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Ranking the American League East third basemen

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2021 might shake up the popular conception of who’s who at the AL East’s hot corner.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

After sorting through the American League East’s shortstops and second basemen, it’s time to turn to the hot corner. Here are the division’s best at third base:

5. Rio Ruiz, Baltimore Orioles

Like the vast majority of contemporary Orioles, Ruiz has proven to be a replacement level infielder at best. In his five-year career, Ruiz has triple-slashed .220/.295/.372. He doesn’t walk or strike out a ton, but has trouble doing much with the baseball when he does make contact. On defense, he’s no bum, but he’s certainly no one-way specialist either. In each of his qualified seasons, Ruiz has been no better than 35 percent of the league per OAA. If you’re into baseball cards, I wouldn’t bust my buns to scrounge together a handful of his RCs.

4. Joey Wendle/Yandy Díaz, Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are entering 2021 with an intriguing duo at the top of their third base depth chart. Wendle offers an old-school approach, providing a consistent but low-wattage output. He’s a career .277 hitter, but across 1,110 career plate appearances, has just 14 homers. Although his quick hands play up on defense as well, he lacks the arm strength to be a plus defender at anywhere on the left side of second base.

Coming into 2019, Díaz was one of baseball’s biggest Statcast darlings. Believers argued that elite average exit velocity provided the foundation for an All-Star quality bat, given the proper instruction to convert his smoked grounders into home runs. For the most part, 2019 proved them right. Díaz posted a career high OPS of .816 in his first season with the Rays, though his launch angle only improved by about a single degree compared to the previous year.

On the surface of his 2020 season, Diaz’s performance looked like a continuance of his previous season’s successes, nearly exactly matching his 2019 mark with an OPS of .814. However, that number belied some significant batted ball regression. Diaz’s famed average exit velocity dropped by more than three mph, and he outperformed his expected rate statistics by about 50 points across the board. Perhaps most tellingly, his average launch angle fell from about average to -7.9 degrees. Only time will tell whether Yandy’s breakout 2019 was the real deal, or just a blip in a career of obliterated ground balls. Defensively, Yandy’s limitations will probably mean that Wendle as the near full-time starter is the only feasible route for the Rays.

3. Cavan Biggio, Toronto Blue Jays

In acquiring Marcus Semien, the Blue Jays, at the very least, added another solid defender to their infield stocked with young talent. For the time being, his addition clarifies the roles of the Blue Jays’ three young, malleable pieces. With Toronto’s shortstop occupied by Bo Bichette for the foreseeable future, Semien has offered that he prefers second base if not his natural position of short. That leaves Cavan Biggio as the remaining viable option to man the hot corner for the Jays.

The addition of Semien will also mean that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a third baseman for his rookie season, will remain at first base. After flubbing his way to a -16 OAA, the Jays seem to have figured they’re better off with the sure-handed Biggio at the hot corner even if he doesn’t quite have the arm of your prototypical third baseman.

2. Gio Urshela, New York Yankees

Despite finishing second in Gold Glove voting in 2020, Urshela’s reputation for game-saving grabs obscures his tortoise-like range at third. While he is stellar when the ball is hit right at him, he lacks the ability to go and get balls outside of his immediate vicinity. Per OAA, Urshela has ranked in the 20th and 21st percentiles in his two years as a Yankee, proving far worse metrically than his highlight reel might portend. (For what it’s worth, FanGraphs defensive numbers look on him more kindly, so the jury’s out.)

Regardless of Urshela’s polarizing defense, no one is questioning his surprising performance at the plate anymore. After bouncing around the majors for a couple of lackluster seasons, the Yankees purchased his rights from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2019. With Miguel Andújar’s string of shoulder issues sidelining him for much of Urshela’s first season in pinstripes, Gio made the most of the opportunity. His .889 OPS eclipsed even Andújar’s .855 from his Rookie of the Year runner-up showing in 2018. As the incumbent starter in 2020, Urshela’s near replication of his stats from his first year with the Yanks seems to have proven he’s here to stay as one of the better hitting infielders in the AL.

1. Rafael Devers, Boston Red Sox

While Urshela’s 2020 was better than Devers’ on both sides of the ball, Devers’ 2019 reached heights that Urshela’s never approached. In his promising but ultimately underwhelming rookie campaign of 2018, Devers was the second-worst defensive third baseman by OAA and failed to crack a .750 OPS. In 2019, Devers apparently made good on his sky-high potential, finishing the season with a .311/.661/.555 triple-slash in just his age-22 season, mashing 54 doubles to lead the AL. He even recorded the game’s tenth-highest average exit velocity in all of baseball.

Almost as importantly, Devers seemed to have entirely figured it out on defense as well, going from worse than everyone at third not named Miguel Andújar in the season prior to the game’s fifth-best defender at third per OAA. However, 2020 brought regression on both fronts for Devers, finishing with numbers that looked a lot closer to his rookie lines than his sophomore ones.

Again, Devers became one of the game’s worst defenders, finishing in the 11th percentile by OAA, and lost much of his offensive value by almost doubling his strikeout percentage from the precious season. Also concerning is the fact that his walk percentage has dropped in each season since his rookie year. The fastballs were largely to blame — he destroyed them in 2019 (+20 runs), but couldn’t touch them in 2020 (-8 runs).

Still, Devers’ 2020 average exit velocity was the highest of his career, and he is going into just his age-24 season. If he ages into his prime smoothly, proving his true talent is closer to his 2019 self than the inconsistencies seen in 2018 and ’20, Devers could become a two-way star and a perennial AL MVP candidate.

Though Gio Urshela might be a slightly safer bet to produce solidly, Devers’ sky-high ceiling far surpasses Gio’s to a degree that’s too tantalizing to ignore.