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Free Agent Fits at Third Base

A look at potential options at the hot corner

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Last week I included some polls in my post, asking what you all thought the biggest need was for the Cardinals in the 2019 offseason. Unsurprisingly, relief pitching, third base and right field were far and away the winners. A.E. Schafer and Lance Brozdowski already delivered some great primers for the relief market. Following the polls down, third base was deemed the position most in need of improvement, so that’s where I’ll start.

If the Cardinals are going to go after a third baseman, they need a mainstay. They already have Jedd Gyorko and Matt Carpenter to handle a platoon at the position. Patrick Wisdom played well enough that he might be worth a look. Yairo Muñoz played well enough to warrant some starts if it’s a committee approach. Greg Garcia is still on the roster. Unless those pieces move, taking a gamble on someone like David Freese, Josh Harrison or a bounceback candidate like Lorgan Forsythe as a utility not only seems out of character for the organization, it seems unnecessary. (Not to mention, two of those options would require declined options from their teams anyway.)

Any addition needs to be someone who can take the reins for a full season and provide solid production. Those are the names we’ll look at for now.

Manny Machado

Age at start of 2019 season: 26 years, 8 months, 29 days

2018 Stats (709 PA): .297/.367/.538, 37 HR, 107 RBI, 9.9 BB%, 14.7 K%, 14 SB, 140 wRC+, 6.2 fWAR

We’re all going to end up with Machado fatigue by the end of this offseason. Maybe you already have it, after Tuesday’s incident that resulted in the benches clearing in Los Angeles. This offseason has been hyped for quite some time now, and Machado is a big reason. He’s one of the game’s biggest names and he’s hitting the open market while he’s still just 26 years old. There will be lots of pieces written on Machado—his offense, defense, attitude, play style, potential destinations, it goes on.

I’ll try to keep this short, because it’s only October, and we have a long offseason of speculation left.

Machado is coming off his biggest offensive year yet. With 140 wRC+, he fell just three homers shy of 40 and put up an OPS of .905. He improved on both his walk and strikeout rates, with a 4.8 K-BB%. Even though his bat fell off a bit after moving to LA, Machado was still well above average. After going 0-for-2 with a walk in Wednesday’s game, he’s 9-for-36 with two doubles and three homers in nine postseason games.

For years, Machado was an elite defender at third base for Baltimore. Across his seven seasons, two of which were partial in terms of playing time, Machado has 84 DRS, two Gold Gloves and a Platinum Glove.

A major hangup is that Machado has made it abundantly clear that he prefers to play shortstop. The Cardinals, as you may know, have a pretty solid, young shortstop who recently signed a longterm deal.

Regardless of the metrics, this is a business. A lot of the conversation will come down to what Machado wants. If he prefers to play shortstop, DeJong could theoretically shift over to third base. It’s hard, though, to look at the above average defense DeJong provides and say that it’s worth giving the spot to Machado’s -12 DRS and -6.5 UZR.

If Machado were to sign with St. Louis, I’d put that one in the “good problems to have” column.

Josh Donaldson

Age at start of 2019 season: 33 years, 3 months, 27 days

2018 Stats (219 PA): .246/.352/.449, 8 HR, 23 RBI, 14.2 BB%, 24.7 K%, 2 SB, 117 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR

So much buzz surrounded the prospect of the Cardinals trading for Josh Donaldson before the 2018 season.

That they didn’t do so is beginning to look like a great move.

Donaldson spent most of 2018 on the DL. First he dealt with a shoulder injury, then later a calf issue. The former MVP had a run of four straight seasons playing 155 games or more, spanning 2013 to 2016. That durability has since eroded, playing 165 games total between 2017 and 2018.

It isn’t that Donaldson was bad, though. His final return from the DL after being traded to Cleveland was the start of a torrid stretch in which he hit .280/.400/.520 across 60 PA. Donaldson put up a half-win over those 16 games, both walking and striking out at a rate of 16.7%. If he can get healthy and stay that way, Donaldson’s award-winning swing may be back for good.

