Free Agency Preview: Third basemen

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Free Agency Preview – Catcher
Free Agency Preview – First base & DH
Free Agency Preview – Second base
This is part four in a series of columns looking at this winter’s free agents, trade candidates and non-tender possibilities. I’ll be making predictions for the key free agents, but try not to take them too awfully seriously. Up now is third base.
Chone Figgins (Angels) – Viewed by most as the No. 3 position player on the board behind Matt Holliday and Jason Bay, Figgins is in position to get a four-year deal worth at least $10 million per season. It helps that he’s not limited to third base. He’s probably no longer an option as a full-time second baseman, but he can handle center or left without much trouble. The Phillies are known to want him as a replacement for Pedro Feliz, the Mets appear to like him as a left fielder and the Cubs could use him in center field. It’s possible that the Angels will keep him, but they do have Brandon Wood ready to take over at third base if the bidding gets out of control. Prediction: Cubs – four years, $48 million
Adrian Beltre (Mariners) – While Figgins is getting all of the attention, Beltre might well be the better bet going forward. He’s the younger of the two by a year, and he’s arguably baseball’s best defensive third baseman. His 2009 season was a mess because of injuries, but he’s still played in more games than Figgins over the last six seasons and he has the superior career OPS even though playing in Safeco has held him back (he’s a career .287/.338/.488 hitter in road games). He’d be an outstanding choice for the Twins if they could come up with the money, and the Red Sox would likely pursue him if they could find a taker for Mike Lowell’s contract. As is, his market is cloudy. Prediction: Phillies – three years, $27 million
Mark DeRosa (Cardinals) – DeRosa shouldn’t be viewed as a starting second baseman at this stage of his career, but because of his increased power production the last couple of years, there will be several teams in on him. The Cardinals, Phillies, Mariners, Angels and Twins may have interest in him as a third baseman, while the Cubs, Braves and Mets could use him in the outfield. Perhaps that will be enough to land him another three-year deal. Prediction: Cardinals – three years, $18 million
Troy Glaus (Cardinals) – Shoulder surgery, followed by some back troubles, limited Glaus to 29 at-bats last season, but he still thinks he can play third base regularly. He was able to start 151 games and hit .270/.372/.483 in 2008, so it’s too early to write him off. Still, it’d be best if he landed in the American League, giving him the DH spot to fall back on just in case. Time will tell whether the steroid taint causes him any difficulty. Seattle, Oakland, Minnesota and Baltimore make sense as possible destinations. Prediction: Athletics – one year, $4 million plus incentives
Joe Crede (Twins) – A third straight season with fewer than 100 games played guarantees that Crede is going to have to accept another incentive-laden deal. Despite all of his back problems, he remains exceptional defensively at third base when he’s in the lineup. However, he didn’t impress with his .225/.289/.414 line at the plate in 333 at-bats last season. If the Twins want to keep going cheap, they’ll probably re-sign him. Prediction: Twins – one year, $2.5 million plus incentives
Pedro Feliz (Phillies) – At least you know what you’ll get from Feliz; he’s finished with OPSs between 694 and 717 each of the last five years. He’s also played in 150 games four times in those five seasons (133 in the other). Feliz will turn 35 in April and he has lost a step defensively, but he’s still well above average. He likely has one or two years left as an adequate starter. Prediction: Astros – one year, $2.5 million
Melvin Mora (Orioles) – Mora is just a year removed from a terrific .285/.342/.483 season, but he lost 150 points of OPS in 2009, and since he’s turning 38 this winter, there’s little reason to think he’ll bounce back. That he remains above average defensively means he’s still worthy of a roster spot, if not a starting job. He’s another potentially cheap option for the Astros or Marlins. If he wants to stay close to home, then perhaps the Yankees, Phillies or Mets would take him on as a bench player. Prediction: Mets – one year, $1 million
Other free agents: Aaron Boone (Astros), Dallas McPherson (Giants), Mike Hessman (Tigers), Brian Barden (Cardinals), Joe Thurston (Cardinals), Joe Dillon (Rays), Brian Buscher (Twins), Rich Aurilia (Giants), Chris Woodward (Red Sox), Pablo Ozuna (Phillies)
There isn’t a lot of help here. Boone and Aurilia are expected to head off to retirement, and McPherson and Hessman are more likely to receive opportunities in Japan than in the U.S. … Barden deserves another look as a utilityman after the Cardinals gave up on him quickly last season. He’s an excellent defender at third and adequate at short.
Trade candidates: Mike Lowell (Red Sox – NTC), Edwin Encarnacion (Blue Jays), Kevin Kouzmanoff (Padres), Garrett Atkins (Rockies), Ty Wigginton (Orioles), Mat Gamel (Brewers), Brandon Wood (Angels), Jeff Baker (Cubs), Brendan Harris (Twins), Andy Marte (Indians), Neil Walker (Pirates), Greg Dobbs (Phillies), Jeff Keppinger (Astros), Matt Brown (Angels), Adam Rosales (Reds)
With Lowell’s hip slowing him down, the Red Sox would like to go in a different direction at third, either by shifting Kevin Youkilis to the position or by signing a free agent. Lowell, though, has a no-trade clause that he could choose to wield. His $12 million salary won’t make him easy to move anyway, though the Red Sox could help out with that. … The Blue Jays have seemingly wanted to be rid of Encarnacion since the day they picked him up for Scott Rolen. My feeling is that they should install him in right field and see what happens. He has very little trade value at the moment.
The Padres should play up Kouzmanoff’s sterling fielding percentage and his numbers outside of Petco Park and move him now. His dreadful approach at the plate isn’t getting any better, and they have Chase Headley capable of stepping in at third base. … It’d be quite a waste for the Brewers to send Gamel back to Triple-A, but that’s what they’ll probably do with Casey McGehee expected to start at third base at the beginning of next season. Maybe someone will step up and offer a quality starting pitcher for him.

