Spring Training is underway for a few teams, yet a handful of free agency’s top players remain unsigned. Matt Chapman has been the clear #1 option for clubs looking to address third base all winter.
Chapman started the 2023 campaign on a blistering offensive pace that once looked as if it could vault him towards the $200MM mark. He tailed off as the calendar flipped to May, however, most often finding himself in the bottom third of the Toronto batting order by year’s end. A finger injury may have sapped some of his power, but the bigger problem is that Chapman’s swing-and-miss issues returned in full force. While he carried a league average 22.8% strikeout rate through the end of April, he fanned at a 29.8% clip from May 1 on. The end result was a characteristic Chapman season: a .240/.330/.424 batting line with a strong 10.7% walk rate but a strikeout percentage north of 28%.
Five years removed from a career-best campaign in which he hit .249/.342/.506 with 36 homers, it’s difficult to sell Chapman as a significant upside play at the dish. He’s a slightly better than average hitter whose value is heavily tied into his glove. A four-time Gold Glove winner, he rated as 12 runs better than an third baseman by DRS last season. Statcast graded him three runs above par. By both measures, he has been an a solid to elite defender in every year of his career.
A long-term bet on a player who soon turns 31 and derives much of his value from his defense has probably scared off a few teams, particularly since Chapman would require draft pick forfeiture after declining a qualifying offer. Yet there’s little doubt he’d be an upgrade in the next couple years over the third base situations that at least half of teams are set to deploy. Which ones have the spottiest in-house options to handle the hot corner, and could therefore benefit most from Chapman’s services?
Anthony Rendon hasn’t made 60 starts at third base in a season since 2019. Brandon Drury and Luis Rengifo can see some time at the hot corner but are better served as bat-first options rotating throughout the infield. This would be a clear weakness if the Angels were one piece away from contention.
Unfortunately for the Halos, they have a handful of potentially bigger concerns. They’re still looking for rotation help. The overall depth on both the position player and pitching sides is lacking. They’re on the hook for $38MM to Rendon for another three seasons. Ownership and the front office probably don’t want to compound the issue with another significant free agent splash at third base.
Chapman’s old team hasn’t done much to replace him. They added Justin Turner on a one-year free agent deal. He can handle a few starts at third base but is more of a part-time option heading into his age-39 season. Turner only started seven games at the hot corner with the Red Sox a year ago. While that’s primarily on account of Rafael Devers’ presence, it also points to the risk the team would face in banking on him for 100+ starts on the infield dirt.
Assuming Turner plays mostly designated hitter, the Jays have a collection of infielders (Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, Davis Schneider, Ernie Clement and prospects Addison Barger and Orelvis Martinez) to handle second and third base. Schneider has 35 games of MLB experience. Espinal and Biggio once looked like viable regulars but have tailed off in recent years. Clement is a utility player.
The Cubs might have the clearest need for third base help of any expected contender. Nick Madrigal, the top in-house option, hit .263/.311/.352 a year ago. There was also some concern about whether his arm plays well on the left side of the infield, although Madrigal posted excellent defensive grades in his first 560 1/3 innings at third base. There’s still a legitimate question as to whether the former #4 overall pick makes enough an offensive impact to start on a win-now team.
Chicago’s other short-term possibilities also have notable drawbacks. Patrick Wisdom has power but strikes out nearly as often as any regular in MLB. He’s a below-average defender who’s probably better served as a bench bat. Christopher Morel has never found a defensive home and only started four games at third base last year. Miles Mastrobuoni is coming off a .241/.308/.301 showing. It’s too early to bank on last year’s first-round draftee, Matt Shaw, making an MLB impact in 2024.
Viable Starter, Could Upgrade
Giants: San Francisco doesn’t truly need a third baseman. J.D. Davis hit .248/.325/.413 with 18 homers a year ago. That was Davis’ worst full offensive season but still not far off what Chapman has provided in recent years. At the plate, they’re fairly comparable. Chapman has a marked edge over Davis with the glove, although Statcast felt the Giants’ incumbent third baseman took a step forward in that regard a season ago. While it’s fair to question whether Chapman is a marked enough improvement for San Francisco to make a run, they’ve been linked throughout the offseason. New skipper Bob Melvin managed Chapman for years across the Bay Area. The Giants could pursue him with an eye towards flipping Davis for help in another area of the roster.
