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Nationals Second Base Search: Free Agent Third Basemen

We've looked at the free agent middle infielders. We've checked out an international free agent. Today, we're going to reverse course. The talent pool is much richer at the hot corner. What if the Nats decide to move Anthony Rendon back to second base and target a third baseman?

Pablo Sandoval set a record with 26 hits this postseason as the Giants won their third title in five years.  Should the Nats be the team that offers the free agent third baseman a big payday?
Pablo Sandoval set a record with 26 hits this postseason as the Giants won their third title in five years. Should the Nats be the team that offers the free agent third baseman a big payday?
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, we looked at some of the available middle infielders that the Nats could sign as free agents to fill their need at second base.  We've also profiled one of the international free agents on the market and given some consideration to what RSOD could do.  Today, we're going to complete our look at possible free agents that the Nats could target to solve their second base issue by looking at the available third basemen.

In the case that the Nats were to sign a third baseman, they would be committing to move Anthony Rendon back to second base.  I'm not going to argue that he's better defensively at either position.  The metrics seemed to like him at both second base and third base this past season, though defensive metrics usually take more than a year's worth of data to be trusted.  The "eye test" tells me that I'm more comfortable with him at third base, but that's more because I feel he's an exceptional third baseman than anything else.  He was strong defensively at second base late in 2013 and early in 2014 before moving to third when Ryan Zimmerman was injured.

More than anything else, I'd like Rendon's position to be solidified.  In the past two years, we've seen Rendon emerge as a star, so it's not like his spot in the lineup isn't solid.  Some guys tend to thrive playing all over the field, but it's a slippery slope the Nats will be travelling down if they keep bouncing him around between second and third base.  The more that the Nats move him around, the more time he's going to have to devote to improving his defense.  Spending more time on defense means spending less time focusing on his offense.

Let's take a look at the MLB Trade Rumors list of free agents at third base:

Third Basemen
Alberto Callaspo (32)
Jack Hannahan (35)
Chase Headley (31)
Donnie Murphy (32)
Chris Nelson (29)
Aramis Ramirez* (37)
Hanley Ramirez (31)
Mark Reynolds (32)
Pablo Sandoval (28)

*Player has a mutual option with his former team

Unlike the second base options, Danny Espinosa doesn't seem to be muh of a factor here.  To sign any of the legitimate staring caliber options, the Nats would have to offer a significant commitment in terms of dollars and years.  Let's trim some of the fat.......

  • At 35, Hannahan is a .231/.314/.346 lifetime hitter who has never held more than a platoon role.  He just wouldn't cut it on a contender.
  • Murphy is a career backup with a 74 wRC+ against RHP.
  • Nelson is a career backup who has been cut by the Rockies and Padres in the past two seasons.

We'll keep Callaspo and Reynolds on board just because they could be players cheap enough to bring on to bolster the bench.  The real prizes are Hanley, Headley, and Sandoval (assuming that Aramis Ramirez stays in Milwaukee).

Alberto Callaspo

2012 520 10 .252 .331 .361 10.8% 11.3% .308 98 4 0.4 -1.0 12.1 2.9
2013 516 10 .258 .333 .369 10.3% 9.1% .312 99 0 -5.6 -5.9 -5.2 0.6
2014 451 4 .223 .290 .290 8.9% 11.1% .264 68 0 -3.4 -19.2 -5.7 -1.1
Total 3695 51 .267 .330 .370 8.7% 9.0% .310 92 22 -10.6 -43.8 12.9 9.5
vs. RHP
2012 372 5 .229 .318 .316 11.8% 12.6% .286 83
2013 348 5 .253 .333 .339 10.9% 10.6% .301 92
2014 287 3 .238 .303 .313 9.1% 10.5% .277 77
Total 2606 35 .259 .328 .360 9.4% 9.4% .305 89

Strengths: Callaspo maintains an extremely high contact rate.  His 11.1% strikeout rate this season was the seventeenth lowest in the majors.  He's versatile enough to play anywhere on the infield, and actually saw more time at second base than third base this season.  He's also comfortable working the walk.  His 8.9% walk rate was his lowest in the past four years, but it still would have ranked behind just Werth, Harper, and Zimmerman among returning Nats starters.

