The hot corner position around the AL East has certainly changed quite a bit from the way it looked just a year ago. Three talented new players from the West Coast have joined the division, and I seriously doubt any other in baseball can compare to the sheer amount of third base talent now in the East. It's almost the complete opposite of how the division looks at shortstop and second. Reasonable arguments could be made for just about any of the five having the highest ceiling, and that feat alone is remarkable. Who is your pick for number one though?
Likely starting third baseman: Josh Donaldson
2014: 158 G, .255/.342/.456, 31 2B, 29 HR, 129 wRC+, 7.4 WAR
Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the coup of the off-season last November when he acquired the Athletics' star third baseman Donaldson in exchange for Brett Lawrie and three prospects. As a result, the Blue Jays will receive four years of control from the 29-year-old, essentially the prime of his career. Of course, it will be a challenge for Donaldson to meet the high bar he set for himself over the past two MVP-caliber years by the Bay, where he hit .277/.363/.477 with 53 homers, a 135 OPS+, and an incredible 15.4 WAR.
Donaldson was a first round supplemental pick back in 2007, but I don't think anyone expected a breakout quite like what he did in Oakland. Prior to 2013, he was just a converted catcher approaching his late twenties who only had about a month a half of effective time as a starter to his name. Baseball's a funny game. The righty has excellent plate discipline, as evidenced by 11% walk rate since 2013, he plays elite defense, and he's always an extra-base threat at bat. What's not to like? The Blue Jays got themselves a tremendous player; it will just be up to him to live up to the high expectations and see if he can help snap Toronto's 22-year playoff drought.
Likely starting third baseman: Manny Machado
2014: 82 G, .278/.324/.431, 14 2B, 12 HR, 111 wRC+, 2.4 WAR
From my pick to the best third baseman in the division to my pick for the future best third baseman in the division, Machado is every bit as talented as people thought when he was selected third overall in the 2010 Draft. A Miami product with startling similarities to the skill Alex Rodriguez demonstrated as a preternatural talent 20 years ago, Machado has just begun his fourth season in the majors despite not turning 23 until July. It's a testament to the Orioles' depth that they were able to run away with the division title last year despite losing Machado for the season to a torn ligament in his knee on August 11th.
In 2013 though, Machado demonstrated just how valuable he could be when he narrowly outproduced his 50-home teammate Chris Davis in terms of WAR (6.4) thanks to a 51-double campaign that also led to him winning the Platinum Glove as the league's best overall defender at any position. The former shortstop is a human vacuum at third base and a throwback to the days of Brooks Robinson. Like Donaldson, he makes just about the league minimum too since he's still in his pre-arbitration years. Right now, the only questions for Machado seem to be if he can stay healthy and if he can ignore embarrassing tifts like this one with Donaldson. It's scary to imagine how productive he could be if he even approaches his high potential--think 2013 without the minor second half slump. Yikes.
Likely starting third baseman: Evan Longoria
2014: 162 G, .253/.320/.404, 26 2B, 22 HR, 107 wRC+, 3.4 WAR
One of only four players last year to suit up for all 162 games for his team, Longoria is the last vestige of that 2008 Rays team which shocked baseball by going from perennial cellar dweller to the AL pennant. David Price, Ben Zobrist, James Shields... all of them are gone. If you're going to pick one to keep though, Longoria is a fine choice. He's signed to a very affordable extension through 2022, even for Rays standards. The former Rookie of the Year winner is now in his age 29 season, and my goodness, it's been quite a career to date: .271/.351/.494 with 226 doubles, 185 homers, and exactly 40 WAR in just seven seasons.
Of course, by Longoria standards, his 2015 was an off-year. If almost any other third baseman posted those numbers, it would be viewed as a breakout, but for Longoria, it was actually a career-low. He has 40-double/30-homer power with tremendous defense, so if the Rays are going to surprise and contend in 2015, they will need Longoria front and center powering the offense with an 8.1 WAR year like he had in their division-winning 2010 campaign. It probably won't be enough, but that lineup definitely needs the boost. Even against the stiff third base competition in the division, Longoria at his best is up to the task.
Likely starting third baseman: Pablo Sandoval
2014: 157 G, .279/.324/.415, 26 2B, 16 HR, 111 wRC+, 3.3 WAR
The new $95 million man in Boston, Sandoval left the only organization he's ever known for a lofty contract with the Red Sox. A three-time champion and World Series MVP already at age 28, the "Kung Fu Panda" now brings his switch-hit power and solid defense to Beantown. After hitting .294/.346/.465 at spacious AT&T Park in San Francisco, he could be an even more dangerous threat at the plate with the cozy Green Monster just sitting out there waiting for line drives. I don't think anyone would be stunned to see him break his previous career-highs in doubles (44) or homers (25) with a full season at Fenway Park.
The biggest question about Sandoval is the big body he carries. There were rumors that one of the reasons Sandoval had an acrimonious split with the Giants was that he didn't want to adhere to their weight regimen. Questionably angled spring training pictures or not, his weight will always be the most uncertain factor about him. How long can he play effectively on that weight, and if he gets off to a slow start, how will the Red Sox fans respond? A rocky beginning seemed to doom Carl Crawford from the start a couple years back. Sandoval definitely has the talent to make such concerns a non-factor though, and his hitting prowess cannot be ignored.
Likely starting third baseman: Chase Headley
2014: 135 G, .243/.328/.372, 20 2B, 13 HR, 103 wRC+, 3.5 WAR
In one episode of the Baseball Prospectus daily podcast, "Effectively Wild," during the off-season, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller looked at the free agent market and found "generic brand" names that matched up well with the flashier, more expensive ones. They subsquently decided that Chase Headley was a pretty good match for Sandoval, even though he received about $40 million less on the market. It's not difficult to see where they were coming from, as in his few months with the Yankees last year after being traded from the Padres, Headley showed off his impressive defense and steady bat to the fans and Yankees management.
A tweak to his batting stance made in July seemed to produce the right balance, and he hit .262/.371/398 with six homers and a 121 wRC+ in 58 games down the stretch. Although it would be exciting to see, Headley doesn't need to match his monster 2012 season to be a valuable player for Joe Girardi's crew. At the relative discount of $13 million per year, he would be worth his contract if he just played solid defense and had a league-average bat. His back problems are a concern, but nonetheless, he has appeared in under 130 games just once over the past six years. While there might be doubts about the Yankees' regulars, Headley appears to be one of the bright spots.