Where have the third basemen gone? It was only recently that third base was home to some of the best hitters of their generations; players like Mike Schmidt, Paul Molitor, George Brett and Wade Boggs. I was asked to fill out an American League and National League All-Star roster this week, and in each league I had to search high and low for the most deserving third baseman. I finally settled on Alex Rodriguez and Aramis Ramirez but didn't feel good about it. Are these All-Star teams or Least-Objectionable-Choice teams? I don't mean to knock A-Rod or Ramirez, both of whom are having good seasons -- but the void at the position in both leagues is glaring.
Across the diamond, first base forces you to make very difficult choices among some of baseball's true superstars. In the AL alone, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko, Mark Teixeira and Adam Lind all have strong cases. Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Gaby Sanchez, Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard are all deserving NL options. Shortstop has dazzling stars like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jose Reyes and Starlin Castro. Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist, Rickie Weeks and Danny Espinosa are all standouts at second base.
Something has happened to third base. Yes, younger stars like Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright have been injured. Pablo Sandoval is still rebounding from a personally disappointing 2010. Mike Moustakas and Lonnie Chisenhall have only just arrived. How to best sum up the deterioration of the third base position? It's where Chone Figgins plays.
Take the American League for example. Here are the four most deserving A.L. All-Star third base candidates:
Alex Rodriguez 72 G, 270 AB, 13 HR, 51 RBI, .304/.382/.515, .897 OPS, 3.9 WAR
Kevin Youkilis 73 G, 257 AB, 11 HR, 55 RBI, .272/.394/.490, .884 OPS, 2.6 WAR
Adrian Beltre 80 G, 313 AB, 14 HR, 56 RBI, .262/.307/.457, .822 OPS, 2.5 WAR
Evan Longoria 52 G, 185 AB, 10 HR, 34 RBI, .249/.341/.481, .822 OPS, 2.3 WAR
J.J. Hardy 49 G, 188 AB, 11 HR, 30 RBI, .303/.367/.548, .915 OPS, 1.8 WAR
Those players are all having good seasons, so this isn't about picking on them. However, the numbers don't even touch the production levels we're seeing from the first-base position. After these candidates, the production drops off dramatically, because following these four there isn't an American League third baseman with a Wins Above Replacement mark greater than 1.6. That's why you could make an argument that Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy should start at third base for the American League. No, I'm not seriously suggesting this as a solution -- I'm merely taking an A.L. shortstop, one who we've been overlooking all season and pointing out that his offensive numbers could put him at the top of the third-base list.
Hardy is giving Baltimore the type of production you'd expect from a corner infielder, mostly due to a sizzling June during which he's hitting .365 with nine homers and 18 RBIs with a 1.128 OPS. Take a look at J.J. Hardy's offensive numbers, compare them with those on the above list of third basemen, and you'll see that in terms of production per games played, Hardy is challenging the best the AL has to offer at a more traditional power position, despite missing 27 games in April and May with an oblique injury.
I used Hardy as an example because he's putting up numbers in limited action that are comparable to third basemen who have played full seasons so far. Another example, one with a bigger sample size, could be Detroit's Jhonny Peralta: 71 G, 258 AB, 12 HR, 46 RBI, .310/.358/.527, .885 OPS, and 2.9 WAR. As a shortstop, Peralta is certainly no Ozzie Smith with a Defensive Runs Saved mark of minus-7, but his offensive production at shortstop is as good or better than the leading third-base candidates.
National League third-base options leave you feeling even less enthusiastic. Ryan Roberts is the only one with a WAR above 2.0 but he's hitting only .254. Placido Polanco has just four home runs, while dark-horse candidate Chase Headley is hitting .303 but has only two homers and has already struck out 60 times. I finally settled on Aramis Ramirez who has 9 homers and 38 RBIs in 74 games while batting .291/.337/.453. That's a good season but hardly one that has you scrambling to fill out an All-Star ballot.
This year's All-Star Game will mark the 10-year anniversary of one of this era's landmark All-Star moments: the 2001 game at Seattle's Safeco Field where Alex Rodriguez, just before the game's first pitch, made Cal Ripken Jr. switch positions from third base to shortstop, where Ripken had played his first twelve All-Star games. The tribute was a last hurrah at shortstop for Ripken, who was playing the final season of his Hall of Fame career. It was also a glimpse into A-Rod's future in New York. Was there also something about that moment that conjured up a superstar void at the third-base position that hasn't yet been filled? Ten years later, perhaps ironically, it's A-Rod who may be the most deserving All-Star third-base choice but the list seems shorter than it should be.
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