By Cliff Corcoran
The Winter Meetings came and went without a single infielder or outfielder signing a Major League contract. Nonetheless, there has been a significant development in the market for third basemen with the news that the Orioles are willing to move Manny Machado heading into his walk year. Add speculation about the availability of the Rays' Evan Longoria and the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson and aggressive early actions of the Angels, Cardinals and Yankees -- all of whom appear interested in adding a third baseman -- and the third-base market, which already included top free agents Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier, has suddenly exploded.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the top names available at the position and the teams with which they might best fit.
Machado is under Orioles team control for 2018, but he's due for a raise via arbitration coming off a season in which he made $11.5 million and could demand a record-setting contract upon reaching free agency at the age of 26 next November. Given that he is also the Orioles' best player, one who finished in the top five in the American League MVP Award voting in both 2015 and '16, he will be expensive in every possible way: in the prospects it will take to pry him loose from the O's, in his 2018 salary and in any attempt to retain him beyond the coming season.
Baltimore general manager Dan Duquette does not seem to intend to give potential trade partners a negotiating window that would allow them to make a swap contingent on signing Machado to an extension. That's likely a moot point as Machado's agent, Scott Boras, isn't likely to surrender the chance to take a 26-year-old stud like Machado to free agency. However, USA Today's Bob Nightengale suggested on Thursday that Orioles owner Peter Angelos could refuse to trade Machado to a team that might flip him to the rival Yankees, be it this offseason or next July.
That would be a much larger obstacle to a Machado trade, as it would limit the field to teams unlikely to sell at the Trade Deadline, no matter how much they might struggle in the first four months of the season. Among those teams, the Astros, Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals and Red Sox are already set both at third base and Machado's original position of shortstop, to which he would reportedly like to return. With the Yankees likely out of the question, there are few options remaining. The team that would make the most sense is the Cardinals, who just added Marcell Ozuna to the heart of their order and were reportedly one of the teams most aggressively pursuing Machado at the Winter Meetings.
If the Cardinals land Machado, it could make incumbent third baseman Jedd Gyorko available as either a utility man or trade bait, unless he turns out to be Machado's replacement in Baltimore. Gyorko is owed $15.5 million for the next two seasons (the Padres are still on the hook for another $7.5 million) with a $13 million option for 2020.
Like Machado, Donaldson is heading into his walk year. Unlike Machado, he'll be 33 by this time next year, making him more likely to entertain extension talks with the Blue Jays, who are thus far less motivated to move the former AL MVP. That hasn't stopped the Cardinals from asking, but the Blue Jays reportedly would have to be completely blown away by an offer to trade Donaldson. Despite their stumble last year and the Yankees' return to power in the AL East, Toronto still envisions a return to contention in 2018.
In my free-agent rankings in early November, I put Frazier ahead of Mike Moustakas because of his consistency, reliability and play in the field. That Moustakas will likely demand a larger, longer contract because he is two-and-a-half years younger than Frazier only increases Frazier's desirability. Now that the Yankees have traded Starlin Castro and Chase Headley, freeing up second base for top prospect Gleyber Torres and creating a vacancy at third base, Jersey boy Frazier's return to the Bronx seems like a natural.
However, the Headley trade was a way to shed salary by a team still hoping to stay under the competitive-balance-tax threshold in the wake of adding Giancarlo Stanton's monster salary, and the Yankees still need to add at least one established arm to their rotation. That Headley's salary was a mere $13 million doesn't bode well for a reunion with Frazier, who made $12 million in his final year of arbitration. Both parties may wait to see if New York can clear additional payroll, ideally by moving Jacoby Ellsbury, now a fifth outfielder making more than $21 million a year with a full no-trade clause. However, Frazier's market is heating up, with the Angels, Giants and Mets -- the last my November prediction for his 2018 team -- among a reported 10 teams showing interest, toying with the idea of using him at first or even second base.
My biggest concern about Moustakas is the health of his legs. He missed most of 2016 with a torn ACL in his right knee, and he was less reliable in the field in 2017, a season that ended with Moose complaining about lingering pain in that knee. His bat will travel well -- he slugged .582 with 24 homers outside of cavernous Kauffman Stadium this year -- but he may be a first baseman or designated hitter in short order.
Moustakas' market has thus far been slow to develop, and the combination of his career .305 on-base percentage and concerns about his legs and future position could be why. Given the latter, he'd be a better fit on an AL team, one with an opening, or underwhelming in-house option, at either first base or DH. The Angels might fit that bill best. Unfortunately for Moustakas, Angel Stadium is as hard on left-handed home-run hitters as the K. He might be better off going with my November prediction, the White Sox, who have one of the most homer-friendly ballparks in the league, have reportedly been aggressive in pursuit of Machado and could graduate to contention during Moustakas' tenure with the team.
The Rays have been largely mum about their willingness to trade the best player in franchise history, even with the player himself, but he is heading into his age-32 season, coming off his worst year at the plate and is owed $86 million over the next five seasons (including the buyout on his 2023 option). To be fair, Longoria is still an above-average player. He bounced back nicely this past season from a poor year in the field in 2016 and has never been a below-average bat. He is a lock for 20-plus home runs a year, and his bat could play up in a more hitter-friendly ballpark. For a team with a need at third, he's a clear upgrade. Indeed, the Angels and Cardinals have reportedly inquired about his availability, and given the size of his contract, it seems likely that they could have him for minimal return provided they assume the full commitment of his pact. For what it's worth, Angels Stadium is friendlier to right-handed power hitters than lefties.
The Padres took switch-hitter Chase Headley and the $13 million he is owed on the final year of his contract from the Yankees because they wanted righty Bryan Mitchell. They then immediately began shopping Headley, who seems unlikely to remain a Padre come Spring Training. Free agent Eduardo Nuñez can be suspect in the field and ended the season with a knee injury that could impact his speed, but he offers a league-average bat and positional flexibility, and, if his legs are healthy, he's an excellent base stealer. The Red Sox, who will be without Dustin Pedroia to start the season due to surgery on his left knee; the Blue Jays, who have an injury-prone middle infield; and the Yankees, who could wind up breaking in prospects at second and third; have all shown interest. Yunel Escobar is also a free agent who offers a league-average bat and suspect defense and, at age 35, could likely be had on a one-year deal. Meanwhile, with so many teams set at shortstop, Zack Cozart may be in play as a third baseman. The Angels have expressed interest in moving him there. With six teams actively pursuing third basemen -- the Angels, Cardinals, Yankees, White Sox, Giants and Mets -- and Donaldson likely staying put, the slick-fielding Cozart would seem to be one of the top six options for the position despite the fact that he has never played there as a professional.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.