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The Strike Zone

Booms and Busts: Third base

Carlos Santana is switching to third base after four seasons at catcher and first base. (Paul Sancya/AP)Carlos Santana is switching to third base after four seasons at catcher and first base. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Last week, I kicked off my second go-round of Booms and Busts, in which I highlighted a small handful of players at a given position whom I expect to take significant steps forward or backward. I have no hard-and-fast criteria for those players, no promises of fantasy league dominance or skyrocketing statistics for the Booms or slides below the Mendoza Line for the Busts. But between poring over projections, identifying players in changed circumstances such as trades, new roles, recoveries from injury, or entries into the prime age range of 26-29 years old, there are players I’d like to earmark before the season begins, for better or worse.

Note that I won’t be including rookies among these picks — those will be saved for another cycle — and I’m hoping (but not promising) that I won’t choose anyone from among last year’s picks. In the spirit of accountability, I’ll revisit those picks at each position, and see what I’ve learned (or haven’t); they’ll be judged on a PASS/FAIL basis as to whether I was right or wrong. Our journey around the horn has reached the hot corner.

BOOMS

Carlos Santana, Indians: Santana's managers have kept him in the lineup at first base and DH often enough that he's gotten at least 600 PA in each of the past three seasons, but his 2014 destination has become one of the spring's most intriguing storylines. The Indians' most potent hitter (.268/.377/.455 with 20 homers and 93 walks in 2013) is attempting to move out from behind the plate and back to third base, a position he last played in 2005-06 (all of 52 games at the minor-league level). Such a move would carve out more playing time for catcher Yan Gomes, who hit .294/.345/.481 with 11 homers in 322 PA, and come at the expense of former prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, who hit just .225/.270/.398 in 308 PA himself. Santana is keen on the move, which he worked on while playing in the Dominican Winter League, but he'll have to win over manager Terry Francona and the Cleveland brass to carry it into the regular season. It's not an easy transition, but if he can pull it off, the team could be stronger at two positions and maintain some of the moving part flexibility that Francona enjoys.

Pablo Sandoval, Giants: It's a rare day when it's worth buying into one of those "best shape of his life" stories that dot the spring baseball landscape like dandelions, but it was tough to miss the significance of the January report that Sandoval had dropped 42 pounds. The Kung Fu Panda has long since proven himself as a very good hitter and decent defender despite his girth, but hamate fractures took big bites out of his playing time in 2011 and 2012, and while last year's 141 games was his highest total played since 2010, he hit just .278/.341/.417, down from his previous career line of .303/.353/.490. Now entering his age-27 season, with either a substantial contract extension or a big free-agent payday likely to come by this time next year, he has no shortage of incentives to stay in shape. At the very least, improved nutrition as well as conditioning have helped him avoid his tendency to balloon in the offseason. The poundage shed should help both his offense and his defense, which has slipped into the red in recent years and cost him late-game at-bats after being pulled for defensive replacements.

BUSTS

Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox: As a rookie in 2012, Middlebrooks came up from the minors and essentially Pipped longtime lineup staple Kevin Youkilis, who amid physical decline was traded later that summer. Middlebrooks showed ample power and finished the year with a .288/.325/.509 line, though a 70/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio hinted at problems with his aggressive approach. Those problems came to the forefront in 2013; pitchers exploited his impatience, and he was demoted to Triple-A in late June, when he was hitting .192/.228/.389. He returned six weeks later and performed better (.276/.329/.476 with eight homers and 11 walks in 158 PA) down the stretch, but even that showing concealed an 8-for-58 slide at the end of the year. As the postseason progressed, top prospect Xander Bogaerts saw more and more time at third base, leaving Middlebrooks as mostly an afterthought. In all, he finished the year hitting .227/.271/.425, with −0.1 WAR thanks to subpar defense (-7 Defensive Runs Saved). Bogaerts is penciled in as Boston's new shortstop, though it's still possible that the team re-signs free agent Stephen Drew and keeps the phenom at third, which could cost Middlebrooks his job. Even if not, he's on thin ice.

