I think third base may be the most vexing position in fantasy baseball this year.
When you think of third base, you think middle-of-the-order production: high OPS, strong power numbers, good runs scored. Whereas you don't have to have, for example, a superstar catcher to win in a fantasy league -- perhaps mostly because there are so few of them -- it's difficult to construct a winning team without a very-good-to-great hitter at the keystone corner, because most of the squads in your league will be getting elite production from that position.
Yet in 2010, the gulf between the haves and have-nots at third base appears to be widening faster than John Mayer's little black book. I think you can make a legitimate argument that there are eight third basemen who belong in any listing of fantasy's top 50 players for this season. I also think that there may be exactly eight third basemen in the top 100, too. The drop-off is intense. ESPN.com's standard fantasy leagues are comprised of 10 teams, so at the very least, this will send two squads scrambling to find high-output starters. And since our game also requires you to start a corner infielder (either a first baseman or third baseman), it isn't crazy to consider grabbing two of those top eight guys, lest you wind up with a Brandon Inge or Mike Lowell starting at your corner spot.
Very often, when fantasy positions are sparsely populated by quality options (in baseball, football or any game), my advice is to let others reach, and content yourself with fattening up on superstars at other positions, secure in the knowledge that taking, for example, a "middle-class" catcher very late in your draft will do just fine. This year, for me, third base is not such a position. I think you have to make sure you get at least one of the top eight guys. Don't get caught waiting until it's too late. And heck, because the best players here give you so much production, you shouldn't have qualms about grabbing two elites if circumstances allow it.
Alex Rodriguez had hip surgery last spring and didn't play his first game of 2009 until May 8. That, combined with the drama over his steroids revelations, injected some uncertainty into A-Rod's fantasy prospects, and he did start slowly once he returned. But when you looked at his final stats, he still produced 30 homers and 100 RBIs, as well as double-digit steals for the 13th time in the past 14 seasons. Listen, he'll be 35 in July, and there's a chance he breaks down more frequently going forward. But until further notice he's still a five-tool monster.
The other two guys worth considering in the first and/or second rounds are David Wright and Evan Longoria. Of course, just last year, Wright got consideration as a top-three overall player, but that was before his 10-homer, 72-RBI season. There are wildly differing schools of thought about what went wrong with Wright in '09; was it injury, a new ballpark, a crumbling New York Mets lineup, or some combination of the three? We can't really know, of course, but when a guy's slugging percentage drops nearly 100 points, there are legitimate issues.
