Third base is an exciting position for the Rockies. They’ve got a two-time Gold Glove winner who can make some absolutely incredible plays with his glove (or sometimes his bare hand). That same third baseman has an above average bat that should keep getting better and better. The best part about him, though? He’s still only 23! Nolan Arenado is a budding, young star and he puts the Rockies in a great position at third base.
The unquestioned starter at third base for the Rockies is Nolan Arenado. The former top prospect and soon-to-be 24 year old Arenado was known in the Minor Leagues for his bat but has blossomed into an elite defensive player as well. Nolan has won a Gold Glove in both of his Major League seasons and they have absolutely been deserved. Despite spending the first month of 2013 in AAA and missing a month and a half in 2014 with a broken finger (don’t slide head first, kids), he leads all Major League third basemen in DRS (46) and is third in UZR (26.7) since 2013. The thing that really sets him apart from other third basemen is his ability to not only make the routine play, but the extraordinary play as well. You can watch some of those extraordinary plays here if you’d like. It’s a good way to spend 8 minutes, I promise. The best news about Arenado and his defense is that he projects to be the best defensive third baseman in the NL both next season and for the foreseeable future.
Shifting to the offensive side of things, Arenado is good here as well. He hasn’t been as crazy, out-of-this world incredible with the bat as he’s been with the glove, but Arenado was a solidly above average hitter in 2014 with a slash line of .287/.328/.500 and a wRC+ of 113. What’s even better is that Arenado showed across the board improvement offensively in the categories that tend to be indicative of growth as a hitter rather than just good luck. After struggling to a 77 wRC+ in his rookie year in 2013, Nolan increased his BB% from 4.5% to 5.4%, reduced his K% from 14% to 12.4%, swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone (from 41% to 37.3%), and when he did swing he made contact more often (from 81.8% to 84.7%). This plus his elite defense resulted in 3.1 fWAR and 4.1 rWAR for Arenado in 2014. Interestingly, ZiPS projects Arenado to drop to 103 wRC+ and Steamer has him dropping to 104 wRC+ in 2015. I tend to disagree, but we’ll see how it plays out.
What the Rockies ultimately have in Nolan Arenado is a future (if not current) star who can hit, play elite defense, and has arguably become the second best position player on the Rockies. The aggregate of ZiPS and Steamer project him for 3.8 WAR this season but I’d guess it will be higher than that, provided he stays healthy.
As with second base, Daniel Descalso projects as the primary backup to Arenado at third base. As a quick review, Descalso has been essentially a replacement level player with a career slash line of .243/.313/.341 (81 wRC+) and a 2014 slash line of .242/.333/.311 (88 wRC+). This season, he projects as a .260/.328/.368 (79 wRC+) hitter. Descalso has been a bit below average defensively at third base as well at -3 DRS and -4 UZR/150. Expect to see him there on Arenado’s rare days off or in the unfortunate case of an Arenado injury.
Minor League Options
Culberson would probably be the first option in the Minors and he also has a shot (though probably not a great one) at making the Opening Day roster. Culberson is a career .221/.265/.314 (43 wRC+) hitter in 360 PA and was a .195/.253/.290 (33 wRC+) hitter in 233 PA in 2014. Charlie projects to improve to .254/.288/.393 (72 wRC+) this season and may be a slight upgrade defensively over Descalso.
Rafael Ynoa would likely be the next option in the case of injuries to two out of the three of Arenado, Descalso, and Culberson. Ynoa made the most of his 71 PA last September, slashing .343/.380/.463 (121 wRC+). A lot of that probably came from an inflated .397 BABIP, as Ynoa projects to hit just .260/.306/.355 (69 wRC+) in 2015. Ynoa would probably be a serviceable injury replacement at third base if things really go astray in 2015.
The best prospect here is Cristhian Adames. Cristhian has primarily been a shortstop in his Minor League career, with just 38 games played at third base compared to 496 at shortstop, so it’s unlikely he’ll be called up to play third base for anything short of an emergency. Even then, it likely wouldn’t happen unless he would be getting regular playing time there. ZiPS and Steamer disagree in their projections of Adames, with ZiPS projecting him at 75 wRC+ while Steamer projects his wRC+ at just 60. He should at least be a September call up in 2015.
That just about does it for our first look at third base. As always, comments and feedback are welcome! Be sure to subscribe, follow View from the Rooftop on Facebook and Twitter, and check back on Monday, March 16, for the next installment of the Rockies 2015 Position Preview Series: Shortstop.