The Meat Market: Third Basemen

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The list of this offseason’s free agent third basemen doesn’t run nearly as deep as the shortstop crop, but there is a lot of star power available at the hot corner. While centerfielder Carlos Beltran gets most of the headlines leading into free agency, the most desirable free agent might just be third baseman Adrian Beltre, particularly if Beltran’s amazing October upped his price tag as much as some suspect (the fact that his agent, Scott Boras, says he wants a 10-year contract might play a factor too).

Beltran is a soon-to-be 28-year-old centerfielder who hit .267/.367/.548 this year and .281/.366/.523 over the past three years, all while playing about 85% of his home games in a hitter’s ballpark. Meanwhile, Beltre is a soon-to-be 26-year-old third baseman who hit .334/.388/.629 this year while playing his home games in a pitcher’s ballpark. Beltre’s resume gets a little shaky when you start talking about what he’s done in past years, but if you buy into him making The Leap this season, I don’t think there’s much doubt that he’s at least as attractive a free agent as Beltran.

In fact, Beltran has never approached the offensive production Beltre had in 2004. Beltre’s 163 OPS+ dwarfs Beltran’s career-high of 136 from this season and the same thing goes for Beltre’s 146 Runs Created, which tops Beltran’s career-best 119 from this year. According to Value Over Replacement Player, Beltre was worth 90.3 runs more than a replacement-level third baseman, while Beltran was worth “only” 68.5 runs more than a replacement-level centerfielder. And Beltre tops him in Win Shares too, with 37 raw Win Shares and 19 Win Shares Above Average, compared to 31 and 13 for Beltran.

It all comes down to whether or not teams think Beltre is going to stay at his 2004 level of performance — or at least something relatively close, since it would be tough for anyone to do what he did in 2004 every year — from here on out. If he does, then he’s younger than Beltran, better offensively than Beltran, and better defensively than Beltran (though Beltran is still very good defensively). Of course, the flip side is that if Beltre reverts back to his previous levels (.254/.300/.421 in 443 games from 2001-03), he might be one of the biggest flops in free agent history.

Count me among those who believe Beltre has turned the corner for good and is now one of the best third basemen in baseball. He was simply too good in 2004 and too highly thought of in his younger days for this to have been one big fluke. As I talked about back in late August, I’m not sure how to explain the path Beltre took to get to this point in his career, but I’m fairly certain he’s not going back. It’s not often that teams get a crack at a 26-year-old coming off the type of season Beltre just had, so it will be interesting to see what sort of contract he gets. If he is truly flying under the free agent radar as much as it seems right now (at least compared to Beltran), Beltre would be my #1 target this offseason.

The other big name available at third base is Troy Glaus, who came into the 2004 season ready to really cash in, but missed 103 games with injuries. Glaus’ career path is basically the opposite of Beltre’s, as he had his best season as a 23-year-old, hitting .284/.404/.604 with 47 homers, 37 doubles and 112 walks in 2000, and hasn’t been able to come close to those numbers since. This season was the second straight year Glaus missed a huge chunk of playing time and he has played in a total of 147 games since a healthy 2002 season.

When he could play, Glaus was extremely good this year, hitting .251/.355/.575 in 242 plate appearances for his best hitting since that 2000 season. However, he has now batted between .248 and .251 for four straight seasons since hitting .284 as a 23-year-old, he hasn’t come close to a .400 on-base percentage again, and he now has some major question marks attached to his name. Glaus started the season at third base, but had to shut things down with a severe shoulder injury that required surgery in May. He returned to the lineup in late August, after being out for nearly four months, but struggled, hitting just .202/.322/.444. Plus, he wasn’t able to play third base, instead serving as Anaheim’s designated hitter.

Glaus simply staying on the field is obviously a huge part of his overall value, but being able to stay on the field and play third base is also key. Not only is Glaus a very solid defensive third baseman, his offense makes him special at a position where the average hitter batted .272/.344/.453. Moving to first base — where the average hitter batted .275/.361/.471 — would not only take away a ton of his defensive value, it would sap him of a share of his offensive value as well. Because of the questions surrounding Glaus (Is he healthy? Can he play third base? How well can he play third base?), he’ll likely be available at a discount this offseason.

