It took Billy Eppler merely a month as Angels' GM to drastically change the shape and scope of the team's roster, acquiring shortstop extraordinaire Andrelton Simmons. At the time, the move was seen as a curious one, as many expected him to cash in his best trade chips to fulfill a position of greater need, particularly left field and to a lesser extent, second base.
Now a year later, it is clear Billy was fulfilling one of his club's biggest needs, even if some failed to see it at the time. Erick Aybar posted a season below replacement level (-0.2 bWAR, -1.2 fWAR) and still might be one of the better options in this year's shortstop free agent bin. Simmons, naturally, was once again elite with the glove while handily out-hitting Aybar. The end-result was a five-win swing for the Angels, one they should be enjoying for the next four seasons, assuming Simmons' improvement in the batter's box is sustainable.
As we prepare to enter this offseason (ignoring the four teams still playing), the Angels find themselves in essentially the same position as last offseason, needing upgrades in left field and second base. Might Billy Eppler be reading the tea leaves and make another proactive move to upgrade a less obvious position? Is it possible that his infatuation with defense will force his hand on that other glaring hole on the left side of the field?
Now that I've sufficiently buried the lede, let's take a look at the Angels' options for third base in 2017 and beyond.
The incumbent, Escobar lived up to every expectation this season, good and bad. Embracing his role as table-setter, he batted .304/.355/.391, essentially replicating his previous season in Washington. He also continued to give back a lot of those runs in virtually every other facet of his game. He was among the very worst third baseman in baseball for the second straight year. He was also among the biggest offenders on the base paths, costing the team roughly half a win with his legs alone.
Still, the guy can hit. I know it is passé to cite batting average, but those of us who watched him all year can say with confidence that his .300 is legitimate. He keeps his swing short, striking out only 11% of the time, while hitting 42.5% of his balls up the middle. While he has pretty much abandoned any effort to hit for power, he does a good job of laying off pitches out of the zone, swinging only 27.3% of the time, putting him among the top third of hitters in that regard.
So what should be done with Yunel? The Angels have a $7 million option for next year that they will certainly exercise. He is good enough to keep in the line-up but gives back so much value with his glove. There have been pleas from some of us to trade him for prospects. The problem is every GM in the game has all the same data we do (and then some), so any return for him would be modest. For a team with so many holes, he likely has more value to the Angels than he would for most other teams. They simply cannot afford to abandon one of the few productive hitters they have without sufficiently replacing him.
One idea bandied about is a move to second base. While he has never played there extensively in the majors, he did spend his whole spring with Washington training for the position. An injury to Anthony Rendon forced him to third base, and we quickly found out how difficult it can be to change positions without time to properly prepare. Most of his defensive miscues this year came via his arm, accounting for 14 of his 19 errors. Having spent the majority of his career playing short, he should be comfortable enough around the bag to turn the double play. The shorter throw from second can only help. This could be a rare case of a player actually improving by moving up the defensive spectrum. If he can turn himself into a below-average second baseman as opposed to an abysmal third baseman, it would not be a reach to see him turn in a 2-3 WAR season next year.
In January, Eppler pulled off a seemingly innocuous transaction, swapping non-prospect Kody Eaves to the Tigers for a rookie third baseman named Jefry Marte. Marte had bounced around a few minor league rosters over the years before a power spike in 2015 impressed the Tigers enough to give him his first crack at the bigs. Despite making the most of his first cup of coffee, belting 4 home runs in 33 games, Marte was quickly crowded out of the Tigers plans, as they signed Justin Upton for $133 million. Marte was designated for assignment to make room on their roster and subsequently traded to the Angels.
Marte found himself back in AAA to start the season before being recalled in May. As the Angels fell further out of contention, Jefry (with one "F" Jefry) forced himself into the line-up, often times in left field or first base. In the month of August he truly arrived, batting .290/.333/.581 with 5 HR. He completed his rookie year batting .252/.310/.481 with 15 HR and 14 doubles, all in just 284 PA.
Marte will be entering his age 26 season, primed to build on his promising rookie campaign. Is it enough to push Escobar off third base? He logged only 160 innings at third, so the sample is small, but Fangraphs liked what they saw, rating him a 2.2 UZR. Baseball Reference was less impressed, rating him just below average at third. Considering his age and the fact that he played third base throughout the minors, it seems like a safe assumption that he would at the very least be a big upgrade on Escobar with the glove, with the potential to provide even more upside with the bat.
With the roller coast ride that has been his prospect status with the Angels, it is hard to believe Kaleb Cowart is still only 24 years old. After making waves as a slick-fielding, switch-hitting, powerful third baseman in his first two seasons with the organization, Cowart stalled badly in AA, repeating the level twice before being demoted back to high-A to get his bat back on track. That he did, earning himself a promotion to AAA where he crushed the PCL to the tune of .323/.395/.491, earning himself his first call-up to the big leagues.
In 2016, he did not quite take the step forward we had hoped for. He batted a pedestrian .280/.340/.452 in Salt Lake, striking out more than 20% of the time. He has shown no sign of hope in his limited at bats in the majors, hitting .176/.210/.267 in 139 PA the last two seasons. With the team giving him time at second base and short this year, it would appear as though any future he may have with the team is as a utility infielder. That's worth keeping around and he's young enough that something could still "click", but the odds are long at this point.
On the open market
This year's free agent crop is considered fairly weak, especially when compared to last year's group, though there are some tasty morsels for teams looking to upgrade at third. Luis Valbuena was following up his breakout year with an even better 2016 before a bum hamstring brought his season to a premature end. The lefty-swinging 30 year old was batting .260/.357/.459 at the time of the injury, while providing his usual steady defense at the hot corner.
Across town, Justin Turner will also hit free agency, coming off another fine season for the Dodgers. Playing in a career high 151 games, the Long Beach native batted .271/.339/.493 with 27 HR while providing excellent work with the glove. Of course, with the Dodgers' deep pockets and current window for contention, they have little reason to let Turner walk, even as he enters his age-32 season.
Beyond those two, the third base market thins out considerably. While there are a couple of interesting second baseman who could conceivably play there available, none are really worth considering over the options we already have in-house. Unless Eppler has another surprise trade in store for us this winter, expect next season's starting third baseman to be someone already on board.