For the last seven seasons, Nolan Arenado and Justin Turner have been the two mainstays at third base in the National League West. But with Arenado traded to St. Louis and Turner still weighing his options in free agency, there’s a chance the division is without both former All-Stars for the first time since 2013.
Despite some new faces, the NL West is full of very capable corner infielders, led by the Padres’ duo of Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer. There are also a few players in the division who are looking for big bounce-back seasons in '21.
Let’s take a look at the corner infield situations for each of the NL West teams:
The known: In some ways, first baseman Christian Walker’s solid 2020 season was even more important than the one he had the year before. While 2019 helped him get a starting job after seven years in the Minors, 2020 showed that his performance wasn’t a fluke. With that in mind, he’ll once again be the starter at first base. On the other side of the diamond, the D-backs are confident that Eduardo Escobar will bounce back from a poor 2020 season and regain the form he displayed in the previous three seasons. D-backs manager Torey Lovullo said last year that conditioning was an issue for Escobar after the pandemic shutdown, but has since been rectified.
The unknown: The D-backs have several options for backing up Walker at first. Former first-round pick Pavin Smith made his big league debut last year, and the team is excited about his potential. Smith’s ability to also play the corner outfield positions could allow him to make the roster and put him in line to give Walker days off. Catcher Stephen Vogt could get some time there and Seth Beer is also a possibility. When it comes to backing up Escobar, the D-backs have a bunch of young player candidates like Josh VanMeter, Josh Rojas, Andy Young and Wyatt Mathisen.
-- Steve Gilbert
The known: Despite winning the World Series, the Dodgers won’t hold much weight to individual performances in the unusual 2020 season. Max Muncy is the perfect example of why. Muncy struggled throughout the regular season, finishing with 12 home runs and a 97 OPS+, which is slightly below league average. In the postseason, however, Muncy showed signs of the player who made the All-Star team in ‘19 while launching 35 homers. The Dodgers first baseman hit three homers and finished with a .904 OPS in 18 postseason games. He also saved his best for last, recording seven hits in six World Series games. In a hopefully more normal 2021 season, the Dodgers are expecting Muncy to be a catalyst in the middle of the order yet again.
The unknown: While most people expected Justin Turner and the Dodgers to easily come to terms on a deal, the two sides have still not met halfway with less than two weeks until the Dodgers take the field for their first full-squad workout. If Turner returns, the decision is easy for manager Dave Roberts: Turner is the everyday third baseman. If the Dodgers don’t bring Turner back and don’t make another roster move, then the decisions get a bit more interesting. Edwin Ríos would get the first crack at third base. Ríos showed plenty of potential in limited time last season, launching eight homers and finishing with a .946 OPS in 76 at-bats. Behind Ríos, the Dodgers also have Chris Taylor, Matt Beaty, Muncy and utility man Zach McKinstry.
-- Juan Toribio
The known: Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria are expected to remain the incumbents at first and third base, respectively, but the Giants figure to mix in Wilmer Flores and the newly signed Tommy La Stella at the corner infield spots as well. The addition of the left-handed-hitting La Stella should allow the Giants to rest Longoria against tough righties, giving manager Gabe Kapler several lineup options as he looks to optimize matchups on any given night. San Francisco also signed former Cubs and Padres prospect Jason Vosler to a Major League contract this offseason, but he is likely to open the season at Triple-A Sacramento as depth.
The unknown: Belt underwent right heel surgery in October and is a “possibility, but not a certainty” for Opening Day, according to president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. If Belt is unavailable to start the season, La Stella will be an option to play first in the interim, with Flores likely drawing starts there against lefties. Belt battled the heel issue throughout the 2020 campaign, yet he still managed to deliver a career-best offensive season for the Giants, batting .309 with a 1.015 OPS and nine home runs over 51 games. His durability will once again be tested over 162 games in 2021, the final year of the six-year, $79 million extension he signed in April 2016.
-- Maria Guardado
The known: In consecutive offseasons, the Padres locked up star-caliber corner infielders on nine-figure contracts. They’re set at first and third base for the foreseeable future. Manny Machado is coming off a remarkable season in which he finished third place in National League MVP Award voting. Eric Hosmer, meanwhile, authored his best season as a Padre in 2020, after altering his swing to drive the ball in the air with authority. Simply put, the Padres have invested an awful lot in their two starting corner infielders. They expect that investment to continue paying dividends.
The unknown: The Padres have a number of players who could see time backing up Machado and Hosmer. Jake Cronenworth was brilliant defensively when he filled in for Hosmer last season. He can play third base as well. Austin Nola is also capable of playing both spots. Wil Myers, Brian O’Grady and Jurickson Profar have all played first base in the past, though they’re likely to receive most of their playing time in the outfield. Machado and Hosmer have both recorded full 162-game seasons in the past. But it seems likely the Padres will ease the workload of their stars after a jump from a 60-game slate in 2020. It’s unclear who would replace Machado and Hosmer if and when that happens.
-- AJ Cassavell
The known: Ryan McMahon had big enough shoes to fill when he had to replace three-time Gold Glove-winning second baseman DJ LeMahieu in 2019. Now McMahon is the leading candidate to replace Nolan Arenado and his eight Gold Gloves. McMahon plays a solid defense at third and is capable of the spectacular. If he figures out the hitting, meaning he maintains power but makes contact more frequently, the offense has one less hole. A pleasant surprise last year was the play of Josh Fuentes at first base. He sparkled, often fielding throws from Cousin Nolan. Although his selectiveness needs to improve, Fuentes made solid contact and pushed now-retired Daniel Murphy onto the bench.
The unknown: With his background playing third base, does Fuentes profile more as a utility player until he develops better plate discipline? McMahon has a history at first base, but the Rockies want to keep him at third. Could Ian Desmond, back after a year off, or non-roster invitee Connor Joe grab the spot? Prospects such as Colton Welker (a converted third baseman), Michael Toglia and Grant Lavigne will have to show that they have improved in 2020, even without a Minor League season.
-- Thomas Harding