Third Base Tiers

Last time around, I took a look at the second baseman, a group that looked shallow even before the gloom-and-doom scenarios revolving around Chase Utley’s knee took hold.  Today, I tier another group that contains much more chaff than grain: third baseman.

Please note that these rankings are my own and may differ from the main RotoWire cheatsheet.

Tier 1: Very Good
David Wright (NYM)
Evan Longoria (TB)
Ryan Zimmerman (WAS)

Before we even begin talking about the third basemen in this tier, it’s important to note that none of these players can truly be called elite.  None of them are projected to break a .300 batting average, none are locks or necessarily even good bets for 30 HRs, and only Wright has a history of high stolen base totals.  The top of every non-catcher, non-shortstop position will give you better performance.

The aforementioned stolen bases give Wright the edge at the top of the position, albeit a tenuous one.  The problems with Wright mostly stem from his home park, Citi Field.  His struggles in year one of the Mets’ new home are well documented, as he only managed 10 HRs and 72 RBIs.  Last year, the power returned, but Wright’s average fell to .283.  The principles of regression tell us that these things will even out, but the days of .325/30/113 out of Wright (namely, 2007) are just as gone as Shea Stadium. 

Evan Longoria might have a yearly case for MVP, but defense doesn’t count for anything in fantasy leagues (and I refuse to recognize any league that uses errors as a category).  He’s probably the best pure hitter at the position, but his best attribute at the plate is his patience and discipline.   His solid but not-quite-elite performances at all five categories, likely subdued by the pitcher-friendly Trop, leave him as a close second to Wright.

Zimmerman is the National League version of Longoria.  Excellent player, probably one of the top five overall talents in the league, but so much of his value comes from defense and patience that his fantasy value is well below his actual MLB value.  Zimmerman’s .334 BABIP last season may not be sustainable, and the park in Washington won’t do him any favors.  Still, Zimmerman is in the top five at the position in every category besides stolen bases, and that’s more than enough to put him up with Wright and Longoria.

Tier 2: Just Below
Adrian Beltre (TEX)
Alex Rodriguez (NYY)

Beltre and Rodriguez clearly round out the top five at the position, which will be readily apparent as we continue through this list.  The order in which they are ranked is completely based on your confidence in Beltre’s swift return from a calf injury.  He started playing in games last week and expected to be ready for Opening Day, so I feel confident ranking him fourth, just ahead of Rodriguez.

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After languishing in Seattle for five seasons, Beltre showed us what he could do in a park not specifically designed to nullify much of his offensive production.  The Green Monster certainly helped Beltre return to offensive prominence for this first time since his classic 48-HR campaign in 2004 with the Dodgers.  Of course, at 32, that’s not happening anywhere – not even Texas, one of the best places for right-handed hitters to thrive in the entire league.  Standard age concerns apply, but look for Beltre to be solid all-around in 2010, even if his .321 batting average from last season isn’t repeatable.

With Alex Rodriguez, it can be easy to forget that he’s already been in the majors for 17 seasons.  Although almost any other player would take his .270/.341/.506, 30-HR 2010 season and take it gladly, for Rodriguez, it’s a reminder that he will turn 36 this season and the decline may be on its way.  His .274 BABIP from 2010 is likely to rebound in 2011, which will bring his overall average, as well as his R and RBI totals, up with it.  New Yankee Stadium is a nice park for homers, too, which should help stave off a decline in power numbers.  The most worrisome part about “36” for A-Rod is the injuries and wear-and-tear that come with it.  When Rodriguez is on the field, he will be a very worthwhile fantasy contributor.

Tier 3: The Elephant In The Room
Jose Bautista (TOR)

So yeah, about those 54 home runs…

Bautista is not a “true talent” 54 home run hitter.  But nobody is, except for maybe Barry Bonds in the early 2000s (and of course, what you define as true talent in that case may be blurry).  The combination of what we’ve seen from Bautista over the course of the last three or four years suggests that he does have good power.  Not 50-plus HR power, necessarily, but we absolutely shouldn’t be surprised if he breaks 30 HRs this season.  Rogers Centre is heaven for power-inclined right-handers, and it’s not like Bautista was a slouch earlier in his career.  He’s now averaging 25 HRs per 600 plate appearances, and as we should count more recent performance most heavily when projecting, 30 HRs seems quite possible, maybe even probable, for this season.

The question may be with the other stats.  Bautista’s average should sit around .260 again, and with prolific homer talent should come runs and RBIs.  The average and lack of SBs leaves him below the first tier for sure, and uncertainty leaves him below the second tier, but Bautista is a solid draft option and definitely one of the better third base options in 2011.

Tier 4: Good
Martin Prado (ATL)
Casey McGehee (MIL)
Aramis Ramirez (CHC)
Pablo Sandoval (SFG)
Michael Young (TEX)

Things start to get dicey here, as we have two players with clear flaws in multiple categories and one guy who fell off a cliff last season followed by two players with major question marks surrounding their place on their team.

Prado, as mentioned in the second base post, is an elite batting average talent, particularly in this group.  He is one of just two players eligible at third base we project to eclipse a .300 average. Prado will score runs, but won’t contribute much else.

McGehee, unlike those players who top this list, is a player with greater fantasy value than real life value.  His best attribute at the dish is his contact, which combines with a moderate amount of power to give a player capable of 20 HRs and 100 RBIs.  However, batting behind the good hitters in the Brewers lineup makes it difficult for McGehee to rack up runs, and with that frame, he’s not running anywhere.

