This spring, one of the story lines to watch is the position battle at Third Base. Four Astros have a realistic shot at earning a full-time gig on the left side. In the annals of history, the ol' hot corner has been manned by such illustrious names as Alex Rodriguez, George Brett, Mike Schmidt, and Pig Pen. Who will be listed at the top of the depth chart and allow his name to be compared to those men at the end of his career?
Most likely, the Astros will not make their decision until the very end of Spring Training. But heading into Kissimmee, which guy projects to perform the best at the position in 2012: Brett Wallace, Chris Johnson, Jimmy Paredes, or Matt Downs?
Brett Wallace, one of the most well-traveled minor league prospects in recent memory, was traded for such players as Roy Oswalt and Matt Holliday. He began his baseball life as a Third Baseman at Arizona State, then played his way into a First Base job before he graduated to the major leagues. He has not trod the clay behind the third base line as a fielder since 2009.
Chris Johnson has spent more time at the hot corner than any of his challengers for the position, but lost his job last season due to lack of preparation, league adjustment to his offensive tendencies, and bad luck.
Jimmy Paredes caused Johnson's bad luck by performing so well in the minors in 2011 that he could not be ignored in light of Johnson's non-success. Paredes was called up to the majors, where he hit passably well. Prognosticators point out that his success at the plate was driven by an insanely-high average on balls in play...in English, it means he got lucky.
Finally, Matt Downs is every Astros' fan super-utility guy. He does everything well, nothing poorly, but nothing fantastically either.
Below, I go through who I think will be most likely to outperform his rivals if handed the full-time Astros Third Base job in 2012.
First on the agenda is everybody's favorite sabermetric subject (NOT!): Defense. The table below shows the four contestants' defensive performance in both the Minor and Major leagues. The statistic of choice is Baseball Reference's Total Zone (Rtz), which compares a player's defense to a hypothetical average player at his same position. Because Rtz seems dependent on the number of games/innings played, I prorated the stat to 160 games so we could compare apples to apples.
Tangent: Granted, because of the differences in competition between minor league levels and leagues, it's a comparison between, say, Gala apples and Fuji apples. But at least comparing different types of apples is better than comparing apples to watermelons, or worse, rutabagas. On with the show.
Astros fans should not begin crowing from the rooftops about potential defensive wizardry from their 2012 hot corner leather men. Johnson is the only one here with real third base experience, and in a little more than a season in the major leagues his defense has been to his stats what an arctic iceberg was to the titanic: worse than it looks at first, and portentous of disaster. However, in a far bigger sample, we see that in the minor leagues Johnson was quite average at the position, which the Astros would happily accept. Verdict: Expect a defensive performance somewhere between the two extremes. Johnson should be below average, but not as awful as he was in 2011.
Unfortunately, none of the other players stand out. Judging by Wallace's defensive Waterloo in the minors, it's a bit perplexing that he's getting a shot at third this spring at all. However, reports and photos show that Wallace is in great shape, has lost a bit of weight, and is IN THE BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE. Just like every other Spring ballplayer. However, if Wallace truly has made himself more agile, the fact that first base really should be the stable of El Caballo means that Wallace should get tryouts elsewhere.
Paredes and Downs grade out as average in both the Minors and the Majors, and one can realistically expect that to continue.
Now for the stuff people actually want to read about. The table below shows some offensive projections for the four amigos. For these, I averaged the six or seven projection systems listed over at Fangraphs, then prorated all the stats to 500 Plate Appearances. Then, guys who scored the best in a category were marked blue for easy reference, and guys that scored worst got the red treatment.
Once again, Astros fans should not expect All-Star-dom from any of these guys in 2012. At a glance, Jimmy Paredes comes up empty on the offensive front. This likely reflects everybody's assumption that his 2011 BABIP of .383 will come crashing down to a normal level around .300 and bring down his counting stats with it.
None of these guys will take many walks, none of them will strike out at an alarming rate, none will hit for a ton of power.
At a glance, Chris Johnson stands out as the player most likely to put up superior offensive numbers than the other three, with Wallace a close second. (Johnson by a nose?) However, lest we forget, Wallace and Paredes have both been considered true major league prospects in the past, and so scouts believed that they had the tools to succeed. If they maximize their physical abilities and turn them into production, they are most likely to out-strip their projections.
Offensively, all of these guys' projections are so close together it is difficult to say which would be the best choice. Defensively, nobody stands out either. Thus, the Astros are going to let them duke it out this March in hopes that one will display unforeseen goodness and allow Brad Mills and company to make an easy decision.
Alas, I do not suspect the decision will be clear by the time April rolls around. Based on the information above and what we know about these players, I suspect to see Chris Johnson as the starter at third base, Matt Downs a utility player at all positions except catcher, Jimmy Paredes in Triple-A, and Brett Wallace sharing time with Carlos Lee at First Base, with enough starts at Third to keep the fans wondering.
What do you think?