If you scan MLBTR’s list of Top 50 Free Agents looking for a third baseman, you’ll quickly see Kris Bryant in the #4 slot, predicted to get a contract of $160MM over six years, an average annual value of $26.67MM. Then there’s a big drop-off to Kyle Seager at #31 and Eduardo Escobar at #35. Each is projected to get a two-year deal, with Seager getting a total of $24MM and Escobar $20MM.
Age is certainly a justified reason for Bryant to get a longer contract, as he’s about to turn 30 in January, whereas Seager just turned 34 and Escobar will turn 33 in January, his birthday being the day after Bryant’s, making him almost exactly three years older. However, looking at their recent track records, they may not be as far apart as one might think.
Bryant was a high profile prospect who burst onto the scene in 2015. In his first three seasons, he lived up to all of the hype, hitting .288/.388/.527 for a wRC+ of 144. Combined with solid defense, he was worth 20.7 fWAR over those three seasons, which included winning NL MVP in 2016 and a World Series ring to boot. He has slowed down since that time, however, primarily on the defensive side of things. His slash line from 2018 to 2021 is still great, coming in at .268/.363/.479, wRC+ of 124. But due to diminished defensive numbers, that adds up to 11.1 fWAR over those four seasons. Statcast’s Outs Above Average gave Bryant 5 and 4 at third base in 2016 and 2017, respectively. But since then, he’s been at 0 or below, including -4 at third base in 2021 and -10 overall.
Escobar’s trajectory has been almost the opposite, as he had a breakout year in 2018 and has had his strongest campaigns in recent years. Like Bryant, he had three solid seasons in the past four years, with the shortened 2020 season being his weakest. His overall line from 2018 to 2021 is .259/.318/.475, wRC+ of 105. His defense has been graded around league average in that time, allowing him to accumulate 9.5 fWAR in that span, just 1.6 shy of Bryant. In 2021, Bryant’s wRC+ of 123 was ahead of Escobar’s 107, but the defensive differences meant that his 3.6 fWAR on the campaign was just barely ahead of Escobar’s 3.0. Escobar’s nightmare season in 2020 resulted in -0.5 fWAR, but he was worth three wins or more in each of 2018, 2019 and 2021.
As for Seager, his best run of play was from 2012 to 2017. He has certainly slipped a bit since then but still managed to be a solid contributor thanks to his power and defense. Over the 2018-2021 timeframe, he hit .224/.298/.423, for a wRC+ of 99 and 8.5 fWAR, just a shade behind Escobar. Despite some ups and downs on offense, his glovework has been fairly steady. In the estimation of FanGraphs, he’s been worth at least 1.5 fWAR for ten straight seasons now, including the shortened 2020 campaign. In the six seasons of data for OAA, Seager has been worth at least three OAA in five of those seasons, with 2018 being the only outlier.
There’s no denying that Bryant deserves to be the top option out of these three. He’s the best hitter and offers upside that the others can’t match. The potential implementation of the NL DH would also make it easier for him to play the field less and perhaps maximize the value of his bat. His ability to play the outfield opens his market, although his defense hasn’t been graded well out on the grass. For teams looking for someone to play third base regularly, his declining defensive numbers would surely give them pause, especially when the asking price will probably be near $30MM per season. Escobar and Seager should cost less than half what Bryant will, both in terms of years and average annual value. There would be some logic to a team taking one of the cheaper options and using the cost savings to upgrade another area of their squad.
If you were sitting in the general manager’s chair, would you rather blow your budget and commit long-term to Bryant, and then get some cheap fliers to fill out the rest of your team? Or would you rather spread your money around more evenly, getting a cheap option like Escobar or Seager and then having more money for other additions? Have your say in the poll below.
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