Examining the Barren Third Base Free Agent Market

It’s been widely known since last winter that this free agent class would be a pretty brutal one, with much of the legitimately intriguing hot stove action taking place on the trade front. Outside of a couple of marquee names available, it’s more spare parts than anything to be had without having to surrender assets. This is especially true as it relates to third base, perhaps to the most extreme extent.

Only seven players that would fall under the third base category are set to hit the free agent market:

If you’re looking for a stopgap third baseman who can log a fair amount of games at the position and provide legitimate value, that number decreases even more. In fact, we’re talking about a list that probably only includes a small trio of this group: Hill, Valbuena, and, the only legitimate prize of the group, Justin Turner. And even that’s stretching it a bit, as only Turner had enough at-bats to qualify among the offensive leaders at the position in 2016.

As such, Turner is the most significant quantity here, so we’ll touch on him in a moment. Hill and Valbuena are much specific in their skill sets, especially in Hill’s case. Hill will likely fill the end of the bench for someone looking to have some success against lefties, while Valbuena could be a nice stopgap option for a team not set to contend, with a chance of being flipped to a contender at the deadline. Or he could be a solid bench option somewhere, thanks to his versatility and the power he brings. Let’s take a quick look at the trio of available third basemen.

We saw that with Aaron Hill in 2016. He went from a pair of brutal clubs in Arizona and Milwaukee before finding his way to Boston for the remainder of the year. Although his plate appearances waned as the year went on, with only 27 PAs in September (and only one in the American League Division Series), there is still a bit of value for Hill against lefties. His wRC+ against southpaws came in at exactly 100 and he posted the fourth lowest strikeout rate against lefties among players that are third base eligible, at 12.0%. His walk rate, at 10.8%, was ninth among the 24 qualifying players. Overall, he hit .273 against LHP, which put him right in the middle of the pack. Again, we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel here in free agency, so it’s grasping at straws to find the benefits of an Aaron Hill. His best days are behind him, but for a team that wants a bench option against lefties and sports a little bit of versatility, he’s there.

Speaking of versatility, hello, Luis Valbuena. A sentimental favorite of mine, and many others with North Side loyalties who slogged through the rebuilding years at Wrigley, Valbuena was only able to notch 342 plate appearances in 2016 as he fought off injuries in the second half of the season. While teams aren’t going to be exactly shelling out big money for Valbuena, he does provide more value than a player like Hill, regardless of situation.

Due to his injuries, Valbuena obviously did not have enough plate appearances to qualify among third basemen last year. He does have a penchant for striking out, at a 23.7% clip that ranked just behind Javier Baez, but he’s also known for working deep counts. His 4.35 pitches per plate appearance easily led all third sackers, and his walk rate, at 12.9%, was the third highest among the group. He’ll supply some pop too. His 35.7% hard hit rate ranked 13th among the 40 3B-eligible players with at least 300 plate appearances and was the second highest mark of his career. His .199 ISO was also the second highest figure of his career. He’s kind of developed into an above average power hitter with a quality approach:


Those two factors mean that he shouldn’t really have a shortage of suitors. He won’t fetch huge money, but he really shouldn’t have a problem finding a spot with that pair of factors, combined with his versatility on the infield.

And then there’s Justin Turner, a player unique in this group because he’s really the only impact player available. This is true not only of the third base position, either. He represents one of the few impact bats available. As we talked about earlier in the year, Turner had a rough start to the season, following up a .247 April with a .225 May. Luck had something to do with it, as his combined BABIP for those two months was just .271, including a mark of only .239 in May. At that point, Turner decided to start hitting the ball over the fence. His ISO numbers, having dwelled on marks of just .078 and .135 in those first two months, rose considerably in the summer months:


That’s a pretty stark contrast in the latter half of the season against what was taking place at the beginning of the year. Part of that can certainly be attributed to what has made Turner successful, in that he loves that spot low-and-inside. And that’s a game he got away from in those months of April and May:


He started to get away from that by looking at stuff more up-and-away than he’d previously been known for. That resulted in him taking pitches to the opposite field at a much higher rate (39.7% and 31.1% in April and May, respectively, were the highest they’d be all year), but making hard contact at a far lower rate than he would for the beginning of the year, at a 31.5% clip. As such, it should come as no surprise that his overall contact rates and ISO numbers look far better in a certain part of the plate:


There’s the contact and here’s the power:


Justin Turner has a wheelhouse. And it’s that low-inside spot. Nick Cicere over at BtBScore had a much more in-depth writeup on Turner’s mechanics and approach back in July. It’s what has made him successful and what will make him one of the more sought-after commodities on this year’s free agent market. And now that this column has devolved (or perhaps evolved) into a deal centered around Justin Turner, let’s recap:

Seven free agent third basemen.

Three are legitimate options.

Two could be a starting option on a number of teams. Aaron Hill is more of a niche player at this point in his career than anything. He could get some ABs somewhere against lefties.

Luis Valbuena brings a solid approach, some power, and some versatility. Justin Turner brings a whole lot of offense. Valbuena won’t tip the scales necessarily like Turner will, but watching where both of them end up will be intriguing nonetheless.

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Before the Morales signing, I wondered if Valbuena might be signed to get 3B/DH ABs as a replacement for EE. Similar profile to EE (tho not as much pop) and could be really good over the next 2-3 years if healthy.