As optimistic as I am about the Giants bullpen in 2018, the same can’t be said for 3rd base. In what the Giants had hoped to be a position of stability, turned out to be anything but as the hot corner turned into a revolving door due to a combination of injury and poor performance. Eduardo Nunez (47), Pablo Sandoval (35), Christian Arroyo (21), Jae-hyun Hwang (13), Connor Gillaspie (12), Ryder Jones (12), Kelby Tomlinson (11), Aaron Hill (6), and Orlando Calixte (2) have all seen time at 3rd base, and not-surprisingly, the results have been atrocious. In what is highly regarded throughout baseball as an offensive position, Giants’ 3rd baseman have combined to bat .228 on the season (2nd worst in the NL), with a .283 on base percentage (worst in the NL), and .331 slugging percentage (worst in the NL by 38 points). If that wasn’t bad enough, their collective defensive rating (-4.1) was the 3rd worst in the NL. When it was all said and done, their -1.9 WAR (wins above replacement) rating not only served as the lowest 3rd base production in all of baseball, it represented the 2nd worst mark of ANY position in Major League Baseball (the San Diego Padres shortstops were the only position to have worse overall production than the Giants 3rd baseman). The WAR rating is also the 2nd worst of any teams 3rd baseman since 2004.
These results in and of itself are extremely concerning, but when you consider that they DO account for Eduardo Nunez’s solid play (.308 batting average, .334 on-base percentage, .417 slugging percentage) during the 1st half of the season, we realize how bad any non-Nunez 3rd baseman has been for the club. With recent news that Nunez would like to re-sign with the Red Sox, the Giants are left with a whole lot more questions than they have answers as they look towards the future.
Before I dive into the Giants’ 3rd base options as they look to 2018, it’s important to clarify that the players I discuss aren’t necessarily the ones who I believe to be the best option. Instead, they are realistic options for the franchise (as opposed to hypotheticals like, “we should trade for Josh Donaldson!”) to upgrade the position, regardless as to whether they are the right answer or not.
In house, the Giants have two realistic options – Pablo Sandoval and Christian Arroyo. By even including the Panda on this list, I know the majority of Giants fans will be irate – and that’s difficult to argue. After all, Sandoval is batting .216 in 44 games with the Giants after batting .212 in 32 games with the Red Sox. All-in-all, the Panda is batting .215 on the season with 8 homeruns and 29 RBI’s in 247 at-bats. When combining those numbers with his 2015 season (he missed 2016 due to injury), Sandoval has hit a combined .232 with 18 homeruns and 76 RBIs in his last 723 at-bats. To put that into perspective, Sandoval’s -3.0 WAR rating is the worst of all Major Leaguers with at least 700 at-bats over the last 3 seasons, a total of 312 players.
So why on earth would the Giants give Sandoval a shot to be the opening day 3rd baseman when he’s performed amongst the worst players in baseball the last 3 seasons?
2 reasons, both of which carry significant weight with the franchise – track record and affordability.
Even while accounting for his disastrous performance since he left the Giants in 2015, Sandoval still has respectable full-season averages. His averages of a .283 batting average, 15 homeruns, and 64 RBIs, to go along with a .334 on-base percentage are much-more in line with an everyday player at AT&T Park.
There is also a case to be made (for Sandoval supporters) for Sandoval’s injury history as well as adaptation back into an everyday role. As has been well documented, Sandoval’s tenure with Boston was filled with injury and sporadic (and almost always poor) production. Over the last two seasons, Sandoval has played in only 79 games. Some might suggest that’s more than enough time to recover from injury and play well, whereas others (current and former players) would argue that the more you play, the more comfortable you get. Since coming over from Boston, Sandoval has stayed healthy, played every day, and has rebounded from his record-setting 0-39 slump by batting .407 with 2 homeruns and 9 RBIs over his last 8 games, and raised his batting average 42 points in the process.
As it pertains to affordability, it has been well documented how strapped the Giants are financially as they head into the 2018 offseason. With such a large laundry-list of areas that need to be addressed, 3rd base might just be put on the backburner (which is indicative of how bad the outfield play has been this year). The Giants already own baseball’s highest payroll in 2018, so adding a cornerstone 3rd baseman, like Mike Moustakas seems unlikely (despite what Jon Heyman wrote). Again, it’s not that I don’t think Moustakas isn’t a great player or strong fit – I just think the Giants will prioritize other areas (all three outfield spots and starting pitching).
