Head to Head (Part 4): Ranking the Third Basemen in the NL East

This is the fourth article in the series ranking the best players by positions in the NL East. This one compares the five starting third basemen in the division; listed alphabetically by last name as Chipper Jones, Placido Polanco, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, and Ryan Zimmerman.

2011 was a historically awful season for third baseman in the NL East. Despite Placido Polanco starting in the All-Star Game, he struggled immensely at the plate after May. Ryan Zimmerman and David Wright both have a lot to prove after subpar ’11 seasons, and Hanley Ramirez may be on the hot seat about as much as any player in the game after a miserable 2011 and a subsequent move to third base when Miami acquired Jose Reyes in free agency. Chipper Jones was the only third baseman not to have a subpar season by his standards, although at 39 years old, it’s obvious Jones is nowhere near the player he used to be.

If you missed the article on the catchers, first basemen, or second basemen, please click here to read it.

5. Placido Polanco, Philadelphia Phillies: It’s surprising to see last year’s starting third baseman for the NL in the All-Star Game as the worst starting third baseman in his own division, but that’s the case for Placido Polanco in a division of pretty good veteran third basemen. Polanco is entering the final season of his contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, and the team actually tried to upgrade the position in the offseason, reportedly going after Aramis Ramirez. http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/phillies/Reports-Phillies-pursue-Aramis-Ramirez-look-to-deal-Polanco.html

Polanco hit just .277/.335/.339 in 523 plate appearances after a strong April that saw him bat .398 with a .524 slugging percentage. The 36-year old Polanco played through a sports hernia, after playing through a badly injured elbow in 2010, and he has struggled to stay healthy as of late a la all the Phillies infielders – Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Jimmy Rollins. Polanco was an offensive liability down the stretch, hitting .243/.304/.287 after May 1. He will likely begin the season as the team’s number two hitter in the lineup because he possesses excellent bat control and rarely strikes out, but he shows so little power that it’s like having Wilson Valdez in the starting lineup.

Fortunately, Polly is spectacular with the glove; in fact, he doesn’t get enough recognition for just how good he is with the glove. His glove was so good that factoring in his batting and fielding gave him a WAR of 2.8 last season; that figure was higher than any of the other third basemen in the NL East.

He can play second or third base flawlessly, and holds the all-time major league record for career fielding percentage at both second base (.993) and third base (.982), and he has led the league in fielding eight times. He’s led the NL in fielding percentage at the hot corner in each of his two seasons in stint two with the Phillies, and he also topped the league in range factor, which shows his ability to still get to any ball hit near him. Polanco likely won’t play well enough for the Phillies to pick up his option for 2013, but if he can hit .285 with a slugging percentage back up around his career mark of .400, it will be good enough.

4. David Wright, New York Mets: There’s no clear cut winner of the remaining four third baseman, and there’s no clear loser either. David Wright finishes fourth in my ranking, although it’s so close that I could just as easily have put him second or even first.

Wright was the face of the franchise – and probably still is – but he better pick up the production on the field. He hit just .254/.345/.427 with 14 home runs, 61 RBIs, and 13 stolen bases last season, missing nearly two months with a stress fracture in his back.

Wright was his usual fantastic self in 2010, hitting .283 with 29 home runs and 19 stolen bases, although he had slumped previously in ’09, seeing a major drop in his home runs (down to just 10). Wright is just 29 years old and he’s a power and speed guy at a tough defensive position.

Defensively, Wright isn’t helping his case. He annually ranks among the league leaders in errors, and made the second-most of any third baseman in the NL in 2011 (19). Wright’s struggles defensively are enough to keep him behind Ryan Zimmerman on this list, and he’s also coming off a worse season at the plate.

3. Chipper Jones, Atlanta Braves: Chipper Jones is a future Hall of Famer if there ever was one. He’s a .304/.402/.533 career hitter with 454 home runs, 1,561 RBIs, and an MVP award on his resume, and he’s still a very productive third baseman.

Jones is entering the final season of a three-year, $42 million contract, although he’s already said this is the grand finale of his major league career. Jones batted .275/.344/.470 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs in 512 plate appearances in 2011, making his seventh career All-Star team. Jones still hits for power from both sides of the plate, although he’s significantly better hitting left-handed. He draws enough walks that his batting average can still drop and he will be a key offensive player, and he’s still at least an average third baseman in the field.

2. Hanley Ramirez, Miami Marlins: It’s tough to rank Hanley Ramirez as a third baseman when he hasn’t played third base before, but he saw a startling enough drop in his offensive statistics in 2011 that he ranks behind Ryan Zimmerman on this list.

Ramirez was seen as arguably the best all-around player in baseball heading into 2010, but look at the alarming drop in his numbers at the plate:

2009: .342/.410/.543, .954 OPS, 24 HR, 106 RBI, 27 SB in 652 plate appearances
2010: .300/.378/.475, .853 OPS, 21 HR, 76 RBI, 32 SB in 619 plate appearances
2011: .243/.333/.379, .712 OPS, 10 HR, 45 RBI, 20 SB in 385 plate appearances

After being a league batting champion in 2009, Ramirez saw a 100-point drop in his average from ’09 to ’11. He lost his power, his steals went down, and he missed substantial time to injuries. Hopefully a fresh start at third base will put Ramirez back on track, because he’s looking way too much like a player that peaked early and will never be the same again.

On defense, Ramirez wasn’t a great shortstop, leading the NL in errors at his position twice, but he did manage to work the total from 26 as a rookie to just 14 in 2011. That shouldn’t transition too well to third base, especially if Ramirez continues to play defense like this.

Ramirez probably won’t win the league MVP award as his manager Ozzie Guillen predicted, but a jump back to even his ’10 numbers would be incredibly reassuring for Miami fans.

1. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman – like all five third basemen in the NL East – is coming off a subpar offensive season, a year in which he hit just .289/.355/.443 with 12 home runs and 49 RBIs in 440 plate appearances. He missed over 50 games due to an abdominal injury, and he missed about the same time back in 2008 with a tear in his shoulder.

The Washington Nationals obviously feel he is still the MVP candidate he was back in ’09 and ’10 because they recently inked him to a six-year, $100 million extension that will keep him in D.C. through the 2019 season (plus a team option for 2020). Zimmerman is a .288 career hitter with 30-home run power, and he’s a key player on an up-and-coming team that could challenge for the NL East title in 2012.

He is average defensively – he won’t cost the Nationals too many runs with his glove, and he won’t get to a ton of balls that an average third baseman would miss. He’s being paid for his bat though, and he’s young enough and been consistent enough throughout his career that there is reason to believe he will rebound in ’12.

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