Sunday, November 2, 2014

Quick Look at Third Base Options

As we discussed in the previous post, it makes sense for the Nationals to pursue a second baseman this off season and allow Rendon to shift to third base full time. I wouldn’t count the Nationals out of the discussion with the top third base free agents this offseason, though. It could happen. Mike Rizzo will surely do his due diligence on the available third basemen this winter, so let’s take a closer look at who that might be.

Hanley Ramirez

The Dodger’s shortstop is hitting free agency and Fangraph’s estimates put him at a 5 year, $90 million contract. Just for reference, the Nationals current commitments for 2015 are led by Jayson Werth at $21.5 million, Jordan Zimmermann at $16.5 million, and Ryan Zimmerman at $14 million. If Ramirez gets at least what the crowd says, he would slot in behind Werth as the second highest paid player. Further complicating things, Ramirez looks like to receive a Qualifying Offer from the Dodgers. 

A quick aside on the Qualifying Offer: A QO is a 1 year contract offer at the average salary of the top 125 players from the previous season (the 2015 offer is worth about $15.3 million). The player can choose to accept the offer for the one year, or reject it and become a free agent. Whichever team ends up signing the player who has rejected the QO, though, must sacrifice its first round draft pick (except for the top 10 picks, which are protected. Those 10 teams give up a second round pick instead). What this means for the Nationals is that they would not only be signing on to a large, long term contract, they would also be sacrificing their first round 2015 draft pick.

Hanley Ramirez has played shortstop practically his whole career, but while he was borderline acceptable there early on in his career, at this point a move to third seems inevitable. He has also struggled with injuries of late, playing in over 100 games only twice in the last four years. When he has played, though, he has been an outstanding hitter. He knows how to take a walk and has kept his strike out rates down. Interestingly, his HR/FB rate took a big spike in 2013 up to 21.1% while he has been close to 12% over the last several years. Steamer projects a .277/.352/.450 year for Hanley which would clearly be an improvement over Espinosa full time.

Pablo Sandoval

Kung Fu Panda is looking at a 5 year, $80 million contract this offseason according to Fangraphs and a QO from the Giants. Despite constant concerns about this weight, Sandoval has been a shockingly consistent player. He puts up a .280 batting average coupled with a .340 on base percentage and 15 homeruns year in and year out. Despite his free swinging ways and career 45% O-swing%, he rarely strikes out. You can attribute that to his 78% contract rate on pitches outside of the strike zone. A lot of players would love to have that contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. Despite his size, advanced metrics actually don’t hate his defense and peg him as an average defender at third. Steamer projects nothing much to change for Sandoval in 2015 with a .281/.337/.451 line. The concern with Sandoval is always how long he can succeed with his approach. If that he loses some of that contact ability, things could get ugly very quickly.

Chase Headley

Unlike the other free agents, Headley isn’t eligible for the QO as he was traded during the 2014 season. Fangraphs predicts a 4 year, $56 million contract this offseason. After Headley put up an MVP caliber season in 2012, the Padres thought he would be the cornerstone of their rebuild. Turns out, 2012 was more of a blip than an arrival. His success in 2012 was driven by a career high 31 home runs thanks to a 21% HR/FB rate. He hasn’t hit more than 15 home runs any other year in his career and his HR/FB ratio continues to sit closer to 10%. Despite the lack of power, Headley is still a solid offensive player. He controls the strike zone well and has put up walk rates of 10% consistently. He is also by far the best defender of this group at third base. Steamer projects a .257/.343/.413 year for Headley. He is not going to be a big thumper in the middle of the line-up that the Padres hoped, but he will be a solid contributor. He had a rough 2014 season, though, so he comes a little cheaper than Sandoval or Ramirez. Unfortunately for the rest of the league, he seemed to turn things around following the trade to the Yankees and all reports indicate that the Yankees are interested in bringing him back this offseason.

There has also been some talk around Aramis Ramirez, but his mutual option for 2015 with the Brewers was picked up last week, so he is off the market. 

Obviously, all three of these guys are quality players and will be demanding top dollar and years in the free agent market. The Nationals lineup would benefit from slotting any of the three in, that’s not a question. The question is how willing the Nationals are to open up the pocket books for them. Given ownership's public statements, they seem intent on focusing their resources on resigning the current players and holding onto their draft picks. And I think that's the right call.

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