If Beltre is flying under the free agent radar and Glaus is available at a discount rate, the totally forgotten man among free agent third baseman is Corey Koskie. Just looking at Koskie, you’d think he was all washed up. He does everything methodically, from walking to swinging a bat, and it often appears as though he’s in a constant state of hurt. After every diving stop at third base that ends an inning, he rolls the ball back to the pitcher’s mound and slowly ambles over to the dugout, like an old man who forgot his walker.

And in turning 32 years old next year Koskie, with his naturally bald head, molasses-like movements and sizeable injury history, might just be an old man in baseball terms. Over the last three years, he has missed 22, 31 and 44 games, and at times in 2004 he looked all but done. But then, when you look at the numbers — .251/.342/.495 with 25 homers and 24 doubles in 118 games — you see that he hit for more power than he ever has, played his always-outstanding defense at third base, and somehow managed to steal nine bases while being caught just three times.

Through all the pain, through all the missed games, through all the “did Koskie just hurt himself again?” moments, he has been one of the most valuable third basemen in baseball over the last five years. He’s a career .280/.373/.463 hitter who entered the majors with a great eye at the plate and has developed the power to go along with it. Defensively, he was once so rough around the edges at third base that Tom Kelly stuck him in right field 25 times in 1999 and there was talk about him moving across the diamond to first base. He has worked extremely hard to not only stay at third base, but to become one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball.

What you get with Koskie is power, patience and defense, but it also comes with a price. He’s going to miss games, he’s going to go through stretches where he looks completely lost at the plate, and he’s going to struggle against left-handed pitching. If a team can overlook that, they’ll have 130 games of great defense and solid hitting against right-handed pitchers, and they’ll get it for a bargain price (consider that he has a career OPS+ of 115, compared to Glaus’ 119). With that said, there has probably never been a 32-year-old in baseball history who quite screamed out for a short-term, incentive-based contract quite like Koskie, who has spent a career teetering at the edge of the proverbial cliff.

Third base is also home to perhaps the most overrated free agent this offseason, Tony “Proven Run Producer” Batista. I thought about going into a long rant about just how overrated Batista is, but I came to the realization that if someone reading this hasn’t yet figured out how meaningless someone’s RBI totals are when they’re making 500 outs a season, they probably never will. Plus, I’ve been down this road before. The short version is that Batista is an extraordinarily flawed player with two skills — power and durability — that allow him to put up impressive-looking production numbers despite being an awful hitter.

The medium-length version is that he has accumulated at least 620 plate appearances in each of the past five seasons while hitting an average of 31 homers a year. Put that together with the fact that he has often batted behind some very good on-base threats in the middle of a lineup, and you get a guy who has averaged 99 RBIs per year during that same span. But 99 RBIs (or even the 110 runs he drove in this season) are at best misleading and at worst meaningless when you also see that he hit .241, got on base at a pathetic .272 clip (or made an out 72.8% of the time) and slugged just .455. The team that signs Batista will identify themselves as one of the least enlightened franchises in baseball. (If you liked that, the long version can be found here.)

Similarly, Vinny Castilla enters free agency as the reigning National League RBI champ and is as much a litmus test of team intelligence as Batista. Coors Field is one of the least understood aspects of player performance in baseball today, and there will undoubtedly be some GMs out there whose eyes light up at Castilla’s 35 homers and 131 RBIs this season. What the team that signs Castilla will be overlooking is the fact that he hit a Batista-like .218/.281/.493 away from Planet Coors this year, after hitting just .254/.289/.404 with the Braves in 2002 and 2003.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

There are worse one-year stop gaps than Castilla, but teams need to understand that he’s no better now than he was this time last year, despite the superficially good, Coors-inflated numbers. Any GM who signs Castilla to anything more than a one-year deal for minimal money should be fired on the spot, no questions asked (although maybe “when did you have your lobotomy?” would be okay as they cleaned out their office). Teams without any semblance of a decent in-house option at third base would be much better off turning to someone like Joe Randa than either Castilla or Batista.

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