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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.

Juan Soto steals the show, powering Nationals past Astros 5-4 in World Series Game 1

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Nationals outfielder Juan Soto stole the show on Tuesday night in Houston, going 3-for-4 with a double, a homer, three RBI, and a stolen base to power his team past the Astros 5-4 in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Astros jumped on Max Scherzer for two runs in the bottom of the first inning to open the scoring. Scherzer allowed the first two batters he faced to reach on a single and a walk, then struck out the next two batters before allowing a two-strike, two-out, two-run double to Yuli Gurriel. Given the way Gerrit Cole has pitched all year long, two runs seemed like plenty.

Cole did not have his best stuff on this particular night. Ryan Zimmerman answered with a solo home run to center field with two outs in the top of the second inning, cutting the deficit to 2-1. Juan Soto would absolutely obliterate a Cole offering for a solo homer of his own in the fourth inning, tying the game at two apiece. Soto became the fourth player in baseball history to hit a World Series home run before his 21st birthday.

The Nationals hung a three-spot in the top of the fifth against Cole, putting their first two batters on base thanks to a walk and a single. Adam Eaton brought home the go-ahead run with a line drive single to right field. Soto followed up by scorching a line drive off of the wall in front of the Crawford boxes to plate two more runs, padding the Nats’ lead to 5-2.

The two runs the Astros got in the first inning would be all they would get off of Scherzer, though they did make him labor in every inning. Scherzer ultimately threw 112 pitches over five innings, yielding five hits and three walks with seven strikeouts.

Patrick Corbin worked a scoreless sixth, working around a one-out single. His usage out of the bullpen likely means he starts Game 4, not Game 3. Manager Dave Martinez handed the ball to hard-throwing right-hander Tanner Rainey for the seventh inning, but it didn’t work out. Rainey gave up a leadoff home run to George Springer to make it 5-3. Springer has now homered in five consecutive World Series games, breaking a tie with Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig to set a new major league record. Rainey got into yet more trouble, issuing back-to-back one-out walks to Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman, forcing Martinez to use Daniel Hudson a little earlier than anticipated. Hudson, however, was able to wriggle out of danger in the seventh.

Hudson wasn’t as fortunate in the eighth inning as the Astros continued to claw their way back. Pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker led off with a single, advanced to second base on a deep fly ball to center fielder Victor Robles. Springer brought Tucker home on a fly ball to right-center field that bounced high off of the fence, very nearly becoming a game-tying two-run homer. He settled for an RBI double. Hudson got José Altuve to fly out before handing the ball to lefty Sean Doolittle, who got Brantley to line out to end the inning.

In the ninth, Doolittle returned to the bump to close out the game. He struck out Bregman, got Gurriel to fly out to center, and Correa did the same to end the contest. Nationals take Game 1, 5-4 over the Astros, earning their first World Series victory in franchise history.

Cole, by the way, was still able to complete seven innings. The right-hander threw 104 pitches, allowing the five runs on eight hits and a walk with six strikeouts. He allowed more than one run for the first time this postseason, and more than two runs for the first time since August 28 against the Rays. The Astros lost a game he started for the first time since July 12 against the Rangers.

The Nationals, big underdogs entering the World Series, now have a 1-0 series lead over the Astros, successfully vanquishing Cole. The two sides will meet again for Game 2 on Wednesday night. Justin Verlander will oppose Stephen Strasburg.