The Battle for Third Base

Alternate title: The Battle For Third Base (as of the morning of January 6th, 2015)

AJ Preller has only been on the job for six months, but he’s already garnered a serious reputation — not just as an international guru or a tireless worker. He’s also proven capable of overturning a roster in half an offseason without sacrificing the Padres best prospects or any of the starting rotation’s top three members. Just last week he turned his focus to the bullpen, adding two right-handed power arms in as many days. Earlier in the offseason, Preller and the Padres acquired an entire outfield in less than a week.

It’s early January, which means there’s just under three months until Opening Day. For the eager baseball fan, the start of the season is right around the corner. Football can get you through until February and then, boom, spring training is suddenly underway.

For Preller, however, three months might be enough time to acquire a new outfield trio. Kidding aside, Preller’s aggressive approach to roster management makes it difficult to discuss a potential positional battle, especially at a spot of relative weakness, with this much offseason remaining. On the other hand, it’s early January and the Padres haven’t made a move in six whole days, so I’ve gotta write about something.

And it’s third base that I want to discuss. Right now, the Padres have two likely options at third. One, Yangervis Solarte, was acquired from the Yankees in the Chase Headley trade this past summer. The other, Will Middlebrooks, was picked up last month as part of Preller’s roster shuffle, nabbed from the Red Sox for catcher Ryan Hanigan. Before we compare the relative merits of each player, let’s run a quick background check on both of them.

Solarte was drafted as an international free agent out of Venezuela by the Minnesota Twins all the way back in 2005. In his professional debut in the Domincan Summer League (2006), Solarte quickly showed positive plate control, walking 27 times while striking out only 18 in 227 plate appearances. He hit Single-A in 2008 as a 20-year-old but didn’t graduate to regular Double-A work until 2010, with injuries and a lack of loud contact slowing his climb up the minor league ladder.

As a 23-year-old in his second try at Double-A (2011), Solarte hit .323 with 37 doubles and just 38 strikeouts in just under 500 plate appearances, finally showing signs of life with the bat. The Twins no longer believed in him, however, as he was granted free agency after the 2011 season. He quickly signed with Texas — and hit .288/.340/.405 with 41 walks and 44 strikeouts in 568 plate appearances in his Triple-A debut — and spent the next two seasons in the Rangers organization before signing with the Yankees in January of 2014 as a minor league free agent.

Short on infield help, the Yankees turned Solarte into a major league third basemen last year (he played mostly second in the minors) and, surprising, he hit. In fact, he pummeled American League pitching in April and May, posting .800-plus OPSes in both months while walking almost as many times as he struck out. He even cracked five home runs in May, showing occasional power glimpses that were rarely present in the minors. June was a reality check, as Solarte crashed to Earth with a sub-.500 OPS and an ugly .213 slugging percentage. The rest of the season, much of which took place in San Diego after the mid-season trade, was more middle of the road. He used a hot start in San Diego to post a .730 July OPS, and even though his August numbers don’t jump off the page — .250/.354/.302 — he did walk 15 times compared to just 10 strikeouts while posting a .350-plus on-base percentage in Petco.

Middlebrooks is completely different from Solarte, in a number of ways. Unlike Solarte, who never even cracked a Baseball America top 30 list, Middlebrooks was a mainstay in the Red Sox chapter, peaking as Boston’s No. 1 ranked prospect after the 2011 season. After that same season, Middlebrooks was rated as a top 100 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America (51), Baseball Prospectus (55), and MLB.com (56). Solarte was not.

A fifth-round draft pick in 2007, Middlebrooks’ minor league career got off to a slow start, as he hit just .254/.298/.368 at Low-A Lowell as a 19-year-old, recording 73 strikeouts and just 12 walks in  226 plate appearances. He took a big step in 2009 at Single-A, however, posting a .349 on-base percentage and greatly improving his walk and strikeout numbers (48 walks/123 strikeouts in 427 PAs). The following season saw the third basemen tread water in High-A ball, but a 2011 breakout in Double-A — 18 home runs and a .520 slugging percentage in 397 PAs — cemented his status as a marquee prospect. A scorching start at Triple-A in 2012 led to a quick major league call-up, which saw Middlebrooks stay hot in the bigs, hitting .288/.325/.509 in 286 plate appearances with Boston before a hit-by-pitch prematurely ended his season. The plate discipline (13 walks and 70 strikeouts) was the only cause for concern, albeit an ominously big one.

