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 (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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