Photo courtesy of Kelly O’Connor.

Miguel Cabrera is returning to first base this season in the wake of the Prince Fielder trade, and while this move has a variety of implications for the Detroit Tigers, I’m more interested in what it means for third base as a position overall. With some positions in the MLB, there’s a clear “best player” to be found, such as Mike Trout in centerfield or Troy Tulowitzki at shortstop.

Third base was one such position, as Cabrera’s offensive dominance outweighed his defensive shortfalls and put him a notch above anybody else at the position. With Cabrera gone, we now have to figure out who takes his throne.

Let’s start with the guys who aren’t quite there.

“The One-Hit Wonders”

Juan Uribe

Uribe has always been a useful player: a 2-3 WAR utility infielder type with a good glove and a middling bat; the kind of guy you don’t regret having in your lineup but wouldn’t really miss either.

Uribe delivered a huge 2013 performance, as he posted a far-and-away career-high 24 UZR at third base and a career mark in OBP as well, good for 5.1 fWAR (also a career-high), and he turned that performance into a two-year extension with the Dodgers.

If Uribe maintains that level of production going forward, he’s easily a top-ten player at the hot corner (he was 7th in WAR among 3Bs with at least 100 plate appearances in 2013). More likely, some regression brings him back closer to the 3 WAR range. Uribe’s closer to top-15 then top-five.

Chase Headley

Headley is a player I really like, and his breakthrough 7 WAR season in 2012 felt like justification for that. He started pulling the ball more and obliterated his own personal best in home runs, hitting 31. Headley’s .286/.376/.498 slash line combined with competent defense at third had him looking like a premier player at the position.

Headley leveled off last year, though, and while a nagging thumb injury certainly contributed, it looked like a case of “Jacoby Ellsbury probably wasn’t hitting 32 home runs again” syndrome. His 3.6 WAR in 2013 still landed him eighth among third basemen with a minimum of 100 PAs, so like Uribe, he’s still valuable. It just looks like he’s less “great” and more “above-average.”

“Maybe in 2009”

Pablo Sandoval

A breakthrough player for the Giants in 2009, Sandoval’s career has been marked by inconsistency. At his best, he’s among the most valuable bats at third base in the league. He ranked second in WAR among third basemen with at least 100 PAs in an injury-devastated 2011 class (only 14 3Bs managed enough PAs to qualify for the batting title that season, compared to 21 this year).

At his worst, though, he’s a merely decent bat (.278/.341/.417 in 2013) who adds no value with his glove whatsoever. I think Sandoval is a fun player – swinging at everything is an entertaining way to play the game, if anything – but I don’t see him ever performing consistently enough to challenge for the top spot among third basemen again.

Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman was a decent player for several years before he emerged on the national radar during his famous 30-game hitting streak in 2009. For his two-year peak in 2009 and 2010, only Evan Longoria (15.1) topped his 13.6 WAR. For that time, Zimmerman was the heart and soul of a weak Nationals lineup.

As the Nationals fortunes have changed, however, so have Zimmerman’s – in reverse.
He struggled with injuries in 2011 and was never quite the same player after that, with wOBAs of .348, .352, and .353 from then through this past season. Those aren’t bad marks, but they’re a substantial decline from his .390 in 2010.

More precipitous was Zimmerman’s decline defensively. After posting positive UZRs in every season of his professional career through 2010, Zimmerman hasn’t managed a positive season in that regard since. I’d like to see a return to form for Zimmerman, but at age 29, odds are we’ve probably seen the best of his career at this point.

With those out of the way, here are the guys I think are closest.

The Contenders

Manny Machado

The Orioles’ top position player prospect in 2012, Machado is a shortstop moonlighting as the best defensive third baseman in the major leagues. Blocked at short by JJ Hardy, the O’s called Machado up for a 51-game audition at third in 2012, which led to a full-time gig in 2013.

Defensively, he was stellar, with a ridiculous 31.2 UZR and a steady stream of spectacular defensive highlights (including this, one of the more ridiculous plays you’ll see from a third baseman).

The knock on Machado is his bat. His triple-slash in 2013 was only .283/.314/.432 and his wOBA finished at .325, which falls firmly under the “Average” category according to Fangraphs. Machado isn’t terrible offensively – he showed some flashes throughout the year and showed an uncanny knack for doubles, hitting 51 – but he’s markedly below the rest of the candidates in this group in that respect.

Machado finished fourth among third basemen with 6.2 WAR, but that figure was largely predicated by his defensive performance. Machado’s a fantastic defender, but 31.2 UZR is an outlier season and he can hardly be expected to replicate that year after year. If his bat doesn’t develop, then, we can reasonably expect to see some regression.