Ramirez was the victim of a massive BABIP slide in 2010.  Although the accompanying rise in strikeouts should be concerning, the 2011 version of Ramirez will be far closer to the player he was in 2009 than 2010.  Look for a .270-.290 batting average to go with 20 homers, 70 runs, and 80 RBIs.  At 33, injuries and decline are a concern, but Ramirez should be a fantastic value with the concern over last year’s dreadful batting line. 

Sandoval lost 38 pounds and is a new man according to many covering the Giants.  It’s hard to imagine that being a bad thing, but there are still question marks surrounding his complete inability to hit a baseball last season.  He’s still young and there’s still time, but banking on Sandoval seems like a bad idea.  He’s perfectly capable of a .300 average and decent power, but this isn’t a guy you reach for in 2011.  Taking him as a late value pick is the advised strategy here.

Well, now where does Michael Young play?  He’s not a third baseman any more, he’s not playing shortstop, and the Rangers seem to like Mitch Moreland at first base.  That leaves the DH spot, and according to studies, hitters tend to hit noticeably worse as a DH than they do as a regular fielder.  Young is still decent in most categories, so even with the decline, that’s enough to put him over so many in this weak, weak position.  However, just make sure you know that Michael Young the name carries far more value than Michael Young the player.

Tier 5: The What-Ifs
Pedro Alvarez (PIT)
Ian Stewart (COL)
Mark Reynolds (BAL)
Chase Headley (SD)

These three players have, for some reason or another, shown potential to be great at their position, but something is holding them back from achieving that, whether it’s a temporary roadblock or a permanent one

Alvarez was as good as could be expected last season as a rookie, although there is still clearly room to grow.  Unfortunately for Alvarez, the sophomore wall (a fancy name for “regression”) will probably hit at some point.  Even if Alvarez’s superficial numbers drop, though, it doesn’t mean that he is getting worse, as it could just be some hits not falling when they did last season.  At the same token, though, if Alvarez can improve his contact rate, his average can push into the .270s or .280s and he could move into the top 10 in the position. 

Stewart has always had prodigious power (54 HR in just over 1,200 career PA, .206 career Isolated Power).  The question is whether he can put the bat on the ball enough times to make it count.  The last three seasons have been encouraging on that front, as Stewart’s strikeout rate has fallen from 35.3|PERCENT| to 32.5|PERCENT| to 28.5|PERCENT| since 2008. If that trend continues, Stewart should provide excellent power numbers and a survivable batting average at third base, which puts him in the top half of starting third basemen. However, you’ll need to keep an eye on his knee injury, which may leave him at less than 100 percent on Opening Day.

Reynolds is in a similar boat as Stewart, although with 2,285 career PA and the reverse trend in terms of strikeout rate, we can be sure that the Ks and horrible batting averages are here to stay.  A move out of Arizona won’t help, but Camden Yards won’t kill Reynolds’s value either.  The key is if his BABIP returns to the prolific, .320+ rates he saw in Arizona from ’07-’09.  Any increase will help Reynolds return to respectability, and a .240 average this year to go with the great power is far more likely than last year’s .198 mark.

Headley fits well in this tier, although there’s a good chance that he could end up, in terms of raw numbers, with either the tier above or the tier below.  The monkey wrench in the whole Headley equation is PETCO Park.  He has good real-life value, but PETCO will destroy his power numbers and his walk rate doesn’t really translate into fantasy value.  Double-digit homers and solid run totals are to be expected here, but the fantasy value won’t come unless the average can get up above .270 or .280.

Tier 6: Hey, I remember these guys!
Placido Polanco (PHI)
Miguel Tejada (SF)

Yeah, I remember them too.  And although they’re not exactly what they once were, they can still help a little bit in a fantasy setting.

Polanco, like the guys at the top of this list, is a defense-first player whose actual value isn’t captured in the abstract world of fantasy sports.  Unlike those players, his deficiencies at the dish are enough to push him quite far down the list, behind many players who can’t approach his real-world value.  Polanco will make plenty of contact and should put up an average near .300, but his power and SB numbers leave much to be desired and his run totals are typically average at best.

Tejada showed he still has some life in him last season as he took over the shortstop position for the Padres.  At 37 in May, neither his legs nor his bat likely have enough juice to bring his BABIP up to .300 again, but he makes enough contact and has just enough power to stay alive in this league.  Look for double-digit homers and solid runs and RBI numbers to help offset his mediocre batting average and lack of stolen bases.

Tier 7: Bottom of the Barrel
Danny Valencia (MIN)
Omar Infante (FLA)
Scott Rolen (CIN)

Valencia might be a hot pick this year, coming off a .311 batting average in his rookie season, but the fantasy value just isn’t there yet.  The batting average is precariously based on a .345 BABIP that will likely crumble with more exposure to MLB pitching.  The counting stats already weren’t there, as Valencia was only on pace for roughly 14 HRs, 80 RBI and 60 R, and those numbers will also be adversely affected by the impending BABIP regression. Avoid.

Infante, as mentioned in the second base post, can pick up some value from his average, but he lacks in the other categories.  Basically, at this point, he’s a not-as-good version of Placido Polanco.  There’s some value here, but don’t go thinking “hey, Omar Infante was an All-Star last year!”

Rolen rounds out my top 20.  At 35, he’s looking like something of an ageless wonder, and that will likely start catching up to him this season.  However, thanks to the magic of the Great American Ballpark, he should be able to put up some usable fantasy numbers this year.  Look for double-digit homers and the workable R/RBI totals that come with it, but not much else.  And, of course, as with all the other veterans, injuries will be a constant concern.