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Highlighting top 3B prospects for 2012

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After reading about the top prospects -- or lack thereof -- at first and second base, you might be thinking the minor leagues are devoid of all Fantasy-relevant talent.

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Not true. It just all happens to be at third base.

Yes, a position that has become one of the weakest in Fantasy in recent years is on the verge of a makeover, with well more than the 10 listed players expected to compete for starting jobs in the next two years.

How deep is it? So deep that Matt Dominguez -- a former first-round pick who has a shot at being the Marlins' opening day starter in 2012 -- couldn't even make the cut.

Of course, for what third base offers in depth it somewhat lacks in upside, with Nolan Arenado, Miguel Sano and perhaps Anthony Rendon standing out as the only must-have options in long-term keeper leagues. Some of the others could develop into stars as well, but you shouldn't necessarily be counting on them as franchise players in your dynasty league.

Note: This list has been adjusted for Fantasy purposes. Long-term potential is one of several factors that influence the order and is arguably less important than the player's expected role in 2012. These prospects don't all profile as superstars, but they're the names most worth knowing in Fantasy right now.

1. Nolan Arenado, 20, Rockies
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .298 BA, 20 HRs, 122 RBI, .836 OPS, 47 BBs, 53 Ks

At a position littered with minor-league talent, Arenado stands out as a prospect with true star potential. Of course, playing in the Rockies system helps his cause -- anyone who projects to get consistent at-bats at Coors Field has the potential to be a big-time contributor in Fantasy -- but Arenado's skill set would translate anywhere. For a middle-of-the-order hitter, he's exceptionally good at making contact, striking out just 53 times in 517 at-bats, which explains his .302 batting average in 1,093 career minor-league at-bats. Though Arenado has yet to advance to the upper levels of the minors, the Rockies have such a gaping hole at third base, where former top prospect Ian Stewart continues to flounder, that a midseason arrival isn't out of the question. More likely, though, a September callup is in order for the 20-year-old. As long as the Rockies don't make a move to block him this offseason, Arenado is in line to take over at the hot corner full-time in 2013. Long-term keeper owners will want to make a play for him now.

2. James Darnell, 25, Padres
Where played in 2011: Double-A, Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .310 BA, 23 HRs, .406 OBP, .953 OPS, 68 BBs, 78 Ks
Major-league stats: .222 BA (45 at-bats), 1 HR, 5 BBs, 7 Ks

At first glance, Darnell seems like a candidate to disappoint in Fantasy as a 25-year-old who didn't set the world on fire during his brief stint in the majors last season and who projects to play half of his games at PETCO Park. But keep in mind most of his 2011 numbers came at what is considered a pitcher-friendly ballpark at Double-A San Antonio, where he hit .333 with 17 homers and a 1.038 OPS in 288 at-bats. Even more impressive, he had 52 walks compared to 48 strikeouts at San Antonio, continuing a pattern of patience that was evident even during his major-league trial. The dimensions of PETCO Park typically haven't been as tough on right-handed hitters as lefties, and Darnell's walk rate should help offset any loss of power. At his age, he'll need to make an impression soon to secure a starting job. He's worth drafting in NL-only leagues as well as long-term keeper formats for when his opportunity inevitably arises. Who knows? Given his experience in the outfield, he might even be able to win a job this spring.

3. Miguel Sano, 18, Twins
Where played in 2011: Rookie
Minor-league stats: .292 BA (267 at-bats), 20 HRs, .988 OPS, 23 BBs, 77 Ks

Yeah, he's young. Yeah, he's unproven. Yeah, he's unlikely to set foot in a major-league ballpark at any point in 2012. But Sano is an elite talent who deserves special attention from long-term keeper owners. How elite? Let's just say some scouts have likened him to a young Miguel Cabrera. Granted, such a comparison is unfair for any prospect, much less a teenager, but given Sano's numbers in the Appalachian League at such a young age, it's difficult to argue with the assessment. He does struggle with strikeouts and pitch recognition in general, but for an 18-year-old, he's still well ahead of the curve. Again, he's sure to spend all of 2012, if not all of 2013, in the minors, but if he moves quickly through the system, a pennant race could always shorten his timetable, as was the case for the Cabrera in 2003. Fantasy owners in single-season leagues have no business drafting Sano -- no matter how deep the format -- but he's a must-have in long-term keeper leagues.

4. Jedd Gyorko, 23, Padres
Where played in 2011: Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .333 BA, 25 HRs, 114 RBI, .952 OPS

Before you go head-over-heels for Gyorko's numbers, keep in mind he spent most of 2011 in the heavy-hitting California League. In 236 at-bats at Double-A San Antonio, he hit only .288 with seven homers and a .786 OPS. Granted, he was playing in a pitcher's park then, so neither split is a fair assessment of his abilities. And what is? Well, in the past, scouts have compared him to Brett Wallace given his unathletic build and gap power, which may seem like bad news to most Fantasy owners. But keep in mind he plays a weaker position and is hardly a finished product. If he comes close to 20 homers per year, that's plenty good enough for a perennial .300 hitter. With less than a full season above Class A, Gyorko is a little behind for a 23-year-old, but with Chase Headley and James Darnell both ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, he can afford to move slowly. He won't compete for a starting job until 2013, but he could make a cameo at some point in 2012, especially if Darnell moves to the outfield.