Third Base rankings
1. Alex Rodriguez, NYY, 3B, $31
2. David Wright, NYM, 3B, $27
3. Evan Longoria, TB, 3B, $26
4. Pablo Sandoval, SF, 3B, 1B, $19
5. Ryan Zimmerman, WAS, 3B, $19
6. Kevin Youkilis, BOS, 3B, 1B, $18
7. Mark Reynolds, ARI, 3B, 1B, $18
8. Aramis Ramirez, CHC, 3B, $16
9. Chone Figgins, SEA, 3B, $15
10. Gordon Beckham, CHW, 3B, $13
11. Michael Young, TEX, 3B, $13
12. Adrian Beltre, BOS, 3B, $10
13. Chipper Jones, ATL, 3B, $9
14. Jorge Cantu, FLA, 3B, 1B, $6
15. Ian Stewart, COL, 2B, 3B, $3
16. Martin Prado, ATL, 2B, 3B, 1B, $3
17. Chase Headley, SD, 3B, OF, $2
18. Mark DeRosa, SF, 3B, OF, $1
19. Kevin Kouzmanoff, OAK, 3B, $1
20. David Freese, STL, 3B, $1
21. Casey Blake, LAD, 3B, $-
22. Mark Teahen, CHW, 3B, OF, $-
23. Alex Gordon, KC, 3B, $-
24. Edwin Encarnacion, TOR, 3B, $-
25. Scott Rolen, CIN, 3B, $-
26. Brandon Wood, LAA, 3B, $-
27. Casey McGehee, MIL, 2B, 3B, $-
28. Brett Wallace, TOR, 3B, $-
29. Jake Fox, OAK, 3B, OF, $-
30. Troy Glaus, ATL, 3B, $-
31. Pedro Feliz, HOU, 3B, $-
32. Mat Gamel, MIL, 3B, $-
33. Oscar Salazar, SD, 3B, OF, $-
34. Adam Kennedy, WAS, 2B, 3B, $-
35. Brandon Inge, DET, 3B, $-
36. Andy LaRoche, PIT, 3B, $-
37. Garrett Atkins, BAL, 3B, 1B, $-
38. Jeff Keppinger, HOU, 2B, 3B, $-
39. Jerry Hairston Jr., SD, 3B, SS, OF, $-
40. Mike Fontenot, CHC, 2B, 3B, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.
Fortunately, Wright is still an on-base machine and probably will steal more than 20 bases, but one of these two things has to break: either his very lucky batting average on balls in play (.400, compared to a .350 career average) will come down and his batting average will end up far below last year's .307, or his home-run-per-fly-ball rate (6.9 percent, compared to 13.9 percent for his career) will jump back up, and he'll start providing some more of those tasty taters. Or, just maybe, both of those things will happen, and Wright will produce well, but not quite like a first-round pick. I'm thinking 20-20 is a lot likelier than 30-30.
Frankly, even though as a group here at ESPN we rank Wright a couple of spots ahead of Longoria, I prefer Longoria. (Whether or not I'd take either guy as my first overall pick is another conversation entirely). Despite battling a hamstring problem through much of the middle of '09, Longoria produced very strong top-line numbers (33 homers, 113 RBIs, 100 runs, 9 steals). It's true that he faded in June and July, but he rebounded with seven homers in September to save his campaign. He also stole seven bases for the runnin' Tampa Bay Rays after the All-Star break (as opposed to two before the break), which could hint at better speed to come. He walked more and struck out less as '09 proceeded, and his uppercut swing should continue to produce more fly balls than grounders, which in turn makes one rest easy about his home run prowess. He's probably not more than a .280 hitter, but there's tons to like about Longoria.
The Next Level
I'd put five players in the next group (the order listed here is the order we ranked them as a group in January): Pablo Sandoval, Ryan Zimmerman, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Reynolds and Aramis Ramirez. And honestly, in my opinion, pity the fantasy owner who doesn't grab one of these top eight guys.
Now, personally, if I had to select one of these five players in a vacuum, I'd probably take Zimmerman. After an injury-plagued '08 caused his value to drop in drafts last spring, Zimmerman went right back to being the hit machine he was in '06 and '07, with a much-appreciated power surge to go with it: he blasted a career-high 33 dingers and beat the century mark in RBIs for the first time in his career. I think he's a legit .290 hitter, and yes, while his spike in homer-per-fly-ball rate signals a slight comedown from 33 long balls, 25 with 100 runs scored and 100 RBIs seems like his baseline.
I like Youkilis next. He's now entrenched as the Red Sox's cleanup hitter, and after raging to a .985 pre-All-Star-break OPS last year, he did "cool down" to .933 thereafter, but part of that was due to back problems (he played only 136 games last year). Yook takes a ton of walks, of course, and also strikes out enough that he'll likely never win the batting title some were predicting for him a few years ago. But he's such a perfect fit for the Green Monster, and a stat line on the order of .300 with 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs seems not only doable, it seems likely provided he stays healthy.
Sandoval (aka Kung Fu Panda) likely will retain third base eligibility (although he's lost catcher eligibility) after the San Francisco Giants signed Aubrey Huff to play first base, with Mark DeRosa likely patrolling left field. Sandoval, who won't turn 24 until August, has a career batting average of .333, and I can't find anything in his underlying numbers that indicates this isn't what he is: a high-contact, level-swinging kid who probably won't eclipse 30 homers, but who'll produce so much batting-average goodness that he'll help you be able to afford one or two guys who can clear the fences but who hit .250 or below.
In light of his 44-homer, 24-steal performance in 2009, I see all kinds of outrage about our failure to regard Mark Reynolds as a first- or second-rounder this season. But while it's true that Reynolds did manage to hit an unexpected .260 for the season, I think it's safe to say the worries we have about him (if it can be said we're worried about a guy we ranked as the 44th-best overall player in fantasy) are mostly related to batting average. This is a guy who, even in his amazing '09 season, connected on just north of 60 percent of his swings; that kind of contact rate is much more typical of a .240 hitter. And we should also examine his home-run-per-fly-ball rate, because 26 percent just isn't a number that's likely to carry over to '10 (he was at 18.2 percent in '08). So while Reynolds will be a quality option for fantasy teams that can afford potential batting average downside, be aware that 35 homers and a .240 average seem likelier than 44 and .260.
