The Third Base Situation
So, Adrian Beltre’s gone for at least the next two months. That sucks. For a team with a lot of holes, losing a +3 win player that they don’t have any good internal candidates to replace is a pretty significant problem. Even those that are optimistic about this team’s playoff chances are hoping to steal the division by a game or two, and losing Beltre for two months takes a couple of expected wins from the team’s tally that they can’t really afford to lose.
Right now, the M’s are looking at replacing Beltre with Chris Woodward, either sticking him directly at third base or having him play second and shifting Lopez to third. Unfortunately for the Mariners, Woodward isn’t really a major league player.
In 2006, he got 253 plate appearances with the Mets and posted a .265 wOBA. In 2007, he got 151 plate appearances with the Braves and posted a .237 wOBA. In 2008, he split time between the Phillies and Brewers Triple-A squads, and posted a .312 wOBA. League average wOBA in the majors is about .330. Woodward couldn’t even match that against Triple-A pitching.
There’s a reason ZIPS projects a .274 wOBA from Chris Woodward over the rest of the 2009 season. That would maybe be an acceptable level of offense if Woodward was the best defensive shortstop in baseball, but unfortunately, he’s just a solid glove at 2B/3B, which makes the lack of offense a pretty significant problem.
As a team already running out replacement level players (or worse) at shortstop and catcher, and getting barely above replacement level performance from left field and designated hitter, the M’s can’t really afford to punt third base too. You can’t have five of your regular positions be offering performances that are Triple-A level in quality and expect to make a serious run at a playoff spot.
So, if Woodward’s not the answer (and he’s not), then what? Sticking Lopez at third could work if the team had a legitimate replacement at second base, but they don’t. The organization is bereft of talent at 2B-3B-SS, so shifting Lopez to third is just robbing Peter to pay Paul. It doesn’t fix anything.
That leaves the Mariners with three choices, essentially.
1. Move Russell Branyan to third base and play Mike Carp at first base. Branyan has significant experience at third base and hasn’t embarrassed himself there (though he’s far from good at the hot corner), but the team is reluctant to mess with the good thing that Russ has going right now by asking him to transition back across the diamond in mid-season. And, while it’s nice to see a kid come up from Tacoma who knows how to draw a walk, we also have to realize that Carp’s not likely to produce at a level much above replacement level either. ZIPS had him projected for a .315 wOBA before the season started, and while his strong performance in Triple-A should bump that up a bit, you’re still looking at a .320 to .330 expected wOBA from Carp. He’s not much of a defensive player either, so you’d be downgrading two infield defense spots in order to get a below average hitter in the line-up. It’s understandable why that’s not a very appealing option to the M’s.
2. Trade for a player who can handle second or third base for a couple of months. The guy they need isn’t in the organization right now, so if they want a credible replacement for Beltre to help the team stay in the race, they’ll have to go acquire him. This can be done, as they showed with the Langerhans deal after Chavez got hurt, but there isn’t quite as obvious a solution to the 3B problem as there was to the LF problem. The guys that I would recommend the M’s take a look would include guys like Bobby Scales (Cubs), Eric Patterson (A’s), Kevin Frandsen (Giants), Ruben Gotay (D’Backs), and Scott Moore (Orioles). All of them are more useful than Woodward, and none of them should cost too much to acquire (though more than Langerhans did, certainly), but the expected level of performance isn’t going to be particularly high, either. These guys are all replacement level or slightly above, so while they’re improvements over Chris Woodward, we’re talking about a magnitude of less than one win. How much should the team give up to add half a win to this season’s roster? Not much, I’d argue, and the cost for these types of players might be too rich considering the likely return.
3. Hope and pray for a fluke. Right now, this sounds like the way the team is leaning. Woodward and Wilson aren’t likely to hit, but in 200 at-bats, anything is possible. Bad hitters have good months. It happens. So, while it’s not a very good strategy, the M’s might look around and decide that the probability of adding a legitimate 2B/3B type isn’t very high, and they’ll just have to roll the dice with what they have and hope for the best. The problem with this scenario is that the team is simultaneously trying to win as many games as possible to stay in the AL West race, and the dropoff from Beltre to Woodward is going to be obvious very quickly.
This is a problem with no easy solutions. Despite the desire by many to see the Branyan shift enabling Carp to play, there’s less upside and more downside with that move than you’d think. Ideally, the team would be able to go get a guy like Scales or Gotay for cheap in order to hold down the fort for a while, but that might not be possible. And if the other teams won’t cooperate in helping the M’s improve their roster, the team might just be stuck with a hole at third base.
We said before the season that Beltre, Ichiro, and Felix were the three guys this team couldn’t afford to lose. They just lost one of those three, and the options for filling the gap show why Beltre was so valuable to this particular team.