Where Do We Go From Here? (IV: Third Base)

After several years of getting world-class offense but questionable defense at the position, the Braves two years ago decided to go the other way and signed Vinny Castilla. Vinny gave the Braves a horrific 2002 in which the team was forced to pretend that his glove work was ultra-Brooks Robinson to explain why he was in the lineup. Then he turned in a serviceable — but by no means worth the money — 2003. Now a free agent, it seems unlikely given the current climate that Castilla will make nearly as much money next year. The Braves could bring him back, but likely only for one season.

The reason for that is Andy Marte. The Braves’ best position prospect looks like a star in the making. In 2003, he survived Myrtle Beach, where hitters go to die and pitchers go to make themselves look like prospects, as well as anyone ever has. He also has, reportedly, an excellent glove. He hasn’t played at all above A-ball, though, and jumping a player directly from the low minors to the majors is a risky proposition. The Braves probably don’t want to bring Marte up until September, meaning that they will need a temp. (By the way… Marte is in essentially the same position as another third baseman, Miguel Cabrera, was after the 2002 season. Cabrera started the 2003 season in AA and ended it hitting cleanup in the World Series. Oh, and Marte was better in 2003 than Cabrera in 2002. I’m just saying.)

If the Braves stay in-house for a third-baseman-for-now, there are a few candidates. Mark DeRosa was supposed to get a shot at the job in spring training of this past season, but that never materialized. DeRosa didn’t have a very good season, hitting only .263/.316/.383 — Vinny without the power. He did hit better when he played more, but there’s a cause and effect problem there. He’s usually hit better than that, and most of the variation from his norm is a few singles that didn’t drop. DeRosa probably has to hit .280 or better to help the team. I don’t think there’s much of a defensive dropoff if he plays third; Vinny is a surer glove but I think DeRosa has more range.

Mike Hessman is a third baseman by trade, or was in the minors. He played only 11 innings there in his major league callup this year, and he is 6-5, so he doesn’t look much like a third baseman. Reportedly his defense is questionable, though he looked okay on the occasions I’ve seen him. He was pretty terrific in that callup: 21 AB, .286/.423/.667. He’s not that good, obviously. He’s not that much like Wes Helms, to whom I and others have compared him. Hessman’s a somewhat different type of hitter who will hit for a lower average but with more walks and more raw power. The results are pretty much the same, maybe a shade better. But I don’t think Bobby will use a questionable glove there.

Chipper Jones, of course, has mostly been a third baseman in his career, but hasn’t played there in two years. Moving him to third base only to move him back a year later doesn’t seem like a very good strategy. Matt Franco has played a lot of third base in his career, but if Bobby doesn’t trust his defense at first I don’t think he will at third. Jesse Garcia doesn’t have the bat to play shortstop regularly, much less third base.

The Braves could import a free agent to play for a year. Robin Ventura has been mentioned. His bat has slowed down, but he still has power and adequate defense. From the other side Todd Zeile has a similar profile. Joe Randa is the sort of mediocre guy who doesn’t do anything particularly poorly or well that Scheurholz loves, but he’ll probably get a multi-year contract. There are also washouts like Fernando Tatis (whatever happened to him?) available for the real bargain hunters.

Finally, Mike Lowell will probably be offered up by the Marlins. He’s a terrific player, obviously. But I don’t think that the Braves will make a play for him. They want to cut salary, for one thing. For another, there’s still Marte… though you make room for a Mike Lowell. I expect Lowell will wind up with the Yankees, in which case Aaron Boone will be available. Any differences between Boone and Randa other than one having a famous father are not noticeable to the naked eye. Scheurholz might lust after him, too, but I don’t think that after the debacle that was the Bret Boone Era in Atlanta that Aaron will be coming south.

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