Obviously, we’re big fans of Nolan Arenado here at Roxpile, and more than one of our writers have declared him the best third baseman in the game. But I wanted to know if that opinion held any weight outside of Colorado.
So we got a hold of two writers that also get to cover some of the game’s elite third baseman: Nicholas Blazek, who covers the Chicago Cubs for our sister site, Cubbies Crib, and Josh Sadlock, who writes about the Orioles for our friends over at Birds Watcher.
The questions was simple; who’s better, Arenado or your team’s third baseman? Their responses, and my thoughts about their responses, are below.
Up first: Nicholas Blazek compares Arenado to Kris Bryant
"Good question. With his versatility, it’s tough to pin Bryant down as the best 3B in baseball. Offensively, yes. I give Arenado a small deduction on playing at Coors, but he hits away from there as well. So his numbers might only be slightly “inflated”. Bryant continues to adapt, and even changed his swing in his second year, after winning Rookie of the Year, in order to level it out. It seemed to have worked. Defensively, it’s Arenado all the way. Kid is a master with the glove at third. They’re most certainly one and two. I would add that defensively, for what the scouts had said, Bryant has turned into a solid third baseman, though.”"
REACTION: I agree with Blazek right off the bat here. Bryant’s value might be the trickiest to gauge of the three players we’re talking about here today, because he’s not exactly a traditional third baseman. Bryant made an appearance in the outfield in over 60 games for Chicago last year. He’s not exactly a great defensive outfielder, but he’s certainly passable. That versatility is a big bonus for Chicago.
Trying to pick the superior hitter out of these two really comes down to a matter of opinion. What matters more to you: Arenado’s slightly better contact rates and his elite RBI production, or Bryant’s higher OBP and potential for future growth? Remember, last season was just Bryant’s 2nd in the big leagues, so it’s not crazy to think he’s going to be even better in 2017.
Bryant’s defense presents an interesting Catch-22 for the Cubs. If they want him to reach his full potential at the hot corner, he probably needs to be playing there day in and day out. But Chicago values his ability to play in the outfield, and it’s worth noting that he seems to hit slightly better when he’s out there.
Arenado is a truly special defender. Even if Bryant was playing third base every day, he’d be hard-pressed to match Arenado defensively. If he’s only there about 60 percent of the time, it’s never going to happen.
Next up is our answer from Josh Sadlock. Covering the Orioles, you’d expect him to side with Manny Machado. His answer though, may surprise you.
"“I would be inclined to rank Arenado just a shade ahead of Machado right now. Defensively, they’re impossible to separate. Manny has to show more discipline at the plate for me to move him ahead of Arenado. He had a hard time in the second half last year when (Chris) Davis and (Mark) Trumbo were struggling.”"
However, he continues,
"“Manny looks like he’s added 10-15 lbs of muscle over the winter, and has been playing out of his mind at the WBC, so it really wouldn’t surprise me to see him vault past Arenado this year.”"
REACTION: It’s hard to argue with Sadlock’s claim that the players are impossible to separate defensively. Arenado and Machado aren’t just two of the best defensive third baseman in the game. They’re two of the best defenders at any position in the game. Still just 24 years old, many believe Machado will one day end up at shortstop permanently.
The criticism of Machado’s plate discipline caught me off-guard, but sure enough, Sadlock has a point here. Machado drew a walk in less than seven percent of his at-bats last season. His .333 career OBP is somewhat disappointing for such a talented hitter. Arenado is not exactly known for his command of the strike zone either (his career OBP is .331), but his walk rate and OBP grew dramatically in 2016, while Machado’s regressed slightly.
The claims of Machado’s muscle growth are hard to verify. I’m somewhat skeptical of the idea that a player could add 15 pounds of sheer muscle in one off-season, and even if he could, more muscles don’t always lead to more home runs. That being said, Machado is very young and very skinny, so it’s not hard to envision him growing into a more mature body in the near future.
The last sentence of Sadlock’s answer is interesting to me, because it seems to imply that he believes Arenado has reached his ceiling as a player, while Machado still has room to grow. I’m not convinced that’s true though.
On the surface, this kind of makes sense because Machado is younger and just looks like he has more growing to do. But the age gap between Machado and Arenado isn’t all that significant. The two were born just less than a year and a half apart. In terms of MLB experience, Arenado is actually behind Machado, both in seasons (4 vs. 5) and games (561 vs. 608).
It’s entirely possible, perhaps even likely, that Machado will be an even better player in 2017. But it’s hard to acknowledge that without also acknowledging that you could easily say the same about Arenado.