Mariners: Seattle is going into 2024 with a projected platoon at third base. They shipped off Eugenio Suárez and acquired Luis Urías. The righty-swinging Urías can pair with left-handed hitting Josh Rojas at the hot corner. Chapman would be a fairly straightforward upgrade, but president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has expressed a desire to skew away from hitters with significant swing-and-miss rates (although their actual offseason on that front has been more mixed). More meaningfully, the M’s might just be up against ownership’s spending limit.
Mets: President of baseball operations David Stearns said at the Winter Meetings that the Mets were happy with their internal options at third base. Ronny Mauricio tore his ACL in winter ball a few days later, but New York still has 24-year-old Brett Baty on hand. Baty had a dismal ’23 campaign, hitting .212/.275/.323 in 389 plate appearances. If the Mets were all-in on the upcoming season, Chapman would make a lot of sense. The organizational goal is instead to hang on the fringe of contention while giving opportunities to young players to see what they have for 2025. If Chapman’s asking price craters and he’s open to a short-term deal with an opt-out, perhaps the Mets could jump in. Otherwise, it seems the job will go to Baty.
Phillies: Philadelphia seems content with Alec Bohm. He’s a subpar defender who has done the vast majority of his offensive damage against left-handed pitching in his career. There’s an argument the Phillies should make a run at Chapman and push Bohm to the bench, but the team doesn’t seem to consider third base a pressing issue. Bohm is a former #3 overall pick who had a decent .274/.327/.437 slash a year ago, so the Phils could hope there’s a little untapped potential at the dish.
Yankees: The Yankees are planning to turn third base back to DJ LeMahieu. The 35-year-old was a league average hitter a season ago, running a .243/.327/.390 line with 15 homers. The longtime second baseman receives slightly above-average marks for his glovework at third base. LeMahieu hasn’t maintained the star-level production he showed from 2019-20, yet he’s still a solid everyday player. He had a strong finish to 2023, hitting .273/.377/.432 with a robust 14% walk rate after the All-Star Break. Chapman would likely be an upgrade, but it’s not a massive boost on what LeMahieu has provided. The Yankees have tried to move away from right-handed hitters with strikeout issues after overloading their lineup with that type of player in previous years.
Competitive Timeline Question
The Nationals took a flier on former top prospect Nick Senzel to start at third base. Senzel hasn’t contributed much at the MLB level, so this is still a clear area of weakness. Washington hasn’t fully pivoted from rebuilding to making a competitive push, though, meaning it’s probably a year or two early to pursue a player like Chapman. Chicago might be going in the opposite direction, as they may soon find themselves at the beginning of a rebuild. Yoán Moncada is under guaranteed contract for one more year with a club option for 2025. The Sox will likely give him a rebound opportunity and hope to offload some of the money he’s owed at the trade deadline.
Detroit admittedly didn’t fit particularly well within any of these five categories. They’re at the beginning of what they hope to be their contention window. The Tigers don’t have a clear starting third baseman right now but are hopeful that top prospect Jace Jung could push for the job by next season. Manager A.J. Hinch has suggested they’re comfortable rotating the likes of Andy Ibáñez, Matt Vierling and Zach McKinstry through the position as a stopgap platoon.
None of these low-payroll franchises are going to spend the kind of money it’d take to land Chapman. Each of Milwaukee (Joey Ortiz), Miami (Jake Burger) and Kansas City (Maikel García) could turn the position to a controllable player they hope will be part of the long-term core.
Already Set At Third Base
These 15 teams all have either a clearly above-average starting third baseman (e.g. José Ramírez, Austin Riley), have addressed the position already this winter (Eugenio Suárez), or possess enough infield talent that can capably cover the position. In either case, it’s hard to envision any of these clubs considering Chapman a notable upgrade on their in-house options to bring him in. That’s true regardless of whether he pivots to a short-term deal.