Saturday, January 30, 2010

Third base

It's fun to get to the hot corner these days--we all know the Kung-Fu Panda is the best in the West. The NL features the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright, both exceptional ballplayers, but our guy is right up there with them. Zimmerman is highly prized as a fielder, and his 7.1 WAR includes a huge boost from his league-leading 18.1 UZR***. Sandoval rated as the best hitter--his wRC+ of 145 was tops for third basemen, and his 5.2 WAR put him among the top 10 of all hitters in the NL. Wright, after four straight great seasons, racked up more strikeouts and fewer homers than ever in 2009, and his wRC+ plunged from his four-year average of 148 to a career-low 128. I only point that out to remind us all of the inherent variation in performance that even All-Stars experience. And who wouldn't like to have a player whose 123 OPS+ was a disappointment?

The LAtriners acquired Casey Blake mid-season 2008 from the Indians, and he performed adequately (102 OPS+) on that playoff team. Last year--at age 35--he had his best season in terms of WAR (4.2) and OPS+ (123), and second-best in wRC+ (119). His career OPS+ is 108, and he's projected as a 101-106 wRC+ (3.0 WAR) player for 2010. His fielding is considered average for the position, and that improves his value quite a bit, especially compared to the two young mashers I'll look at next. The Dodgers may regret having him signed through 2011, though, as it's hard to believe he will produce as well this year and next.

In Arizona they will be expecting a lot from 26-year old whiff-artist Mark Reynolds. After a disappointing 2008 (.239/.320/.458, 95 OPS+) and a huge 2009 (.260/.349/.543, 123 OPS+) where he blasted 44 HRs, the young slugger is certainly someone to watch. He's a funny one, striking out (556 K/1689 PA) almost a third of the time he comes to the plate, yet managing a career-high 73 walks last season, and surprisingly fleet of foot as well, with 24 SB (9 CS). He's not known for his glove, but he is projected by CHONE as a 125 wRC+ and 3.3 WAR player for 2010. Bill James is more generous at 140 wRC+.

The Rockies finally parted ways with Garrett Atkins and his 2009 66 OPS+ and installed Ian Stewart as the everyday third baseman for 2010. Stewart isn't quite 25 and has a career line of .238/.328/.455 in 263 games, good for a 97 OPS+. He projects, though, as a 116-120 wRC+ and 3.0 WAR player. Nice to have a kid with some pop and some upside.

The Padres will likely start Chase Headley at third after trading away Kevin Kouzmanoff. Headley has a career line of .263/.340/.400 (106 OPS+). Bill James projects a break-out (121 wRC+) for the soon-to-be 26-year old, but CHONE is less optimistic (108, 1.3 WAR). He did manage 62 walks in 612 PA last season, which was better than every Giant. Pablo Sandoval led the team with 52, just ahead of newest-Yankee Randy Winn's 47.

Speaking of Sandoval, CHONE expects him to drop off a bit from his exceptional .943 OPS (to .883) mostly due to a power fade (.556 to .517 SLG), and that he'll only contribute 3.3. WAR. Bill James thinks he'll produce at about the same level (149 wRC+ and .934 OPS). He's an interesting case, our Panda. I imagine his fielding is under-appreciated, and his free-swinging ways create some doubt that he can sustain a high batting average. I, however, expect his glove work to improve (as long as the Giants leave him alone and let him play), and his plate discipline to get better as well. After all, he got half his walks in the last third of the season, with 26 in August and September (234 PA). He's a unique athlete and a great entertainer, and certainly one of the most watchable players the team has ever produced. He'll turn 24 in August and it will only be his second full season in the bigs. For all of the Giants over-reliance on grizzled greybeards, the team will be counting on the Panda to be not only its number three hitter but its most marketable (non-pitcher) star. That's a big burden--do you think he's up to it?

***UZR is a fielding stat called "Ulitmate Zone Rating." I don't claim to understand or appreciate this new tool, and merely bring it up because that's what's out there. Here's more on UZR if you are interested.

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