoiding for a while.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Incumbent: Cody Asche
Potential Challengers: Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis

As we all know, the Phillies entered the season with Michael Young as their starting third baseman. Despite the jokes of internet experts and some rough defensive play, Young hit fairly well during his time in Philadelphia, posting a .276/.336/.395 line in 512 plate appearances before an August deal to the Dodgers. Asche, a pop-up prospect, has received the majority of the playing time in Young’s absence and has put up a .262/.326/.452 line with a TAv of .284 in 37 games.

Asche’s performance doesn’t eliminate the possibility that he starts 2014 as the Phillies’ third baseman, but it doesn’t lock down that scenario either. Asche isn’t a very strong defender and as Jason Parks wrote before the season, his upside is as a role-5 player. The good news for Asche is that the Phillies don’t really have a better option with MLB experience. Kevin Frandsen and Pete Orr received a few starts their this year, but the only serious threat would seem to come from Freddy Galvis, who is pretty “meh” from a fantasy perspective.

The man who probably has the best shot at unseating Asche is Franco, who’s arguably one of the more exciting fantasy prospects in the upper minors. After crushing High-A to begin the year, Franco is hitting .339/.363/.563 in 292 PA in Double-A. If Asche does start the year in the majors, that leaves Franco room to begin 2013 in Triple-A, making it quite likely he’ll see the majors at some point next year.

I broke down why fantasy owners need to be cautious when it comes to Franco last week (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21706), and there’s plenty of risk here. Plus, Chris Mellen gave his take on Franco late last week and determined that while Franco has obvious offensive upside, he’s a strong candidate to move to first base at some point down the line. That being said, given Asche as an alternative, fantasy owners should hope and pray they can squeeze at least a few seasons of third base eligibility out of Franco and his light-tower power.

St. Louis Cardinals
The Incumbent: David Freese
Potential Challengers: Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso

Freese has seen quite the dramatic rise and fall over the past four seasons, rising from relative obscurity to become a World Series hero, only to plummet back down to earth in 2013. The 30-year-old is hitting just .260/.335/.376 this season, worth a whopping -0.5 WARP compared to 3.0 in 2012 and 1.4 in 2011 and 2010 each. With Carpenter emerging as one of the better hitters in the NL and prospect Kolten Wong seemingly ready to man second base for St. Louis next season, Freese’s hold on the hot corner for 2014 seems tenuous at best.

Freese, Carpenter, and Wong may all be on the roster to begin next season but at this point, Carpenter may be the best bet to hold down third. After a solid 2012, Carpenter has really exploded in 2013, hitting an astounding .317/.389/.482, walking more than he’s striking out and putting up 6.5 WARP. Since his counting stats are fairly low—Carpenter has just 10 homers and three steals—Carpenter is a better MLB player than a fantasy one, but he’s an asset nonetheless. While he’s played 119 games at second base this season, Carpenter has also manned third at various times in 40 games, and has experience at the position.

Carpenter is going to get consistent at-bats next season no matter what, making the real question whether the Cards prefer Freese or Wong. Wong has struggled in the majors this season but hit quite well in Triple-A, will be significantly cheaper than Freese and has the ability to play a more demanding defensive position. Descalso deserves a mention thanks to his versatility, but if he’s not manning shortstop on a daily basis, odds are he’ll be kept in a reserve role in 2013.

I’ve seen it suggested elsewhere that Freese might be non-tendered in the offseason, but despite his struggle, that seems a bit harsh for a man just one season removed from above-average production. However, such an outcome might be what fantasy owners should hope for, as Carpenter with dual eligibility and a full season of Wong is likely to be much more valuable than what we might just see from Freese. Given the chances to drive in and score runs that accompany starting in St. Louis, the ramifications of this St. Louis personnel decision will be important for owners in every league.

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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