Weaknesses: Despite the high contact rate, Callaspo just doesn't bring much to the table offensively.  Slappy singles hitters are fine if they provide more help elsewhere (either as a plus baserunner or an elite defender).  Callaspo just doesn't.  He offers little power (.103 career ISO) and isn't a threat on the basepaths (22 for 36 in SB attempts in 9 seasons).   Playing predominantly at second base these past two seasons, Callaspo has been worth -17 Defensive Runs Saved in the field.

Gauging his pricetag: Coming off of a poor season, Callaspo shouldn't expect a big payday.  Look for him to reel in a one year deal at $2-$3 million.

Is he worth targeting?: Not for a starting spot on a team that's looking to contend.  As I said with some of the weaker second base options the other day, I'd rather have him on the bench than Kevin Frandsen.  There's a chance that a second division team may have room for him to serve as a stopgap at second or third base, so he'll likely try to land at least a platoon gig somewhere.

Chase Headley

2012 699 31 .286 .376 .498 12.3% 22.5% .378 145 17 -1.2 36.6 9.7 7.2
2013 600 13 .250 .347 .400 11.2% 23.7% .330 114 8 -3.0 6.4 9.2 3.6
2014 531 13 .243 .328 .372 9.6% 23.0% .316 103 7 0.5 2.0 21.6 4.4
Total 3944 93 .265 .347 .409 10.3% 22.6% .334 114 76 0.2 63.9 32.4 23.3
vs. RHP
2012 493 20 .296 .400 .506 14.2% 24.1% .392 155
2013 432 8 .251 .354 .385 12.0% 25.2% .328 113
2014 393 9 .241 .323 .370 9.7% 22.9% .312 100
Total 2774 63 .269 .357 .411 11.1% 24.0% .340 118

Strengths: It's odd.  Headley's primary strength is how complete a player he is.  If I had to pick out any specific areas that are strengths, I'd have to lean towards his defense at third base (his 22.8 defensive Runs Above Average actually led all MLB players [across all positions] in 2014) and his plate discipline.  Headley boasts a 10.3% career walk rate.  It was down a bit this season, but it was actually 12.9% after he was traded to the Yankees.  Save for the one ridiculous season, he's never shown a lot of home run power, but he did average 31 doubles from 2009-2013, so it's not like he's a pure singles hitter.  Headley even swipes the occasional bag (76 for 99 in 7 seasons).  His defense has been more exceptional than his bat, but he's a solid contributor across the board.

Weaknesses: Headley, of course, has that one outlier of a 2012 season on his resume that he'll never live up to.  The promise he showed that season made him a highly sought after commodity, but he actually has less home runs (26), less RBI (99), and less stolen bases (15) over the past two seasons combined than he did in 2012.  His strikeout rate is a bit high (22.6% career, 23.0% in 2014).

Gauging his pricetag: MLB Trade Rumors projected him to get something in the four year, $48 million range.  That sounds pretty reasonable to me.  While he's never going to live up to that outlier season he had in 2012, he's such a complete player that he's been worth 8 fWAR and 7.3 rWAR over the past two seasons.

Is he worth targeting?: Panda and Hanley will get a lot more love, but Headley absolutely deserves consideration.  He boosted his stock in his tenure with the Yankees (.262/.371/.398 in 58 games) when he finally escaped the hitters' graveyard known as Petco Park.  Put him in a deep lineup and a neutral park, and Headley should be a .270/.360/.420 type of hitter who provides outstanding defense.... for less money than Hanley and Panda.  Furthermore, Headley can't be tendered a qualifying offer (traded midseason), so he won't have a draft pick attached to him.

