What does the typical fantasy second baseman look like these days? It's hard to put your finger on it.
Is it a power-hitting slugger with little to offer in terms of stolen bases, such as Dan Uggla and Aaron Hill? Is it a light-hitting speed demon with good on-base skills, such as Chone Figgins and Ryan Theriot? Or does the answer lie somewhere in the middle, the Howard Kendrick- and Mike Aviles-type hybrids, who can give you a little across the board without offering up much in the way of any one category?
The "average big league second baseman" (the average of all players who played 50 percent or more of their games at second base and had at least 400 plate appearances) last season isn't all that impressive a player: 12 home runs, 57 RBIs, 72 runs scored, 10 stolen bases and a .276 batting average. At first base, you might get those stats from Logan Morrison, and he likely won't be drafted in most ESPN standard leagues. This, my friends, is the very definition of positional scarcity; the pickings at second base get slim pretty quickly, which is why you might want to grab one of the elite at the position sooner rather than later on draft day. If not, you might as well put off your pick until much later in the draft, then choose the second baseman who specializes in a category in which you find yourself lacking.
The cream of the crop
Second Base Rankings
1. Robinson Cano, NYY, 2B, $30
2. Dustin Pedroia, Bos, 2B, $22
3. Dan Uggla, Atl, 2B, $18
4. Ian Kinsler, Tex, 2B, $17
5. Brandon Phillips, Cin, 2B, $16
6. Chase Utley, Phi, 2B, $16
7. Rickie Weeks, Mil, 2B, $15
8. Martin Prado, Atl, 2B/3B, $13
9. Ben Zobrist, TB, OF/2B, $11
10. Kelly Johnson, Ari, 2B, $11
11. Aaron Hill, Tor, 2B, $11
12. Gordon Beckham, CWS, 2B, $9
13. Chone Figgins, Sea, 2B, $9
14. Howard Kendrick, LAA, 2B, $8
15. Brian Roberts, Bal, 2B, $8
16. Neil Walker, Pit, 2B, $6
17. Sean Rodriguez, TB, 2B/OF, $5
18. Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Min, 2B/SS, $4
19. Mike Aviles, KC, 2B, $1
20. Ty Wigginton, Col, 1B/2B/3B, $0
21. Ryan Theriot, StL, 2B/SS, $0
22. Juan Uribe, LAD, SS/3B/2B, $0
23. Danny Espinosa, Was, 2B, $0
24. Omar Infante, Fla, 2B/3B/OF, $0
25. Reid Brignac, TB, 2B/SS, $0
26. Alexi Casilla, Min, SS/2B, $0
27. Bill Hall, Hou, OF/2B, $0
28. Freddy Sanchez, SF, 2B, $0
29. Skip Schumaker, StL, 2B, $0
30. Maicer Izturis, LAA, 3B/2B, $0
31. Jayson Nix, Cle, 3B/2B, $0
32. Dustin Ackley, Sea, 2B, $0
33. Eric Young Jr., Col, 2B, $0
34. Clint Barmes, Hou, 2B/SS, $0
35. Mark Ellis, Oak, 2B, $0
36. Orlando Hudson, SD, 2B, $0
37. Blake DeWitt, ChC, 2B, $0
38. Jeff Keppinger, Hou, 2B, $0
39. Jeff Baker, ChC, 3B/2B, $0
40. Carlos Guillen, Det, 2B, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.
Why is Robinson Cano a potential first-round pick in 2011? Well, he has had two consecutive seasons with 200-plus hits and exactly 103 runs scored. The Yankees' lineup is going to continue to put runs on the board, and while Cano probably will finish with closer to 25 home runs than 30, generally speaking, his power seems sustainable. Last season wasn't a career year for Cano; it was merely the natural progression of an emerging superstar.
The only other second baseman who deserved top-20 consideration was Chase Utley, but his ongoing knee woes make him too risky to take ahead of some of the "next best things." But he's worth taking a chance on for when he does get back on the field; his production last season was severely hampered by a thumb injury that forced him to miss almost 50 games. Even with that absence, he surpassed the aforementioned "average production" in every category except batting average. That category is a bit of a concern, as he has seen his numbers decline every season since 2007 (from .332 to .292 to .282 to .275).
