Nationals Baseball: Off Season Position Discussion - Third Base

Friday, November 04, 2022

Off Season Position Discussion - Third Base

Since Anthony Rendon left for greener pastures after 2019 the Nats 3B situation has been one of the worst in base ball. The Nats have tried three main pieces there. Carter Kieboom in the shortened 2020 season, Starlin Casto in 2021 and last year Maikel Franco. It doesn't look to get any better in 2023

Last year Maikel Franco was one of the FAs brought in with the idea that you get them in cheap, maybe they surprise, then you can flip them. The problem is in modern day baseball that flip value has decreased incredibly. What would have been an interesting relief arm, has now become some A-ball rando slightly better than you could get off the street. This is especially true for older, middling rentals which is what Franco would have been if he played around average. 

He did not play around average though. After years of teasing baseball with the back and forth good and bad years, it looks like Franco has aged into just bad.  He backed up his terrible 2021, with an almost as bad 2022. His average remained low (.229) and his power remained gone (9 homers in 103 games) this is a far cry from the .260 / 25 you might have been hoping for. He never walked and his defense is subpar meaning you pretty much got nothing from him outside an ability to put the ball in play. That's not going to attract any buyers. 

Still he played pretty much the full first half because Option 1A, a second try out for Carter Kieboom was derailed by terrible stats in 2021 and an injury that would lead to him getting Tommy John surgery.  As the year dragged on and it became clear Franco was a big wash out, more time was given to Adrianza, who'd actually end up being traded, and the commenters of this blog's favorite, Ildemaro Vargas. Vargas started hot and cooled and ended up with average numbers at the plate. And the Nats ended up with another huge hole at 3B to think about.

The presumed plan : You know him, it's very unlikely you love him, but Carter Kieboom will get that last chance he was supposed to have gotten in 2022. He'll likely be backed up by Vargas or someone Vargas like - a cheap FA that the Nats can pick up for peanuts.

Reasons for presumed plan :  The Nats don't have any better options and up until 2019 there wasn't any good reason to think he'd be like this. He was a decent prospect and it seemed perfectly reasonably to think he'd be a usable major leaguer if not the star they might have thought they had at 19.Giving him a full run of chances is probably their best bet. 

After Kieboom in house you have Vargas, who is 31 and with a limited skill set making him unlikely to be your first choice to spend time at 3B.You also have Jake Alu, a non prospect, who nevertheless hit ok enough to get moved up to a spot fitting with his age and then had a run in AAA to end the season. Did everyone miss something? Probably not. But if Kieboom struggles and Alu is still raking in AAA a switch could happen. But you start with the guy who hit in AAA at 21 first not the one that did it at 25.

My take : If Kieboom was just a random prospect getting a shot that might not rankle but Kieboom is not a random prospect at this point.  He's had increasing cups of coffee in the majors with minimal improvement. Yes 2021 was better than 2019, but 2019 was hideous and 2021 (.207 / .301 / .318 in about 40% of a season) was still flat out bad.  Worse than that is that his fielding has been terrible along with his baseball. It's as if he has anti-instincts always knowing the wrong thing to do or place to be. He's been not just overmatched. He's been a bad baseball player in almost every aspect of the game.

We talked about Vargas before and I like the phrase "making the least out of his opportunities" to describe him.  His minor league stats suggested he could be an ok hitter for a while. He never showed it. Last year you can say he did but at 31/32 next year you can reasonably wonder when a guy who's "skill" is "ok hitter for average" stops being usable.

The baseball world is littered with never prospects that caught fire then flamed out. And that's just in the majors. We're talking about a guy who did it in AAA. With no top level skills ultimately it's hard to see how Alu becomes a real good major leaguer. On the other hand in comparison to Kieboom it's nice to hear about a guy who does all the little things right.

So I don't like any of them. It's three bad options. The former prospect who has consistently well undershot his projections across the board. The 31 year old who isn't impressive and is entering the era of his career where age might make him unplayable. And the never was who's skill set and age suggest a topping out at average if he's lucky.The most likely scenario is another round of pain. 

If there were a decent 2B/3B around this would be the place to sign a FA. The Nats need some sort of veteran stability at the plate. A guy that has seen the majors for more than 2 years to balance the rookies and cups of coffee we are going to see.  But I don't know if there is. Maybe Kolten Wong if the Brewers don't pick up his option? 

The Nats could go full no one but can they really sign no one at all?  OF isn't particularly deep either if they are looking there and Voit is filling that DH spot. SS is the deep position, and signing one of them for big bucks would be a Werth like move (but without the Stras and Bryce in the hole). Can the Nats do that?  I don't know. I just know they can easily justify doing nothing anywhere but if they do nothing everywhere this season is going to be so hard, so just do something somewhere and why not 3B where there isn't a good solution coming anytime soon.


