Third base is a bit of a rough spot for the Major League Indians as some combination of players not wanting to stay at the position and management not wanting to play others there has lead to a bit of confusion.
While turmoil may exist at the major league level, that wouldn’t necessitate that it does below throughout the farm system. Despite this, things may be even worse in the upper minor levels. Seven different players had playing time at third in AAA in 2017 and ten in AA with essentially zero potential MLB starters of the group. Of those who played for the Clippers, the only argument could be made for Yandy Diaz, who has now spent enough time in the Majors that he shouldn’t really be considered a prospect, while in Akron a couple players likely have MLB futures, but not at third base. For the Rubberducks, Mark Mathias (a 2B by trade), Eric Stamets (a potential MLB utility man) and Francisco Mejia all played at least once at third, but none can really be considered third basemen. While Yu-Cheng Chang could be moved from short back to third, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards at the moment. This all leads to…
The Highest Level True Thirdbaseman with MLB Starter Potential
With no real answers at Columbus, Akron, Lynchburg or even Lake County, the closest thing the Indians have to a real 3B prospect is Nolan Jones, who just finished his second pro season by playing for the short season Mahoning Valley Scrappers. Jones is a very interesting case as he was drafted as a short stop and was fantastic defensively for the first half of the 2016 season in the Arizona League, then began to struggle with the glove and arm, a trend that accelerated in his second season to the point where he was a complete liability in the field.
At the same time, his bat improved markedly as he hit his first pro homer in an extended Spring Training game (unofficially), then added four more for real with the Scrappers. With this, he raised his slugging percent from .339 to .489 while playing nearly twice as many games as the year before. He has incredible plate discipline and pitch selection, some power and decent speed although he is conservative on the bases. These things combined could make him into a very dangerous hitter even if he is quite a long way from the big leagues. While defense remains an issue, this should be much easier to fix than poor plate discipline as he advances, especially since it was once his strong suit. There’s a reason Jones ranked fourth in our 2017 prospect rankings and he should give the Indians hope at the position in the long term.
Hope Prior to 2021
Jones was the Indians second round pick in 2016 and was considered to have first round potential by many, but it was a selection much later in the draft that could break through with the Indians at third much sooner. Gavin Collins was taken as a catcher in the 13th, but was one of six catchers drafted that year by the team (three of which signed) and was immediately moved off position. He played almost exclusively at third base in his first professional season for Mahoning Valley, then continued in Instructional League and Extended Spring in 2017 before heading to Lake County and eventually Lynchburg to finish the year.
While he doesn’t have the range or arm of Jones, Collins certainly has an interesting bat and his numbers remained consistent despite a jump to high A in just his second season. He also has power with 21 doubles and 12 home runs across both levels in 2017 and is already 21 years old. Collins will likely start 2018 in Lynchburg, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t hit AAA by 2019. There certainly isn’t anyone above him who will keep him down. It’s still a long way off and Collins has a lot of work to do, but it’s possible that by the time Jason Kipnis‘ contract is up in Cleveland, Collins would be able to start at third with Jose Ramirez staying at second. Of course, this kind of long term speculation is a bit silly as the entire situation could change by next week.
Potential Position Changes
While Collins and Jones were the only third basemen listed in our top 50 prospects, there are a few other players who could eventually move to 3B and make the position a little deeper over the next few years. The prime candidate is the aforementioned Chang, who played a little third base in his first season with Cleveland. Since then, he’s been used exclusively at short stop, but he has good reflexes and a great arm which would help a move back to the hot corner. Possibly most importantly, the Indians have absolutely no need for a short stop at the present time.
Francisco Lindor is not only one of the top two short stops in baseball, but has had a total of 7 complete games off in the last two years. When he does take a day off, the Indians have Ramirez, Erik Gonzalez, Giovanny Urshela and Eric Stamets who can fill in for a day or two. While Chang wasn’t always considered a can’t miss prospect, he’s getting to that level and at this point should be considered a contender for a Major League starting job at some point. Since he won’t be doing that at short stop in Cleveland, he becomes major trade bait or a potential third baseman given his power profile.
A little further down the ladder, the Indians have Mark Mathias, who has been pushed down by Tyler Krieger to become the Indians second best second base prospect. Since both appear to be on the same timeline to hit the Majors, there will undoubtedly be some movement one way or the other. In whole, considering the incredible strength the Indians have in the minors at short stop and second base, there are definitely some moves to be made. This could mean moving players off position to replace outgoing minor leaguers like Yonathan Mendoza, Ronny Rodriguez and Claudio Bautista or trades to bolster the MLB club, but something has to give.
At the lower levels, Luke Wakamatsu is coming off a disappointing season both offensively and defensively in Lake County. He has definite talent and potential and it would be interesting to see his arm and aggressiveness in the field play at third although he is yet to play there in the minors. If the Indians began the 2018 season with Chang at third in AAA, Mathias at AA, Collins and Wakamatsu at A+ and Jones at A, it would make the position look much stronger than it did this year with Urshela (AAA), Joe Sever (AA), Claudio Bautista (A+) and Jorma Rodriguez (A) getting the majority of the at bats at each level.
As it stands, the Indians are incredibly weak at third base. In fact, the only position that is weaker in true prospect depth is first base, but at least there Bobby Bradley should be Major League ready within the next few seasons. At third, things are far from as guaranteed and prospects are few and far between. Even with positional changes, the Indians have only a handful of interesting players at the positions and all have major flaws. This could all be unnecessary if Yandy Diaz or Yu-Cheng Chang become an all-star that plays for a decade, but chances are, the Indians will need a third baseman at some point before Nolan Jones turns 23.