Kipnis defies the keep-your-elbow up mandate of little league coaches nationwide (Getty)
Second basemen that can make positive fantasy contributions in power, speed and run production don't grow on trees. Well, maybe they do on some awesome far off undiscovered planet, but here on Earth they are rare exceptions limited to a select few at the top of the 2B pool. Jason Kipnis and Ben Zobrist are two such gems, and both find themselves jockeying for top 5 status at their position on draft-day cheat sheets. Yahoo! experts Brandon Funston and Andy Behrens land on opposite sides of the "who should be ranked higher" debate, and state their cases below for your consideration.
Funston to open: In his first full season as a major leaguer, Jason Kipnis finished top 5 among second basemen in stolen bases, runs and RBI, this despite posting a .651 OPS in the second half of the season that can be at least partially attributed to a nagging sore neck. Kipnis also ranked No. 8 among second basemen in BB/K rate (.61), an encouraging and impressive accomplishment for a 25-year-old in his first full tour of MLB duty.
[Baseball 2013 from Yahoo! Fantasy Sports: Join a league today!]
Last season, Kipnis and his fellow offensive Indians delivered the ninth-worst run total in baseball, which makes Kipnis' run production even more impressive. This offseason, the Tribe went out and landed Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Drew Stubbs and Mark Reynolds in an attempt to plate more runs. Add in the expected improvement of younger players like Carlos Santana (.887 OPS in '12 second half) and Lonnie Chisenhall, and it's not hard to believe that Cleveland could actually finish in the upper half of the league in scoring in '13. And as the expected No. 3 hitter in the lineup, Kipnis' run production should only go up if that's the case.
Kipnis' 31 steals was a bit of an eye-raiser last season, but so was his relatively modest 14 home runs – he had a combined 19 HRs in 128 games split between Triple-A and Cleveland the previous season. I wouldn't be surprised if he dropped a few SBs this season, but gained a few long balls in the process - he's a legit 20/20 candidate.
As for Zobrist, I'm also a fan and don't want to disparage him too much. But I will point out that he has hit above .270 only once, has hit more than 20 home runs just once and has swiped 20-plus bases only once, and none of those feats were accomplished in the same season. No question, Zobrist offers upside, and the position flexibility is nice (though SS looks every bit as deep as 2B), but his inconsistency can be maddening. And with his 32nd birthday a couple months away, it's safe to assume we've already seen Zobrist's ceiling. Last season, Kipnis trumped Zobrist in fantasy value in the Y! Game, and Kipnis' best is still yet to come.
Zobrist is a real looker (Getty)Behrens to close: Just so we're clear from the start: I take no pleasure in arguing against Jason Kipnis. In fact, I won't even try. This is a player I fully endorse. Kipnis was a key contributor for me last year, and he's a top-five second baseman on my board for 2013. I'm sure to own him in a league or two. You should draft him with confidence. Maybe follow him on Twitter, too, because he seems like a good dude. I'm not even gonna criticize last year's second-half fade, because it was really just one bad month (August) while he was playing through injury.
Again, so there's no confusion: I (heart) Jason Kipnis
But I just happen to (heart) Ben Zobrist a little bit more — not a lot more, mind you, but enough to go an extra dollar at the auction table.
Both players should deliver double-digit power and speed totals — Kipnis is coming off a 14/31 season, while Zobrist went 20/14 — and both guys are .260 career hitters. The projections here aren't far apart. For me, the two factors separating Zobrist are his dependability and his positional flexibility. Zobrist has been a solid fantasy asset in each of the past four seasons, reaching the 20-homer plateau three times and swiping as many as 24 bases (and never less than 14). We can say with a high degree of confidence that he'll exceed his position averages in at least four categories, as long as he stays healthy. And since he's played 150-plus games in four straight years, you shouldn't be worried about health.
Zobrist's best trait, of course, is that he's eligible at three different roster positions (2B/SS/OF), two of which are talent-scarce. The deeper your fantasy format, the more meaningful this fact becomes. If you play in a league where the free agent pool offers very little help, or perhaps in a league with short benches, then you're going to need a few multi-tools like Zobrist. Don't underestimate his fantasy utility.
Realistically, these guys are both early-round talents, players who should cost no less than $18 in fantasy auctions. You can win with either as your starting second baseman. Or you can win with Kipnis at second and Zobrist at short. Or with Kipnis at second and Zobrist in the outfield. I'll take Ben in a very close call, but there's room for both on my rosters.