Roster construction in fantasy baseball is like piecing together a puzzle.
Every player -- each piece -- has a value defined by his statistical output; but it's fitting these pieces into your roster's required slots that is key. Like those puzzle pieces, some players fit in certain spots but not others. And some spots -- like bonuses on a Scrabble board -- are more valuable than others.
More on position qualification
Tristan wrote more about position qualification in his Sept. 5 Hit Parade. You can view it by clicking here.
Ah, but there's a wrinkle to this proverbial puzzle: In fantasy baseball, these pieces can shift and change shape. Players change positions all the time, and keeping up with where a player qualifies is an important first step to your draft-day research.
Think position eligibility is overrated? Think again. While it's true that some fantasy owners go overboard -- Hanley Ramirez does not belong in the first round any longer just because he's shortstop-eligible -- the truth is that a player's value can shift by as many as $6-7 in an auction format, or as many as five rounds in a draft, simply based on his position eligibility.
Let's let the numbers do the talking. The chart below measures the 2012 major league averages from each of the eligible positions in traditional fantasy baseball leagues to illustrate how each compared. Home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and runs scored are averages per 650 plate appearances.
A side note: Keep in mind that the DH numbers, specifically the home runs and RBIs, shouldn't be taken too seriously due to the sample size. They came in a considerably smaller number of plate appearances -- nearly 10,000 fewer than were accrued by any other position -- and they, as with all these positions, only account for performance by players while they were slotted in the lineup at that spot.
Clearly, catcher, second base and shortstop were the three weakest positions in 2012, as any fantasy owner would expect. First base, third base and outfield (look at those steals!) were the strongest, predictably.
Make sure, therefore, to check every player's eligibility in advance of your draft. As the story I'll outline in a minute shows, you might be surprised by some players' 2013 position eligibility. The following players might be the most unexpected:
His was the discussion that started it all; it was the revelation in a sim league of mine in early January that Encarnacion was no longer eligible at third base that kick-started the idea for this column. In that league, which begins its annual draft the day after New Year's, two owners came to the realization after we were underway that Encarnacion lacked the requisite games to be used at the hot corner. One of these owners was on the verge of drafting him assuming he could use Encarnacion at third base; the owner would have been sorely disappointed to learn that he'd have been forced to bench either Encarnacion or Paul Goldschmidt if not warned beforehand.
After playing 663 of his 690 games in the field through 2011 at third base, Encarnacion appeared there just once in 2012, compared to 82 times at designated hitter and 68 times at first base. And with a 23-year-old Brett Lawrie firmly entrenched at third, Encarnacion's chances at reaching even the 10-game, in-season threshold at the position are slim.
That's not to say that the loss of third base eligibility significantly depresses his 2013 value. As the chart above shows, the primary difference between first and third base is three home runs and four RBIs, at least as positional averages go. Still, that's potentially $1-2 in auction value and there's little question that a first-and-third eligible player is more valuable than a first base-only player.
Keith Law's -- and, frankly, the world's -- top overall prospect for 2013 snuck in curious position eligibility, using the "most games played in the majors" rule from the old rotisserie handbook: He appeared in five games at second base, compared to three at his natural shortstop position. That cements his initial ESPN eligibility at second base, the second-thinnest position to catcher by my calculations in terms of value relative to replacement in standard leagues, and it presents an added benefit: He could conceivably play shortstop regularly if he's promoted in-season, earning dual eligibility at the second- and third-weakest fantasy positions.
But that assumes Profar makes the team. He's currently blocked at shortstop by Elvis Andrus, who played 153 games and 92 percent of the Rangers' innings at the position in 2012, and he's stymied at second base by Ian Kinsler, who has played 288 games and 88 percent of the team's innings there the past two seasons combined.
Mike Olt, Texas Rangers -- 1B-only
While we're talking about one Rangers prospect, we might as well talk about the other. Olt, a natural third baseman, played his most games at first base: 8 (compared to only five at third). Like Profar, Olt isn't especially likely to make the team's Opening Day roster, and it might take an Adrian Beltre injury for him to be promoted and appear frequently enough at third base to qualify there in-season. Olt has a shot at time at first base or designated hitter, however, considering the injury history of Lance Berkman or the platoon limitation of Mitch Moreland.
Emilio Bonifacio, Toronto Blue Jays -- OF-only
Bonifacio is the player whose eligibility might shock you most; the only reason he's not first on this list is that he's not as attractive a draft target as, well, Encarnacion. Still, there's a buzz surrounding the Blue Jays following all their winter moves, and Bonifacio is an intriguing mid-to-late rounder even in shallow mixed leagues because of his speed and the possibility he might occasionally occupy a top-two spot in the team's retooled lineup. What fantasy owners should not do, however, is allow Blue Jay buzz to fool them into thinking that Bonifacio is eligible anywhere in the infield [e] at least not at the start of the season. He didn't make a single appearance in 2012 at either third base or shortstop, which were eligible positions of his on draft day, and he made only 15 appearances at second base.
Second base is Bonifacio's most probable in-season eligibility addition for 2013. He's slated to see the majority of his time there, though he'll need to fend off Maicer Izturis to win the starting job. Doing so would be key; with second base eligibility, Bonifacio might add as much as $4 to his auction value or vault him as many as three rounds in draft rankings. The Blue Jays might also regard him a super-utility type, a kind of modern-day Tony Phillips, in which case he might earn as diverse eligibility as what he had at the conclusion of 2012.