In Machado’s favor, he’s only 21 years old. There’s a lot of room for development, and the fact that he’s already a 6 WAR player at his age is extremely impressive. He hit .266/.352/.438 in AA – his last stop before the majors – and at his age, there’s still plenty of time for improvement. Is he the best third baseman in baseball right now? No. But, provided he stays at the position, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he could get there.

David Wright

Contrary to Manny Machado, it’s David Wright’s bat that puts him in this conversation. In terms of raw stats, he’s the best offensive player of this group, with a career .301/.382/.506 slash line and a .381 wOBA. He’s also by far the best baserunner of the bunch, good for around 15 steals a season at this point in his career.

Defensively, he’s inconsistent at best. His career UZR is -8.0 and tends to fluctuate wildly season-to-season. In order, he’s posted marks of 4.0, -5.1, -6.9, 6.3, 5.9, -9.6, -11.0, -10.6, 15.4, and 3.7. It seems as though his actual ability level would be somewhere around “neutral.”

Wright’s biggest issue at this point is health. After playing at least 150 games five times
from 2005 to 2010, he’s managed that feat only once in the past three seasons. Wright posted 6 WAR this season despite playing only 112 games; across a full season, it’s a reasonable assumption to say he may have led the position in that regard. He’s also the second-oldest of the group at 31, and we’re likely not far off from seeing his performance start to decline.

Josh Donaldson

Josh Donaldson was one of the bigger surprises of the 2013 season, coming out of nowhere to finish third in the MLB with 7.7 WAR. If he didn’t play in Oakland, he might have gotten serious consideration for American League MVP. He slashed .301/.384/.499 and his .384 wOBA was second only to Wright’s .391. His glove was also solid, as he posted a 9.9 UZR on the season.

I really like Donaldson, but my one hesitation with him is the possibility of regression. We don’t have a lot to go on with him; he was worth only 1.5 WAR in 2012 and slashed only .241/.289/.398. He was productive at times in the minor leagues, but his 2013 stats outdid all but a handful of his minor league seasons, and his BABIP on the season was relatively high at .333.

If Donaldson maintains his production going forward, he becomes a pretty strong candidate for the top third baseman in the league. At the current moment, though, there just isn’t enough to convince me that 2013 was legitimate just yet.

Adrian Beltre

Prior to 2010, Adrian Beltre was a decent hitter with a great glove who had one of the most bizarre outlier seasons I’d ever seen: 48 homers and 9.7 WAR in 2004 with the Dodgers.

After his one year stint in Boston, in which he hit .321/.365/.553 (never forget) for the “pitching and defense” Red Sox, Beltre seemed to have a kind of career renaissance, as he went from a yearly 3 WAR player to a yearly 6 WAR one. On its own, 2010 might have been another outlier, but he’s maintained that performance through the past three seasons with Texas, reinventing himself as a middle-of-the-lineup power bat with good on-base ability, even though he doesn’t draw a large amount of walks.

He’s always been great with the glove, posting a double-digit UZR in all but two seasons since the stat started being recorded in 2002, and he’s also very durable, playing at least 140 games in all but four seasons since 1999.

Beltre is the oldest player of these five, as well, and given his skillset, we should expect to see a decline on the horizon. For the time being, though, he’s a 6 WAR player with a great glove, and is almost a lock for 150 games a year.

Evan Longoria

When it comes to figuring out who the league’s best third baseman is, the most common answer you’ll receive is Evan Longoria. He’s a worthy choice, with a wOBA of at least .360 in every season of his career and – with the exception of 2012 – gaudy UZR totals in each, as well.

He never quite panned out as the MVP we thought he could be, and now, at age 28, we’re probably watching him at his peak. He also has a history of injuries, managed at least 600 PAs only three times in his six-year career. When he does play, though, he’s easily projectable, as he’s posted almost identical stats every season apart from some variation in strikeout numbers.

Longoria provides an elite combination of offensive and defensive value, and while there is a clear ceiling on his performance, the question is whether that ceiling is higher than anybody else’s.

In the end, I think Longoria has the edge here at the moment. There are always injury concerns, obviously, but he’s squarely in his prime and the most easily projectable player of the bunch. There are very clear cases for Beltre, Wright, and Donaldson over him, though, and Machado looks like he has the potential to reach that level in the future (although I’d like to see him transition back to shortstop sooner rather than later). So, as much as it pains me, right now I’m sticking with Evan Longoria.

Want to weigh in? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@PoarchDaniel) who you think the league’s best third baseman is and why.