With so much money already committed to their core, the Giants need to find production out of minimally paid players, whether it be via controllable prospects, acquisitions, or reclamation projects. Christian Arroyo is the only prospect in the organization with a fighter’s chance of being the Opening Day 3rd baseman, and it’s unknown how active the Giants will be in the trade market given their new commitment to player development (generally speaking, trading for a starting caliber 3rd baseman would cost the Giants one of their better prospects). So that leaves us with reclamation projects – an area the Giants have excelled.
In my opinion, over the last 7 years, it can be argued that no team in baseball has maximized production from “retread” players like the Giants. Travis Ishikawa, Cody Ross, Pat Burrell, Ryan Theriot, Marco Scutaro, Andres Torres, Michael Morse, Aubrey Huff, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Uribe are just a few of the reclamation projects that have been instrumental in changing the culture of the Giants franchise and leading them to 3 World Championships. There is no doubt in my mind that the Giants will need to find similar players in the future if they’re going to experience another turnaround. Whether or not Pablo Sandoval is next in line remains to be seen, but it is important to note that none of those mentioned above, had half of the track record of the Panda.
The other internal option, and mentioned above, is Christian Arroyo. Arroyo was rushed to the Big Leagues this year at the age of 21 and was completely overmatched. After batting .192 with a .244 on-base percentage in 34 games, Arroyo was demoted back to AAA, where his season ended abruptly on July 1st after being hit by a pitch and breaking his hand. Arroyo is on the mend and will play in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, but after just 216 at-bats this season between AAA and the Majors, I believe the Giants will handle Arroyo delicately to ensure they don’t experience another setback. As we’ve seen time and time again, demotions take a large toll on players (just ask former 1st round pick Gary Brown), and the Giants can’t afford to jeopardize their top offensive prospect.
Regardless as to how this plays out on Opening Day of next season, Christian Arroyo is the 3rd baseman of the future. If the Giants don’t believe that Pablo Sandoval is the right guy to bridge the present with the future, there are a couple of free agents who could potentially fit what the Giants need, assuming they don’t go after the big fish in Moustakas.
1. Yunel Escobar
At age 34, Escobar is having an injury plagued, “down season” for the Angels. While only playing in 89 games this season, Escobar has proven to be effective when healthy, with career full-season averages of .282 batting average and .350 on-base percentage. Additionally, Escobar excels offensively in an area the Giants struggle mightily – against left handed pitching. This season, Escobar hit .343 against lefties with a .391 on-base percentage, and has a career .291 batting average against lefties with a .364 on-base percentage over 1600+ at-bats.
Escobar is in the final year of a 2 year, $13 million deal.
2. Danny Valencia
At 33, Valencia doesn’t have the track record of Escobar, but does provide more power and versatility than Escobar. While he’s only played 1 game at 3rd base this season with the Mariners, 468 of Valencia’s 785 career games played have been at 3rd-base. At this point in his career, Valencia is an average-at-best defender, but his versatility, power, and affordability could fit what the Giants are looking for.
Similar to Escobar, Valencia also has an excellent track-record against left-handed pitching. Over the course of his career, Valencia is a .313 hitter against lefties, with a .370 on-base percentage, and .493 slugging percentage. In fact, Valencia’s .313 batting average is the 10th highest of all Major Leaguers since he debuted in 2010 (behind Altuve, Posey, Goldschmidt, Beltre, Victor Martinez, McCutcheon, Miguel Cabrera, Braun, and Martin Prado).
Valencia is making $5.5 million this season with the Mariners.
The biggest problem the Giants face with the 3rd base position is the fact that there isn’t a perfect solution available. Even Moustakas, who would cost between $15-$20 million per season, doesn’t check all the boxes for the Giants. In addition to being a subpar defender and bad baserunner, Moustakas is a career .241 hitter against left-handed pitchers with a .291 on-base percentage and .397 slugging percentage. And in a division where the top 2 teams have Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood, Rich Hill, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Patrick Corbin, and Robbie Ray, finding a way to beat left-handed pitching is critical. With the Giants already being left-hand hitting dominant (Panik, Crawford, Belt, Span, and basically Sandoval), the Giants need to find a way to minimize this disadvantage, and adding another high-priced, 1-dimensional (albeit, significant dimension) hitter who can’t hit lefties, is far from ideal.
The way I see it, Sandoval may be the best of group of bad options, at least until Christian Arroyo arrives. The reality is that the Dodgers are still going to be an elite team next season, with the Diamondbacks and Rockies knocking on the door. To think that the Giants will somehow take down 1 of those three teams is probably a pipe-dream after finishing this season with the Majors’ worst record, and being forced to go into next season with the same core of players. With this in mind, I believe the Giants will give Pablo Sandoval every opportunity to win the 3rd base job out of Spring Training, and not because they want him there, but because it’s a necessary move to expedite the rebuild process to the future.