Aramis Ramirez

2012 630 27 .300 .360 .540 7.0% 13.0% .384 139 9 -4.2 25.4 7.8 5.6
2013 351 12 .283 .370 .461 10.3% 15.7% .366 131 0 -5.2 7.1 -5.0 1.3
2014 531 15 .285 .330 .427 4.0% 14.1% .334 109 3 -3.3 2.3 1.3 2.1
Total 8470 369 .285 .344 .496 7.1% 13.8% .360 117 28 -48.1 127.2 -12.4 39.0
vs. RHP
2012 480 17 .288 .354 .499 7.9% 12.7% .366 128
2013 269 8 .278 .379 .432 11.5% 13.8% .361 127
2014 416 7 .275 .310 .377 2.9% 14.2% .305 90
Total 5580 228 .285 .344 .486 7.2% 13.0% .357 115

Strengths: Ramirez's biggest asset is his consistency.  Since 2004, he's hit .283 or better in all but one season.  Prior to 2014, Ramirez had hit 25 or more homers in every season in which he'd appeared in 100+ games since 2003.  He maintained an isolated slugging percentage of .199 or higher from 2004 through 2012.  He keeps a pretty high contact rate as well (14.1% K rate this season, 13.8% career).

Weaknesses: His age (36) has to be a concern.  Ramirez had a fantastically consistent peak.  While injuries have sapped his production some over the past two seasons, it's possible that some age related decline is starting to set in.  He was never a great defender, but he's definitely shown signs of decline in that area as well.  Ramirez has -63 DRS for his career.... -46 of those have come in the past five seasons.  Also, while he's never been the most patient hitter, Ramirez's walk rate dropped off the table this season to 4.0%.

Gauging his pricetag: Ramirez and the Brewers still have a decision to make.  He has a $14 million mutual option with a $4 million buyout for next season.  There's a decent chance that the option is exercised.  If it's not, Ramirez will probably be seeking a two or three year deal in the $10 million per year range.

Is he worth targeting?: I doubt it.  Ramirez would weaken the infield defense while his offensive returns likely continue to diminish.  If he's willing to sign a contract where he's going year to year, he might not be a terrible free agent target.  I get the feeling he ends up staying in Milwaukee.

Edit: The Brewers exercised their half of the mutual option with Ramirez on Friday.  He has three days to decide on whether or not to exercise his half.  My feeling is that he will.

Hanley Ramirez

2012 667 24 .257 .322 .437 8.1% 19.8% .328 106 21 3.0 7.8 -1.7 2.9
2013 336 20 .345 .402 .638 8.0% 15.5% .442 191 10 -1.1 33.3 3.3 5.0
2014 512 13 .283 .369 .448 10.9% 16.4% .362 135 14 1.5 21.8 -6.1 3.4
Total 5272 191 .300 .373 .500 9.6% 16.6% .376 133 261 29.6 238.8 -12.5 40.2
vs. RHP
2012 471 17 .254 .316 .429 7.6% 20.4% .324 103
2013 243 13 .344 .395 .606 7.0% 14.8% .429 181
2014 390 9 .283 .362 .439 9.7% 15.9% .355 131
Total 3948 146 .298 .367 .492 9.1% 16.8% .372 129

Strengths: If there's a truly elite hitter on the free agent market that contributes across the board offensively, it's Ramirez.  He hits for average... He has .300 career, won the batting average title in 2009, and would have won it again in 2013 if he'd had enough PA.  He hits for power, and has a .200 career ISO, six seasons of 20 or more HR, 25+ doubles in eight of his nine seasons.  He runs well, and has finished with double digit stolen bases in all nine of his seasons, including seven seasons of 20+ steals.  He's willing to work the walk... 9.6% career walk rate, 10.9% in 2014.  In today's day and age, he doesn't strike out too much... 16.6% career, 16.4% in 2014.

