MLB 2017: Top ten third basemen
The top ten third basemen in Major League baseball are helping make the hot corner the premier position in the game today.
Throughout the history of baseball, there have been different positions that grab all the headlines. Starting pitchers like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax defined the 1960s, for example. Young shortstops like Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra headlined in the late 1990s. There is always a “glamour position” in baseball, and right now, third basemen may be holding that title.
You could make an argument for one of at least five players as the best third basemen in baseball, and not be wildly incorrect. Arguably the two best overall defenders in the game play third base — Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado — play third base. Josh Donaldson won the 2015 AL MVP, while Kris Bryant claimed the 2016 award in the NL. There are more players who combine elite offense and defense at the hot corner than at any other time in baseball history.
By the time we get into the top five third basemen entering the 2017 season, we really will be splitting hairs. Let’s dive right in and break down the ten best third basemen in the major leagues right now.
10. Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals
After a down year in 2015 spent battling minor, nagging injuries, Anthony Rendon rebounded to enjoy a solid season in 2016. The four-year veteran finished with 20 home runs, 85 RBIs, and a .797 OPS while continuing to play slick defense at third base. The Nationals shuffled Rendon between second and third in 2015, but he saw all his action at the hot corner last season.
As a hitter and fielder, Rendon does not do one thing spectacularly, but has a game that is well-rounded overall. He has compiled a .274/.345/.433 slash line in his career with 53 home runs and a solid fielding percentage of .965. Rendon keeps his strikeout totals low and walks at a good rate.
When healthy, Rendon is just a tick below an All-Star at third base, which is no small feat with this current crop of third basemen. His presence takes the pressure off of Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, and the Nationals saw their offense struggle in 2015 when he was out.
9. Todd Frazier, Chicago White Sox
Of the ten players on this list, Todd Frazier is coming off the worst season. The Toddfather batted just .225/.302/.464 in his first season with the White Sox. On a positive note, he did hit 40 home runs, a new career-high for the two-time All-Star. Frazier also slightly shook off his reputation for fading in the second half by posting his best month of the season in September. In the final month, he hit seven home runs and finished with a .868 OPS.
The White Sox are holding onto Frazier for now, hoping that his trade value will increase by the middle of the season with a few more months like last September. There is a decent chance that could happen, as Frazier is typically stronger in the first half of the year. He has an OPS of .833 in the first half for his career, over 100 points higher than his second-half numbers.
Last season, Frazier made quality contact at a much lower rate than in any of his previous seasons. His strikeout numbers rose slightly above his career averages, but his walk rate was also higher. Frazier hit more grounders and lazy fly balls last season, with fewer line drives. Perhaps getting too home-run happy on his new team caused the third baseman to alter his swing. Defensively, Frazier is a neutral player in terms of net value, and a move across the diamond to first base might come down the road.
8. Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers
From unwanted and non-tendered by the New York Mets to earning MVP votes and a $64-million contract, Justin Turner has had one of the most unlikely rises to stardom in the league. The Mets cut Turner loose after the 2013 season. At that time, he had played in only 318 games in five seasons in the big leagues, with very underwhelming results. The Dodgers took a flier on him with a minor-league deal and an invite to Spring Training, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Prior to joining the Dodgers, Turner had a tiny .361 slugging percentage for his career, barely higher than his on-base percentage. In three years in Los Angeles, Turner has blossomed into a middle-of-the-order hitter with a .296/.364/.492 line in 386 games. He hit a career-high 27 home runs in 2016, giving the Dodgers some desperately-needed power from the right side.
Entering his age-32 season, the four-year deal Turner signed may be a bit of a stretch. His OPS has actually dropped by roughly 30 points in each of the past three years. The drops have come as Turner’s batting average and OBP take a hit. The third baseman has generally been able to maintain his high contact rate with increased power, but has not done much to boost his walk numbers. Turner does exhibit reverse splits as a hitter, but that may be due in part to the rest of his team’s monumental struggles against left-handed pitching. Those deficiencies have not exactly been addressed this winter, so Turner may continue to lack protection in the lineup against southpaws.
7. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
It just goes to show how much depth there is at third base in the league right now that a fringe Hall of Famer like Evan Longoria is ranked just seventh in the league. Through nine professional seasons, the three-time All-Star’s career is on a trajectory pointed towards Cooperstown. Continuing to stay healthy for the second half of his career will determine where Longoria will stack up against the greats.
In 2016, Longoria had one of the best seasons of his career, reversing a downward trend. Getting fully healthy, along with an uptick in power production from the rest of the Rays roster was a big boost for Longoria. He hit a career-high 36 home runs with 41 doubles, very near his career-high of 46 from 2010. As he enters his age-31 season, Longoria should have several more years of peak production.
If there is one area where Longoria has shown real decline, it is on the defensive side. His range has taken a hit from his Gold Glove days. He has finished with a negative dWAR in three of the past five years. Even with diminshed range, Longoria continues to make all the expected plays — the highlight-reel defense of years past, however, is gone. The Rays cannot commit to moving Longoria to DH on a permanent basis this season, but he should see more time there in the coming years.
6. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners
Way up there in the far reaches of the Pacific Northwest, far from the eyes of most baseball fans, Kyle Seager continues his steady climb to stardom. Criminally underrated, all Seager has done in his six years with the Mariners is turn in workman-like seasons of 20 homers, 30 doubles, and stellar defense. Keep in mind that he is putting those numbers up while playing 81 games a year in Safeco Field.
