MLB Spring Training 2017: The Top 10 3rd Basemen to Watch
We could go on and on (and on) about Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado and the other superstars at third base in today's MLB. The position is capital-L Loaded.
But since we know what those third basemen are all about, let's pivot to some guys who more closely resemble question marks going into spring training.
Ahead is a list of 10 (11 if you want to get technical) third basemen worth keeping an eye on in February and March. Some will be returning from 2016 seasons marred by poor health and/or poor production. Others will be battling for playing time. Others still are young up-and-comers looking to make a good impression. One in particular figures to be a major piece of trade bait.
Bottom line: What they have in common is that they're all interesting. Read on to hear more.
Jung Ho Kang, Pittsburgh Pirates
There's no questioning Jung Ho Kang's ability on the field. The Korean import proved he could hit major league pitching as a rookie in 2015 and got even better in 2016, raising his OPS from .816 to .867.
Alas, the Pittsburgh Pirates star is featured here for off-the-field reasons.
Kang got into serious trouble in South Korea this winter when he was charged in December with leaving the scene of a DUI accident. It's a troubling story that's made even more troubling by the fact that this was Kang's third DUI arrest since 2009.
The 29-year-old has already been dropped from South Korea's World Baseball Classic roster. According to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Kang's now awaiting the outcome of his evaluation by MLB's Treatment Board. It's likely he'll be recommended to enter a voluntary treatment program, which would mitigate any possible discipline.
Regarding Kang's involvement in spring training, club president Frank Coonelly declined to say whether everything will be behind him by the time activities get underway next month, per Biertempfel. His status is up in the air.
That means Pirates fans will either be monitoring how well Kang bounces back from his rough winter or how well David Freese and Josh Harrison play in his stead.
Nick Castellanos, Detroit Tigers
And now for some straightforward comeback stories, starting with Nick Castellanos.
A broken hand limited Castellanos to just nine games from August on last season. That robbed the Detroit Tigers of a weapon for their playoff push, and indeed interrupted a criminally overlooked breakout.
After managing just a .711 OPS across 2014 and 2015, Castellanos made good on his hype as a former top prospect with an .827 OPS in 2016. Although he continued to swing and miss, he did a better job of driving the ball by keeping it off the ground (0.73 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio) and hitting it harder (35.7 hard-hit percentage).
It'll be worth monitoring this spring whether Castellanos can pick up where he left off at the plate. Meanwhile, a close eye should also be kept on his defense. As a black mark he's thus far struggled to erase, it stands out as the next challenge for the 24-year-old to conquer.
The local expectations seem to be on the high side, with Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press writing that Castellanos "profiles like a player ready to break out and hit his prime."
Certainly, that would go a long way toward helping the Tigers take down the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central.
Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals
Elsewhere in the AL Central, Mike Moustakas will also be returning from an injury-marred 2016.
The Kansas City Royals star was limited to just 27 games last season and none after May 22 after tearing his right ACL in a nasty collision with Alex Gordon. That's no minor injury, but MLB.com's Jeffrey Flanagan reported in December that Moustakas will be good to go this spring.
The Royals will be glad to have his bat back. It's produced an .815 OPS and 29 home runs over the last two seasons, music to the ears of an offense that finished toward the bottom of the American League in runs (13th) and OPS (14th) in 2016.
Not to mention Moustakas has also rated well as a defender throughout his career. If he gets back to being his old self this spring, the Royals will be welcoming back one of the top two-way third basemen in the Junior Circuit.
That would be a big boost to their chances of returning to the playoffs after falling short in 2016. And with Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain due for free agency after the season, 2017 could well be Kansas City's last shot at October for a while.
Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
After teasing he would be The Next Big Thing in 2015, Miguel Sano got a reality check in 2016.
The young Minnesota Twins slugger was limited to just 116 games in part by a hamstring injury that landed him on the disabled list. And while he kept the power coming with 25 home runs, his OPS declined to .781 from the impressive .916 mark he put up as a rookie.
Sano also struggled on defense, first in right field and then back at his natural position at third base. If he looked too big to be manning the hot corner, that's partially because nobody as large as 6'4" and 260 pounds has ever held down a steady job at third base.
The 23-year-old thus had one major task for the winter: get in better shape.
"The team doesn’t want me to lose that much," Sano told La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune. "They want me to lose 10. But I’m going to lose 20."
Whether Sano made good on that promise will be the first thing the Twins find out this spring. Assuming he did, they'll then find out how much of a difference it could make.
Matt Chapman, Oakland A's
If you're looking for a third base prospect who could put himself on the major league radar this spring, cast your gaze in Matt Chapman's direction.
Chapman looms large in the future of the Oakland A's. Vince Lara-Cinisomo of Baseball America ranks him as the club's No. 3 prospect, remarking that the 2014 first-round pick projects as a plus defender who also has above-average raw power.
Chapman's minor league numbers add weight to the latter point. He's slugged .509 for his career and is coming off a 36-homer season in 2016. That's more than enough power to make up for a troublesome swing-and-miss habit.
