Position Primer: Third Base

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More 3B analysis: Yahoo! 3B ranks | High Fives: Third Base | Spin Doctors: A-Rod vs. Brett Lawrie

Third base is a messy position in 2012, particularly at the top. It's not exactly a talent-scarce roster spot, but things are certainly complicated. Consider the following:

The top-ranking third baseman on everyone's draft board, Miguel Cabrera, doesn't have eligibility at the position just yet, so you won't find his name in the tiers below.

Our next highest-ranking third baseman, Jose Bautista, is actually an outfielder, and not likely to qualify at third in 2013.

Our next highest-ranking third baseman, Evan Longoria, hit .244 last season. Yikes.

Our fourth highest-ranking third baseman, Hanley Ramirez, finds himself in a situation similar to Cabrera's, forced to shift to the hot corner due to offseason personnel moves. Ramirez says he's cool with the move, and we can only hope it's true. Like Miggy, he's absent from the tiers below because he hasn't yet earned eligibility at third. (The rule is five starts at a position or 10 appearances). And then there's this: Hanley is coming off a brutal year, as he hit just .243 and slugged .379.

So, as we've already mentioned, it's a messy position. But this is also an atypically talented position, thanks in part to the upper-tier fantasy assets about to enter the ranks. You'll find plenty of multi-category assets at third, and they're scattered throughout all draft rounds. This is no longer a position where you need to score a top-of-draft player in order to compete. In mixed leagues, no owner is likely to enter the season feeling as if they're dangerously weak at the corner infield spots. If we consider Cabrera and Ramirez third baseman for planning purposes, then this position goes 13 deep before you even have to consider the carnival of horrors that is Mark Reynolds. As is the case at first base, this spot is much easier to draft in A.L.-only leagues — you'll note that eight of our top-13 third basemen play in the junior circuit. If you're involved in an N.L.-only format, someone is going to take a long look at Ian Stewart, and hate themselves for doing it.

The average stats of a top-20 fantasy third baseman declined in 2011, but that dip had more to do with specific injuries at the position than a dearth of talent. Several players who finished the year ranked in the 10-20 range at third base only gave us partial seasons, including heavy-hitters David Wright (102 games), Ryan Zimmerman (101), Alex Rodriguez (99) and Kevin Youkilis (120). Thus, the numbers were unimpressive:

2011 – 69.1 R, 18.6 HR, 71.0 RBIs, 7.0 SB, .280 AVG
2010 – 79.5 R, 21.7 HR, 83.9 RBIs, 5.8 SB, .280 AVG
2009 – 81.4 R, 21.1 HR, 81.3 RBIs, 9.5 SB, .286 AVG

Of course it's also true that overall major league run-scoring was down in 2011 — this has been the case every year since 2006, which we'll discuss in greater detail in the pitching primers. But last year's drop in counting stats among the top third basemen was primarily related to health issues in the upper tiers. This season, we're likely to see the position surge. You can expect the average mixed league third baseman to again be an 80-20-80-7-.280 player, while the names at the top of your positional draft board will rank among our game's most valuable assets.

Five third basemen under the microscope …

So Longoria keeps his first-round status despite the .244 average?: Longo managed to hit 31 homers last year while driving in 99 runs, even though he missed 30 days with an oblique injury. If he'd been healthy all season, he would have led his position in RBIs by a mile. There's almost no chance his batting average will remain south of .260 in 2012. Longoria had basically zero luck on balls-in-play last season, posting one of the league's lowest BABIPs (.239), well below his career norm (.293). None of his batted-ball percentages changed significantly last year, and his walk-rate increased while his K-rate declined for the third straight season. It's best to simply forget that .244 ever happened. Longoria is just 26 years old, entering what should be his prime years, and he's well-established as an elite heart-of-the-order hitter. Draft and enjoy.

How 'bout Hanley? Just scanning the overall ranks, it appears the experts aren't penalizing him too much for last year's disaster.: Well, some of us are clearly more enthusiastic than others. Ramirez ranks No. 15 on one expert's board, but No. 28 on another. That's a full draft round of separation, which is unusual for a consensus top-35 player. As with Longoria, Ramirez's rotten batting average can be partially explained by an uncommonly low BABIP in 2011 (.275, .339 career). But his batted-ball profile has also changed in recent years; he's delivered one of baseball's highest ground-ball rates since 2010 (51.0 percent).

If we can assume that Hanley's ground-ball/fly-ball ratio will hold steady in 2012, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5, then we have to also assume that his power ceiling is somewhat limited. Think 18-22 homers in a healthy season, not 28-32. The presence of Jose Reyes near the top of Miami's lineup is unquestionably a good thing for Ramirez in terms of the RBI projection, so that's a win. And his average certainly won't get worse. And his speed hasn't disappeared. And you love the SS/3B position eligibility. There are plenty of reasons to be bullish on Hanley. If you're not drafting him with the expectation that he'll return to 2007-09 form, then you probably won't get burned. Let's just hope he accepts the position change with his usual rosy optimism.

If you had to draft a third base prospect this year, that player would be … : It's Colorado's Nolan Arenado, no question. He's an easy call. In real-life this is more of a debate — Anthony Rendon and Miguel Sano are in the discussion — but Arenado is the guy you want in fantasy. The soon-to-be 21-year-old was named the MVP of the Arizona Fall League after delivering a .388/.423/.636 line, with 12 doubles and six homers over 29 games. He has a relatively clear path to Coors Field, the league's friendliest home park. Arenado may not open the season with the Rockies, but he's a good bet to reach the majors before long. If you're looking for more background info, here's an interview with the kid via MiLB, and here's some video propaganda via Brad Evans.

Chris Davis: THIS IS THE YEAR! (Did that sound completely crazy?): Yeah, OK, maybe a little. But the price on Davis is rock-bottom in 2012, as he's only owned in seven percent of Yahoo! leagues. His current ADP at Mock Draft Central is just 279.2, way down in Morel-Valencia-Figgins territory. Davis enters the season as Baltimore's starting first baseman, and he retains his eligibility at third. It may feel as if he's been kicking around forever, but he won't turn 26 until March 17. There's clear post-hype potential here. Davis is notoriously strikeout-prone, but his power potential is really at the top of the charts. He absolutely owned Triple-A pitching last year — Davis posted a 1.229 OPS in the PCL, with 24 homers in less than 200 at-bats — so he has nothing left to prove in the high minors. He's a fine speculative pick near the end of your draft.

Where's the annual spring update on Pablo Sandoval's rotundity?: Everyone seems to agree that the Panda gained a little weight during the offseason, but the exact poundage is unclear. Maybe it's muscle, as he claims, or maybe it's un-muscle. What we can say for certain is that Sandoval reported early this spring, and his manager said "he looked good." So that's encouraging. Panda is entering his age-25 season, coming off a terrific (if injury-shortened) campaign. He hit .315/.357/.552 last year with 23 homers in just 117 games, and he was a beast in the second half (.963 OPS). If he gives us a full season, Sandoval might just climb to the next third base tier for 2013.

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