If there's anything the last three weeks of baseball transactions have taught us (besides the fact that Jeffrey Loria is a big jerk), it's that a third baseman is a valuable commodity. Evan Longoria signed a big-time extension to remain a Ray until 2022, and then David Wright re-upped with the Mets until 2020. Longoria got $100 million for six years, while Wright pulled down $138 million for eight.
Following that, reports surfaced that Alex Rodriguez will miss four to six months with hip surgery, leaving the Yankees with a hole at third base until at least June. Even though Rodriguez's production has tailed off (did you hear anything about that during the playoffs?), he still leaves a substantial gap on the Bombers' roster.
So two elite third basemen were so valued by their teams, that they were willing to make decade-long commitments and nine-figure salaries to keep them despite all the risk that entails. And though A-Rod had wormed his way out of the hearts of Yankee fans, his loss made more than a few catch their breaths. Why is that? Is third base really such a valuable position?
I'm not sure that any position requires the same breadth of skills as the third baseman. Please, don't get me wrong, I know that shortstop and catcher are tougher defensive assignments. And center fielders are required to be fast, as well as important offensive pieces these days. But the third baseman has the expectation to hit, and not just for average. They're expected to hae home-run power. Third basemen also are supposed to field a difficult position, and throw the entire length of the infield, accurately, all the time. I've always thought of third basemen as having a similar worth to a second baseman, but perhaps that just isn't true.
The distance between second base and third base in 2012 was more than 90 feet. It was a down year for the pivot, and a big one for the hot corner. While Robinson Cano solidified his place among the game's elite, it could be argued that four of the ten best position players in baseball manned the hot corner. Chase Headley and David Wright had epic seasons (albeit for losing teams) while Adrian Beltre was the best player on a very good Texas Rangers squad. And, as you might have heard, Miguel Cabrera had an okay offensive season, winning the first Triple Crown since Carl
If you get into the numbers a bit, you can find a pretty stark difference between the two positions. In 2012, second basemen were good for a .302 wOBA and 88 wRC+, which puts them about 12% lower than league-average among all hitters. Third basemen, on the other hand, we good for a .320 wOBA and 100 wRC+, right at league average. And though, historically, third basemen have hit a little worse than this, and second basemen have hit a little better, the expectation is much different for third basemen: hit big or else. Defense and speed almost always trend in favor of second basemen -- but by fWAR, third basemen outscored second basemen 102.6 to 77.7, an enormous difference.
At any rate, looking about the league, you can see the substantial contracts handed out to Evan Longoria and David Wright, those ones I alluded to earlier. Beyond the elite third basemen, there are plenty of players manning the hot corner who don't fulfill the lofty expectations placed on the position. In fact, I'd argue that the position is shallow, but perhaps not as shallow as catcher or shortstop. You have a handful of elite players (Wright, Headley, Longoria, Beltre, Cabrera), a few rising talents (Seager, Lawrie, Moustakas, Freese, Middlebrooks?, Frazier?) and a few vets worth their salt (Hanley Ramirez, Sandoval, A-Rod, uh ... Youkilis?). That's it. There's a number of teams who could jump a huge number of WAR, or really, any stat you choose, by upgrading at the hot corner. And there's a number of players with big, gaping holes in their game filling in at the position right now.
There are a few young players who haven't hit the bigs yet, who could be solid third basemen. Jedd Gyorko of the Padres, Nolan Arenado of the Rockies, Mike Olt of the Rangers. Maybe Wil Myers becomes a full-time third baseman after experimentation at the position last season. Perhaps Steve Lombardozzi or Daniel Murphy or Matt Carpenter, if they find a new team ... but Lombardozzi and Murphy will probably find themselves "stuck" at second base, where their bats profile a little better.
And again, we get to the heart of the situation: finding a player with the requisite skill set to be a big league third baseman is harder than it looks. If you can't hit, you move to second base. If you can't field, you move to the first or the outfield. If you can't do either, you move to the Astros.
Then again, maybe it's possible that the market is over-valuing the defensive contributions of the third baseman. I'm sure everyone reading this knows that the 2012 AL MVP was a third baseman who didn't exactly set the world on fire with his fielding, but swung the biggest bat in baseball. His team played well enough (thanks to him and his teammates) to win the AL pennant and challenge another orange-wearing team in the World Series. Perhaps teams need to be a little more open-minded about moving a defensively-challenged player to third, and hoping that skill with a bat and/or a fleet, rangy shortstop can offset the defensive hit. Perhaps the next big thing at third base is, well, more big things that look like Miguel Cabrera?
So this season, when you complain that your team is running Chris Johnson or Josh Vitters or Chone Figgins (haha, just kidding) out there, perhaps you should be advocating for Paul Goldschmidt or Brian LaHair or Jesus Montero at the position. Or if you have the complaint that your team invested too much money or two many years in Evan Longoria or David Wright, perhaps you should look at teams like the Diamondbacks, Cubs, or even the Yankees and their glaring holes at such a critical position.
At any rate, the prototypical third baseman, the guy who plays with power, glove, and strong arm is an awfully rare breed. Expectations are staggering for these players, and they deserve to get paid when they meet or exceed them. There just aren't enough to go around.