5. William Middlebrooks, 23, Red Sox
Where played in 2011: Class A, Double-A, Triple-A
Minor-league stats: .285 BA, 23 HRs, 94 RBI, .834 OPS, 26 BBs, 114 Ks

By some measurements, Middlebrooks had a breakout 2011 season, nearly doubling his 2010 home-run total as he moved two levels up the minor-league ladder. But by some measurements, he still has a ways to go. His lack of plate discipline -- he had a 95-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio at Double-A Portland -- is especially troubling. Still, he's a potential middle-of-the-order hitter who seems to be making progress in every other aspect of the game. He's so well-regarded as a prospect that his presence in the minors has caused some to wonder if the Red Sox might entertain the idea of trading Kevin Youkilis this offseason. But considering Middlebrooks struggled in a late-season trial at Triple-A Pawtucket, hitting .161 in 56 at-bats, he's not quite ready to make the leap to the majors. More likely, he'll get his feet wet at some point in 2012 and contend for part-time at-bats in 2013 before taking over full-time in 2014. That timeline makes the power hitter well worth stashing in long-term keeper leagues but not such an attractive AL-only option in 2012.

6. Anthony Rendon, 21, Nationals
Where played in 2011: Did not play -- injured

Plenty of questions surround Rendon entering his first professional season, from where he'll play in the minor-league system, to where he'll play on the baseball diamond, to how he'll play coming off shoulder and ankle injuries. But one thing nobody questions is his talent. The sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft was projected to go first overall at one point, but a strained shoulder early in 2011 limited him to DH for much of his junior season. The timing was especially bad considering he fractured his ankle late in 2010. He's healthy now, but the Nationals are giving him until spring training to rehabilitate. They have no reason to rush him with Ryan Zimmerman on the major-league roster. Of course, Rendon is a good enough hitter that they won't be able to keep him in the minors for long, which is why they're at least considering moving him to another position. No matter what he plays, Rendon's bat will make him an impact player in Fantasy. He's worth drafting in long-term keeper leagues in anticipation of him arriving at some point in 2013.

7. Mike Olt, 23, Rangers
Where played in 2011: Rookie, Class A
Minor-league stats: .264 BA (254 at-bats), 15 HRs, .381 OBP, .881 OPS

Olt's combination of power and patience is reason to believe he has a bright future ahead of him, especially if he gets to play half of his games at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. The problem is the Rangers have third baseman Adrian Beltre locked up through at least 2015. Olt isn't knocking on the major-league door just yet; he has only 240 at-bats above Rookie ball. But considering he's already 23, the 2010 first-rounder is expected to move quickly, meaning a position change -- which would be a shame considering he's an asset defensively -- or a trade is in his future. One way or another, he's going to be a relevant Fantasy contributor as early as 2013, but given his current situation with his current organization, you shouldn't expect him to arrive in 2012. Leave Olt for long-term keeper leagues on Draft Day.

8. Matt Davidson, 21, Diamondbacks
Where played in 2011: Class A
Minor-league stats: .277 BA, 20 HRs, 106 RBI, .814 OPS, 52 BBs, 147 Ks

Davidson emerged as the Diamondbacks' third baseman of the future when he hit 18 homers with 90 RBI in 2010. His numbers were even better in 2011, but his performance was a little disappointing considering he was playing in the heavy-hitting California league. His ability to drive the ball to all fields gives him the potential to hit for both average and power in the majors, but then again, his high strikeout rate could lead to some of the problems the Diamondbacks had with their previous homegrown third baseman, Mark Reynolds. The good news is Davidson still has plenty of time at age 21 to refine his game in the upper levels of the minors. Of course, if surprise performer Ryan Roberts fails to perform up to the standard he set in 2011, the contending Diamondbacks may have no choice to dip into their system early. For that reason, you could take a flier on Davidson in a deeper NL-only league, but he's better left for long-term keeper formats.

9. Zack Cox, 22, Cardinals
Where played in 2011: Class A, Double-A
Minor-league stats: .306 BA, 13 HRs, .797 OPS, 40 BBs, 98 Ks

The Cardinals invested a first-round pick in Cox in 2010, expecting him to become their long-term answer at third base. But several developments since then have made him less than a sure thing. For starters, David Freese, the Cardinals' former long-term answer at third base, finally stayed healthy long enough to demonstrate all he has to offer. And considering all he had to offer was an MVP-winning performance in both the NLCS and the World Series, you can assume he's working with a fairly long leash. Meanwhile, Cox hit only 13 homers in 516 at-bats in his first minor-league season, showing less-than-desirable power for a corner infielder. Granted, young hitters are bound to improve, but at age 22, Cox has only so much growth ahead of him. He's hardly a lost cause in Fantasy given his ability to hit .300. In fact, he could conceivably start for the Cardinals at some point in 2011, given Freese's injury history. Still, until he shows more power potential, Cox isn't the most attractive option in long-term keeper leagues.

10. Alex Liddi, 23, Mariners
Where played in 2011: Triple-A, majors
Minor-league stats: .259 BA, 30 HRs, 104 RBI, .821 OPS, 61 BBs, 170 Ks
Major-league stats: .225 BA (40 at-bats), 3 HRs, 3 BBs, 17 Ks

So far, Liddi's claim to fame is that he was born and raised and Italy, making him the first major-leaguer to fit that description. For his performance to define him rather than his origins, he'll need to overcome a ghastly strikeout rate that has to this point caused the prospect hounds to sniff elsewhere. Clearly, Liddi has power. He averaged 22.7 homers in three minor-league stops over the last three seasons and hit three in 40 at-bats with the big club last September. But if he continues to strike out every third at-bat, he'll become an easy out for major-league pitchers and an afterthought in Fantasy, much like Brandon Wood. Liddi got a chance to play regularly for the Mariners last September and could compete for a starting role this spring. He's worth a flier in AL-only leagues as a potential cheap source of power. Whether or not he can be anything more -- or even a hold down a regular job in the majors -- is up for debate. You wouldn't want to invest too much in him in a long-term keeper league.

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