Was it just last year that third base was the dregs of the fantasy world? Now it looks like there are 11 – 13 solid options. Of course, only one third baseman (and he doesn’t really play there) comes without questions: Jose Bautista.
Still, I’m fairly confident in Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre putting up solid power numbers, and that’s what you need in a third baseman. Only two third basemen stole 20+ bases, Eduardo Nunez (22) and Emilio Bonifacio (40). I do like both players this year, but would rather slot them in at short. After those two, you get Ryan Roberts and his fluky season. So it appears you aren’t going to find a true five category producer at the position, right?
Wrong! David Wright, my fourth third baseman, is coming off a down year that saw him hit 14 HRs and steal 13 bases in just 447 plate appearances. Wright isn’t exactly brittle though: aside from last season, since 2005, his lowest games played total is 144. Wright is a career .300 hitter, with a .340 BABIP. He batted just .254 with a .302 BABIP last year. Everyone seems to focus on his strike-outs, but he’s been over 20% for the last three seasons without much affect on his average (until 2011). The real culprit? From 2007-2009, Wright posted line drive rates between 23 – 25%, the last two years that number has been 18 – 18.9%. While he hit more fly balls in 2010, he hit more ground balls last season. In addition, he got little help in the HR depart in 2011 (12% FB/HR rate).
If it seems like his batted ball rates are hard to follow, it’s because he is all over the map. I’m not betting on him getting back to his 25% line drive ways, however, I do believe his average on balls in play will be better than last year. Wright could bat .290 and, with full plate appearances, hit 25 HRs and steal 20 bases. There is upside on almost all of his numbers. He might fall short of 100 runs/RBIs, but he should be right around 90 (at the worst) for each. That, my friends, is a five category contributor.
The rest of the third baseman situation is more of a pick your poison kind of thing. I really like Ryan Zimmerman and think he can be a perennial top contributor at third, but he’s averaged just 126 games the last four years. I’d still take a gamble on him over the likes of Alex Rodriguez (who is aging before our eyes) and Kevin Youkilis who has failed to reach 140 games played the last three years and is stuck at a demanding position for the foreseeable future.
If you’re looking to avoid risk, Michael Young seems to be the best bet, with a nod to Aramis Ramirez. Ramirez should come cheap enough to mitigate the injury concerns (he’s averaged just 118 games the last three seasons).
What makes the third base position so deep is that there are legitimate young phenoms supplementing the aging veterans. Pablo Sandoval, after an utterly forgettable 2010 season, came back with a vengeance in 2011: .315/.357/.552 with 23 HRs in just 117 games. I’m not certain he can maintain that sort of power pace, however, he should maintain the solid batting average and is an easy bet for 25 HRs. He also gets on base a good bit which will lead to 80 runs and he should be good for 90 RBIs.
In addition to Sandoval, there is the younger Brett Lawrie. I usually avoid youngsters like Lawrie (although I made an exception for Eric Hosmer this season). I called Lawrie a top 100 player at the end of last season and I’m sticking to it. He could, easily, finish in the top five at his position. When I look at what Lawrie does with the bat, I see visions of Ryan Braun. I would not be shocked if Lawrie hit .280 with 25 HRs and 33 SBs, I’d take the under on both, but his upside is that legitimate. Let’s just say, I’m absolutely stoked when I get his baseball cards.
Outside of those players (and Mark Reynolds and Edwin Encarnacion), there are a few sleepers I like:
Daniel Murphy: Murphy is going to attempt to play second base again for the Mets, which immediately makes him a risk for an MCL injury. That said, if he could just stay healthy, he’d provide some nice value to teams. Murphy can bat .300 (especially if they rest him a bit against lefties). I think he’s good for at least 12 HRs and seven steals. He should score 70 runs and knock in somewhere around that number. For someone who appears to be an afterthought, he’d be a nice back-up option if you end up drafting one of the injury-prone older third basemen.
Ian Stewart: This is more a flier than anything else. Stewart has been simply abysmal lately, while calling a hitter’s paradise home. Still, sometimes, for whatever reason, a change of scenery is good for a player. Stewart has moved to Wrigley Field (not exactly a poor hitter’s park) and should get every chance to prove himself. Stewart has had an odd up and down career. He posted line drive rates above 20% in 2008 and 2010 and rates below 15% in 2009 and 2011. In ’08 and ’10, his BABIPs were above .300 and he posted decent batting averages. If he can figure out how to continue to square the ball, he could bat .245-.250. If he gets 550 plate appearances, he’ll hit 22 HRs. It shouldn’t cost you much to acquire him, so I’d absolutely kick the tires.
Scott Sizemore: In just 429 plate appearances, Sizemore hit 11 HRs and stole five bases last season. Sure he batted just .245/.342/.399, but he improved when he got to Oakland. Sizemore has the ability to bat .260 with 15 HRs and 10 steals. With a little luck, he could be this year’s Ryan Roberts. Book it.
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