In his peak stretch, Donaldson was also an elite defender. He had 42 DRS from 2013 to 2015 and had an UZR of no less than 7.1 in that time. Though he didn’t maintain that level of defensive dominance, he’s still been solid with his glove through his entire career. He even put up positive numbers in his injury-shortened 2018 campaign.

If it were a year ago, one would expect nothing less than an excellent contract for Donaldson. Now, there’s at least a debate. If we can notice his resurgence in Cleveland, so can front offices. But there’s also a layer of uncertainty when it comes to health. It may be strong enough that Donaldson is pushed into a shorter, smaller deal where he intends to prove himself once again. If that’s the case, taking into account the Cardinals’ previous comments on Donaldson, there’d be no doubt he’d be a target.

Eduardo Escobar

Age at start of 2019 season: 30 years, 2 months, 30 days

2018 Stats (631 PA): .272/.334/.489, 23 HR, 84 RBI, 8.2 BB%, 20 K%, 2 SB, 116 wRC+, 3.5 fWAR

Escobar was a bit of a breakout at the plate in 2018. Aside from a couple rough years, Escobar hovered around average as a hitter. His 631 PA were by far the most he’d logged in a season and they coincided with his best performance. It was his second straight year of breaking the 20 homer mark along with career highs in slugging and OBP. Escobar has traditionally been a glove-first utility player, and his bat did fall off a bit after moving to Arizona, but 116 wRC+ helped him notch 3.5 fWAR in 2018.

He fits well with the Cardinals of the past few years mainly because of his history of defensive versatility. Over his years spent with the Twins, Escobar saw time at every position but first base. He caught one inning in 2017 and made an appearance on the mound in 2016, but hey, it counts. Escobar played most of his time at third base but also saw an ample amount at shortstop this past season, along with one start at second. 2018 was the first time in his major league career that Escobar didn’t log time in the outfield.

Though his defense had shown signs of decline over the past few seasons, it seems some post-trade consistency allowed Escobar to find his stride. In 2018, his UZR at third went from -1.3 in just under 645 innings with the Twins to 2.8 in nearly 458 innings with the Diamondbacks. It’s hard to know for sure, but it could very well be due to how Arizona utilized him—specifically, they kept him at third.

I mention the positioning shift to draw a contrast to the narrative I just referenced earlier about versatility. Escobar is aging and could be finding a rhythm at the plate. Conversely, this past season could’ve been an offensive outlier. If his defense is falling off and he’s confined to positive value at just one position, the Cardinals will have to stick with him at third, even if his 2018 production turns out to be a fluke.

Mike Moustakas

Age at start of 2019 season: 30 years, 6 months, 23 days

2018 Stats (635 PA): .251/.315/.459, 28 HR, 95 RBI, 7.7 BB%, 16.2 K%, 105 wRC+, 2.4 fWAR

These days, it’s almost a requirement to include Moustakas in a piece about the Cardinals and external third base options.

I don’t really see the fit, though. Mainly because the Cardinals already have internal options who can match or exceed Moustakas’ production.

Moose saw a decrease in his offensive production this year, including his home run total falling by 10. Perhaps the most concerning thing when looking at Moustakas as a potential fit is that his bat actually got worse after the trade to Milwaukee. It’s long been discussed that Moustakas flaunted his power in a pitcher’s park like Kauffman Stadium. His ISO and SLG both dropped after moving to the hitter’s paradise known as Miller Park. Through eight postseason games, Moustakas is 6-for-32 with just one XBH for Milwaukee.

Moustakas’ glove bounced back after a rough 2017, which was a boost to his overall value. Having been known for a solid glove, Moustakas put up negative value at third in in 2017 following an injury-shortened 2016. He erased that from memory with another plus year at the hot corner.

Still, Moose doesn’t provide better offense or defense than the internal options the Cardinals already have. If they weren’t interested in taking a chance on him during last year’s offseason, it’s hard to imagine the front office doing so now.

