While the third basemen of the NL West may not be the superheroes that the shortstops are, several of them can be difference-makers in this year’s pennant race. Four of the five are very strong defensively, and the other has the best nickname in the game, and once hit three homers in a World Series game. Hmm, maybe there is a superhero in there after all.
- Chase Headley (SD) – Choosing between Headley and Sandoval for the top spot is tough. While Sandoval has more power and has overall been a better hitter than Headley, the Padres third sacker earns the nod because of his overall play. Headley’s injuries last season prevented us from finding out whether or not his fantastic second-half play in 2012 was a fluke, but overall in his career, he has been making steady improvement at every aspect of the game. Several years ago, he raised his average from the .260′s, where he was for several years, up into the more respectable .280′s. In 2012, his barely double-digit power blossomed, although it remains to be seen exactly how much. His defense has improved consistently, and he won his first Gold Glove two years ago. And he steals about 15 bases a year, something you don’t find in many third basemen. There’s a lot to be said for being above average in every aspect of the game, and that’s where Headley seems to be now at the start of the season in which he turns 30. While Sandoval is the better hitter, Headley is the better all-around player. Now he just needs a good nickname.
Pablo Sandoval (SF) – My friend Frank has a slogan: “Fat guys make the best hitters.” He points to Tony Gwynn, Prince Fielder (and his Dad), John Kruk (who once said “I ain’t an athlete, lady, I’m a ballplayer”) and many other hefty hitters as examples. Well, Frank may need to modify his slogan in light of Pablo Sandoval’s career. Perhaps “Pretty fat guys make the best hitters, but really fat guys… not so much.” In his early years, Sandoval at a relatively svelte 240, earned himself the nickname Kung Fu Panda. At that weight, he was a terror at the plate, hitting .330 with 25 homers in his first full year, and generally tearing the cover off the ball for several years. But his weight started to swell, reportedly peaking around 280 last year, and the “pretty fat guy” magic wore off, replaced by “I can still hit .280 with a mouthful of Fritos®,” which I suppose is a different kind of magic. In the last week, we have seen reports that KFP has either lost 42 pounds this offseason or that he has not. In his latest tweet, he said we’d have to wait until Spring Training to find out. I’m sure Giants manager Bruce Bochy is holding his breath in anticipation.
- Martin Prado (AZ) – Prado is a tough one to rank. He seems like a utility infielder who gets enough base hits for his manager to put him in the lineup almost every day. And that’s a good guy to have on your team, a productive supporting player. What I’m trying to figure out is how he’s been in the top 20 of the MVP balloting twice in the last four years. Sure, his defense is above average at several positions, but when was the last time MVP voters considered defense? They do consider position, as a guy who plays up the middle will get more votes with the same stats than a corner guy. And they’re more likely to vote for guys on teams that win. Maybe those are the keys for Prado. He was playing primarily second base for the Braves, a team that won a lot with great pitching and average lineups. So Prado’s .300 BA and 80-100 runs scored made him the best offense player on a winning team. I guess. Maybe he’s the consummate team guy, giving himself up at the plate to benefit the team? Does he get on base at all costs? I don’t see it. Hitting second, he’s had a total of four sacrifice bunts in the last two years. And he draws almost no walks. And doesn’t steal bases. I don’t know, what am I missing?
- Nolan Arenado (COL) – A gold glove in your rookie year is no small achievement. Arenado, whose bat brought him through the Rockies farm system quickly, shook his “average defender” label last year, leading major league third basemen in range factor, and committing only 11 errors all year. Only Orioles rookie stud Manny Machado had a higher DWAR (defensive wins above replacement). Offensively, he didn’t produce as well as he did in the minors, with a major lack of plate discipline being a primary cause. He managed only 23 walks all year, and only saw 3.36 pitches per plate appearance, dead last in the majors among qualified hitters. At only 22 years old, he has time to improve. And he did get better later in the year, hitting .294 in Aug/Sept, to bring his average for the year up to .267. Colorado ran him out there every day, so they clearly believe in his talent. If he decides to take an occasional pitch, he could be a candidate for a breakout season this year.
- Juan Uribe (LAD) – A former shortstop, Uribe is a good defender. Even at 34, he had good range and committed only 5 errors last season. He’s also got some power, averaging 18 home runs per 162 games in his career. But when he’s not hitting homers, he’s not really hitting. His career .253 average and terrible .299 on-base percentage have kept him from ever really being an everyday player, only topping 140 games 4 times in his 12 year-career. But Uribe did rebound from two awful seasons with a .278 BA last year, and the Dodgers don’t have any third base prospects expected to come up this year. So for now, it looks like solid D and some occasional pop are enough to keep Uribe playing major league ball for at least another year.
Overall, a healthy Chase Headley, who may not be a superstar, but is above average in just about everything he does, takes the honors as the best third baseman in the NL West. Let’s hope he stays healthy this year so we can see exactly how good he is.
Next up: Catchers