Between not being on the 40-man roster and the presence of Ryon Healy and Trevor Plouffe, there are real barriers in Chapman's way of breaking camp with the A's. But at the least, the 23-year-old can make an impression that would be remembered when the A's have a roster spot open up.
As it is, Joe Stiglich of CSN Bay Area noted that Chapman has already drawn comparisons to Josh Donaldson. The more he keeps earning those, the harder it will be for the A's to deny him.
Alex Bregman, Houston Astros
As Matt Chapman looks to make an impression, Alex Bregman will spend the spring positioning himself to be the next great star at third base.
The Houston Astros selected Bregman with the second pick in the 2015 draft. Just a year later, ESPN.com's Keith Law ranked him as the top prospect in baseball ahead of his major league debut in July. And after a slow start, Bregman caught fire and hit .313 with a .931 OPS over his final 39 games.
The 22-year-old is on an upward trajectory, and now he's set to spend a good chunk of the spring on a bigger stage than most. He announced last week that he'll be playing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic.
What's unclear is if Team USA will use Bregman as the Astros presumably prefer he be used. He could play primarily at his natural shortstop position rather than at third base. That would interrupt a transition process that started with just 13 games at the hot corner in the minors last season.
Still, nothing outside of an injury will sabotage Houston's plans to use Bregman as its everyday third baseman in 2017. Regardless of how comfortable he is at the position, he'll be there on Opening Day.
Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox
Although Todd Frazier didn't have his best year, he was still productive in his first season with the Chicago White Sox in 2016. He put up a solid .767 OPS and blasted a career-high 40 home runs.
With his age-31 season due up, Frazier will be gearing up for more of the same this spring. And if more of the same does come, the question will become how much time he has left in a White Sox uniform.
In the wake of their fourth straight losing season, the White Sox committed to a rebuilding phase this winter when they traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. Among the players who could go next are Jose Quintana, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Jose Abreu.
However, Jeff Todd of MLB Trade Rumors is right in thinking that "perhaps no single player on the ChiSox roster carries a 'trade me' sign" quite like Frazier.
He would be attractive trade bait based not just on his talent, but his affordability with only one season left in between him and free agency. And while his market is dormant for now, it could liven up if teams with uncertain situations at third base decide to seek a certain solution.
Jhonny Peralta/Jedd Gyorko, St. Louis Cardinals
The St. Louis Cardinals are one team that could develop interest in Todd Frazier. But that's up to Jhonny Peralta and Jedd Gyorko.
They're featured in a two-for-one special in part because, as Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak confirmed to Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, they're going to be competing for the club's third base gig this spring.
It also has to do with how this competition can't be resolved by simply going to a platoon. Peralta and Gyorko are both right-handed hitters, so that wouldn't work.
As for which of them has the inside track, well, who can say?
The 34-year-old Peralta is more experienced and more expensive, but he's also a natural shortstop coming off an injury-shortened and modestly productive 2016. Gyorko, 28, did slug 30 home runs last year, but he managed just a .306 on-base percentage while playing mostly at second base.
This is not to say that neither can emerge as the right man for the job. But since neither is a sure thing, it's possible the Cardinals could eventually look for outside help.
Pablo Sandoval, Boston Red Sox
The Boston Red Sox are another team that could turn to the trade market for a third baseman. It depends on how their Pablo Sandoval experiment pans out.
For now, they have hope. It's been well-documented (h/t Dayn Perry of CBSSports.com) that the oft-fluffy Sandoval has gotten himself in good shape. That has Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski dreaming about a return to form.
"I think if he can go out there and hit .270 to .275 and hit 12 to 15 home runs and knock in 70 to 75 runs at third base for us, I don’t think that’s asking too much of him," Dombrowski told ESPN.com's Buster Olney. "He’s done those types of things in the past."
Sandoval certainly hasn't done those types of things for the Red Sox. He was a disaster on both sides of the ball in his first season in Boston in 2015. In 2016, he lost his third base job in spring training and was ultimately sidelined for the season in May after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The bright side is that the 30-year-old is only tasked with boosting a position where, per FanGraphs, the Red Sox tied for last in wins above replacement in 2016. They'll soon get a hint one way or another whether Sandoval is capable of clearing that low bar.
David Wright, New York Mets
Take Boston's Pablo Sandoval experiment and add an age component, and you basically get where the New York Mets will be with David Wright this spring.
Wright isn't far removed from being one of the best third basemen in the league, but the last two years have been rough on him. He's been limited to a total of 75 games by injuries and has put up a good-not-great .801 OPS when he has been healthy.
A drop-off like that would look bad with a player of any age. It looks worse with a guy who's heading into his age-34 season. It's understandable that the Mets aren't very gung-ho about having Wright penciled in as their everyday third baseman.
"We have to be careful not to be too thin at that position going into the spring," general manager Sandy Alderson said in December, via Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, "but that’s our mindset currently."
The Mets will have options if Wright can't hack it this spring. Jose Reyes is one of them after playing well in his return to New York last summer. Wilmer Flores is another.
But for now, the hope is that Wright will indeed be able to hack it. If that comes to fruition, a Mets lineup that's solid enough already will look even better.