Jed Lowrie

Age at start of 2019 season: 34 years, 11 months, 17 days

2018 Stats (680 PA): .267/.353/.448, 23 HR, 99 RBI, 11.5 BB%, 18.8 K%, 122 wRC+, 4.9 fWAR

Jed Lowrie is easily the oldest option on this list. For all intents and purposes, he’ll play the 2019 season at the age of 35. He’s also coming off his best professional season.

Lowrie posted career high in home runs, breaking the 20 mark for the first time. His .448 slugging percentage was tied for the highest he’s put up in any season with more than 200 PA. The same can be said about his 11.5% walk rate.

Lowrie has missed time in most of his professional seasons due to injury, which could very well spark questions about his durability. He now has two consecutive seasons with more than 640 PA, a total he had only reached in one season prior to these two. His 680 trips to the plate in 2018 were the most he’d logged in any season, lining up with a career-best performance where he was nearly a five-win player.

Lowrie has played all around the infield in his career but is primarily a second baseman. The main issue when envisioning him at third for the Cardinals is that he’s a much better defender at second than third. He had -2 DRS in just 125 innings at the hot corner for the 2018 A’s. With so much of his value coming from his ability as a second baseman, he’s a bit of a gamble.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Age at start of 2019 season: 33 years, 4 months, 21 days

2018 Stats (592 PA): .262/.316/.458, 23 HR, 75 RBI, 6.9 BB%, 20.1 K%, 111 wRC+, 2.7 fWAR

It was more of the same at the plate for Cabrera in terms of overall value, comparing his 2018 wRC+ of 111 to 2017’s total of 112. This season featured more power and less contact and on-base ability. In turn, it saw Cabrera break 20 home runs, something he’d done twice before this past season.

His walk and strikeout rates both worsened by a few percentage points, but it isn’t much to worry about if he can maintain the uptick in power. Cabrera’s .196 ISO was the highest of his career. It is worth noting, though, that his offense dropped off pretty heavily in the second half after moving to Philadelphia.

Cabrera played most of his time at second for the 2018 Mets, where he was worth -16 DRS in 785 innings. Cabrera’s overall value last season was extremely hampered by spending so much time at a position he clearly can’t play well.

He split time between third and short after moving to the Phillies, where he was pretty serviceable. While DRS has him in the negative values, his UZR/150 at third base and shortstop were 6.4 and 5.7, respectively. Given the small sample size at the corner, those numbers are pretty volatile; his UZR/150 at third in 2017 was -7.4. Though he’s played a decent amount of third base over the past two years, he hadn’t played the position in ten years before doing so for New York in 2017.

Unless he’s about to start his decline, Cabrera’s bat is pretty consistent. The question mark is whether he can play a solid third base when he’s logged just 471 13 innings at the position in his career.

Marwin Gonzalez

Age at start of 2019 season: 30 years, 21 days

2018 Stats (552 PA): .247/.324/.409, 16 HR, 68 RBI, 9.6 BB%, 22.8 K%, 2 SB, 104 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR

Gonzalez is an intriguing option.

To start, he logged most of his time at shortstop for the Astros before the arrival of Carlos Correa, since spending the majority of his time in left field.

The position he played most often this past season was left field, with 533 innings. He spent most of his time in the infield, though, with 648 innings spread between first, second, third and short. Of those, just 19 were at third.

That isn’t to say he’s unfamiliar with the position, though. Gonzalez played more than 130 innings at third every year between 2015 and 2017 and was serviceable. He’s definitely a much better outfielder, but his defensive flexibility has to appeal to the Cardinals.

His bat probably isn’t, though.

Gonzalez was just above average at the plate this past season with 104 wRC+, seeing a massive falloff from his 2017 campaign. That season, Gonzalez had 144 wRC+ and a .907 OPS. Power was definitely the story, as his ISO was a career-high .226. It was a four-win season.

It isn’t obvious that 2018 was just a down year. In 2016, his OPS was an abysmal .694 with a sub-.300 OBP. The two years before that, Gonzalez hovered around 110 wRC+. It’s hard to know what you’re actually getting, given the lack of inconsistency.

Given his lesser defensive ability at third compared to the outfield, the FO would have to be certain that his bat is closer to 2017 form than 2018 to compensate in his overall value.