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Should the Royals try to upgrade at third base?

There’s not exactly a third base tree.

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Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The Royals have a pretty rich tradition in Kansas City. Despite the shadow of Hall of Famer George Brett looming over the position, the Royals have done pretty well at the hot corner with Kevin Seitzer, Joe Randa, and Mike Moustakas all providing solid play for several years.

But as Ned Yost once famously said, “there is no third baseman tree.” Solid third basemen don’t just spring forth from the ground, they must be developed or acquired. The Royals have traded away Mike Moustakas, and although it might make some sense to bring him, back, there is no indication there will be a reunion. Instead, it seems likely the Royals will continue with Hunter Dozier and Cheslor Cuthbert vying for playing time. Should the Royals seek an upgrade?

Since 2016, there have been 129 players that have spent at least 25 games at third base. Here is how the bottom of that list looks by WAR, according to Baseball Reference:

Cuthbert and Dozier are near the bottom. While this is due mostly to poor defense, neither has been very good offensively either, each with an OPS+ below 85 over that time. Cuthbert has hit .252/.303/.378 in 235 games, Dozier has hit just .228/.279/.388 in 110 games.

It isn’t all negative of course. Cuthbert was adequate in 2016, with a 95 OPS+ and replacement level play, only to be hit by injuries the last two seasons. Dozier was atrocious early in the year, but came on late to hit .260/.291/.520 over his last 33 games. There are reasons to be optimistic about each.

Still, neither is young enough that there is a ton of upside left. Dozier is older than Bryce Harper, and Cuthbert is just a month younger. With little track record for success in the big leagues, and not much room for growth, perhaps the Royals would be better off seeking an upgrade. While looking at the free agent market doesn’t make much sense in a rebuild, there could be opportunities to find a younger player blocked in another organization. Here are a few options that could be available.

Christian Arroyo, Rays

Arroyo was ranked as the #81 prospect in baseball by MLB Pipeline before the year, but struggled in AAA with a line of .235/.286/.341 in 46 games, although he did well in 20 games at the big league level. The 23-year old right-handed bat brings a high-contact, high-average approach, but hasn’t hit for power or drawn many walks so far. He was acquired a year ago from the Giants for Evan Longoria, but is currently blocked by starter Matt Duffy. It might take a decent return to acquire Arroyo, which may be out of their comfort zone right now.

Alternatively, if the Rays’ plan is to start Arroyo, they might be willing to deal Duffy. The 27-year old Duffy doesn’t have much power, but gets on base a lot, plays solid defense, and is a great clubhouse guy. However, he is only under club control for the next two seasons, will make a few million dollars through arbitration, and may not be a good fit for a rebuild.

J.D. Davis, Astros

Davis was ranked as the eighth-best prospect in the Astros system by John Sickels and he tenth-best prospect in the system by Baseball America before the season. His stock has fallen a bit since then as he hit .175/.248/.233 in 113 plate appeareance in the big leagues last year, but he destroyed AAA with a line of .342/.406/.583 and 17 home runs in 85 games.

Davis has consistently hit for power in the minors and can walk a little. He will be 26 next April, and seemingly has little to prove in AAA anymore. He is blocked at the big league level by Alex Bregman at third and Yuli Gurriel at first, although he could play some outfield. The former Clemson Tiger has a bit of a pedigree, so it may cost the Royals a bit in terms of talent to get him, but he could be a long-term option at third that carries them through the rebuild as a middle-of-the-order bat.

Yandy Diaz, Indians

Diaz was signed out of Cuba in 2013, and has been raking in AAA for the past three seasons, but is seemingly blocked at the big league level by All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez. Diaz has been a very patient hitter in the minor leagues, with a walk rate of 14.5%. He has played in parts of the last two seasons for the Indians, hitting .283/.361/.366 in 88 games. He has hit very few home runs, despite a high hard-hit rate. If a team could fix his high ground-ball rate, he could unlock more power. His defense has been described as a “work-in-progress” but he has been adequate by the metrics at third.

Diaz is tentatively penciled in as the Indians starting third baseman right now with Ramirez moving to second and Jason Kipnis to the outfield. But the Indians have discussed dealing the 27-year old Diaz, with the Rays the most interested team. If Diaz is available, the Royals may want to inquire what it would take to acquire him. With less than a year of service time accumulated, Diaz could be a valuable asset under club control for many years.

Derek Dietrich, Free agent

I wouldn’t go with a free agent in this position, but at least Dietrich is fairly young and likely cheap, having been designated for assignment by the Marlins a few weeks ago. The Marlins let him go despite a solid line of .265/.330/.421 with 16 home runs in 551 plate appearances. The left-handed hitter has a career line of .254/.335/.422 with fair power, and a slightly below-average walk-rate.

Dietrich was a poor defender last year, mostly because he was asked to play so much outfield. He didn’t play much third base, but played there a lot in 2017 and held his own. He has a pretty good career split, so he may be most useful as a platoon partner with the right-handed Cuthbert or Dozier, and Dietrich offers positional versatility to offer. He is under club control through 2020, but at age 29, he may not offer much upside.

Brandon Drury, Blue Jays

The Jays just picked up Drury last summer in a deal with the Yankees for J.A. Happ, so perhaps it is unreasonable to think he could be on the move again. But the Jays are pretty deep in infielders, and third base uber-prospect Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. is very close to Major League-ready. Drury is already in his fourth organization, having spent time with the Braves and Diamondbacks, in addition to the Yankees and Blue Jays. He was a starter for two years in Arizona, and is a career .264/.314/.434 hitter in 1,124 plate appearances.

Drury is still just 26 and could still have some upside if given a chance to play every day. He suffered from blurred vision and a broken hand last year and played just 26 games in the big leagues. The right-handed hitter has worked with the hitting coach that helped Chris Taylor and J.D. Martinez, so perhaps Drury could elevate more and lower his high ground-ball rate.

Maikel Franco, Phillies

If you are looking for a player that can match what Moustakas did at the plate, Maikel Franco may be your best bet. Last season he hit .270/.314/.467 with 22 home runs in 131 games, a line pretty similar to what Moustakas did last season. The big difference between the two is defense - Franco is one of the worst defenders at third in baseball. His defense is enough to drag him to replacement level, which he has been in each of the last two seasons.

Still, he has hit 20+ home runs in each of the last three seasons, although his road numbers are much worse than his numbers in the cozy confines of Citizens Bank Ballpark. Franco is just 26 years old and under club control through 2021. He is expected to be dealt this off-season, as the Phillies pursue Manny Machado. Alternatively, the Royals could pursue his understudy, 25-year old AAA third baseman Mitch Walding, who hit .265/.390/.474 with 19 home runs in 119 games in AAA last season, finishing third among all AAA players with at least 300 plate appearances last season. Walding has a solid glove, got a taste of Major League action, and could be a sleeper prospect.