Weaknesses: He's not great defensively at shortstop (-77 DRS, -9 this past season) and would probably be asked to play third base if the Nats signed him.  Unfortunately, the one season in which Hanley played third base didn't go all that well either (-11 DRS).  Ramirez developed a reputation as a malcontent towards the end of his tenure with the Marlins.  He's also had a bit of an injury history the past few years, averaging just 115.75 games played since 2011.

Gauging his pricetag: Ramirez will certainly be given a qualifying offer, meaning he's going to have a draft pick attached to him.  Players like Ramirez don't have to worry about the Kendrys Morales/Stephen Drew tax that draft pick compensation can imply, though.  Ramirez figures to get a $100+ million contract over five or six years.  Any team that signs him this offseason will be banking on him becoming their franchise player for the next few seasons, and the back end of the contract could be an albatross.

Is he worth targeting?: Given the draft pick compensation, the length of a presumed deal, his recent injury history, and his potential to hurt the chemistry in the clubhouse, he certainly wouldn't be my top choice.  If I were to ignore any other factors and just wanted the most talented player on the market, Hanley would be my guy.  He does everything well offensively and would immediately become one of the Nats top three hitters.

Mark Reynolds

2012 538 23 .221 .335 .429 13.6% 29.6% .335 109 1 -2.0 3.6 -21.5 0.0
2013 504 21 .220 .306 .393 10.1% 30.6% .310 95 3 -0.6 -3.4 -10.4 0.3
2014 433 22 .196 .287 .394 10.9% 28.2% .302 87 5 1.1 -5.0 7.1 1.6
Total 4380 224 .229 .324 .457 11.6% 31.9% .340 106 57 -3.8 26.6 -73.5 9.6
vs. RHP
2012 396 20 .219 .328 .450 13.1% 30.1% .338 112
2013 322 13 .218 .298 .386 9.3% 32.9% .304 91
2014 321 19 .204 .291 .429 10.6% 30.2% .315 97
Total 3181 166 .229 .314 .457 10.3% 33.2% .335 103

Strengths: Power, power, power, walks, power.  Over the past three years, Reynolds hasn't hit for for quite the extreme power that he did in his first few years in Arizona.  Still, he's had about the quietest string of three straight 20 HR seasons imaginable in the past three seasons.  While he's always going to be a poor average hitter, Reynolds has walked in more than 10% of his plate appearances in every season since his rookie year.  He has an 11.6% career walk rate, so even hitting .220 should leave him with an acceptable OBP.

Weaknesses: Just about anything that doesn't involve power or drawing walks.  Specifically, Reynolds strikes out a ton.  He's had three seasons of 200+ strikeouts and his 31.9% career strikeout rate is actually quite a bit higher than Danny Espinosa's.  He's not a strong defender at third base, and actually spent most of his time this past season as the first baseman in Milwaukee.  Oddly enough, he had his first season with positive DRS in the process (+4 in 273 innings at 3b, +2 in 658 innings at 1b).  He's been a poor enough defender for so long that I don't put a whole lot of faith in his 2014 defensive performance.

Gauging his pricetag: Reynolds signed a one year, $2 million deal last offseason with Milwaukee.  He actually had a slightly worse offensive season in 2014 than he did the previous year.  His jump from 0.3 to 1.6 fWAR largely came from the fact that he turned in a positive defensive performance this past season.  I could see him geting a bit more than $2 million this offseason, but not much.

Is he worth targeting?: As a bench bat and backup plan to Zimmerman at first base, the Nats could do worse.  A contending team shouldn't be signing Reynolds to give them more than 300 PA, though.

