As we move along in the offseason, Tampa Bay Rays fans will be happy to see a familiar face at third base for the next decade. Evan Longoria and his renewed contract bring back memories of players that stay loyal to one team and stay with them for their careers. Chipper Jones, George Brett, Mike Schmidt are some of the more famous third baseman to play their entire career with one organization, and the Rays hope that Longoria’s career will live up to the standard of that trio. In any event, let’s get to the third base situation for the Rays for this season.
Evan Longoria- As stated plenty ofn this site, Longoria signed a 10-year, $136 million extension last offseason even after missing most of 2012 with a left hamstring strain. This year, even while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot for most of the year, he played in 160 games with 147 of them coming at third base. Missing Evan Longoria in 2012 really hurt the team as Joe Maddon started 7 different players at third base in 2012. This year, only three starters appeared at third base (Ryan Roberts and Kelly Johnson were the other two). Longoria is a middle of the order bat with great power, provides great defense at third base, and is a team leader and is the class of the organization. 2013 was the first time Longoria missed playing time due to the plantar fasciitis and should be healthy come spring training. If he were to miss an extended amount of playing time, it would be a huge hole to fill for anyone the Rays bring in. But if Longoria can stay healthy, the Rays can rest assured of having one of the best third base situations of any team in baseball.
Cole Figueroa– Part of the Jason Bartlett package in 2010, Figueroa played the most games at third base for Durham this season with 94 games at the hot corner. Figueroa is more of a utility type infielder than an everyday third basemen as he has nowhere near the power that is required for the position. While his ability to make contact, great plate discipline and good defense all around the infield could get him a utility type role in the future, he has a few players ahead of him on that depth chart before he can get a chance at the big leagues.
The crazy thing about the Rays right now is that they have a couple of the most versatile players in baseball, Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez, but neither of them are comfortable playing third base. Rodriguez doesn’t have the arm strength and Zobrist has the arm but simply hasn’t played there, digging in at the hot corner just 4 times in his career. The Rays need some player who can fill in at third base when Longoria is at designated hitter or especially if there is any injury concern. Maybe Tim Beckham could be an option, but the Rays will likely look to the free agent market to find a veteran utility player capable of playing third base.
Eric Chavez– The former six-time Gold Glover and Billy Beane favorite in Oakland, Chavez spent 2013 in Arizona as a platoon player at the corners. When Chavez played third base, Martin Prado would move to either left field or second in order to give Chavez a chance to bring his lefty bat into a lineup. While he did hit .279/.355/.492 versus right-handed pitchers, he could remain in the Rays’ price range as his age and injury history are still a concern to many teams. He went to the disabled list twice during 2013 (one for an oblique strain, the other for a knee strain) and that came after he missed most of 2010 and 2011 with foot and neck injuries. At 36 years old next season, one has to wonder how much he can play in the field. But the bottom line is that he can still really hit agianst righties, and between using him at designated hitter and the infield corners, the Rays will find a way to get around everything else if they sign him. As long as Chavez’s injury history keeps the price low, the Rays will make a play for Chavez, and if the rest of their offseason moves leave regular playing time against right-handed pitching, that could be enough to get Chavez to sign.
Placido Polanco– A 16-year veteran of the league, Polanco can still provide value to your team, albeit in a different way than what you would think. A veteran presence in a clubhouse can never be understated and with the youth movement in Tampa Bay right now, players such as Polanco might not give you much on the field, but do wonders in your clubhouse. But looking at the numbers, a .260/.315/.302 in a year where he shouldn’t be playing full-time is deceptive. He can still make contact and is not an easy out. Although he has been primarily a third baseman the past two seasons, he can still fill in at second base, and it would not be a surprise to see the Rays play him at left field and first base as well, both positions he has at least played briefly in the past. A contract in 2014 could be less than half the $2.75 million deal he made from the Miami Marlins in 2013, a nice value for a player who still has something to give a team.
Michael Young– Young is far from the player he used to be, but even at 36 years of age, he still has something left. In 2013, he managed a .279/.335/.395 line (102 OPS+), out-hitting quite a few players several years younger. He even had no platoon split at all, managing a .729 OPS against righties and .730 versus lefties.But even if Young’s bat is still serviceable, his power is gone and his defense is an even bigger concern. A good offensive shortstop for much of his career, Young is now a corner infield at this stage in his career and shouldn’t be asked to play the middle of the diamond except in emergencies. Even his defense at first base and third base has not been too well regarded–he has a 6.1 UZR/150 at first and just a -12.2 mark at third. At this point in his career, Young is a player who still can hit but not enough to be a designated hitter, and he can play a few positions but none well enough for him to play regularly. Young recognizes that, and he may even be set to retire. Assuming he does keep playing, Young will have to take a big pay cut in free agency–nobody will play remotely close to $16 million a year for a part-time player. But if Young wants to go to a team where he will get maximum playing time, the Rays could be an interesting fit. We know how much the Rays value versatility, and Young could see time at first base and DH but also a spattering over the rest of the field. If he hits, we are talking about a playing who could still get 400 plate appearances like Kelly Johnson did in 2013. Young may lack Johnson’s ability to play the outfield, but his ability to hit both righties and lefties would make up much of the difference. However, just how much of a pay-cut is Young willing to take and is a a player with one foot out the door the Rays’ best option?
It is a good thing that Tampa has Evan Longoria at third base for the next decade as the free agent crop leaves a lot to be desired. The most notable players on the market are all over 30 and not everyday players anymore. Utility infielders who can play all around the diamond are a better fit for Tampa Bay (such as Ramon Santiago and Alexi Casilla who I have discussed before). But if the Rays decide to go with more of an offense-first option like Chavez or a strong clubhouse presence like Polanco, they can still bring something to their team and the Rays will look for every edge they can get as they hope to push themselves over the top.