Finally, there's Aramis Ramirez, who, because of his risk, pretty clearly seems like the No. 8 third baseman, but the last guy you really would feel comfortable with as your traditional fantasy starter at this position. In '09, Ramirez battled a shoulder problem and the impact it had on his bottom line was clear: he received only 306 at-bats (his fewest since 2000) and thus hit only 15 homers and collected only 65 RBIs after six straight seasons of at least 26 dingers and 92 driven in. He turns only 32 in June, and has enough history as a high-contact power hitter that it feels relatively safe to chalk up last year to injuries. By the same token, the seven guys I've listed in front of him have at least as much upside as Ramirez, and aren't coming off terrible campaigns.
Where's The Ceiling?
The Chicago White Sox selected Gordon Beckham with the eighth overall pick of the 2008 draft, and gave him all of 59 minor league games before deciding they had seen enough. He arrived in the majors on June 4 last year, and played 102 games at third base thereafter, showing a terrific combination of plate discipline and contact ability while only scratching the surface of what's presumed to be a solid power stroke. The kid turns just 24 in September and has 378 career big league at-bats, so we're probably not going to see that 30-homer power just yet. But there's reason to believe he can reach double-digit steals and hit .280, and clearly if his career path accelerates a bit, he could inject himself into the "elite" conversation in '10.
In fact, Beckham is almost exactly what everyone's been predicting Alex Gordon would be for the past three years. We can't exactly trash Gordon for losing three months last season to a hip problem, but the fact remains that while you're still allowed to be intrigued by what scouts have always said about this guy, you're no longer allowed to consider him as a fantasy starter. He just hasn't shown that he can make consistent enough contact in the majors to be a fantasy option at this offense-heavy position. And that same concern also potentially dogs another heralded prospect, Chase Headley. It's true that Headley got a little more disciplined at the plate in '09 (thanks to a slight uptick in walks and a sharp downtick in strikeouts), but he doesn't boast a home-run-per-fly-ball rate nearly high enough (8.5 percent for his career) to support a 38.3 percent fly-ball rate and still be considered a power prospect. Plus so far, he's pretty much been an offensive disaster in his cavernous home ballpark.
So what do these two cautionary tales tell you about David Freese, who as of this writing looked like he had the inside track to the St. Louis Cardinals' starting third-base gig? Freese busted as the Cardinals' third baseman last April, so despite the fact he's coming off a strong Triple-A second half, color me skeptical.
Where's The Basement?
Mid-round sleeper: Gordon Beckham
Late-round sleeper: Mark DeRosa
Prospect: Brett Wallace
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Chone Figgins
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Brandon Inge
Player to trade for at the ASB: Ryan Zimmerman
Home hero: Aramis Ramirez
Road warrior: Chase Headley
Player I like but can't explain why: Ian Stewart
Player I don't like but can't explain why: David Freese
Chipper Jones will be 38 in mid-April, and despite the fact he had an almost entirely healthy '09 season (his 143 games played was his highest total since '03) he failed to eclipse 20 homers and 71 RBIs for the first time in a storied career that dates back to '95. That was truly a shocking disappointment from a guy who'd managed an OPS above 1.000 for three straight seasons (his .818 last year was his lowest since his rookie campaign). Maybe his wrist injury was worse than he let on, and maybe he's got another resurgence left in his body. But in my opinion you're better off taking a chance on him as your corner infielder rather than your starter at third.
Casey Blake enters his age-36 season doing what he always does: holding off younger, more heralded players and hitting around .280 with 20 homers and driving in around 80 runs. Listen, you never like to disparage stat totals like that, which are certainly decent. But Blake has absolutely no upside beyond that, and the end will eventually come. He probably shouldn't be more than a last-couple-of-rounds kind of guy. Which is more than I can say for a player like Scott Rolen. Listen, Rolen put the bat on the ball last year to the tune of a .305 combined average between time spent with the Toronto Blue Jays and Cincinnati Reds. But his power is gone, and he's still a huge injury risk.
Steady As She Goes
Those of you who love stolen bases are probably outraged that I failed to count Chone Figgins among the top players at this position. And of course, Figgins has value: he's working on six straight seasons with at least 34 steals, and has eclipsed 40 in four of the past five. His move to Seattle does inject some uncertainty into his 2010 season, since it's unclear who'll bat leadoff, him or Ichiro Suzuki. I wouldn't imagine that either guy's steal totals will suffer, but the guy at the top spot probably won't get as many RBI chances, but make up for it by scoring a few more runs. Personally, Figgy Baby's just not my cup of tea, because when/if I take him, I feel I lose so much flexibility elsewhere; while I may go a long way toward locking down steals, I have to find the "typical" third baseman's power elsewhere. Still, it's tough to argue Figgins isn't steady.