Juan Uribe, Dodgers: Uribe was a complete disaster in the first two years of his three-year, $21 million contract, hitting a combined .199/.262/.289 while playing in just 143 games due to injuries and general suckitude. He began the 2013 season in a reserve role, but when Luis Cruz (see below) didn't hit, he rose to the occasion; not only did he hit .278/.331/.438 with 12 homers, but he was also 15 runs above average in the field according to Defensive Runs Saved. His 4.1 WAR set a career high — not exactly a common occurrence for a player in his age-33 season — and he came up big in the postseason with a series-clinching homer against the Braves. Aided by his standing as a leader in the Dodgers' clubhouse, the shallow free-agent market led the team to re-sign him to a two-year, $15 million deal. Particularly given his defensive skills, it's not a terrible bet to believe that Uribe can provide enough value — around 3.0 WAR, spread over two years — to justify the deal, but his age and track record suggest significant regression ahead.

Last Year's Booms (graded Pass/Fail)

Manny Machado, Orioles: Despite a 3.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a fairly substantial first half/second half split (.310/.337/.470 before the All-Star break, .240/.277/.370 after) driven by a 101-point drop in batting average on balls in play (from .361 to .260), there was little reason to be disappointed in Machado's first full major-league season. In his age-20 year, he showed substantial flashes of his offensive ceiling and was nothing less than the league's best defender in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (+35) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+31.2), a performance that netted him not only the AL Gold Glove for third basemen, but also a Fielding Bible Award (best in either league at his position) and the Rawlings AL Platinum Glove Award as the league's defensive player of the year. PASS

Kyle Seager, Mariners: In 2012, Seager established himself as one of the Mariners' rare offensive assets, and in 2013, he improved his performance, mainly by showing increased patience at the plate; his pitches per plate appearance jumped from 3.63 to 4.05, his walk rate from 7.1 percent to 9.8 percent. That added 22 points to his previous on-base percentage en route to a .260/.338/.426 line, good for a 118 OPS+ in Safeco's low-run environment. Throw in solid defense for a 3.9 WAR season. PASS

Last Year's Busts

Luis Cruz, Dodgers: After bouncing around professional baseball for 11 1/2 seasons, Cruz became a cult favorite in the second half of 2012 by hitting .297/.322/.431 for the injury-wracked Dodgers, who eventually sold “Cruuuuuz” t-shirts in the team store. He couldn't reproduce that magic in 2013: After starting the year in a 4-for-46 slump, he rode the bench, was released in early July and caught on with the Yankees. He was little help there, and finished the year with an almost unfathomable .145/.190/.179 line in 187 PA. PASS

Juan Francisco/Chris Johnson, Braves: With Chipper Jones retired and Martin Prado traded to Arizona, the Braves began the year with a platoon at third base. It was solid enough despite Francisco's hacktastic performance, but in early June, they traded Francisco to Milwaukee and gave the job to Johnson on a full-time basis. Despite a perpetually low walk rate and BABIP-dependent batting line, Johnson's.321/.358/.457 in 547 plate appearances was more than acceptable even if his defense (-7 DRS) was shaky. The 1.9 WAR total for the two players (including only Francisco's time with Atlanta) is borderline, but I'll call this my FAIL

• Michael Young, Phillies: I didn't think Young would be as bad with the bat in 2013 as he'd been in 2012, and he wasn't; his .279/.335/.395 represented a 22 percent improvement in terms of OPS+ (from 80 to 102). However, my warning about the 36-year-old's terrible defense at the hot corner also came true (-24 DRS), and amid a −1.2 WAR season, Young lost his job and was traded to the Dodgers, then hung up his spikes. PASS

Scorecard: 4 PASS, 1 FAIL

Running total (all positions thus far): 13 PASS, 8 FAIL

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