The hot streak evaporated by 2013, as Middlebrooks hit just .227 in 374 plate appearances, making the occasional dinger harder to live with. His strikeout rate actually worsened from his debut, as he whiffed in 26.2 percent of his plate appearances, while his walk rate rose marginally to 5.3 percent. It was more of the same last season — Middlebrooks’ power, once the staple of his game, disappeared (his ISO fell to a Solartarian .074) and his plate discipline — 15 walks and 70 strikeouts — was as bad as ever. Even another try at Triple-A couldn’t rehabilitate his game, as Middlebrooks OPSed .652 with 6 walks and 30 strikeouts in 112 mid-season Pawtucket PAs.

So here we are, with third base as a potential glaring weakness for next year’s Padres team, and both Solarte and Middlebrooks currently set to battle for starting honors. Solarte, the less sexy of the two, has always profiled more as a utility player with a skill-set best served for heavy bench duties. But he’s the one coming off a competent major league season, one in which he hit at a league average clip and posted the 14th-lowest strikeout rate in the majors. Middlebrooks, on the other hand, comes with a bonafied prospect pedigree and light-tower power. But he’s coming off two entirely disappointing major league campaigns in which not only were the superficial numbers ugly, but the peripherals — namely the walk and strikeout rates — painted a guy simply not capable of handling major league pitching.

Let’s go through some various categories and see where each player has the edge.

Contact ability: In 346 plate appearances split between Boston and Pawtucket, Will Middlebrooks k’ed 100 times last season. Meanwhile, in 556 plate appearances split between Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, New York, and San Diego, Yangervis Solarte struck out just 60 times. As we mentioned above, his 10.8 percent strikeout rate last season was the 14th-lowest figure in the majors, just behind players like Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Melky Cabrera. Middlebrooks, among players with at least 200 plate appearances, recorded the 22nd-highest strikeout rate in the majors, just behind hacktastic players like Drew Stubbs, Chris Carter, and Adam Dunn.

Significant edge — Solarte

Power: Middlebrooks’ main calling card, it was almost completely absent in 2014, perhaps in part because he battled with a fractured right index finger from the rookie season hit-by-pitch . However, his overall track-record suggests that, when making contact, there’s plenty of punch in the right-handed hitter’s bat. He corked 32 home runs and 32 doubles in about a full season’s worth of plate appearances in Boston between 2012 and ’13, and he posted a solid (though not otherworldly) .178 minor league ISO. Solarte probably profiles as a 10-15 home run a season guy, tops, and last year he only racked up 19 doubles in 535 major league PAs.

Significant edge — Middlebrooks

Plate Discipline: It’s Solarte, ya know. Writing too many words in this space could qualify as a crime against bandwidth. Solarte walked 53 times and struck out 58 times last season. Middlebrooks still hasn’t walked 53 times in his major league career, which spans parts of three seasons, and he struck out 58 times last August (the first part is true).

Last year, among qualified batters, only three players posted a BB/K ratio of 1.0 or higher (Victor Martinez, Jose Bautista, and Coco Crisp). Solarte’s mark sat at .91, 8th-best in all of baseball. It’s trending more and more toward a strikeout-heavy league, and Solarte is one of the players bucking that trend. He’s also able to walk a fair amount for someone with relatively little power.

Significant edge — Solarte

Defense: Meh. Middlebrooks was touted as a pretty solid glove-man coming up through Boston’s system, but his major league performance (both by the advanced metrics and the Fans Scouting Report) has come in slightly below average. Solarte is probably out of place at third, as he primarily a second basemen in the minors, but the advanced numbers put him on par with Middlebrooks as a fielder in 2014.

Slight edge — Middlebrooks

Base running/speed: Meh. Neither player will ever be confused with a burner. Middlebrooks’ stolen base numbers, both in terms of success rate and frequency, are a good bit better than Solarte’s in the minors and majors, and his FanGraphs BsR (base running runs above average) is a couple of ticks above Solarte’s.

Slight edge — Middlebrooks

Projections: Looking at the Steamer projections housed at FanGraphs, which to my knowledge are the only fully released/publicly available projections as of this writing, Solarte is pegged for a 93 wRC+ and .6 WAR in 284 plate appearances next season. Middlebrooks is projected at an 84 wRC+ and .5 WAR in 361 plate appearances.

