I find third base the most interesting position in terms of eligibility in fantasy. It seems to be the crossroads that connect all other positions. Shortstops with poor range often end up at third. Third basemen with poor arms often end up in the outfield. Carlos Santana tried some third this season to get him out from behind the plate, and many future first basemen try to survive at third so teams can add an extra power bat to their lineups.
For all of the maneuvering through third base, the position is remarkably lean in fantasy these days. Miguel Cabrera played just 10 games at third base in 2014 and will lose eligibility there in many formats, and while Chris Davis may replace him thanks to 21 games at the hot corner, that is hardly tit-for-tat given his disappointing season. Santana gained third base (26 games) and lost catcher (11 games) in many formats, as well. But with the recent injury track records of players like David Wright, Nolan Arenado, Aramis Ramirez, Brett Lawrie, and Manny Machado and with the likely eligibility loss of Ryan Zimmerman and Pedro Alvarez, future first basemen and/or outfielders, in 2016, many owners will need either to find the next Anthony Rendon or else correctly predict which attractive offensive players may pass through the crossroads for long enough to gain eligibility there next season and in keeper formats.
One way I like to try to make those guesses is by looking at defensive numbers. Owners wondering why Zimmerman and Alvarez have been moved off of third base need look no further than their throwing error and misplay numbers. They are both well clear of the field at the position since 2012, making 25 and 39 throwing DMEs, respectively, in that time according to Baseball Info Solutions. No one else stands out to their level, although Lonnie Chisenhall has 11 throwing errors over the same stretch in only 1,925.2 innings, which is a very poor rate.
Range provides a means for other speculation. There are three teams in particular that stand out to me. Before the 2014 season, Detroit seemed to be making a concerted effort to improve itself defensively by trading for defensive stalwarts Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias and trading away Prince Fielder so Miguel Cabrera could move to first base. The single biggest reason that backfired was Nick Castellanos, who took the mantle from Cabrera at third base and performed worse there than Cabrera ever had. Castellanos had -30 Runs Saved in 2014, the worst by any player at any position. Cabrera never reached even -20 Runs Saved at the position.
Castellanos has enough offensive potential—if not fantasy potential per Brett Talley’s deeper post on him—that the Tigers could leave him at third and hope he improves, but they might have an easy solution to the problem with Torii Hunter entering free agency. Castellanos spent time in both corner outfield positions in the high minors, and the Tigers could seek to replace him if he moves to the outfield with a free agent third baseman like Pablo Sandoval.
Philadelphia has a potential logjam between prospects Cody Asche and Maikel Franco, and neither can move to third base with Ryan Howard under contract for three more seasons. Asche was thought of as the better defensive prospect coming through the system, but that has not been the case so far in the majors. Asche has -10 Runs Saved in what amounts to a full season at the position between 2013 and 2014, although he did improve dramatically from 2013 to 2014. Franco has saved a run in limited big league innings.
Given where the team is in its competitive lifecycle, it would make sense for them to look at trading players like Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, and Cole Hamels, but the Phillies have been reluctant to rebuild despite their recent struggles. A trade of either Utley or Howard would likely solve the third base problem. I think Asche would be more likely of the two to replace Utley at second base and Franco the more likely of the two to replace Howard at first base. If neither veteran is traded this offseason, I would expect Franco to start the season at Triple-A.
Finally, the Red Sox have a ton of moving parts, many of which could impact third base. Will Middlebrooks has -16 Runs Saved in his three partial seasons with the team, which prorates to among the worst at the position over a full season. Of course, with his career 0.21 BB/K rate, the team may not be willing to give him another chance, but Middlebrooks will likely play third base for some team next season and could move to first base down the line if his bat rebounds enough to keep him in the majors.
Mookie Betts could neatly end a lot of the team’s uncertainty if he could play the position, but a lackluster arm makes it more likely he’ll duke it out for playing time with Rusney Castillo and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field or Dustin Pedroia at second base or be traded. The team has prospect Garin Cecchini in Triple-AAA, but he had a disappointing 2014 season there and may not be ready to be the Opening Day starter in the majors. Super-utility man Brock Holt could serve as an interim option or could even be the long-term solution there if he maintains his production from a surprising 2014.
The player I keep coming back to is Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts had -10 Runs Saved in 880 innings at shortstop in 2014, and while he was even worse at third base on a rate basis, the bulk of his poor Runs Saved totals were tied to his range and his double play conversions, two areas that would be deemphasized at third compared to short.
Bogaerts just turned 22 years old, so I wouldn’t expect the team to give up on him as a shortstop so quickly, especially given his athleticism and potentially elite bat. However, if the Red Sox want to turn some of their surplus major-league-ready prospects into a star player, there is a short list of options, especially with the second Wild Card making more teams viable postseason contenders. The two you hear about most are Hamels and Giancarlo Stanton, but a Troy Tulowitzki trade would solve the Red Sox’s third baseman problem by virtue of solving the shortstop one that Bogaerts might represent if he cannot handle the position long-term (assuming Bogaerts himself wouldn’t be in the trade).
With 44 games there in 2014, Bogaerts already has third base eligibility in 2015, although it is unlikely you would use him there since he has it at shortstop, as well. Meanwhile, assuming Betts isn’t an option, none of the other internal candidates would be able to gain eligibility, either.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt