Re-evaluating the hot corner in 2020

By: Joe Pohoryles

Yesterday, the Nats lost out on their top free agent target. Third baseman Josh Donaldson agreed to a four-year, $92 million deal with the Minnesota Twins, officially ending the hopes of getting a high-end replacement for Anthony Rendon as the Nats’ third baseman.

A couple weeks ago, I made a series of posts evaluating the ways in which the Nats could replace Rendon. To summarize briefly, it came down to signing Donaldson, trading for one of the stars on the trade block (Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, etc.) or finding an in-house option/cheap free agent.

It appears the Nats have opted to go with the latter, which became apparent after they signed several veteran infielders – each one leaving less space to sign Donaldson for what he demanded – and became official last night.

It’s not a total loss, though. The division-rival Atlanta Braves were the incumbent team in the Donaldson race, so if he could not end up with the Nats, it’s a win that he’s no longer in the division (or even the National League).

In between my posts and the Donaldson deal, the Nats made a handful of moves, especially in the infield.

The first deal came on Jan. 7, when they signed Starlin Castro to a two-year deal. Primarily a second baseman, Castro also spent time at shortstop and third with the bottom-feeding Miami Marlins. The former All-Star hit .270 with 22 home runs and 86 RBI in 2019, and had an OPS of .736.

Before the deal, it was widely expected the team’s top prospect, Carter Kieboom (MLB’s No. 20 prospect), would become the team’s starting second baseman, but now it appears Castro will be the front-runner for the role, while Kieboom should get part-time duties around the infield, and serve as insurance in case of an injury.

A day after the Castro deal, the Nats brought back Asdrúbal Cabrera on a one-year deal. The 34-year-old played a big role in the Nats’ World Series run, primarily playing at second. He played 98 games at third with the Texas Rangers before being waived last season, eventually landing in Washington.

On the same day, Jan. 8, the team landed a deal with power-hitting first baseman Eric Thames. Though unlikely to spend time at third, Thames should still provide a valuable left-handed bat off the bench, while also rotating in at first with Howie Kendrick, and possibly Ryan Zimmerman if he ever re-signs. He has also spent time in the outfield, proving to be a versatile plug-in.

Along with the infield moves, the Nats also spent a decent amount of payroll tightening up a notoriously leaky bullpen, not only re-signing playoff hero Daniel Hudson, but also inking a three-year deal with the pitcher who gave up the go-ahead home run to Kendrick in Game 7 of the World Series. Will Harris, despite losing Game 7, has been one of the most reliable, consistent relief pitchers in baseball for the past several years, and will look to be a strong set-up man. Combine those two with All-Star Sean Doolittle and 100-mph hurler Tanner Rainey, and this bullpen looks a lot better than it did on Opening Day 2019.

It’s all those signings that made a deal with Donaldson very unlikely to occur. With 26 players currently signed, the team sits around $15 million under the luxury tax threshold, which the Lerner family has treated as a hard salary cap over the past couple years. Donaldson’s $23 million AAV would put them well over that threshold with over a dozen spots left to fill.

The Lerners could very well decide to go over the threshold if they see fit, but there are really no options on the open market that are better than who the team already has. Plus, as one of the highest-spending teams of the past five years, I doubt the team would want to rack up any extra costs anyway.

Stat comparison: Rendon vs. the 2020 third basemen

While the combined efforts of the third base candidates should drive in more runs than Rendon alone, their overall impact likely won’t come close to Rendon’s. Interesting to note, if Castro plays only at second base, and his 2020 projections are removed, then the other two players at third will fall short in HR and RBI compared to Rendon’s numbers last year. (Projections by Baseball-Reference, *Kieboom’s WAR projection for 2020 by MiLB.com; Infographics by Joe Pohoryles).

So now, it appears the team will be without an every day starting third baseman for the first time in, well, ever. Since the team arrived in DC from Montreal, Zimmerman, then Rendon have had the hot corner nailed down. The team will platoon at third for the first time. Unless a trade is still on the table.

With Castro presumably at second, it appears Kieboom is a bit more expendable. Could he be packaged in a deal for Bryant or Arenado? After all, his natural position is shortstop, which Trea Turner has to himself, and he won’t be the every day guy at second base either.

It appears unlikely, as Bryant talks have centered around center fielder Victor Robles, who has been (and should be) a no-go. Arenado has been linked to the St. Louis Cardinals, and even the Chicago Cubs, but not with Washington. Plus, it could be best for Kieboom’s development if he starts by coming off the bench, instead of being thrown into a starting role immediately. Despite his limited experience at third base, he could even contribute in that position, according to GM/president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo, and Kieboom himself.

Rizzo has given manager Dave Martinez plenty of options to work with, and after some experimenting, it appears the best combination for the infield will surface naturally. Whether that’s good enough to repeat their run from last year remains to be seen. Despite losing Donaldson, the Braves still boast a potent roster, and are the reigning-division champions with one of the best farm systems in baseball. The New York Mets made several big signings, and look poised to take a leap in 2020. (Although the Mets are the Mets, so they’re their own worst enemy.)

No one will be able to replicate Rendon’s offense, so hopefully the drop-off there can be compensated by better defense courtesy of the upgraded bullpen. Defensive ability remains a concern for those in the mix for third, but hopefully it won’t be enough of a liability to be a major issue. It will be tough to predict what the final infield will look like, especially if more bench pieces are brought in, but as of Jan. 15, this is what I believe the Nats’ infield should like on Opening Day:

1B – Howie Kendrick*

2B – Starlin Castro

SS – Trea Turner

3B – Asdrúbal Cabrera

*=Zim still needs to be re-signed, so he may receive the nod on Opening Day if he does indeed re-sign. Thames could conceivably get the start, as he is the youngest of the three (even at 33) and brings power, but Kendrick is the better hitter for average, and will likely start regardless.

Projected infield depth chart entering 2020:

1B – Howie Kendrick/Eric Thames/Ryan Zimmerman*

2B – Starlin Castro/Carter Kieboom/Howie Kendrick/Asdrúbal Cabrera

SS – Trea Turner/Carter Kieboom/Starlin Castro/Wilmer Difo

3B – Asdrúbal Cabrera/Carter Kieboom/Starlin Castro/Wilmer Difo

(Cover Photo Credit: MASN.com)

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