2023 Positional Preview: Breathe Easy, Third Base Is Covered

Feb 1, 2023 - 2:21 PM
Rafael Devers Extension Press Conference
Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s 2023 Season Preview! Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Positional Preview Series, in which we do a deep dive on each positional group. Let’s get things started at third base.

* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.

Third base may seem like an odd place to start a season preview. Why not start with pitchers? That’s the position tagged with the No. 1 in score keeping parlance after all. Or how about first base? First is right in the name. Ultimately, there shouldn’t really be a right place to start, even if we’ve been conditioned to expect there to be. However, for the 2023 Red Sox, third base actually is the only place you could start, as the hot corner is also the cornerstone of the entire team and its future. That might seem like hyperbole and far too much pressure to put on a single part of the roster, but the Red Sox have Rafael Devers at third base and they (finally) paid him like the superstar he is, making it clear that they plan to build around him for the next decade (or more). I’d say that makes third base one heck of an important position for 2023.

The Starter – Rafael Devers

It still feels a bit surreal that the Red Sox finally did the right thing and signed Devers to a 10-year, $313.5 million deal. After absolutely whiffing on their decisions with Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts over the last few years, the Red Sox seemed poised to follow suit with Devers, letting a hitting phenom end up smashing baseballs for some other team a year from now. Those worries are entirely out the window, and now the Red Sox can just enjoy employing one of the best hitters in baseball, let alone at third base.

By some metrics, 2022 was the best offensive season of Devers’ career. The now 26-year-old slashed .295/.358/.521 while blasting 27 home runs and setting a career-high 141 wRC+. While his overall body of work was better in 2019 when he posted 6.7 fWAR, he was still a nearly five-win player last season and that was with a pretty dramatic slump in August when he was limited to a putrid 30 wRC+ across 115 plate appearances. But one month, no matter how bad, should absolutely not outweigh what Devers has been doing for more than half a decade already. Since breaking onto the scene in his age-20 season in 2017, Devers has absolutely raked, producing a combined wRC+ of 123 for his career, including marks of 132 or greater in three of the last four seasons. That production is no fluke, either, as he has been in the top 10 in max exit velocity in the last five seasons and in the top 10 in average exit velocity in the last four. Even if he still has a tendency to chase and below average glovework, Devers’ offensive mastery makes him a certified star, and the Red Sox should expect nothing less than a third-straight All-Star appearance and maybe even some up-ballot MVP votes from him this year.

The Bench

Although Justin Turner was signed primarily to replace J.D. Martinez at designated hitter, the 38-year-old veteran will likely be the primary backup at third base as well. It will be pretty odd to see Turner in something other than a Dodgers’ uniform after he spent the last nine seasons helping to fortify the middle of the lineup for one of baseball’s best teams year in and year out. Even though he is getting up there in age, Turner has remained a productive hitter, as he’s posted at least a 123 wRC+ in every year since 2014, his first in Los Angeles. Turner’s power numbers dipped a bit last year, as he hit only 13 home runs and experienced a 33-point drop in ISO, but he was still 23 percent above league average as a hitter thanks to his always patient approach at the plate. Turner’s 2022 strikeout rate was nearly six percent below league average and his walk rate was more than one percent higher than the average MLB batter. Combine that with a shorter left field at Fenway Park, and Turner should be a nice fit at DH and a solid replacement at third, even if his defense there has declined precipitously in recent years.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox

Since Devers and Turner both struggle on defense, it would be nice if the Red Sox had a glove-first guy to fill in from time to time, but that isn’t really the case. Bobby Dalbec and Christian Arroyo are the next best options, and although they are each competent fielders at third, neither is a particularly large upgrade over Devers or Turner. In addition, both players have had much more experience elsewhere on the diamond, with Arroyo having more time at second base and Balbec at first more often than not. Of course, with Devers on the roster, the Red Sox really only need a spot start here or there from Turner anyways, which nets out in the projections, with FanGraphs expecting Devers to eat up 78 percent of the playing time at third while Turner logs 15 percent, leaving just seven percent for the rest of the roster.

Minor League Depth

T-Mobile Home Run Derby Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Even though Devers is the third baseman of the present and future for the Red Sox, they actually have some pretty strong prospects at the position. Alex Binelas, who was part of the Hunter Renfroe for Jackie Bradley Jr. trade last offseason, struggled when he was called up to Double-A in 2022, but the 22-year-old corner infielder has good power and a developing hit tool that could eventually play well at higher levels. In addition, 20-year-old Blaze Jordan has played well at the lower levels, posting a 122 wRC+ across 415 Single-A plate appearances and a 128 wRC+ in 106 High-A plate appearances a year ago. Jordan was a third round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft and is currently ranked the No. 12 prospect in Boston’s system, according to FanGraphs.

Both Binelas and Jordan are intriguing prospects, but if we’re looking for minor leaguers who could actually make an impact at the MLB level this year, Niko Goodrum is probably the best option. The former Detroit Tiger is an MLB veteran who signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox this winter. His positional versatility and defensive skill could make up for his largely unimpressive offensive profile and he is a non-roster invitee to spring training. However, he doesn’t project to be more than a replacement player overall, especially as the 30-year-old is coming off a year in which he suffered an injury and poor play in equal measure.

As a note, these projections are slightly unfair, as Turner’s numbers encapsulate his expected entire body of work, most of which will be at DH.

Divisional Rankings

  1. Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox
  2. Matt Chapman, Toronto Blue Jays
  3. Yandy Díaz, Tampa Bay Rays
  4. Ramón Urías, Baltimore Orioles
  5. Josh Donaldson, New York Yankees

I’m not sure I need to do much convincing here, so I’ll just say that Devers is the best third baseman in the AL East by a long shot and leave it at that.

Matt Chapman may not be the superstar he seemed poised to become in his early Oakland days, but he has hit 27 home runs in back-to-back seasons and is still really good with the glove, helping him accumulate identical marks of 4.1 fWAR in both 2021 and 2022.

The Rays will mix and match, so Yandy Díaz will probably play quitena bit of first base and some DH as well. The 31-year-old had a career year in 2022, setting personal bests in wRC+ (146) and fWAR (3.8). An anomaly in the era of the three true outcomes, Díaz rarely ever strikes out and walks at an incredible rate, but he also doesn’t hit for much power (nine home runs in 2022).

This list would look entirely different if the Orioles were planning to use Gunnar Henderson at third base full time. As it stands now based on projections, the No. 1 prospect in baseball will likely be Baltimore’s starting shortstop, meaning Ramón Urías will slot in at third more often. Urías is no slouch, of course, as the 28-year-old accumulated 2.6 fWAR last season after promising stints in 2020 and 2021, and we’ll give Baltimore a little extra bump since Henderson will likely some playing time there as well.

I didn’t put Josh Donaldson last because he plays for the Yankees, but that certainly didn’t help. Donaldson could certainly push for higher on this list, but only to maybe the No. 3 at this point in his career. The 37-year-old was a below league average hitter last season, experienced a drastic drop in ISO and had his highest strikeout rate since a 14-game cup of coffee in 2010.

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