Non-tender candidates: Garrett Atkins (Rockies), Jose Bautista (Blue Jays), Brendan Harris (Twins), Jeff Keppinger (Astros), Eric Bruntlett (Phillies), Andy Marte (Indians), Freddy Sandoval (Angels), Brooks Conrad (Braves), Andy Tracy (Phillies), Andy Green (Mets)
The Rockies could have gotten something for Atkins at midseason. Now they’ll probably have to cut him. It’s hard to imagine someone acquiring him when he’ll almost surely come cheaper in free agency than in arbitration. He’d be due about $7.5 million next season in arbitration. … Bautista is a useful part-timer, but not at the $3 million or so that he’ll make in arbitration. … Harris will only make about $1.2 million, so he should be safe. The Twins might trade him, though. … Keppinger will probably earn about $1 million. That’s a fair number for an infielder who is pretty useful against lefties. The Astros, though, wouldn’t have room for him if they went out and got a Feliz or a Mora.
2010-11 free agents: Aramis Ramirez (Cubs)*, Jhonny Peralta (Indians)*, Mike Lowell (Red Sox), Scott Rolen (Reds), Brandon Inge (Tigers), Garrett Atkins (Rockies), Eric Chavez (Athletics)*, Ty Wigginton (Orioles), Bill Hall (Mariners)*, Ramon Vazquez (Pirates), Geoff Blum (Astros)*,
2011 options: Ramirez – $14.6 million player option, Peralta – $7 million ($250,000 buyout), Chavez – $12.5 million ($3 million buyout), Hall – $9.25 million ($500,000 buyout), Blum – $1.65 million mutual option
2011-12 free agents: Aramis Ramirez (Cubs)*, Edwin Encarnacion (Blue Jays), Casey Blake (Dodgers)*, Mark Teahen (White Sox), Jose Bautista (Blue Jays), Greg Dobbs (Phillies)
2012 options: Ramirez – $16 million vesting mutual option ($2 million buyout), Blake – $6 million ($1.25 million buyout)

Mark Lerner says Nationals can’t afford both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg

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The defending champion Washington Nationals may have to replace two star players in third baseman Anthony Rendon and starter Stephen Strasburg as both are free agents. Both are represented by agent Scott Boras and both are expected to command lucrative contracts. As a result, Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner said the club can’t afford to bring back both players, Todd Dybas of NBC Sports Washington reports.

Lerner told Donald Dell in an interview, “We really can only afford to have one of those two guys. They’re huge numbers. We already have a really large payroll to begin with.”

As Dybas notes, there are myriad reasons why Lerner would say this publicly. If Lerner had instead said, “Yeah, we’re filthy stinking rich, especially coming off of a World Series win. We could afford to get every free agent if we wanted to,” then the Nationals would have no leverage in negotiations. Creating artificial scarcity increases the Nationals’ leverage when negotiating with Boras and his clients. And as Dybas also points out, Lerner’s statement also prepares fans for an unsatisfactory outcome not unlike when the club took itself out of the running to bring back outfielder Bryce Harper earlier this year. This not to say Lerner’s statement is justified; it’s just how things work in the current system.

Lerner also defended the Nationals’ approach to free agency. He said, “They think you’re really back there printing money and it’s whoever goes to the highest bidder. It’s not that way at all. You give these fellas — there’s a negotiation that goes on, but…We’ve been pretty successful in free agency over time. You’re not going to get everybody. Certain players may want to go home, closer to where their home is. You never know the reason why people move on. But, we’ve been very successful. Probably one of the most successful teams in free agency the last 10 years. We’re very proud of our record. But, again, I think people have to realize, it’s not all up to us.”

It is true that the Nationals have been one of the most active teams in free agency in recent years. In a league that has otherwise done the opposite, they deserve some credit for that. But the Nationals are also keenly aware of the competitive balance tax threshold, which teams use as a de facto salary cap. They don’t have to, but they choose to because it’s a convenient structure that allows them to limit expenditures.

At the end of the day, it’s baseball’s financial structure that is rotten. It forces constant misinformation out of everyone’s mouths so as to protect their financial interests and leverage, and incentivizes teams to value profits above all. In a perfect world, MLB team owners wouldn’t need to cry poor every offseason, but we don’t live in such a world.