Pablo Sandoval

2012 442 12 .283 .342 .447 8.6% 13.3% .338 118 1 -1.1 8.3 2.4 2.6
2013 584 14 .278 .341 .417 8.0% 13.5% .331 116 0 -3.6 7.0 -2.8 2.3
2014 638 16 .279 .324 .415 6.1% 13.3% .323 111 0 -4.7 3.3 5.3 3.0
Total 3533 106 .294 .346 .465 7.3% 13.1% .348 122 11 -17.1 74.5 16.2 20.9
vs. RHP
2012 305 10 .275 .344 .465 9.8% 13.4% .345 123
2013 417 13 .281 .341 .446 7.7% 12.9% .341 123
2014 433 11 .317 .363 .461 6.5% 12.5% .359 136
Total 2570 88 .304 .357 .493 7.7% 12.8% .363 132

Strengths: Sandoval is a really strong contact hitter with good gap power.  His 13.3% strikeout rate this season was the thirtieth lowest among qualified hitters.  Only fifteen other hitters with double digit homers had a lower strikeout rate.  He crushes right-handed pitching, with a 132 wRC+ against them in his career and 136 wRC+ this past season.  Despite a lot of talk earlier in his career that he may have to move off of third base at some point due to his weight, he's become a pretty solid defender at third base.  His defensive RAA has been positive in three of the past four seasons.  If you believe that postseason hitting is a separate skill (I don't), Sandoval has hit .344/.389/.545 in 167 postseason plate appearances.  He's won three World Series titles, a World Series MVP (2012), and set the record for most hits in a single postseason with 26 when he went 3 for 3 with a HBP in Wednesday's Game 7.  At 28 years old, Panda is also the youngest player on the market, so age related decline may be less of a concern than it is with some of the other options.

Weaknesses: Though his weight has been down a bit the past few years, his body type is always going to offer some concern that he may have to move off of third base at some point.  While he definitely has enough power to hit it over the wall, Sandoval is more of a doubles hitter who can occasionally go yard.  He finished with 16 homers in 2014, the third highest total of his career.  His struggles against left-handers were well documented in the postseason.  They were more extreme this season than they have been throughout his career, but he has a .270/.317/.391 line against them lifetime (95 wRC+).  No... That's not bad at all.  Still, it begs the question of whether or not platooning Espinosa with him would be better than starting him every day.  They'd have to pay Panda so much that there's no way Matt Williams would platoon the two.

Gauging his pricetag: Like Hanley Ramirez, Sandoval will almost certainly have a draft pick attached to him.  Sandoval will make enough on the open market so that there's no way he'll accept the $15.3 million qualifying offer.  Even if he would accept it, the Giants would probably love to keep him in San Francisco for another year at that price.  He's not the lock to get $100+ million that Hanley is, but he's likely to sign for five or six years at an AAV of $17-$18 million.  Let's say 5/$85.

Is he worth targeting?: I get the feeling he'll be the guy that the majority of the fanbase would like to target.  Sandoval not only has a reputation as a strong postseason hitter, but he's also a player who has been a fan favorite for years in San Francisco.  His personality has always been viewed as a tremendous boost in the clubhouse, and he almost always seems to have a smile on his face when he's on the field.  He's the kind of guy that keeps players loose and that fans embrace.  More importantly, his high contact approach would be a welcome addition on a roster that saw every regular outside of Denard Span strike out more than 15% of the time.  He's also young enough so that a five year deal wouldn't ensure that the final few seasons would be riddled with decline.  He'd be just 33 at the end of the deal.

My choice/Poll

As with the second base options, I'm going to offer my choices in today's article as if the Nats were going to sign a third baseman.  I'll set up an option of "Other" just like I did the other day.  If you'd rather see the Nats sign a second baseman (or make a trade for one) than go after any of these free agent choices, feel free to vote for that.  Ultimately, I think that's my preference (which has more to do with freeing up the budget to extend in-house players), but I'll vote for the third baseman I like the most.

Since money and a first round draft pick come into play, I'm going to go contrarian.  Before putting the poll up, I'm assuming that Sandoval is going to run away with the vote.  I assume Hanley (spit) will come in a distant second.  Callaspo and Reynolds probably won't receive a single vote, but I covered them to give equal time to guys who could at least be platoon starters among the free agents.  I'm going to leave Aramis Ramirez off of the poll because I think he'll pick up his half of the mutual option with the Brewers.  Among the third base choices, my pick is... Chase Headley.

