Some elite talents top the second base rankings this year, but once you start digging deeper into the list of names, the talent starts to thin out quickly, and if you wait too long on the position you'll find yourself choosing between players who are significantly flawed in one way or another. This tiered look at the position provides my take at where the significant dropoffs in value occur.
Please note that these rankings are my own and contain some departures from the main RotoWire cheatsheet.
Chase Utley is still the most talented overall second baseman in the game today, but his injury issues and his advanced age (32), along with Robinson Cano's surge last season, have brought him back to the pack. "The pack," in this case, isn't a bad place to be. These three players are clearly the class of the position, putting up great numbers in at least four of the five standard head-to-head categories. Utley has the overall advantage if he can stay healthy, with .300 average, 90 run, 90 RBI, 20 HR, and 15 SB potential when healthy (and possibly more). The other two players have a weakness at one category (SBs for Cano, HRs for Pedroia), but are just as elite in the other four categories and are beneficiaries of youth. To add the icing to the cake, not only are all three elite talents, but also they all play in excellent hitters parks, which just widens the gap between them and the rest of the field.
Tier 2: Excellent
Dan Uggla (ATL)
Rickie Weeks (MIL)
Kelly Johnson (ARI)
The differences between the top tier and the second tier aren't terribly large this season. Uggla would be squarely in the elite tier if not for his poor batting average, which doesn't project to rise anytime soon due to his propensity for the strikeout. Weeks has injury issues of his own to go along with his batting average issues (again, the strikeout is a problem), but when on the field he challenges Cano and Uggla for the title of most power out of a second baseman, and he should score 100 runs easily if healthy. Johnson may be the sleeper of this group. The move from spacious Turner Field to the thin air of Arizona really lets his power play to its full potential. Johnson's strikeout rate is a bit high to maintain the .284 average he posted last season, but 20+ HRs, 80 R, 80 RBI, 10+ SBs, and a relatively painless .270 average make Johnson a great play at second this year.
Tier 3: The Tweener
Ian Kinsler (TEX)
Ian Kinsler's rate stats look quite good, and many prognosticators would probably place him in a higher tier. I, on the other hand, am not quite as convinced. Playing in Texas helps him out, but Kinsler has only managed to break 600 plate appearances one time in his five-year career. Fantasy uses raw numbers, and that kills his value. Kinsler has hit for a high average in the past, but his contact skills aren't great and expecting over .280 may be a reach. He scores plenty of runs, steals plenty of bases, and, thanks to The Ballpark, hits a moderate amount of homers for the Rangers. However, when he's out of the lineup so often and only great in two categories (R and SB), it's hard to put him above any of the six 2B listed above. At the same time, he's too talented to put below any of the rest of the group.
Here we come to the players with severe weaknesses in multiple categories or a lack of any great categories. Phillips will not hit for a good average (.270 is the highest we can expect without a big BABIP year) and his only real standout category is SBs. Prado is weak in both homers and RBIs, even though his contact skills can leave him with a great batting average. Kendrick has no true weakness, but is very average all the way around. Zobrist projects rather similarly to Phillips in terms of fantasy value, as his versatility and fantastic defense doesn't count for much in a fantasy setting. None of these guys are bad options for your team, but neither is a gamechanger either.
Eleven players in and we're already getting to players were the description "good" gets to be a bit generous. However, it's finding the right players in these lower tiers that can win or lose fantasy leagues.
Walker could be a hot name due to his solid rookie season, but his minor league numbers don't back his performance. Even as Walker improves with age and experience, the powers of regression will probably leave his overall numbers worse (if not well worse) than last season. Particularly, expect a big drop in his batting average. Combine that with his non-factor in SBs and mediocre counting stats, and Walker is an average 2B at best. Figgins is a complete zero in the power department, but he's one of the best basestealers at the position, can put up a competent average, and should score some runs for the Mariners this season if they ever decide to put a bat on a ball. Roberts' best days are well behind him, but if he can stay on the field this year, he'll put up good numbers in SB and R, and a competent batting average. The homers and RBIs aren't happening here. Infante somehow parlayed a decent reserve performance into an All-Star game and now a starting role in Florida this season. Infante looks pretty similar to Roberts, with less value from stolen bases but more in average and RBIs.
Aaron Hill's value was absolutely demolished by a .196 BABIP last season. He is a big-time fly ball hitter and doesn't have the kind of swing that makes him an "average" hitter when it comes to BABIP; .260 or .270 is far more likely than .300 in 2011, and that makes it nearly impossible for Hill to have any sort of value in the average category. He also won't steal bases, but when he's right, Hill can provide big power value in the homer-friendly Rogers Centre. Hill should be the best player in this tier and has the potential to be better than any one of the players in tier 4. People will probably see the .205 batting average and be scared off, so he might be good value.
Now we get to 17-20 and we're basically at the "draft and pray" section of the board.
Beckham is a bit of an upside play. He has yet to really live up to his prospect hype, but the minor league numbers are there and perhaps his disappointing last two years were a product of being rushed through Triple-A. Even without a major step forward, Beckham should be helped by some simple regression, as his 6.4 HR/FB rate looks below his true talent level. Although he doesn't look elite in any categories, the only one he's valueless in is SB. Drafting him and expecting Rickie Weeks or Dan Uggla isn't smart; waiting to draft him and hoping for the talent level of a Phillips or Zobrist is a decent, if risky play.
Nishioka is a total wild card, as it's very difficult to project Japanese players in the Major Leagues. However, I would personally avoid him. Nishioka is almost surely going to be a poor play in the power categories, and if he can't post a decent to above-average BABIP (.310-.330), his AVG, R and SB will suffer as well. Nishioka's actual MLB value comes from his defense, and I expect his fantasy value to be minimal. After all, if he's drafted, he's a much better play at shortstop anyway.
Jose Lopez was very, very bad in Seattle, but Safeco Field is the very worst place for a pull-happy right-hander with no other skills to play. The move to Coors is good for any hitter, but particularly for Lopez, who could actually use some of that power to put up some decent HR/RBI numbers. Don't expect a high average – Lopez is slow and doesn't do much with his contact if it doesn't leave the yard – and he's definitely not stealing bases, but Lopez could compile some solid counting stats with playing time in Coors.
Ryan Theriot is simply here as a placeholder to demonstrate just how bad the back end of second base qualifiers is this year. He can't really do anything besides score runs, and that skill isn't nearly enough to justify how bad he is at the rest of the five categories. Somehow, find a way to get one of the other 19 players on this list on your team instead.