Let’s start with this: how wonderful was it to see David Wright blast that grand slam yesterday? Yes, it was against Livan Hernandez, who appears as an elder statesman to Fidel Castro’s revolution in William Kennedy’s Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. That’s not the point. If David Wright is healthy, he should hit plenty of home runs against pitchers born after 1920, too.
And yet, as hard as it would be for 2008 me to believe it, Wright isn’t the best third baseman in the division, even if healthy. That honor belongs to Ryan Zimmerman. Again, as should surprise no one who pays attention to the depth of talent in the National League East, the rankings here reflect a deep pool of options at the hot corner. Here are my thoughts on how they stack up:
1. Washington Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, after two seasons in 2009-10 that appear stolen from Wright’s 2005-2008, struggled to overcome precisely the injury Wright is now trying to play through, a torn muscle in his abdomen. Ultimately, he returned following surgery to correct the problem, and put up a strong 118 OPS+ in 101 games. Zimmerman is healthy, he’s 27, he’s a strong defender, and it is hard to find a third baseman in the game you’d rather have.
2. New York Mets: That Wright fellow isn’t a bad second choice, though. His fielding isn’t at Zimmerman’s level, but he battled through a stress fracture in his back last season, and still posted an OPS+ of 114 in 102 games. Wright could be compromised by that injury to his abdomen, but he’s showed no signs of it since returning this week. Healthy, he’s a good bet to be among the elite third basemen in the game. One other advantage Washington has, though: backup Steve Lombardozzi is a much better fallback option than Justin Turner at the position.
3. Miami Marlins: There’s a clear case to be made that Hanley Ramirez belongs ahead of Wright on this list. He’s only a year removed from a four-year run with an OPS+ of 141. He’ll be moving from shortstop to accommodate Jose Reyes, easing his defensive burden. And after a season filled with injuries in 2011, he appears to be healthy as well. But the defensive change could cut both ways: Ramirez needs to learn a new position. Having been moved, Ramirez’s level of commitment could suffer as well. He’s a wild card here, but very dangerous.
4. Atlanta Braves: If Martin Prado ends up spending the year at third base, that’s a perfectly respectable option for Atlanta. Prado’s 89 OPS+ wasn’t great in 2011, but he checked in at 119 in 2010, and his defense is up to the task. However, Atlanta expects Chipper Jones back in a few weeks following knee surgery. It may just be Mets fan PTSD, but I’m thinking that Jones, who announced he’ll retire after the season, has a last bit of greatness to squeeze out of his toothpaste tube.
5. Philadelphia Phillies: Placido Polanco struggled mightily in 2011, thanks to a sports hernia that required offseason surgery. But the elite defender and reasonable bat returns in 2012. Only the slow recovery from the surgery and his advanced age of 36 keep his expectations relatively low. Moreover, the Phillies don’t have much of a plan B for the position. Ty Wigginton is a perfectly legitimate backup, but he’s expected to start at first base on Opening Day. And a more permanent move of Wigginton to third and Thome at first while Ryan Howard recovers simply isn’t sustainable defensively.