Anonymous said...

This is another good take, Harper, but I do need to protest that I don't think any of us actually think Vargas is good. For my sake, I completely agree with you in terms of his expected performance. I just don't think it's worth signing a better backup infielder.

I think if you want to sign an infielder, they need to start and they need to be good enough that you're happy cutting your losses on Kieboom. And that feels kind of wrong at this point on the win curve, despite him being probably 90% or so to bust out.

I mean, it's likely to be ugly, but plan A (with Alu called up in the 2nd half assuming he's hitting in AAA and Kieboom is bad) makes a lot of sense in terms of maximizing the long run productivity of our roster. I agree that the most likely outcome is both players fail and Vargas is even worse, we have a below replacement level sinkhole at 3B this year, and that's part of why we finish 67-95 instead of 71-91. But that's the only path that gives the team a way to realize the value from the 10% of time that Kieboom figures it out, and the 10% the time that Alu is actually a real major league player.

DezoPenguin said...

I have to agree with Anonymous here. This is a good take, Harper, but I'm another "defender" of Vargas strictly in the sense of "why pay more for a utility infielder on what's going to be an awful team?" If the Nats are going to do something that involves spending money, they should spend that money on someone who's actually intended to play. Like, as you suggest, a third baseman, if one is available. Or a center fielder. Or a right fielder. Or a starting pitcher. Spending money to upgrade their utility infielder having a rescue helicopter drop a supply of deck chairs onto the Titanic while the ship is sinking: it doesn't help the team AND it wastes resources.

And as Anon points out: if you are going to sign a new 3B, then it has to be a real 3B. Someone where you feel sufficiently confident in playing them that it's not worth bothering to learn if Kieboom is going to be any good. In the OF, you can sign a decent placeholder. The Nats have Hassell and Wood in the minors that they hope will be able to play OF in a year or two. But at 3B, they have Kieboom and nothing else (unless they intend to move House, which itself depends on both Abrams and Garcia proving out and holding their spots). So the Nats had might as well use this year--in which all rationality indicates the team is going to suck and suck hard, like "Astros rebuild" bad--to see if Kieboom is going to put it together or not. If the Nats are going to punt on Kieboom, then they should be doing it for someone who's actually going to be worth having there for 3-5 years or so, someone who's actually going to be part of the next good Nats team. Maybe not the equivalent of the Jayson Werth signing, but something comparable.

Anonymous said...

The Nats need clarity on Kieboom's value and ability. I am not bullish, but there are sound reasons to question whether his MLB performance in the past are good predictors of his MLB performance in the future. Right now, Kieboom is both cheap and has pedigree. And there are lots and lots of examples of guys with Kieboom-like performance and pedigree ending up as useful MLB players. On a team like the 2023 Nats, Kieboom should be given enough leash to prove he sucks; sitting here in November of 2022, we shouldn't just assume that he sucks (even though he probably will). Robles proved in 2022 that he is not an MLB caliber hitter. It hasn't gotten better and it's not going to. Kieboom needs the better part of the 2023 season to show is the same is true of him (or prove us wrong). I have little confidence in Kieboom, less confidence in Alu, and no confidence in Vargas. But, given how bad the 2023 Nats will be, it's absolutely worth accepting the downside risk - this pupu platter of never-was 3B prospects will play poorly all year - for the possibility that one of them is good+cheap+controllable.

Anonymous said...

I'm also not really seeing a good FA signing at 3B. There's a decent number of good shortstops, so maybe someone falls through the cracks and is available for a 1-2 year deal.

But you don't want to move Abrams and complicate his defensive development as long as you still hope for him to play short long term. And I doubt a shortstop on a pillow contract would happily slide down the spectrum to third.

We'll talk more about this as the series continues, but OF is the best place to improve. More available mid-tier FAs and fewer untested prospects to block. Yadi is 34, a terrible defender and a league average bat. He's been a fun story, but he has no chance of contributing to our next competitive team and he should be OF5 or cut. Robles has failed, and while I'll never completely give up hope that he can recapture a 100 wRC+ (and produce 3-4 WAR, given his defense), he's had tons of chances and shouldn't be an opening day starter either. We should be signing two outfielders this offseason.

DezoPenguin said...

Honestly, the only 3B move that I can see making a lick of sense (and which the Nats won't do for a wide variety of reasons) is to sign Xander Bogaerts to something like an 8-year deal and start the Justin Turner phase of his career a couple of years earlier than people believe would be necessary.

Otherwise, you go with Plan A, and if the most likely outcome (Kieboom is bad; Alu is also bad; Vargas is a utility infielder) occurs, you revisit the spot next offseason when you have a new owner and a new understanding of the spending mandates.