Indians Hot Stove: 2018 options for third base

The World Series is now in the rear view mirror,1 which means the MLB offseason has officially begun. Teams must make internal decisions on options and Qualifying Offers over the next few days that will help shape free agency. As the Cleveland Indians look forward to continuing to prop open their contention window, one of the positions they must look to solidify is third base.

The 2017 Tribe began the season with a combination of Yandy Diaz and Jose Ramirez playing at third. So, it might seem odd to an outside observer the Indians have questions at the positions where a 2017 AL MVP candidate in J-Ram had staked his claim. Followers of the team though know that when Jason Kipnis went down with an injury, Ramirez was moved to second base, where he- and the infield defense with him- thrived. The double play combination with Francisco Lindor proved to be so enticing that the Tribe attempted to move Kipnis to center field upon his return. The postseason saw the team trusting Giovanny Urshela instead of Yandy Diaz, so there is some confusion about the future at the position too.

Here is how things could shape up for 2018 at third base for the Cleveland Indians.

Internal Options

  • Yandy Diaz
  • Giovanny Urshela
  • Jose Ramirez
  • Erik Gonzalez

The first decision the Indians must make is what to do with Jason Kipnis. If they plan is to move him back to second base, then Jose Ramirez takes over third base and both positions are set for 2018. However, J-Ram obviously enjoys playing second and the team benefits from the double-play combination. The team is most likely to continue that arrangement. The wrench thrown into the system creates an opportunity for one of the young players in the Tribe farm system.

Erik Gonzalez can be the first player eliminated from the list. His below average bat with no true power doesn’t work all that well as a staple starter. He does play defense better than he is often given credit for doing, and he is capable across the infield, which means he should return as the utility option next season.

Giovanny Urshela was given an incredibly surprising stamp of approval by manager Terry Francona in the 2018 ALDS. Despite a wretched .224/.262/.288 (44 OPS+) slash line that would make Michael Martinez blush during the regular season, Urshela was handed every single start at third base. He is capable of making game-changing defensive plays, but his overall fielding line has not graded out better defensively than Gonzalez- as his two errors in Game 4 would attest. Urshela is a capable utility infielder whom a team should not rely on for a steady supply of plate appearances. The issue is the Indians already employ Gonzalez, and it is difficult to justify having two such players on a MLB roster.

The obvious potential long-term viable starting option the Indians have internally for third base is Yandy Diaz. Many electrons have been displaced over the past season about the propensity to burn holes in the infield grass by Mr. Diaz. His contact abilities alongside the exit velocities suggest he is capable of being an All-Star level hitter; should he ever figure out how to harness launch angles to his advantage.

Free Agent Options

  • Mike Moustakas
  • Todd Frazier
  • Eduardo Nunez
  • Asdrubal Cabrera
  • Yunel Escobar

Mike Moustakas is the obvious class of the third base free agent market to the point that the Kansas City Royals could decide to stamp him with the dreaded Qualifying Offer. He is in his prime as he enters his age 29 year old season, and he has been an above average hitter each of the last three seasons. He also was among the players to enjoy the Elevation Revelation as he hit a career-high 38 home runs. Despite only playing in 27 games in 2016, Moustakas has been durable for his career as he has played at least 136 games otherwise since 2012. The only detriment for him is that his defense fell off significantly in 2017 with career worsts in DRS (-8) and UZR/150 (-3.6).

Todd Frazier might remind many people of a third base version of Mike Napoli. He will wow with his power at times, but he will also strike out a bunch, and 2017 was the first season where he walked enough to make up for it. His defense has also been solid throughout his career on the hot corner. He will be entering his age 32 season and has been just a tick above average overall at the plate in his career, so the Indians would want to keep any deal at two-to-three years in length.2

Eduardo Nunez is a nice enough player. He is an average hitter, and average fielder, and will be entering his age 31 season. He makes good contact, but he doesn’t have a ton of power. There is nothing to get excited about with him, but he will lock down the position and be a useful player.

Asdrubal Cabrera has been in MLB for 11 seasons, but he is just entering his age 32 year. And, for the first time since his rookie season, he spent some time at third base in 2017. His overall durability, acceptable defense, and average-to-above average bat mean he could be a stopgap player if he is willing to call third base his position next season.

Yunel Escobar is older (entering age 35 season), is below average on defense, and has less of an offensive profile compared to everyone else on this list. However, he is also a player the Tribe could sign for a cheap one-year stopgap deal should they believe it necessary for the position.

Trade Options?

  • Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
  • Yangervis Solarte, San Diego Padres
  • Martin Prado, Miami Marlins
  • Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics
  • Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays

Eugenio Suarez is unlikely to be traded as the Reds have tabbed him as one of their future foundation players. He plays solid defense and has already hit above MLB average despite being only 25 years old. He was speculated to be the target of some teams the past couple of seasons, so he is listed here as a “wishlist” player only.

There were rumors Solarte was dangled at the trade deadline, so he might be available. He has had a good bat, but not much power and much less defense. He is also surprisingly already 31 years of age, so he would not be expected to have much upside. If the Indians wanted a more sure thing for 2018 and are not sold on Diaz’s long-term future, then a Diaz for Solarte trade could make some sense.3

Until last season, Prado was a do-everything player with an above average bat. He could be moved anywhere and everywhere with the ability of contributing positive on defense. His value is at an all-time low though with a contract matching Kipnis (except with an extra year of guarantee), but seeing his production fall off a cliff as he now goes into his age 34 season. Paying Prado an average of $14 million per season through his age 36 season doesn’t make sense- unless the Marlins take back the Kipnis contract and give the Indians something extra for the financial savings.

Lowrie rebuilt his reputation with a fantastic season for the A`s, but he was coming off two injury-marred seasons prior. As he enters the last season of his deal with Oakland, they might consider a trade as they are not expected to compete with the defending champion Houston Astros in 2018.

Oh, who is that last guy? Josh Donaldson enters his last year under contract for a Toronto Blue Jays team that is unlikely to contend with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. He is a PRIME candidate to be traded, right? The issue for a small market team like the Tribe though is that Donaldson will still command a king’s ransom, but he is a rental who will probably sign with one of those big market teams after the season. Can the Indians afford to mortgage their future to go all-in on one season?

Last Word

The best scenario for the 2018 Cleveland Indians involves the franchise trusting Yandy Diaz to lock up the third base position and him rewarding them with above average defense and great production at the plate. It is not implausible for that scenario to play out, but the complete lack of faith in him for the 2017 postseason after some critical statements during Spring Training and the season is disturbing.

Without the Diaz solution, the Tribe will be scrambling. The good news is that there is a plethora of OK options that can do the job for next season. The bad news is that there is not likely to be much upside beyond an average status unless they are willing to pay a hefty price to secure the rights of Mike Moustakas. Here’s hoping 2018 is the year of Free Yandy.

  1. Congratulations to the Houston Astros- the first ever World Series champions in the state of Texas. []
  2. Here is where we wonder if he and Jay Bruce are friends and if they might want to play together again since they were teammates for years for the Cincinnati Reds. []
  3. Note: the Indians entrusted Urshela instead of Diaz in the ALDS, which might be telling. []