Slight edge — Solarte

Age/Upside/Contract: Both players are relatively young — Middlebrooks is 26 and Solarte is 27 — and cheap/controllable. As far as upside goes, there’s still a feeling that Middlebrooks might have something more to offer, in sort of the post-hype prospect, change-of-scenery mold. Petco isn’t the ideal place for a hitter whose game revolves around power to resuscitate a career, but if everything breaks right, Middlebrooks has more of a shot to become an impact player.

Slight edge — Middlebrooks

I’ve read in numerous places, both nationally and locally, that Middlebrooks is either the favorite for the third base job or that he is currently looked at as the starting third basemen. I just don’t see how it’s that clear cut. Sure, Middlebrooks has the advantage of being one of Preller’s recent acquisitions — and you’ve seen what he’s done with players he didn’t acquire — but Solarte is the one with an offensive game that at least looks like it’ll be adequate in the short-term.

There’s another factor that makes Solarte potentially a better fit. Consider the Padres offense, which is currently heavy on right-handed, strikeout-prone power hitters. Middlebrooks falls into that category, and he’d give the Padres a lineup with at least six right-handed bats. Count em — Derek Norris, Jedd Gyorko, Middlebrooks, Matt Kemp, Wil Myers, Justin Upton.

Solarte is the opposite mold, a switch-hitting contact bat that would break up the Padres righty-heavy lineup while giving pitchers an entirely different look. We discussed Nori Aoki and lineup diversity earlier in the offseason, mentioning Solarte a number of times as sort of a poor-man’s Aoki. In fact, Solarte’s 89.2 contact percentage ranked 11th among 146 qualified hitters last season, sandwiched between Matt Carpenter and Dustin Pedroia. It might be a small factor, but there’s danger in becoming too one-dimensional as an offensive unit, and Solarte as a starter would provide the Padres with a contrasting look both in terms of handedness and style.

Overall, neither Solarte nor Middlebrooks are ideal candidates as everyday players. But in a lineup suddenly infused with the likes of Myers, and Kemp, and Upton (etc.), you can do worse than some form of Solarte/Middlebrooks at the hot corner. Either way, if the Padres don’t further upgrade third this offseason, spring training will likely serve as an arena for the third base battle, pitting a couple of contrasting players against each other for starting honors. Unless Middlebrooks quickly shows a refined approach at the plate, my money’s on Solarte as the likely winner.

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  • Bielsa Widow

    I think being acquired by AJ is the golden snitch in this quidditch match.

  • Drakos

    So, is Spangenberg completely out of the discussion? I guess he’s starting the year in El Paso.

    Also, Preller may have kept the top of the rotation in place but he did trade away Hahn.

    • Dustin

      He isn’t. That was probably a slight oversight on my part, although he’s probably third on the depth chart right now. My guess is, as you mention, he starts at Triple-A while the Padres see what shakes out between Middlebrooks/Solarte, but there’s a lot of offseason left for things to change.

      And, yeah, losing Hahn definitely hurts the rotation. Actually, now that I read that sentence again, I meant to write top three members of the rotation. So thanks for noticing that.

      • george kay

        Think about this. Spangenberg leads off and plays short. So larte bats second plays second. Upton in left bats third. Kemp plays first. And bats forth. Myers plays rights . bats fifth. Norris at catcher bats sixth. Gyrko at third bats seventh. Venable in center bats. In eighth spot. Start Ross in one hole.

      • Dustin

        That’s a lot of moving parts! It seems like they want to keep Gyorko at second. But, yeah, if Spangenberg can handle short defensively, he’d be a fine option there.

        I just don’t see them moving Kemp to first — at least not yet — and there’s probably some optimism that Alonso can turn it around if given one more shot.

  • Shamu35

    Batting order also an issue. Bud already comfortable batting Solarte at top of the order and all the more important in front of the new heavy lumber.

  • USMC53

    Great post; I really enjoyed reading it.
    We are in desperate need of a leadoff hitter who can (1) make contact, (2) draw walks, and (3) not strikeout. Solarte wins in all three categories. It would be nice if he was more of a base-stealing threat, but whatever.
    Start Solarte at 3B, and send Middlebrooks to El Paso to work on his game.

    • Dustin

      Thanks!

      I didn’t really even mention the lineup thing, but as both you and Shamu35 below mention, that’s another point in Solarte’s favor — at least, if he can continue OBPing .330 or so. He definitely fits the lineup better than Middlebrooks.

