In the American League, the trio of A-Rod, Evan and Youk dominate the hot corner. Three's a charm in the National League, too, with David Wright, Aramis Ramirez and Chipper Jones producing at a level well above the rest of the field. If you are in an NL-only league and have gone the first four or five rounds without drafting a third baseman, you can fill other needs while still having a great shot at getting a third baseman who's good enough even for a mixed league. Waiting for you in the later rounds are several options, from Ryan Zimmerman to Jorge Cantu to Mark Reynolds, who are all roughly equivalent. Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Glaus should be there, too, and both of these players could provide surprisingly rewarding payoffs this year.
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The Elite: As mentioned above, it's all about David, Aramis and Chipper in the NL, and in that order. You can make a strong argument that David Wright will surpass Alex Rodriguez as the best Fantasy third baseman, period. With Wright's power and contact skills growing slowly but steadily, he can equal A-Rod's mid-30s homer total while besting his batting average by 10 points or more. Jones projects to outproduce Ramirez on a per-game basis, but he is far too much of an injury risk to rank as the second-best NL third-sacker. Chipper did have a spectacular 2008, but even putting his injury demons aside, his .364 average buoyed by a .388 BABIP is now nothing more than a distant memory to look back on fondly.
Solid Mixed Leaguers: There's a dropoff from The Big Three to Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Glaus, but not as much as you might think. Encarnacion made big strides in home runs and RBI last year and he greatly improved his walk-to-strikeout ratio. So why, then, did his batting average drop from .289 to .251? The usual suspect -- BABIP -- is guilty yet again, as Encarnacion's .267 rate should have been at least 30 points higher. In '09, Encarnacion's line could include an Aramis-like .290 average and 25 to 30 homers. Glaus could be nearly as productive, though only if he returns healthy from his shoulder surgery. The injury risk clearly puts Glaus a step below Encarnacion, but appreciate the fact that the Cards' third baseman shattered his personal-best contact rate without sacrificing power last year. When he returns, he could still manage to hit 20 to 25 homers with an average in the .270s.
Then there are some tough choices among the glut of middle-of-the-road guys, but there are worse problems to have on Draft Day than having to settle for Mark Reynolds. The wild card among this group is Ian Stewart. Depending on how the Rox use him, he could have extra value by qualifying at second base, or less value by not settling into a regular job at all.
Cohort Analysis: Ryan Zimmerman vs. Garrett Atkins. Zimmerman's OPS has dropped in each of the two years since his rookie season, but the trend isn't as bad as it looks. From a power and contact perspective, he was actually better in '07 than in '06, but an increase in his flyball rate sent his batting average tumbling by more than 20 points. Zimmerman corrected the flyball tendency last year, and while his batting average rebounded, his power numbers suffered. The power outage was probably temporary and due to injuries, so Zimmerman looks poised for a breakout season.
There are no such encouraging explanations for Atkins' two-year statistical free fall. Since he is apparently neither a victim of health nor BABIP issues, we can only blame a decline in patience and power for his troubles. Atkins continues to make contact at a good rate, so we can rightfully expect a .285 average to go with 20-or-so home runs, but I like the 24 year-old Zimmerman's chances to rise at least a shade above this level.
Cohort Analysis, Part II: Casey Blake vs. Jorge Cantu vs. Mark Reynolds. For those who like their Fantasy players on the steady and unspectacular side, Casey Blake is your man for the hot corner. You can always count on Blake to be just barely good enough to pick up for a mixed league, and to hit with just enough power and contact to be a little better than the Kevin Kouzmanoffs of the world. Cantu's numbers are just a mess -- his walk, contact and flyball rates have been all over the place -- but this Fish can clearly slug. Unless he reverts back to being the groundball machine he was in '07, Cantu should outperform Blake in every category, save steals. Reynolds should have no problem outhomering both Cantu and Blake, both he's just a whiff machine, and he won't whiff for nobody but you. (Actually, he'll whiff for anyone who drafts him, but now I can't get that song out of my head.) The tradeoff between Cantu (the flyball hitting version) and Reynolds is roughly the 15 extra batting average points you'd get from Cantu versus the additional four or five homers that Reynolds will deliver.
NL-Only Leaguers: There are some potentially useful players in this lower tier, as no fewer than five third basemen in this group have produced an RC/27 of at least 4.5 at least once within the last three seasons. The question for Kevin Kouzmanoff and Bill Hall is whether they can bounce back from down seasons. Ramon Vazquez' 2008 production was genuine; his .290 batting average and .365 on-base percentage were completely supported by his skill indicators, but can he supplant either Andy LaRoche or Freddy Sanchez in the Bucs' infield?
Cohort Analysis: Geoff Blum vs. Bill Hall. Both players are playing time risks. Hall is coming off of two disappointing seasons, just as Mat Gamel's footsteps are getting louder. Blum doesn't have a clear challenger for his job, but he has also never received more than 453 at-bats in any of his 10 major league seasons. The move from Petco to Minute Maid Park has agreed with Blum, and he could hit 10 to 15 home runs again this year, along with a .240-.250 average that should be right in line with Hall's. What gives Hall an edge is the possibility for him to get back into 15-20 homer territory along with the likelihood of a few stolen bases.
The Rest: At this stage of the draft list, what you want is someone who can provide steady at-bats, and Pedro Feliz can certainly handle that. Feliz would make a nice late-round pick who can temporarily hold a roster spot for a reserved player, like Glaus. Then again, if you already have a productive third baseman on your roster, you may want someone with a little more upside, like Andy LaRoche. He was truly awful last year, though he didn't deserve a batting average under the Mendoza line, which was the fault of his .177 BABIP. There is hope for LaRoche, who could still add power to his developing skill set.
| Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) -- An estimate of how many runs a lineup would produce per 27 outs if a particular player occupied each spot in the order; ex. the RC/27 for Miguel Cabrera would predict the productivity of a lineup where Cabrera (or his statistical equal) batted in all nine spots; created by Bill James |
Component ERA (ERC) -- An estimate of a what a pitcher's ERA would be if it were based solely on actual pitching performance; created by Bill James
Base Hits per Balls in Play (BABIP) -- The percentage of balls in play (at bats minus strikeouts and home runs) that are base hits; research by Voros McCracken and others has established that this rate is largely random and has a norm of approximately 30%
Isolated Power -- The difference between slugging percentage and batting average; created by Branch Rickey and Allan Roth
Walk Rate -- Walks / (at bats + walks)
Whiff Rate -- Strikeouts / at bats
Al Melchior was recently a Fantasy columnist and data analyst for Baseball HQ and will be providing advice columns for CBSSports.com. Click here to send him a question. Please put "Melchior" in the subject field.