Seager’s brilliance does get lost in the shuffle in Seattle with Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz grabbing more of the headlines, but he is just as valuable as both, and does more on defense. His seven-year, $100 million contract is a major bargain. If the Mariners are able to finally break through this year and make the playoffs, the rest of the country will get more of a chance to see what Seager can do.
Along with younger brother Corey, one of the top shortstops in the game, the Seagers are the top brother duo in the big leagues right now, and looked poised to keep a grip on that title for years to come.
5. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
Adrian Beltre’s Hall of Fame career has been a three-act play. He came up to the big leagues with the Dodgers as one of the most highly-touted prospect ever at the age of 19, blossomed into an MVP candidate, signed a megadeal with the Mariners, struggled, and then found a home as an elder statesman with the Texas Rangers. Signed for at least two more years, Beltre will reach 3,000 hits this season, and should top 500 home runs in 2018. That makes him a lock for the Hall.
Now entering his 20th season in the majors, Beltre is a five-time Gold Glover, four-time All-Star, and four-time Silver Slugger. He has earned MVP votes in eight separate seasons, and finished his age-37 season with a .300/.358/.521 line with 32 home runs and 104 knocked in, winning another Gold Glove in the process.
Beltre’s consistency since leaving Seattle has been impressive, with five seasons in seven with an average over .300, four 30-homer seasons, and four 100-RBI seasons. He has also embraced his role as a veteran mentor in the clubhouse, taking players like Elvis Andrus and Roughned Odor under his wing. In 2009, it appeared Beltre would end up with a good but not great career, now, he is ticketed for Cooperstown when he eventually decides to hang them up.
4. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Getting into the top four players on this list, it really is splitting hairs to separate them. You could make an argument for any one of them to hold the top spot. The 2016 NL MVP and World Series champion Kris Bryant draws the fourth ranking here due to the fact that he is slightly behind the top three when it comes to defense. Not exactly a mark against him, Bryant also plays left field fairly frequently, and only started 100 games at third base in 2016.
In two years with the Cubs, Bryant has done just about everything to live up to the almost unfair expectations. He won the Rookie of the Year and then followed it up with an MVP and a World Series title. Through two seasons, Bryant has 65 homers and 205 RBIs with a .284/.377/.522 line. In his rookie year, strikeouts were a problem, but the 25-year-old third baseman cut down on the whiffs significantly in his sophomore season.
There was every indication when Bryant was tearing up the minors that he would eventually be a star. No one would have predicted that he would win an MVP in his second year, however. The runway is clear for Bryant to win multiple MVPs and lead the Cubs to more than one World Series win.
3. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
Trading away Josh Donaldson for Brett Lawrie will go down as one of the all-time worst trades in baseball history, especially for someone as smart as Billy Beane. After leaving Oakland, Donaldson has exploded in Toronto, where he is a perfect fit in an incredibly patient lineup. A late bloomer who did not stick in the big leagues until 26, Donaldson has one of the best eyes at the plate, and does not give into pitchers.
In Donaldson’s first two years with the Blue Jays, he has batted .291/.387/.559 with 78 home runs and 222 RBIs. He won the AL MVP in 2015 and finished fourth last year, winning another Silver Slugger in the process. Donaldson has now been to three All-Star Games in a row. He also has nine doubles and four home runs over the past two postseasons.
The 2017 season will be a big test for Donaldson. In his first two years with the Jays, he was protected by Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Encarnacion is gone now, and Bautista appears to be aging rapidly. The replacements that were signed this winter like Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce will not strike the same type of fear into opposing pitchers.
2. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
There really is no reason Manny Machado should not win the Gold Glove at third base in the American League every season. Playing 45 games at shortstop in 2016 may have hurt his case, but Machado is without a doubt the best defender at the hot corner in the AL, and it’s not even close. His highlight-reel plays look routine, and he could surpass Brooks Robinson as the best defender in club history (if by the grace of God the Orioles somehow find a way to pay him the $35 million a year he will eventually demand).
Before his age-24 season, Machado has hit 143 doubles and 105 home runs (12th and 21st all-time, respectively), which is more impressive considering that he missed half of the 2014 season with a knee injury and only played in 51 games his rookie year. In a conversation about which young stud in baseball has the brightest future, Machado has put himself in the conversation with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.
None of this is to say that Machado is a finished product. He has a reputation as a bit of a hothead, can be lackadaisical on the bases, and is still learning how to take a walk. In 2015, Machado drew 70 walks and stole 20 bases while hitting out of the leadoff spot. In 2016, he moved down into the three-hole, and frequently expanded his strike zone trying to do too much. Some of that does fall on the shoulders of his teammates like Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo who struggled mightily down the stretch for the Orioles last year. Machado has come close to winning an MVP the past two seasons, and he very well could take one home before he hits free agency after the 2018 season.
1. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Forget about the Coors Field effect; Nolan Arenado is the best third baseman in baseball. He may also be the best defender in baseball across all positions. Arenado has won the Gold Glove in each of his first four seasons in the majors and defends the hot corner with rare athleticism.
In each of the past two years, Arenado has led the league in home runs, RBIs, and total bases. There is no denying that playing in Denver has made it easier for Arenado to rack up his 40 homers and 130 RBIs a year, but the home-road splits showed sings of evening out last year. He batted .277/.340/.492 on the road. The Rockies are continuing to surround Arenado with better talent in the lineup, and he will benefit from more support on the road.
The Rockies are on the verge of breaking through as a contender in 2017, and that will allow more baseball fans around the country to see more of Nolan Arenado, which can only be viewed as a good thing for the sport. With elite power and elite defense, Arenado is the total package at third base, and is the pick for tops in the league.