The next best thing
Feeling lucky? Perhaps you'll want to roll the dice with Dustin Pedroia. After a fractured foot cut short his 2010 -- he had to have a screw inserted in it to promote healing -- certainly there was reason for concern. But his recovery appears to be right on track for a full season in 2011. Still, until we see him running the bases with regularity, one has to consider the potential for a slight dip in his stolen-base totals. Also keep in mind that Pedroia never has hit 20 home runs in a season, and lives and dies by his batting average on balls in play. Again we ask: Are you feeling lucky?
Perhaps a safer pick is Dan Uggla. After four straight seasons with 30-plus home runs, what does this guy have to do to get some respect in fantasy circles? Not only that, but he's moving into a new ballpark, and Turner Field is far more round-tripper friendly than "Your Name Here" Stadium in Miami, according to ESPN's Park Factors page. Uggla's career numbers show an almost even split between home and road homers, and the visiting stadium where he has hit the long balls? Yup, Turner Field. Sure, the .287 batting average he posted in 2010 is probably not sustainable, but he's putting the ball in play (his K rate has dropped) more often than ever before, which is a good sign.
The last guy in this tier is Ian Kinsler, and once again, the red flags are there for all to see. Check out these numbers: 120, 130, 121, 144, 107. It would be great if those were his RBI totals over the past five seasons, but they're his games-played totals. Sure, he has 30-30 potential if he plays a full slate of games, but he's yet to stay completely healthy for a full season. His speed should still be there, though, and even a minor regression of his lofty .382 on-base percentage from last season will give him plenty of opportunity for both steals and runs scored.
Where's the ceiling?
Now we get to the guys with the potential to jump to the next tier, but in each of these five cases, we have our concerns.
Let's start with Brandon Phillips. Back in 2007, the Reds second sacker produced a 30-30 season, but those power numbers have not seen the light of day since; he struggled to reach even 20-20 the next two seasons, and 2010 saw him post a disappointing 18 homers and 16 steals. He's not exactly swinging for the fences. His 1.54 ground ball/fly ball rate last year was a career high. But he hits in a power-packed lineup, and if he scored 100 runs last season hitting .275, there's no reason he can't score 120 runs if just a few more of those ground balls find holes in 2011.
Rickie Weeks finally had his first full season of play in 2010 (754 plate appearances), and he hit 29 home runs and scored 112 runs. What was most interesting about Weeks' power explosion was that it coincided with him hitting a lot fewer fly balls (35.8 percent) than in previous seasons. It's just that a lot more of those fly balls left the yard (a 17.3 percent rate). So while a dip in his power numbers could be in the cards, there's nothing to suggest he can't hit a few more fly balls, see a lower percentage of them sail over the wall and still reach 25 dingers. After all, with a 28.3 percent strikeout rate, he certainly has proved himself to be a free swinger.
Kelly Johnson was the only second baseman to be above average in all five categories last season. Certainly there were plenty of "Where did that come from?" questions surrounding him, especially considering his HR/FB percentage soared in 2010. That's more of a factor for the surge to 26 home runs than the change in venue, since Chase Field isn't much more of a hitters' park than Johnson's old stomping grounds in Atlanta. But apart from the gaudy home run totals, the rest of his stats were pretty much par for the course, and even a so-called "high BABIP" of .339 was essentially what Johnson had done in his two prior "full seasons" of 600-plus at-bats.
There's an impression that Martin Prado has little pop in his bat, and while hitting a home run every 10 games or so doesn't exactly call for a move to the cleanup spot, at second base, you'd certainly take it. Double-digit home runs added to two straight seasons of hitting .307? He is who the numbers say he is, and when you throw in 150 runs produced with that batting average, there's no question he's a fantasy starter.
Ben Zobrist, on the other hand, is living on the promise of a return to his 27 home runs of 2009 after seeing his HR/FB percentage crash from 17.5 to a sad 6.0 last season. Certainly if he can be a tad more fortunate with the long ball and even 11 percent of his fly balls end up over the fence, we're looking at around 16 homers. That's not anything to get excited about at most positions, but at second base? How about if we threw in 20 steals and a .250 batting average? That's a pretty good statline, if he can get there.
Mid-round sleeper: Howard Kendrick
Late-round sleeper: Ryan Theriot
Prospect: Dustin Ackley
Long-term prospect: Brett Lawrie
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Martin Prado
Player to trade at All-Star break: Chase Utley
Player to trade for at the ASB: Brian Roberts
Home hero: Dustin Pedroia
Road warrior: Martin Prado
Better in points formats: Kelly Johnson
Player I inexplicably like: Rickie Weeks
Player I inexplicably dislike: Ian Kinsler
Where's the basement?
