The Magic Twenty (Third Base)

You know the age-old question: “Who would you take if you were starting a team from scratch?”

No good debate about young players can go on without some version of that question being brought into the mix. In the spirit of that, Craig and Aaron will each be choosing an entire team made up of 24-and-under players. The goal here is to draft the best team for the long haul, starting in 2005 and ending whenever the last guy decides to join Jesse Orosco in retirement (2095, or thereabouts).

The rules are simple and just slightly longer than those for Fight Club:
– Craig and Aaron alternate picking first at each position.
– Each player they pick must be 24 years old or younger in “baseball years” this season.
– Each player must play the/a position they actually play currently or in the very near future (in other words, no Albert Pujols at third base).
– Money and contracts are not an issue.
– They start picking at 9 (right field) and move down to 1 (pitcher).
– They’ll each pick a starter and a reliever, for 10 positions total.

It’s that simple. And away we go …

TEAM      #     PLAYER                   REAL TEAM                AGE
Craig     1     Hank Blalock             Texas Rangers            23
Aaron     2     David Wright             New York Mets            21

CRAIG: Aha, now we’re on to third basemen, back at a corner position, and I get to redeem myself after that nonsensical Juan Uribe shortstop pick. Yeah, yeah, I know. Well thankfully for this Bear Of Little Brain, this pick is a no-brainer. I’m choosing my second Texas Ranger, Hank Blalock.

AARON: I was hoping you’d go all Uribe on me again and take Chad Tracy or something, but Blalock is the guy I’d take too. I think it’s interesting that the first pick for each of the first five positions we’ve done are no-brainers, while the second pick for each spot is a toss-up between at least a couple guys each time.

CRAIG: I believe quite sincerely that other than the guy looming across the diamond from him, Blalock is the best hitter (and will be the best hitter) in the whole Magic Twenty group. A recent cold streak has pushed his numbers for this year down to .282/.354/.525, but Blalock has hit very well since struggling in his first full taste of the big leagues at the tender age of 21. He can hit for power, is demonstrating increased patience at the plate, and he displays prodigious, upper-deck-smashing power. A BP session by Blalock, when he’s on his game, is a sight to behold.

Now I’ve probably been a bit rash, since I’ve been continually comparing Blalock to George Brett, although he hasn’t yet demonstrated that kind of hitting ability. Blalock is something of a different hitter from Brett as well; preferring to elevate his shots rather than slam liners to all fields. Blalock seems to want to drop the ball over the wall, instead of bust right through it as old George did. He also doesn’t yet display the glove that Brett did, though for a young player at the hot corner — one of the hardest places for a young ballplayer to play at the big league level — he has handled himself creditably well at third base.

AARON: I’ve always been interested in the Blalock/Brett comparison, because it’s one that has followed Blalock for years now. To be honest, as great as I think Blalock is, he’s just not George Brett. However, some of the raw numbers look very similar and actually might favor Blalock. The thing to remember though, is that Brett played in an environment that was far less friendly to hitters than the one Blalock currently plays in.

If you ignore the context, Blalock looks like Brett with more power. Consider …

AGE 22       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     IsoP
Blalock     .300     .350     .522     .872     .288     .222
Brett       .308     .353     .456     .809     .273     .148
AGE 23       AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     IsoP
Blalock     .282     .354     .525     .879     .291     .243
Brett       .333     .377     .462     .839     .285     .129

If Blalock hadn’t gone into his big slump in July, he’d basically be equaling Brett’s age-22 and age-23 seasons as far as batting average and on-base percentage go, while hitting for much more power. When you delve a little deeper though, Brett’s seasons get more impressive.

Consider that, adjusted to Blalock’s home ballpark in Texas (which is very good for hitting), the American League hit .279/.347/.447 last year. Meanwhile, back when Brett was a 22-year-old in 1975, the AL hit .261/.332/.384. That’s a huge difference (15 points of OBP and 63 points of SLG) and should not be overlooked. Because of those hugely different environments, Brett’s .308/.353/.456 age-22 season actually earns him an OPS+ of 125, while Blalock’s seemingly better .300/.350/.522 age-22 season earns him an OPS+ of “only” 118.

