With Hamels Deal Done, Phils Must Turn Eyes to Third Base

Getting Cole Hamels signed to a contract extension was far and away the Phillies’ #1 issue and had been for over a year. It was a long and tedious process, and everyone can now breathe a long, exasperated sigh of relief now that it’s done. But the Phillies’ work is far from over as the trading deadline will be upon us in less than a week, and reports have them actively shopping many players including Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Ty Wigginton, Cliff Lee, Hunter Pence, and even Jimmy Rollins. The two hottest rumors at the moment have included Victorino: one suggests the Phillies wanted to ship him to the Cincinnati Reds for reliever Logan Ondrusek, and another had Victorino going to the Los Angeles Dodgers for reliever Josh Lindblom.

Relief pitching should be dead last on the Phillies’ itinerary now, especially those two names. Ondrusek is a poor man’s Kyle Kendrick, while Lindblom has had tremendous trouble keeping baseballs in the field of play. Instead, the Phillies should be staring intently at third base on their 2013 depth chart. Third baseman Placido Polanco has a $5.5 million mutual option for 2013, but it is unlikely to be picked up even though he has outproduced the $18 million he will have been paid over three years. Polanco will be 37 next year, has put up a measly .628 OPS at the hot corner this year, and has had tremendous difficulty keeping a clean bill of health. The Phillies simply can’t risk gambling on him for another year.

There is a problem, though: the free agent market for third basemen is barren. Potential free agents (ignoring those with options) include Geoff Blum, Miguel Cairo, Maicer Izturis, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Scott Rolen, and Mark Teahen. None of those names should pique the Phillies’ interest. There are, however, two third basemen that are available now via trade that should make the Phillies salivate: Chase Headley and prospect Mike Olt.

Headley is an underrated, switch-hitting third baseman for the San Diego Padres. As if the first name wasn’t enough, Headley is a lot like the third base version of Chase Utley in that he does a lot of everything very well. He hits (career .330 wOBA; .344 this year), fields (fourth among MLB 3B in UZR/150 from 2009-12 at 9.0), runs (50-for-63 stealing bases, 79%). Best of all, he can even play the outfield as he’s logged over 1,695 innings there over his Major League career, compared to the 3,471 he has played at third base. FanGraphs puts him at 12.7 WAR over the last four seasons (over 3.1 on average), putting him in the top-ten most valuable third basemen in the last four years.

Why would the Padres want to get rid of Headley? He earned $3.475 million in his second year of arbitration-eligibility this past off-season and his salary will only escalate in his next two years. Since 2009, the Padres have operated with an Opening Day payroll between $37 and $55 million, so they have incentive to capitalize on Headley’s value now before having to commit too much money to him. Since Headley would be under team control for two more years at a very barren position, the Padres would be able to get a lot of value for him, and that’s exactly what they’re doing according to most reports.

The other name to keep track of is Mike Olt, the exciting third base prospect in the Texas Rangers’ system, currently at Double-A Frisco. To date, he has 26 home runs in 386 plate appearances and a .978 OPS. Olt was the Rangers’ #4 prospect entering the season according to Baseball America and is drawing a ton of interest as the Rangers look to add a top-tier starting pitcher, such as Zack Greinke, for another run at the World Series. Lone Star Ball, the Rangers blog for SB Nation, had this to say about Olt in their pre-season scouting report:

The concern with a lot of power-hitting third basemen is that they aren’t going to be able to handle the hot corner long term and will have to move across the diamond to first base…Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, and Mark Teixeira, among others, started their careers as third basemen before getting shifted.

That’s not a concern with Olt, however. He played shortstop as a freshman at UConn, and while reports on his defense vary, just about every observer has him as no worse than average at the position, and he generally gets an above-average grade for his defense, with most pegging him as an above-average defender and some suggesting he could be Gold Glove caliber at the hot corner. Third base has traditionally been a difficult position for major league teams to fill, and a plus defender who can hit has a lot of value.

Offensively, Olt doesn’t profile to hit for a high average — he’s not a burner (his speed has been described as “fringe-average”), and he strikes out a lot, so he’s someone you figure isn’t likely to be more than a .260-.270 hitter in the majors, even if things break right for him. However, because Olt hits for power and draws walks, he doesn’t have to be a high-average hitter to be a quality offensive player.

Due to the Rangers’ specific needs and the recent extending of Hamels, the only Phillies pitcher who makes sense for the Rangers is Cliff Lee. There is no consensus yet about the availability of Lee, but there is at least some indication that the Phillies would listen to offers. The Phillies should insist that any trade with the Rangers involving Lee must include Olt. While Olt wouldn’t give them an immediate answer for 2013 — he would likely start with Triple-A Lehigh Valley — the Phillies would be satisfied with a long-term option at third base. In the meantime, they could sign a cheap veteran, pick up Ty Wigginton’s $4 million option, or go with Mike Fontenot in his final year of arbitration-eligibility.

As mentioned, third base is a position of great scarcity these days. Since 2010, only five third basemen (including Headley) have posted 10 or more combined WAR, per FanGraphs. The only positions with fewer players are catcher (four) and shortstop (three). If the Phillies can adequately address their needs here, they can set themselves up for another sustained run of post-season success for years to come. This is the biggest issue for the Phillies right now and it should be getting a majority of their attention as the July 31 deadline draws closer.

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