What happened to the Toronto Blue Jays against left-handed pitching in 2010? As a team, they hit only .215 against southpaws, so perhaps there was something in the Canadian water that influenced Aaron Hill's pathetic .099 batting average versus left-handed starters. An ungodly low .196 BABIP offers a beacon of hope that the batting average will bounce back somewhat, but even so, that 36-homer season in 2009 probably will remain out of Hill's reach.
Gordon Beckham actually managed worse production in nearly every fantasy category in his sophomore season despite playing in 28 more games and gaining 68 more at-bats than in his rookie year. What's more troubling is that Beckham took hacks nearly one-third of the time at pitches outside the strike zone. Certainly his second-half .310 batting average put a pretty dress on a gruesome .216 first half, but right now, we're not inviting him to our prom.
Sometimes it's not the player who causes his value to drop, but rather his situation. Case in point: Chone Figgins. He went from scoring 114 runs in 2009 with the Angels, a team that finished second in the American League with 883 runs scored. Flash forward to 2010 and the Seattle Mariners, who managed a league-low 513 runs scored. No wonder Figgins dropped more than 50 runs. It's not that he was that much worse in 2010 than the year before, but unfortunately, we fear the Mariners might not be any better in 2011.
Howard Kendrick was everybody's darling last season, but no longer. After posting a 10-homer, 61-RBI, 11-steal line in only 105 games in 2009, he played in 158 games in 2010, but put up disturbingly similar statistics: 10 homers, 67 RBIs, 14 steals. Ouch! Stranger things have happened, but it's hard to put any faith in him doing any better in 2011.
The same sense of ennui exists for Brian Roberts, who has seen his steals decline from 50 to 40 to 30 to an "injury-caused" 12 last season. Even more troubling is his increasing penchant for fly balls, which is not something we're looking for from a 33-year-old still searching for his first 20-homer season. If healthy, he will bounce back, but not far enough to be a fantasy starter.
Well, aren't they special?
This next quintet might be able to help you in one or two categories, but they are far from the complete package.
Neil Walker might be on track to become a 20-homer man for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but his steals success rate in 2010 leaves a lot to be desired. Speed isn't exactly something to count on from him. Compare and contrast with Sean Rodriguez, who is likely to be a cheap source of steals, but with 97 whiffs in 378 plate appearances (28.3 percent), let's just say there's a reason we're not drafting him in the first round and calling him "S-Rod."
Tsuyoshi Nishioka is a switch-hitter who hit .346 in Japan last season, but will that translate to Ichiro-type numbers in the American League? Doubt it. Perhaps there's a reason the Chiba Lotte Marines let him leave at such a young age. It might be worth it to select Ryan Theriot instead, as last season he stole 20 bases for the fourth straight season in spite of a meager .321 OBP. Of course, that's about all there is with "The Riot," as nobody is laughing at his .312 slugging percentage.
And last in this group is Mike Aviles, who might struggle to get you 10 homers and 15 steals. He could hit .300, which certainly raises his stock some, but he's coming off a 2010 season in which he had only 32 RBIs in 110 games. That's not promising.
Is it soup yet?
The members of our final group of players don't have much of a track record to pull from, which is why it's hard to recommend taking them with anything more than a late-round Hail Mary.
Young Danny Espinosa likely will start for the Washington Nationals. He struck out 30 times in 103 at-bats in a 2010 cup of coffee but did manage to put six shots over the wall. He also had 54 steals over the past two seasons in the minors, so perhaps a 20-20 season isn't out of the question someday, although it might be a few years off. Fellow youngster Dustin Ackley might also have the opportunity in Seattle, but keep in mind that it is in Seattle, and the run production is likely to be next to nonexistent.
Trade rumors have been swirling around Eric Young Jr., but whether he is sent to a team that wants his services or whether he can hold on to the final roster spot in Colorado, his only value is on the basepaths. Other than a potential for 20 to 30 steals, there's little of value here.
Then there's Omar Infante, who somehow made the All-Star team last season. Be wary. You might end up paying for a batting average that ends up being a mirage.
Get Cano or Utley. There are way too many question marks at second base, and given the potential for disaster if you select the wrong guy, it's probably the best course of action to fill up on other positions once those two are off the board, which likely will be by the end of Round 2, if not sooner. When you do decide to dive in, see which statistical category you need the most help in. Because guess what? There's an app for that. Unfortunately, that app (or rather, second baseman) probably will not be much help anywhere else.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World," will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.