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Hot Stove Preview: Top Free Agent Third Basemen Available

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Previous free agent preview installments: Starting pitchers, catchers, shortstops, relief pitchers.

As with other positions, pickings are slim at third base. It’s basically Justin Turner and then everyone else. So let’s start with Turner.

1. Justin Turner

Turner, with the Mets from 2010-13, was a middling utilityman. He’s spent the last three years with the Dodgers and became a star in the process. Over those three years, he hit .296/.364/.492 while playing pretty good defense at the hot corner. According to FanGraphs, only five third basemen have been more valuable in terms of Wins Above Replacement: Josh Donaldson, Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, and Kyle Seager.

Turner is by far the best free agent third baseman available and is arguably one of the three best free agents available this offseason. He’ll have lots of leverage, even if he has draft pick compensation attached to him after he rejects the Dodgers’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. The only other worry is that Turner turns 32 years old later this month and does have a history of lower leg injuries.

Jayson Werth is a good point of comparison for Turner. Like Turner, Werth (now 37) didn’t break out until his late 20’s and early 30’s. Werth inked a seven-year deal with the Nationals and hasn’t really lived up to his $126 million price tag. It seems quite unlikely that Turner would be able to parlay his performance over the past three seasons into a six- or seven-year deal, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him fetch a four- or five-year deal at a $20 million annual salary.

2. Luis Valbuena

The Astros limited Valbuena to facing right-handed pitching when they could, as nearly three-quarters of his 342 plate appearances this past season came against them. His platoon split over his career isn’t that drastic, but it’s been more apparent in recent years.

Valbuena, 30, was on pace for his best offensive output in 2016 before a hamstring injury, which required surgery, ended his season. He hit .260/.357/.459 with 13 home runs and 40 RBI. Valbuena is also quite capable with the glove, helping him cross the 2 WAR threshold in back-to-back seasons, according to Baseball Reference.

Since Valbuena is a platoon player coming off of surgery, don’t expect teams to be willing to fork over a multi-year deal even in a weak market. Perhaps the best thing for Valbuena would be to sign a one-year contract with a team willing to play him everyday in an attempt to rebuild his value for next offseason. If he’s willing to sign a one-year deal as a platoon player, he might increase his 2017 earnings.

3. Yunel Escobar

The Angels have a $7 million club option on Escobar for next season with a $1 million buyout. It’s difficult to see them not picking up that option, but we’ll operate as if he could hit free agency.

Escobar, 34, is still probably a better fit playing shortstop somewhere rather than third base, as his defensive metrics hve been abysmal since he started playing the hot corner full-time. Still, he’s put up 3.5 WAR over the last two seasons, which is just a shade below average. This past season with the Angels, he hit .304/.355/.391 with 28 doubles and 68 runs scored. Escobar doesn’t provide much in the way of power, but is a great fit at the top of the lineup, either leading off or hitting second.

In the event Escobar becomes a free agent, he’ll likely be able ot get another two-year deal in the $10-15 million range.

4. Aaron Hill

Hill’s 2016 was a tale of two seasons. In the first half with the Brewers, he hit .283/.359/.421 with eight homers and 29 RBI in 292 plate appearances. After being traded to the Red Sox in early July, he hit an abysmal .218/.287/.290.

Now 35 years old, Hill is not a starting-caliber player anymore. But his first half performance last season showed he can still be productive with a bat and having played second base for the majority of his career, he’s versatile in the infield. There are lots of worse bench options out there.

5. Kelly Johnson

Johnson is the man behind one of my favorite factoids: he’s played for every AL East team is making his way through the NL East. He needs to sign with the Nationals or Phillies to make it four out of five in the NL East. Not that that is at all relevant to his actual free agent pursuits.

Johnson, 35 in February, put up an overall .698 OPS between the Braves and Mets in 2016, playing mostly second and third base but also contributing at first base, shortstop, and in the outfield. He’s one of the most versatile players around, but he just doesn’t have enough left in the bat to command everyday playing time. Johnson will still command a major league deal to fill a bench role.

6. Andres Blanco

Blanco, 32, was quietly a dominant player in 2015 with the Phillies, batting .292/.360/.502 with 32 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, and 32 runs scored in 261 plate appearances. He played third base, second base, shortstop, and first base. He reprised his role in 2016, but the production took a bit of a hit. He hit .253/.316/.405, played the aforementioned four infield positions and added left field to the list.

Blanco fractured his left index finger on a slide in late July, requiring surgery and knocking him out until early September. He only put up a .521 OPS in 41 PA through the end of the season. Teams may correctly be skeptical of his ability to swing the bat going forward. Still, his versatility is a huge plus and there will be a handful of teams out there willing to give him a major league contract to fill a bench role.

Other free agent third basemen out there: Casey McGehee, Adam Rosales, Ruben Tejada.

MLB to move the draft to Omaha on the eve of the College World Series

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SAN DIEGO — We spend a lot of time on these pages criticizing Major League Baseball’s decisions. And yeah, they make a lot of questionable decisions (or logical decisions which serve questionable motives). But in the past day or so they’ve certainly gotten a couple of things right.

First was what we posted about last night: MLB moving to take marijuana off the banned substance list for minor leaguers. This, combined with the recent report that MLB/MLBPA are moving to a treatment, as opposed to a punishment-based regimen for opioids, shows that sense, as opposed to hysteria and optics, is beginning to move to the fore when it comes to baseball’s drug policies. It’s certainly welcome.

Also reported last night — by Kendall Rogers of the website d1baseball.com — Major League Baseball plans to move the amateur draft from the MLB Network studios in New Jersey to Omaha, Nebraska, and schedule it at just at the start of the College World Series. The move has not been officially announced yet, but I’d expect an MLB press release on it before we all get on our planes on Thursday morning.

It would be nicely coordinated too, Rogers says, coming just after the super regionals but before the actual CWS. This would allow the top players expected to go to all be on hand, either as players in the CWS or because, hey, they just got done and would probably be there anyway. It’s way better than putting a six guys in a green room in Secaucus. That’s always so awkward. You can tell they don’t really want to be there and don’t know what to do with themselves. In Omaha they’ll be among their friends, teammates, family, and counterparts. The atmosphere will almost certainly radically change for the better.

It’s still a very, very tall order to ever create the same level of interest in the MLB draft that exists for the NFL or NBA drafts, as the structure of college football and basketball and the fame of its stars is a totally different deal coming in. But this is a positive move forward for the baseball draft. Good job to whoever’s idea it was.