The American League and especially Texas’ ballpark are both very nice for hitters once again this year, so I suspect Blalock’s 2004 OPS+ (assuming he stays at a similar level all year) will once again be around 115-120. Meanwhile, Brett’s age-23 OPS+ was 145. Just to put that into some perspective in regard to Blalock, Alex Rodriguez hit .298/.396/.600 while playing for the Rangers last year — 42 points of OBP and 75 points of SLG higher than Blalock is at right now — and just narrowly beat Brett’s mark, coming in with a 148 OPS+.

Here’s another thing to consider … While Blalock had that 118 OPS+ last season and is looking at an OPS+ between 115 and 120 so far this year, Brett didn’t have an OPS+ below 120 in any season from the age of 22 (1975) through the age of 37 (1990). I will say this about Blalock though, George Brett never took Eric Gagne deep in an All-Star game.

CRAIG: In order to become a great player, Blalock still has a few things to do. He needs to start drawing a few more walks, he needs to improve his play at third base a touch, and needs to add more power — all things that most 23-year-old ballplayers will do anyway. Like a lot of young, left-handed power hitters, Blalock doesn’t hit lefties particularly well. He was terrible against them in his first two years (hitting under .200 with no power) and though much improved, is just .271/.331/.432 against them this year — enough to keep him in the lineup, but not to dominate.

He’s still striking out in nearly a third of his at-bats versus lefties, showing that he has the classic Achilles heel of the lefty masher — trying to pull the outside slider and missing it completely. Holding the line on his production versus lefties, if not improving it, is essential to his future success. Blalock is going to see a lot of left-handed relievers in the next few years; he’s the type of guy that the LOOGY was invented for. If he can neutralize them, he’ll be unstoppable.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Despite that one weakness, Blalock is, right now, the most valuable third-base commodity in the game, including David Wright, and if he can just continue along his anticipated development curve, he should be one of the best players in the game right around the time Texas has another juggernaut of a team.

AARON: I suppose what Eric Chavez has done this year, after years of struggling miserably against left-handed pitching, is something for Blalock to aspire to. From 2001-2003, while Chavez was hitting .306/.375/.579 against right-handed pitching, he flailed away against lefties to the tune of .229/.278/.395. This year, however, Chavez is killing lefties, hitting .330/.432/.594 against them in 125 plate appearances. Now, 125 trips to the plate is still a tiny sample-size, but it’s something at least.

Blalock has been better against lefties so far this year than Chavez had ever been coming into this season, so he’s ahead of the game in that regard, I suppose. I agree that Blalock is the most valuable third-base property in baseball right now, although I think it’s probably closer than you give Wright credit for.

Wright is basically two years behind Blalock as far as development goes, which works out well for comparison’s sake, since they are also two years apart in age. Wright is 21 this year and is just getting his first taste of the big leagues, and when Blalock was 21, he hit .211/.306/.327 in 49 games with the Rangers.

Here’s how they compare at each age …

AGE 21      LVL      G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD
Wright      AA      60     .363     .467     .619     .256     .104
            AAA     31     .298     .388     .579     .281     .090
            MLB     12     .239     .271     .457     .218     .032
Blalock     AAA     95     .307     .363     .457     .150     .056
            MLB     49     .211     .306     .327     .116     .095
AGE 20      LVL      G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD
Wright      A      133     .270     .369     .459     .189     .099
Blalock     A       63     .380     .437     .557     .177     .057
            AA      68     .327     .413     .544     .217     .086
AGE 19      LVL      G      AVG      OBP      SLG     IsoP     IsoD
Wright      A      135     .266     .367     .401     .135     .101
Blalock     A      139     .299     .373     .428     .129     .074

A lot of their true performances from 19-21 are sort of blurry because of the difficulty involved with minor league park factors, so it’s tough to make perfect comparisons. Still, I think this is pretty interesting. Blalock has basically always been more of a “pure hitter,” in that he’s posted huge batting averages all over the place, while Wright’s averages, prior to this year at least, weren’t that great. Wright made up for it with better plate discipline and power than Blalock.

