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The Phillies and Third Base: Addressing a Decade-Old Problem

Over ten years have passed since the Phillies traded Scott Rolen to the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Phillies have yet to find a long solution at third base. How can the Phillies fill the gap at the hot corner in 2013 (and beyond)?

Daniel Shirey-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

As part of SB Nation United, you’re going to be seeing some new voices at The Good Phight, SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. We’re beginning this week with Cee Angi, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage.

The ghost of Scott Rolen lingers. Since his departure in 2002, the hot corner has been the hardest position for the Phillies to fill. Sure, using David Bell and Placido Polanco worked for a few seasons, but entering 2013, the Phillies have to make a decision about the future of third base, one which seems incredibly difficult given the talent available, the lack of minor league depth for trades, and financial constraints.

The Phillies have a mutual option on Polanco, who turns 37 just two days from now ($5.5 million with a $1 million buyout). He struggled to stay healthy for the second season in a row: In 2011, he was limited by back problems and had double sports hernia surgery in the offseason. This season, the back troubles returned, and he was limited to just 78 games. Polanco was always a tenuous proposition at the hot corner; his combination of a good batting average made up of singles and strong defense was just enough to justify his playing over a more traditionally slugging third baseman. However, he hasn’t met those standards in two years, and it’s unlikely that the Phillies will exercise their option to keep him next season – nor should they.

It was perhaps not wholly coincidental that the Phillies improved once Polanco gave way to former top prospect turned journeyman Kevin Frandsen (broadly speaking, they were 45-56 BF and 36-25 AF). Since his major league debut in 2006, Frandsen has never spent a full season in the majors, restricted by injuries and disappointing performances. He has always hovered around replacement level, with a career -0.5 rWAR, but in Polanco’s absence, he played 55 games and turned in the best performance the Phillies could have hoped for, hitting .338/.383/.451 with serviceable defense, improving to a career-high 1.5 rWAR. While his uncharacteristically great season was a godsend given the Phillies’ limited options, regression is inevitable.

Aside from Frandsen, the internal options are weak. The Phillies have already dismissed the possibility of Chase Utley moving to third base. There is no high-level prospect ready to compete for the job. Freddy Galvis remains, but his bat is of the middle infield type, if that. Normally a shortstop, Galvis played second base almost exclusively (five games at shortstop) in his rookie season due to Chase Utley’s knee injury. Though Galvis is a great defender and more than capable of playing third now that Utley is healthy, he just can’t hit – his .226/.254/.363 in 200 plate appearances might have been more than he can sustain. His 50-game suspension for a positive performance-enhancing drug test only invites further skepticism about his future offensive potential, as does his ongoing recovery from a fractured back, an injury that could have implications for both his offense and defense. While it’s unlikely that he ever develops power or hits for average, we can dream that at 23 he find plate discipline and increase his on-base percentage – but that’s the best-case scenario. The Phillies also have a $4 million option on the veteran utility man Ty Wigginton, a defensively challenged, supposed lefty-masher who hasn’t actually mashed a lefty since 2008 (a subpar .240/.345/.377 against southpaws from 2009 to present).

The benefit of going with the Frandsen/Galvis combination is that it’s a cheap solution that doesn’t require spending players in trade, but the risk of not having a proven player or a backup plan certainly is not ideal, especially given their lack of offensive profile. Frandsen and Galvis don’t address Phillies’ greatest need: Offensive production. Since 2010, the Phillies have declined, and have now plummeted below league average in nearly every offensive category, including runs, doubles, triples, RBI, home runs, and slugging percentage.

The problem for the Phillies, as well as other teams in need of a third baseman, is that free-agent talent is largely non-existent at this position, especially if the Mets and White Sox pick up their options on David Wright and Kevin Youkilis (respectively). One of the few possibilities is Eric Chavez, a free agent after two seasons with the Yankees. Chavez, 35 in December, actually stayed off of the disabled list this year and showed his old Oakland A’s offensive form in a platoon role, hitting .281/.348/.496, with 16 home runs. Chavez could be a cheap solution too, since he earned just $900,000 this season, and could bolster the talent the Phillies already have by platooning with Frandsen. This would obviously be a short-term solution, and wouldn’t do anything to help the Phillies’ aging roster, but it has a higher upside than Polanco or Wigginton.

I’ll refrain from joking that the Phillies could go after Rolen or try to lure Chipper Jones out of retirement, because I do not want to see anyone’s head explode.

It’s always dangerous to speculate about possible trades, but the Phillies could at least consider two potential options: the PadresChase Headley and the RockiesJordan Pacheco. This was a real breakout season for Headley, who hit .286/.376/.498 with 31 home runs in 699 plate appearances. He made just $3.475 million this season, but he’s due for a huge raise in arbitration, and the Padres seem interested in signing him to a contract extension, but the desire is complicated since Jedd Gyorko had a monster season at Triple-A and is ready to try the majors. Given their depth at the position, the Padres might consider moving Headley or Gyorko for a suitable return. Getting Headley would be expensive and difficult for the Phillies considering they don’t have a lot of moveable depth in the farm system, but a miracle move to get a franchise third baseman that hits for power might be worth it, and is well within Ruben Amaro, Jr’s bag of tricks given his habit of throwing the farm system at trading partners.

Another trade possibility raised by a blocked prospect, albeit one with far less upside than a play for Headley, would be Jordan Pacheco, who showed himself to have some major league value in his rookie season with the Rockies. He had just enough at bats to qualify for the batting title and finished sixth in the National League, hitting .309/.341/.421. Turning 27 in January, Pacheco isn’t young for a rookie, but is a mere babe compared to the typical Phillies player. Having bounced between the middle infield, third base, and catcher in the minors, he’s not particularly polished at the hot corner, and struggles to hit for power even though he’s been playing in the extremely hitter-friendly Coors Field. His ISO improved slightly from 0.99 in Triple-A Colorado Springs, to .112 in the majors, but as the 2011 Baseball Prospectus annual points out, " The [Colorado Springs] Sky Sox as a team had a .184 ISO. As Fred Ebb never wrote, ‘if you can’t hit there, you can’t hit anywhere.’"

Being a somewhat talent-starved 98-loss team, the Rockies might normally be expected to hold on to even limited players such as Pacheco. However, the Rockies have Nolan Arenado, who is seen as the future of third base in Colorado, likely soon ready for a promotion (though he hadn’t yet played at Double-A, he made a play for a major league job in spring training), as well as Chris Nelson. Pacheco may never develop into a power hitter, but he might be easy to lure away from the Rockies given even an average pitcher as bait.

The Phillies’ approach will be dictated by where they view the team in its lifecycle, which isn’t clear so early in the offseason. Amaro Jr. said recently that he wants the team to get younger and the focus to be on developing talent, which seems to hint at rebuilding, but given that the starting rotation and the core position players are under contract, they could opt to try for one last hurrah; if Utley and Ryan Howard are healthy, that’s a decision that could pay off. Obviously there are a lot of variables in this decision, but trying for a platoon of Chavez/Frandsen might be the best short-term solution. It won’t be enough to exorcise the ghost of Scott Rolen, but it may be enough to finish higher than third in the NL East.