The same is true (albeit in a different way) with Michael Young, who made the transition from shortstop to third in fine style last season. His bounce back to a .322 batting average gives Young six seasons over .300 in his past seven, and that's nothing to sneeze at. Young is still a fixture, hitting second near the top of one of baseball's most potent lineups, but his power is no guarantee (he hit 22 homers in '09, but it was the first time in four years he topped 14), he doesn't run much anymore and the fact he missed most of September with a hamstring issue makes one wonder whether, at age 34, he might be an injury risk. But listen, he powered up like a third baseman last year.
Jorge Cantu did the opposite: he went from 29 dingers in '08 to just 16 in '09, though he did top 100 RBIs for the first time since '05. I think it could be argued that Cantu was actually a better overall hitter last season than he was two years ago, because his on-base percentage and walks rose and his strikeouts sank. But his homer-to-fly-ball rate also corrected (from 12.3 percent in '08 to 7.4 percent in '09), and that crushed his fantasy value. He's OK.
I actually think Mark DeRosa has a decent chance with the Giants to outstrip several of these guys. It's true that DeRosa's batting average dove from a few seasons in the .280s and .290s to just .250 last year, which puts a crimp in my excitement over his back-to-back 20-dinger seasons. But DeRosa's BABIP was just .286 last year (compared to .325 in '08 and .315 for his career), as he traded some line drives for grounders. He's 35 and coming off wrist surgery, but I think he's a pretty good bet for those 20-plus homers, and as such makes a very steady late-draft steal to play in your corner spot.
Start 'Em Elsewhere
Beckham is slated to be the White Sox's starting second baseman this year, so if his power blossoms, he may be even more useful as a middle infielder. Ian Stewart already has second-base eligibility despite the fact he'll be the Colorado Rockies' starting third baseman, and there's no question that his homers are also attractive for a middle infielder, though that .228 average and overall contact problems (138 whiffs in 425 at-bats) probably make him a borderline fantasy starter anywhere. Miguel Tejada only has shortstop eligibility at the moment, despite the fact he's slated to play third for the Baltimore Orioles; clearly, you'd rather use him and his still-decent batting average as a middle infielder, because he just doesn't give you enough pop to use as a third baseman. And Jhonny Peralta still has shortstop eligibility, and if he can recapture the 20-homer pop that vanished last season (when he posted a woeful .690 OPS in 151 games), he might be worth rostering. Other than these guys, though, you're going to want to keep all third basemen at third base, because of how rough the depth at this position gets.
The Do Not Draft List
Garrett Atkins will start the season as the Orioles' first baseman, but don't be fooled: this ain't 2007. Atkins had his '08 output dive, and then he fell off the map in '09, with a meager .650 OPS despite playing half his games in Denver. Am I saying that it's impossible for a 31-year-old guy who has a 120-RBI season under his belt to bounce back? Of course not. But in a standard ESPN league, I can't see using a pick on Atkins. He's more of a midseason acquisition if he proves he's turned things around. Similarly, we all know Troy Glaus has at least 20-homer potential as the Atlanta Braves' new first baseman (like Atkins, he still has third-base eligibility), but he played in all of 14 games for the St. Louis Cardinals last season and it's impossible to know if his surgically repaired shoulder (and his injured back) will ever recover. Mike Lowell has been shoved out of the Boston Red Sox's plans this winter, so while a comeback from hip problems isn't impossible, Lowell (who's 36) will be lucky to find anything approximating a full-time gig on another team. The hitting skills are there, but he's viewed as a defensive liability now. And I'm sure there are fantasy owners out there who fondly recall the days when Melvin Mora was hitting .340 or driving in 100-plus runs, but now Mora is a backup infielder in Colorado. Don't be fooled.
I'm of the opinion that you box yourself into a corner if you don't get some good, traditional power numbers from your third baseman. There are enough elite players at this position that you're operating at a handicap if you don't get one of them. Could some of the players outside our top eight wind up making major fantasy strides this season? I guess. But I feel confident enough about the top eight that I'm going to be sure I grab at least one of them in every draft I'm in, and if the circumstances are right, I may actually take two, to try and handicap my league-mates. The fall-off from good to highly questionable third baseman this year is as precipitous as I can ever remember it, and I want to be on the happy side of that fault line.