Third base eligibility was always a welcome bonus in those of his five big-league seasons in which Davis had it -- that's to begin 2009 and to begin 2011, using traditional rotisserie rules -- but 2012 marked the first year in which he didn't play a single game there. Heck, he played more games as a pitcher -- and even recorded a win in that role -- than at the hot corner. That only matters here because Davis, always the all-or-nothing, low-average slugger, finally realized his potential in 2013, meaning third base eligibility would be a welcome addition. Davis is highly unlikely to earn it in-season, however, needing to root for a collapse and subsequent demotion of 20-year-old phenom Manny Machado, and the Orioles not to then turn the position over to Wilson Betemit.
Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles -- 3B-only
Speaking of Machado, he'll begin 2013 as a third baseman, and considering the Orioles are on the hook for $14 million and two seasons more of shortstop J.J. Hardy, Machado will presumably end 2013 a third baseman, too. The kid was a machine in his first extended taste at the position, playing every inning there (postseason included) following his promotion, and posting a 4.5 UZR and 7 Defensive Runs Saved. Machado might be a top-10 shortstop if only he qualified there -- his projected 2013 numbers aren't terribly far off Danny Espinosa's -- and his long-term future might yet be at that spot. But only keeper-league owners can bank on that, and if Machado continues to perform defensively at third base, it's not unthinkable he'll remain there beyond the expiration of Hardy's deal.
Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays -- OF-only
What is it with the Blue Jays and unexpected fantasy position eligibility? Did people just stop paying attention to them when they lost 46 of 76 games while averaging 3.76 runs per contest after the All-Star break last season? Bautista appeared in only one game at third base in 2012, playing four innings, meaning he'll begin -- and presumably end, again pointing out Lawrie's presence -- 2013 as an outfielder in most every fantasy league. It's somewhat appropriate; fantasy owners might not realize that he has actually played more games in the outfield than at third base in each of the past four seasons, averaging only 33 games at third from 2009-11.
Oddly enough, Bautista's value relative to replacement in the outfield is actually greater than it is at third base, but the difference is negligible. The knock on him is that, considering the injury risk involved with drafting him, he'd be a bit more attractive as a dual-qualifier, as he was in each of the past three years.
Plouffe began the 2012 season only shortstop-eligible, but he ended the year adding third base and the outfield. He's now only a third baseman; he made 17 appearances in the outfield, four at second base, three at first base and one at shortstop. Losing shortstop eligibility is quite a hit, as it's as much as a $3 loss in auction value and perhaps two rounds in the draft, considering value relative to replacement. Frankly, Plouffe is scarcely even a draft consideration in ESPN standard leagues as a third baseman, but he'd almost assuredly be picked as a shortstop.
Reynolds has the third-worst batting average the past three seasons combined (.213) among players with at least 1,000 plate appearances, and now he's eligible only at the position with the highest replacement level: First base. Ask yourself: Can you stomach that kind of hit in the category, considering we've got 11 batting title-eligible players at the position projected to bat at least .290? Reynolds did make 15 appearances at third base and could split up his time between the two positions for the Indians, but don't forget that this is a younger team that might want Lonnie Chisenhall locked in regularly at the hot corner. Considering Reynolds' penchant for streakiness, he looks a lot more like an in-season, ride-the-streak pickup than a player you draft to fill your first base slot.
Other notable, yet probably expected, position changes
Yonder Alonso, San Diego Padres -- 1B-only, loses OF
Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers -- 3B-only, loses 1B
Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics -- 3B-only, loses C
Mat Gamel, Milwaukee Brewers -- 1B-only, loses 3B
Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers -- 1B-only, loses OF
Michael Morse, Seattle Mariners -- OF-only, loses 1B
Martin Prado, Arizona Diamondbacks -- OF/3B, loses 2B/SS
Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners -- 3B-only, loses 2B
Michael Young, Philadelphia Phillies -- 1B/3B, loses 2B
Position eligibility you know, and surely love
Zobrist didn't merely just qualify at shortstop; he made 47 appearances there, including each of his final 27 starts of 2012. It's that three-position eligibility that drove him up our rankings -- he's currently 55th -- as second base and then shortstop are, as mentioned above, the second- and third-weakest positions. To put his value into perspective, if Zobrist was only eligible in the outfield, he'd probably be worth $5-6 less in auctions and rank as many as 4-5 rounds lower (think approximately 100th). And while the Rays have Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar penciled in at second base and shortstop, Zobrist is a superior player to either and could sneak in enough time in 2013 to repeat his eligibility in a year.
Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers -- eligible at C
After a season lost to a knee injury, Martinez's value was already in question, so it's a major plus that he's catcher-eligible entering 2013, rather than only at designated hitter, the only position he's projected to play in-season. Catcher has the lowest replacement level of any of the seven fantasy positions, and in terms of average performance by the position in the chart above, it's easily one of the three weakest. Banking on Martinez as your catcher makes a lot more sense than as your DH; he might be worth $2-3 or three rounds less if he was DH-only.
One note about catchers: Remember that a replacement-level catcher is going to accrue fewer plate appearances than a replacement-level player anywhere else; that is the primary reason that catcher's replacement level is the lowest. For example, the Nos. 11-15 catchers on our 2012 Player Rater averaged 478 plate appearances, while the Nos. 11-15 first basemen averaged 603. And if you consider that a catcher-eligible player who plays a less-taxing position might be more capable of playing every day, Martinez's value gets an additional boost. To that end, the five highest-ranked catchers on our Player Rater who played at least 20 games at another position -- Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, Carlos Santana and Jesus Montero -- averaged 588 plate appearances.
Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals -- eligible at SS (as well as 2B)
Few players boast the attractive combination of both second base and shortstop eligibility -- the aforementioned Zobrist and Marco Scutaro comprising the three most meaningful -- but Espinosa's dual eligibility mitigates concerns about his free-swinging ways. Knowing that he can be freely shifted between these weak spots, maximizing the impact of his power and speed, is a plus. Of course, he has to perform well enough to keep his job.