I tried to put this one off, I really did, but it’s time. Spring training is winding down (it really is, it just seems endless) and it’s time to talk about third base.

I have a hard time being objective about Scott Rolen. I’ve been a fan of his since well before he was a Red. I’ve written about this before, but he’s just a little older than me and from the same area and we heard all about him when he was coming up. I know he’s not a great player anymore, I just want him to be. And, of course, writing about him is extra complicated because no one knows, really, how much time he’ll spend on the field except that it won’t be 150 games.

And then there is the rest of the crew who will man third from time to time or – possibly – all the time. I’m talking primarily about Juan I-Refuse-to-Walk Francisco, Miguel I-Refuse-to-Age Cairo, and Todd Can-I-Just-Get-a-Shot Frazier.

I’m going to start with the backups because I find my opinions about them relatively unconflicted.

I do not believe that Juan Francisco is a good major league baseball player. Obviously, much of the Reds organization disagrees with me. I know he hits some very pretty home runs, but there is more to hitting than that. He is, frankly, an out machine. When he’s gotten the chance to play the last two years, he hasn’t been very good. But he’s out of options and the Reds seem to like him, even if he is in the dog house with Baker, so he’s probably the primary backup at third. If I were in charge, I’d try to trade him and then cut him if I had to, but I’m not in charge.

Miguel Cairo had a really good year last year. I do not want to diminish that at all. However, he will also be 38 years old. Thirty. Eight. And he has never been a really good player. He’s been a serviceable bench guy forever, and somehow he’s fought off aging the last few years, but it can’t last. Though he is, by all reports, a heck of a nice guy, it’s hard to imagine he’ll continue to be a good ballplayer.

Todd Frazier is, in my opinion, the only reserve with a reasonable chance to contribute at third this year. He is unlikely to hit for average, but he can take a walk and will pop enough homers to make him decent. He would certainly be my choice to be Rolen’s caddy this year, but he’s just about a lock to start the year at triple-A. This is a shame.

And now we get to Rolen. If you read the preview I had up at The Hardball Times recently, you know I’m bullish on Rolen. Of course, bullish on Rolen isn’t quite the same as being bullish on Votto or even Latos. Mostly, it means I think he’ll be on the field more often than not. As I noted in the article linked above, Rolen has failed to appear in 110 games just twice since he became a full time player. Last year was one of those times. It doesn’t hurt that the reports out of spring training have all been very positive.

As for his performance when he is on the field, he’ll hit better than he did last year. Every single projection system agrees with me. he was playing very hurt and he was probably a little bit unlucky. He’ll take more walks and hit for a better average, but the power is probably gone for good. In the field, I think he’s earned the benefit of the doubt. At his worst he’s really, really good. Eventually he’ll lose it, but I’m going to give the Hall-of-Fame quality player the benefit of the doubt here.

As with left, the Reds somehow managed to get decent production at third in 2011 despite having to deviate wildly from plan A. This has a lot to do with Cairo having a career year at 37. This means that I’m projecting the Reds to, more or less, hold steady at third, but only if Rolen stays healthy or they’re smart enough to play Frazier when Rolen goes down. If Cairo, Francisco, or a combination of the two end up with the majority of the plate appearances at third, it could get very ugly.

Keep your fingers crossed that Rolen’s shoulder holds out. (Below I have an estimate for how many plate appearances each player figures to get at third, not for the entire season.)

2012 Rolen slash line: .270/.340/.430 (450 PAs)
2012 Francisco slash line: .260/.290/.420 (150 PAs)
2012 Cairo slash line: .250/.300/.360 (100 PAs)
2012 Frazier slash line: .260/.330/.430 (<100 PAs)

2011 Third Base WAR: 3.3 (approx.)

2012 Best Guess WAR: 3.5

Projected Difference: +0.2

2012 Floor WAR: 0.0

2012 Ceiling WAR: 4.5

Next week, I’ll wrap this up and make a prediction for how the Reds will finish in 2011.

Redleg Nation Position-by-Position Season Preview:

First Base
Second Base
Right Field
Center Field
Starting Pitching – Front End of the Rotation
Starting Pitching – Back End of the Rotation
Left Field
Third Base
Season Preview Wrap-Up