Their age-19 seasons are very similar, with both posting OBPs in the .370 range with slugging percentages in the low .400s. Blalock got there with a .299 batting average, while Wright’s was just .266. Their age-20 and age-21 seasons are quite different, but the combination of both years make them somewhat similar. Blalock had his “EVERYONE LOOK AT ME I’M A GREAT PROSPECT” season at age 20, hitting .352 in 131 games between Single-A and Double-A. Wright had his ELAMIAGP season this year, hitting .341 in 91 games between Double-A and Triple-A. Then if you look at Blalock’s age-21 season in the minors (.307/.363/.457), it is very similar to Wright’s age-20 season (.270/.369/.459).

So, while they aren’t on exactly the same path as far as development goes and they aren’t quite similar players as far as hitting style goes, they’re close enough that the comparison is an interesting one. The one obvious thing Wright has in his favor is that he’s considered an extremely good defensive player, while Blalock’s defensive has never been considered special.

CRAIG: Who else could you have picked other than Wright, Aaron? Well, there is Andy Marte who could potentially make us both look stupid. At just 20 (he won’t be 21 until after the season), Marte is vaporizing Southern League (AA) pitching, posting a .586 slugging percentage. Marte is a stone-cold baseball killer; power and patience, and some good contact-hitting ability too. Provided he doesn’t fall off the rails (as 20-year-old AA prospects sometimes do), he is likely to hit plenty at the major league level.

I considered him strongly for my first overall pick, actually; Marte’s minor league career so far has even outshined Blalock’s, which was meteoric. Blalock slugged .428 at the tender age of 19 in the Sally League; Marte slugged .492 there … at the age of 18. Blalock, at 20, became the top prospect in baseball as he hit .380 in Florida and .327 at Double-A Tulsa. Marte, though, has spent all of this year at Double-A and is slugging more than Blalock did.

Why not pick him? Only my persistent belief that a bird in the bigs is worth two in the bushes. Blalock has, since then, gone on to prove his worth in the majors, and has continued to develop. I may be missing out on Marte’s brilliant future, but I might also be missing out on his brilliant flameout. Also, there are concerns about Marte’s defense. Not super-serious, and Marte should progress (scouts seem to generally believe he has a future at third) up the ladder as a third baseman.

AARON: I went back and forth on Marte or Wright, but ultimately went with Wright because he’s already in the majors and his defense should have more value than Marte’s. Still, I think if Blalock is #1 and Wright is #2, Marte is definitely #2A. Dallas McPherson has also put himself into this debate with a monster season between Double-A and Triple-A, hitting .310 with 32 homers and a .671 slugging percentage in 102 games. McPherson is actually older than Blalock though (he turned 24 last month), which is obviously the biggest knock against him in this competition.

The forgotten man in this whole discussion is Sean Burroughs who, before this season, would probably have been my pick as the #2 third baseman behind Blalock. Like Blalock, Burroughs is 23 and in his second full season in the majors. Burroughs’ .286/.352/.402 performance last year translated to a 105 OPS+, which isn’t that far off from Blalock’s 118 OPS+. However, Burroughs has taken a step back this season.

Never known for his power, Burroughs has a .361 slugging percentage in 95 games with the Padres. Now, that would be bad enough by itself, but it becomes very discouraging when you consider the fact that he has a .295 batting average. That means he has an Isolated Power of .066, compared to Blalock’s .243. Burroughs has just two homers and 18 doubles in 396 at-bats. I still like him a lot, but I think it’s safe to say he’s been passed up by at least a couple of the guys we just talked about, which says an awful lot about the quality of young third basemen right now.

Previous Positions:
The Magic Twenty (Right Field)
The Magic Twenty (Center Field)
The Magic Twenty (Left Field)
The Magic Twenty (Shortstop)

The Teams So Far:

POSITION            CRAIG                    AARON
Right Field         Miguel Cabrera (1)       Austin Kearns (2)
Center Field        Laynce Nix (2)           Rocco Baldelli (1)
Left Field          Adam Dunn (1)            Jeremy Reed (2)
Shortstop           Juan Uribe (2)           B.J. Upton (1)
Third Base          Hank Blalock (1)         David Wright (2)

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