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Shopping the third baseman tree

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Can the Royals trade from a position of strength?

It was not that long ago that third base was a barren wasteland for the Royals. In May of 2013, Mike Moustakas was flailing away, hitting under the Mendoza Line in another disappointing season, his career stuck in neutral. Frustrated by constant questions of what he was going to do about, Ned Yost finally lashed out in sarcasm.

"Maybe when we get home, I can go to the third base tree and pick another third baseman. … Obviously, third basemen who can hit and hit with power, they must grow on trees."

Three years later, Moustakas has become a legit All-Star third baseman. His ACL injury has opened the door for Cheslor Cuthbert, a once heralded prospect who had fallen off the radar, but rebounded to put up some of the best offensive numbers on the team. Even Hunter Dozier, the former first round pick who was a disaster in 2015, has totally turned his career around as the best minor league hitter in the system. Lo and behold, the Royals have a bona fide third baseman tree.

Unfortunately, only one can start at third base at a time. With Mike Moustakas set to return by next spring, Cuthbert and Dozier may be without a starting job. The Royals have suggested Cuthbert could move to second base, but that is a difficult transition to make, and Raul Mondesi will likely be given the first shot to start there next year. Hunter Dozier has begun playing right field, but he is also blocked by Paulo Orlando, who is having a terrific season. Cuthbert could start at designated hitter, where if he repeats his numbers, he would be a league-average DH.

However, it would be much easier to find an affordable DH on the free agent market to put up those kind of numbers, than it would be to find a starting pitcher. What the Royals could do instead, is trade one of their third baseman to fill another need, namely starting pitching. The Royals will want to hang onto Moustakas, since he is the more proven player who can help them win more games right now. Also, his trade value will be hurt coming off an injury. Hunter Dozier may have a place in the outfield for a bit until third base opens up if Moustakas departs after the 2017 season.

That leaves Cheslor Cuthbert. The rookie is having a fantastic season, hitting .295/.330/.450 with 10 HR in 85 games. He likely would not warrant a top pitching prospect in a trade, but I think the Royals would target a young starting pitcher with some Major League experience or close to MLB-ready, with enough upside to give hope they could be a positive contributor in 2017. Let's take a look at who could be shopping for third basemen this winter, and what they might have to offer the Royals.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves may want to start building assets in anticipation of competing in the near future, and Cuthbert could give them the third baseman they lack right now. Their starter now is Adonis Garcia, a journeyman, and while Rio Ruiz is in AAA, his numbers have been lackluster. If the Braves decide they want a MLB third baseman who will be around for awhile, they could part with their excess of starting pitching to make a deal happen.

The Royals got a look at Mike Foltynewicz this season when the Braves came in town. The 24-year old right-hander has improved his performance with a 4.50 ERA, striking out 7.4 per-nine-innings. The Royals would have him for several years of club control, and the former top 100 prospect could be a decent strikeout pitcher for the rotation. Right-hander Matt Wisler has a better pedigree as a prospect, but has put up less impressive numbers, although he is just 23. Right-hander Aaron Blair is another Top 100 prospect the Braves could offer, although he has been terrible in 11 Major League starts at age 24.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have gotten a nice season at the plate from Eugenio Suarez, but his first year defensively at third base has been an adventure. The Reds could move him to the outfield, or have him as a super-utility player next year with a more consistent defender at third such as Cuthbert. With a stockpile of arms in the upper minors, the Reds could see fit to move a pitcher to fill a need on the diamond.

Right-hander Anthony Descalfini is a name that was rumored to be in trade talks this summer. With a 3.11 ERA this year and solid strikeout numbers, it is easy to see why he would be in demand. Dan Straily is a pitcher the Royals were linked to earlier this summer, and while he has bounced around, he has always had swing-and-miss stuff. He has a 3.75 ERA this year and has finally kept his walk totals to respectable levels. Don't rule out the chance of the Royals re-acquiring former first round pick Brandon Finnegan either. The lefty has a 4.45 ERA in his first year with the Reds, although his strikeout-to-walk numbers are disappointing.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Justin Turner has been a great find for the Dodgers at third base, but the 31-year old will hit free agency this fall and the Dodgers may not see him as a great investment going forward. The crop of free agent third basemen is thin - Turner, Prado, David Freese, Luis Valbuena - but the Dodgers could make a big splash and trade for a star like Evan Longoria. However if they decide to make a more low-key move and focus resources elsewhere, they could turn to Cuthbert.

The Dodgers could offer 26-year old right-hander Ross Stripling, who flirted with a no-hitter in his first MLB start. The former Texas A&M Aggie has a 4.08 ERA and 6.5 strikeouts-per-nine innings in 66 1/3 innings for the Dodgers this year. Another possibility is left-hander Alex Wood, a more seasoned veteran who has had injury concerns. Wood has made just ten starts this year due to an elbow injury, although he is expected back soon. When healthy, he has been effective, with a 3.38 ERA over four MLB seasons, and he would not be eligible for free agency until 2020.

Miami Marlins

The Marlins have Martin Prado at third base this year, but he is a free agent. If the team decides not to bring him back, a young, cheap player like Cheslor Cuthbert could be very attractive to them. Unfortunately, Miami's farm system is very thin right now, made even thinner by their trade for Andrew Cashner. One bright spot in the rotation has been 26-year old Adam Conley. The lefty has a 3.88 ERA over two seasons with 8.3 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. However, with the Marlins pitching rotation so thin, they may be very reluctant to deal him.

Justin Nicolino is a former Top 100 prospect, but has put up poor numbers in 24 career Major League starts, with an atrocious strikeout rate and a 4.74 ERA. Perhaps the Royals would be interested in a AAA pitcher like Kendry Flores or Austin Brice, but both look like future relievers. It does not appear the Marlins would be an especially good fit for the Royals.

San Diego Padres

It is a bit difficult to determine the direction the Padres are headed, but they have been aggressive about using trades to try to improve their team. This year, they have used journeyman Yangervis Solarte and one-time hot prospect Brett Wallace at third base, with Solarte moving over to second for a few games as well. Solarte has been a late bloomer, hitting well at age 29, but the Padres may not think his numbers are all that sustainable and may seek a younger long-term replacement at third base.

The Padres have some starting pitching they could part with,  such as Jarred Cosart, who they recently acquired from the Marlins for Andrew Cashner. Cosart put up a 3.69 ERA in his first full season in 2014 but has struggled since then, bouncing around from Houston to Miami to San Diego. His strikeout numbers are pretty underwhelming however, and the 26-year old has already had several teams give up on him.

The Royals could be interested in right-hander Tyson Ross, who has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. Ross was a very solid 3 WAR pitcher in each of the previous two seasons, but has had shoulder inflammation much of the year. He is expected to return in September, and if he proves his health, could be an attractive target for the Royals. He is under club control through the 2018 season, but is not cheap, making nearly $10 million next year. Would the Royals give up Cuthbert for a short-term asset?