What are the Red Sox’ options at third base?
MIAMI — Oh, what could have been.
While the Red Sox have been stuck in a years-long mess at third base, the Dodgers have enjoyed elite production at the position. Over the last four seasons, since he got to Los Angeles, Justin Turner has hit .309/.382/.507, ranking fifth among third basemen with 17.0 Wins Above Replacement (according to Fangraphs). This year, the first-time All-Star has been even better, hitting .377/.473/.583 with more walks than strikeouts and 10 homers in 65 games, good for 4.1 WAR (tied for first among third basemen).
That performance underscores the cost of a narrow Red Sox miss a few years ago. After the Mets released him following the 2013 season, Turner’s efforts to sift through minor league contract offers had him choosing between two teams: The Red Sox and Twins.
He was leaning towards Boston, a team that was letting Stephen Drew walk in free agency so that Xander Bogaerts could play shortstop. Will Middlebrooks was the anticipated starter, but coming off a down year in 2013.
“I think the last night before I was going to make a decision, the Dodgers jumped in with an offer. The next morning is when I made that decision,” said Turner. “I think the main reason the Dodgers was the choice was because they’re in the National League. The type of player I am, I knew I’d get more opportunities and at-bats in the National League than I would in the American League. It was a tough decision trying to choose between the Red Sox and Dodgers.”
Turner offered fantastic production at a bargain rate for the Dodgers over the next three years, then hit free agency again this past offseason. This time, the Red Sox showed little interest.
“I think they were content with having Pablo [Sandoval] come back at the time,” said Turner.
The market for Turner proved relatively modest. Ultimately, he re-signed with the Dodgers this winter for four years and $64 million – a sum that would have pushed the Red Sox over the luxury tax threshold, but also a considerably lower sum than the market had paid players who had produced to Turner’s levels in recent years.
The Dodgers have flourished (as have the Brewers, for whom Travis Shaw has a .299/.367/.570 line at a bargain salary) while the Red Sox have struggled to get any production from third. The Sox have been heartened by the recent solid contributions of Deven Marrero and Tzu-Wei Lin, but there is little assurance of production from the group of those two plus Sandoval, Brock Holt, and Rafael Devers.
As a result, the Red Sox are surveying the third-base landscape in their open-minded approach to upgrading between now and the trade deadline. With Devers on the horizon, the appeal of a short-term rental might be considerable to avoid blocking the prospect while also limiting the prospect hit that the team must assume to upgrade the position.
The team must also decide whether it wants to focus on a power-hitter or a versatile player who might be able to offer the team depth not just at third but also at short and second (where both Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia have missed more games this year than they did last year).
MLBTradeRumors.com offered a fairly comprehensive look at potential candidates to be moved.
Here are notes on a few of them as well as some others:
Mike Moustakas, Royals: Moustakas, who is leading big league third basemen with 25 homers while hitting .270/.304/.559, seemed like an ideal trade target as the Royals sputtered through early June. But with Kansas City surging and now just 1 ½ games out of the wild-card race, it seems likely that the Royals will keep intact the core that won the 2015 World Series in hopes of making one last run before free agency breaks up the group.
“I think the thing that makes us such a special team and special organization is we’re more of a family than anything. [GM Dayton Moore] cares for us like that,” said Moustakas, in explaining why he felt “100 percent” confident that the Royals would remain committed to keeping this group together for the year. “We go out there every single game to play the game hard, the right way. He sees that and I think he appreciates the way we go out there and handle our business.”
Zack Cozart: At 31, Cozart emerged as an All-Star shortstop for the Reds thanks to a breakout season in which he’s hitting .316/.394/.547. As a pending free agent, he recognizes that he’s a candidate to move.
“At this point in your career, when you don’t have a long-term deal and you’re going to be a free agent after the season, you kind of know that those talks are going to happen,” said Cozart. “If it happens, the good thing about getting traded at the deadline is you should be going to a contender.”
That said, the Red Sox would have to make an awfully large leap of faith to assume that Cozart – who has never played third base as a professional – can make an in-season transition to a new position, even on the left side of the infield.
“It would be weird,” Cozart said. “Literally my whole life, I’ve played shortstop. I’ve never played another position. … I would prefer to stay at shortstop. I’d love to stay there. … I’ve never thought about [moving]. I’m sure I would work and try to get better at it if that’s what was needed. That’s a very valuable player who can play all over the diamond.”
Todd Frazier, White Sox: Frazier continues to represent a strikingly straightforward means of addressing the Red Sox’ struggles at the hot corner. He’s hitting just .213 but his .335 OBP is close to the best of his career (he posted a .336 mark in his All-Star 2014 season) with a .444 slugging mark and 16 homers, marks that could benefit from Fenway’s dimensions. As a pure rental with about $4 million left on his 2017 salary, his modest numbers would help to limit the prospect return needed to land him.
Eduardo Nunez, Giants: Nunez, who is expected to come back from a DL stint for a hamstring injury on Friday, offers little by way of power, but he’s a solid hitter (.289/.327/.425 with a 102 OPS+ since 2015) who grades as competent if slightly below average at third as well as short and the outfield.
Josh Harrison, Pirates: Now a two-time All-Star, the super utility player is amidst a bounce back season, hitting .280/.361/.436 with 10 homers. His production and ability to play a number of positions means that he’s an easy mention as a candidate to join any contender with positional needs. Harrison understands that fact even as he shrugs in reaction to it.
“I don’t worry about anything but playing,” said Harrison. “I’ve been around to see guys get traded, guys come in, guys that were supposed to be traded that didn’t get traded. Nothing is set in stone.”
He’s signed through 2018 on a four-year, $27.5 million deal with team options for both 2019 and 2020, an affordable contract that suggests that the Pirates might not want to part with a player who can fit into the lineup in so many ways – or, at the least, that they’d seek a strong prospect return in order to part with him.
Martin Prado, Marlins: Prado has a long track record as a solid and versatile infielder with a career .292/.341/.422 line (albeit little home run power) and 107 OPSS+, but injuries have limited him to just 33 games this year, during which he’s hitting a meager .262/.293/.373. He does get strong marks for his defense at third (he’s also moved around the field in the past, though he’s been exclusively a third baseman over the past two seasons) and clubhouse demeanor. As the Marlins prepare to sell off pieces, his three-year, $40 million contract represents one that they’d surely love to move. They’d have to subsidize it to do so, since it’s a deal that’s out of line with his skill set, at an age (33) where decline is likely over the deal’s duration; that fact also suggests the possibility of a modest prospect return.