  • Adam

    I think Solarte and Spangenberg fight for 3B, and Middlebrooks platoons with Alonso at 1B. Pretty much all the reasons you like Solarte over Middlebrooks are as true, if not more true, about Cory. Defense alignment aside, a batting order with Spangenberg batting leadoff and Solarte in the 2 hole should provide those big bats with a LOT of RBI opportunities. Maybe Spangenberg can play SS….

    • Dustin

      I could definitely see Middlebrooks getting some time at first. I’m still a bit concerned about Spangenberg’s bat, but he could be a factor in the infield as well.

  • MrWhamBam

    solid analysis…but in the end, I think the things that the Pads were looking for more of, will make itself evident in Middlebrooks’ skill set….power and run production, regardless of the strikeouts. Solarte is a very, very useful baseball player. But like Amarista, I think his talents and value are best displayed in various roles..not just one. And every team, regardless of payroll, needs guys like them. You cant go deep in the post season without them, in the NL, with all the double switches, matchup scenarios and what have you.

    I think of all the guys that were acquired, Kemp and Upton, included, Will Middlebrooks and Wil Myers, will impress us the most… and I think both of them will have respectable, bounce back seasons in ’15.

    what will that look like?…I have no idea really. I dont even think projecting their stat lines is important or smart at this point, because we have no idea where they will hit in the order. But I do think both of them have the ability to be 20-30 homer/80-100 ribbie guys. I have no doubt about that. And Wil Myers DEFINITELY has ”Dale Murphy-type talent”, and “The Murph’s” ability to play several positions.

    weirdly, I almost look past Preller’s ability to spot talent. He was actually a scout before he had any notion to seriously pursue being a GM. And I think he did good, getting these two dudes. BTW, if it means anything, their lockers are right next to each other. So, when either one of them slumps, they’ll be able to pick each other’s brains about certain pitchers and hitting mechanics.

    these are the kind of young, controllable players that the Padres have not had in many, many yrs. And this kid Myers?…personally, I think he’s going to become something of a MONSTER in the NL West. He’s going to settle down and really blossom with the Padres. This is the kind of player that can turn this franchise around, in my opinion.

    I have no idea what happens to Spangenberg. And thats a shame. I mean, someone could get hurt in ST, and all these player projection scenarios, could change overnite. But how and where does Spangy break in, is what I wanna know. Ideally, he’s playing 2nd base, but Gyorko aint goin anywhere, and I dont think Middlebrooks is going to just give up a golden oppurtunity to become the Padres starting 3rd baseman…not with all that he went thru in Boston where they could have just released him, without trading him, thereby making it tougher for him to be taken seriously by any team. Im damn near close to saying, barring an injury, Middlebrooks is really going to impress Padre brass in Spring Training..

    so, it looks like Amarista and Spangy are going to be competing against each other in ST..

    • Dustin

      Much thanks for sharing your thoughts. I certainly share some of your excitement for Myers, but I’m just not that high on Middlebrooks at this point, as it just seems like he’s unable to turn the raw power/talent into anything usable, thanks at least in part to a terrible approach at the plate.

      Obviously some of that could change going forward, and it probably will to some degree, but I just have a hard time believing that enough will change right away to make him a solid starter until I see it.

      Spangenberg would fit the roster a lot better if he could play shortstop, but I’m guessing he’d be stretched a good bit there, as he hasn’t played any in pro ball and the scouting reports don’t seem to indicate that a second-to-short switch would work out well. He’s probably better suited as a utility player, but then again so is Amarista, and Barmes, and probably Solarte as well.

      • MrWhamBam

        I gotta think Preller has his eyes on a SS that we havent thought of. I like Ninja…a lot..but I just dont think him or Barmes can hold down SS for a full season, even with both of them platooning. Neither will give you any offense to gloat about…and thats cool. But their gloves arent great enuf to hold down tthe job there all season. They make the basic plays..and again, thats wonderful. But can they succeed at SS, when they are stretched to their limit and asked to do just a bit more, whatever that may be? (leading off, taking walks, etc)..

      • Dustin

        Agree with you there, definitely. Barmes looks like a solid backup glove-man, at this point. And Amarista is better suited to a super-utility role. Neither should get everyday work at short. Hopefully, as you mention, Preller has someone else in mind for the starting role.