I don't know how much we can count on Headley retaining quite the defensive value that he's had the past few years (+57.2 RAA over the past five seasons), but I feel safe in saying that he's probably the best defender among the three legitimate starting candidates available.  Ramirez hasn't done anything in the past to make me confident he'll be a plus defensive third baseman.  Sandoval has continued to defy expectations that his weight will catch up to him at third base, but those concerns will only start to seem more valid as he ages.

Offensively, we'd be led to believe that they'd be ranked in this order:

  1. Hanley Ramirez
  2. Pablo Sandoval
  3. Chase Headley

That may be the correct order.  Hanley clearly offers the strongest all-around offensive package and probably the worst defense among the three.  His power/speed combo along with his ability to hit for average separates him from Sandoval and Headley, who each have some warts to their offensive game (middling power and no speed for Sandoval... middling power and a high K rate for Headley).  Still, while I'm more of an analytics guy than a makeup guy, I worry enough about the less tangible factors (injuries, past incidents with management) so that it knocks Hanley down a few pegs for me.... never mind the massive contract it's going to take to sign him.

So let's compare Headley and Sandoval offensively.............

Chase Headley
2012 699 31 .286 .376 .498 12.3% 22.5% .378 145 17 -1.2 36.6 9.7 7.2
2013 600 13 .250 .347 .400 11.2% 23.7% .330 114 8 -3.0 6.4 9.2 3.6
2014 531 13 .243 .328 .372 9.6% 23.0% .316 103 7 0.5 2.0 21.6 4.4
Total 3944 93 .265 .347 .409 10.3% 22.6% .334 114 76 0.2 63.9 32.4 23.3
Pablo Sandoval
2012 442 12 .283 .342 .447 8.6% 13.3% .338 118 1 -1.1 8.3 2.4 2.6
2013 584 14 .278 .341 .417 8.0% 13.5% .331 116 0 -3.6 7.0 -2.8 2.3
2014 638 16 .279 .324 .415 6.1% 13.3% .323 111 0 -4.7 3.3 5.3 3.0
Total 3533 106 .294 .346 .465 7.3% 13.1% .348 122 11 -17.1 74.5 16.2 20.9

We'll note the big edge to Sandoval in the batting average department, but let's not ignore that Headley actually has a better career OBP despite batting 29 points lower than Sandoval.  We'll also see that Sandoval has a 56 point edge in slugging.  More than half of that is due to batting average, though Sandoval's career ISO (.171) is quite a bit higher than Headley's (.144).  Recency has to be factored in a bit there, though.  Even if we ignore the outlier season for Headley (his .212 ISO in 2012), Headley has had a better ISO (.140) than Sandoval has the past two years (.137).  Essentially, Sandoval has had two outlier seasons (.226 ISO in 2009, .237 ISO in 2011) which have given him a major boost.  In four of his seven seasons, Sandoval's ISO has been .145 or lower.

While both played in pitcher's parks, we can't ignore that Headley played in the best pitcher's park in the majors (91 Park Factor both mutli-year and single year per Baseball Reference) and Sandoval played in a park that was closer to neutral (95 Park Factor by mutli-year, 99 in 2014 per Baseball Reference).  They've taken different paths to get there (Sandoval with extreme contact, Headley with a very high walk rate), but in a context neutral environment, Panda and Headley offer fairly similar overall offensive contributions.  That's a huge factor for me.

Headley is going to get a three or four year deal in the $12-$14 million range without costing a draft pick.  Sandoval is going to get a five or six year deal in the $17-$18 million range and will cost a draft pick.  Headley's better with the glove, similar offensively, and will be $5 or $6 million per year cheaper without costing the Nats a first round pick.  If the Nats sign one of the available free agent third basemen, give me Chase Headley.