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Reality Check: Early look at third base

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Third base has long been one of the powerhouse positions in Fantasy -- not quite as deep as first base or the outfield, but perfectly capable of filling a utility spot or two in standard 12-team leagues.

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But looking at how it stacks up to begin 2014, I don't know that it's any better than, say, second base.

In fact, you could argue it's worse. Many of the players who helped sustain the position this year won't qualify there next year, including Edwin Encarnacion, Hanley Ramirez, Jedd Gyorko, Anthony Rendon and Emilio Bonifacio. And none is a safe bet to regain eligibility in the foreseeable future.

Holding back the position is the fact so many of its up-and-comers have stalled at the major-league level, performing well enough to keep getting looks but not well enough to satisfy their Fantasy owners. "Potential" keeps players like Brett Lawrie, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Moustakas and Nolan Arenado in the top 20, but the longer it goes unrealized, the less it seems worthy of the investment.

You'll still find your mainstays at third base, with Matt Carpenter and Josh Donaldson joining the ranks this year, but at an increasingly top-heavy position, chances are not everyone in a 12-team league will like who they have there to begin the season.

Top 10 third basemen for 2014:
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers
2. David Wright, 3B, Mets
3. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers
4. Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals
5. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays
6. Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals
7. Martin Prado, 2B/3B/OF, Diamondbacks
8. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Athletics
9. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
10. Kyle Seager, 3B, Mariners

See what I mean? We're not even to 12 yet, and already I see one player I wouldn't really miss on Draft Day. Seager is fine and all, having hit 20-plus homers in back-to-back seasons, but he's the definition of middle-tier, having more or less maxed out his potential as a one-category contributor on a bad offensive club. His walks and doubles give him a bit of a boost in points leagues, but until the offense around improves enough to up his run and RBI totals, he's more of a fallback option than a player to target in Fantasy.

Typically in leagues where each team starts just one player around the infield, maybe one or two teams will have to settle for a fallback option at a particular position. Here, three do -- and that's in the unlikely event no one drafts Carpenter or Prado to play second base. Yup, chances are you'll have to dig even deeper.

The drop-off for me is actually right after Donaldson at No. 8. Machado is a terrific speculative pick as a 21-year-old with a sparkling pedigree, but he'll have to do more than he's done in 2012 to justify his ranking. After a terrific start to the season, his shortcomings have become all too apparent in the second half, leading to a .236 batting average and .641 OPS. Targeting him on the same level as Longoria or Zimmerman assumes he'll take the next step forward in his development, upping his power and (hopefully) improving his plate discipline. His gruesome knee injury Monday only lengthened those odds.

Of course, you could argue he's no riskier than Donaldson, whose MVP-caliber production seemingly came out of nowhere this year, but considering he was just as productive over the final six weeks of 2012, batting .290 with an .844 OPS in 176 at-bats, I'm confident the breakthrough is legitimate. To me, he's sort of another Zimmerman, though I still give Zimmerman the edge since he obviously has more of a track record backing up his production. I just wish he'd be steadier about it. In back-to-back years now, he's needed a late-season power surge to bring his numbers up where they belong.

As for the top of the position, we have no reason to debate Cabrera. He'll be the first player drafted in most leagues. Wright is just as much of a lock at No. 2. He remains the position's only true power-speed threat and has returned to being a reliable .300 hitter since the Mets moved in the fences at Citi Field in 2012. The rest of that top tier gets a little dicey, though. Beltre is as productive as any of them, but he turns 35 in April. Eventually, his age his age will catch up to him, if it's not already happening with his poor September. Remember how Paul Konerko finished last season?

I got into a lengthy back-and-forth with a certain Twitter follower insisting I rank Longoria ahead of Carpenter. I get that he has the higher ceiling, but after three straight seasons of unfulfilled expectations, I can no longer assume the best with him. The law of averages says Carpenter will regress a bit, but even at 85 percent production, he'd be averaging 2.97 Head-to-Head points per game this season. Longoria is averaging 2.87.

Of course, how you rank those two and Beltre is mostly a matter of preference. I've believed in Carpenter since before the start of this season, and I value his versatility. Technically speaking, I might actually prefer him to Beltre, but I can't bring myself to move him into the second round, where I currently project Beltre to go.

Then again, maybe I'd take Beltre knowing Carpenter's doppelganger will be available three or four rounds later. After inexplicably hitting in the .240s for much of the first half, Prado has averaged 3.54 Head-to-Head points per game in the second. Carpenter is at 3.50 points per game for the season.

Next 10 third basemen for 2014:
11. Xander Bogaerts, 3B, Red Sox
12. Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Pirates
13. Brett Lawrie, 3B, Blue Jays
14. Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Brewers
15. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants
16. Chase Headley, 3B, Padres
17. Will Middlebrooks, 3B, Red Sox
18. Mike Moustakas, 3B, Royals
19. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
20. Chris Johnson, 3B, Braves

Because he spent most of his short stint in the majors at third base, Bogaerts will be eligible there rather than shortstop to begin 2014. I was disappointed to hear it at first, having already determined to include him in my top 10 at shortstop, but as shallow as third base has turned out to be, his ranking there has just as much shock value.

If he wasn't actually in line to take over at shortstop for the Red Sox next season and gain eligibility at the position within the first week, I might not be so enamored with him. But the anticipated eligibility at arguably the two weakest positions on the infield should factor into his value. The talent I don't doubt for a minute. We haven't seen much of him in brief glimpses in September, but he hit at every level of the minors (which is something Machado can't claim) and is perhaps even more polished than Hanley Ramirez was when he delivered a Rookie of the Year performance for the Marlins in 2006.

A stud shortstop is the rarest commodity in Fantasy, so the chance to get one in the middle rounds is worth passing up Alvarez, who has seemingly topped out as an all-or-nothing type at age 26, and Aramis Ramirez, who might never again play 130 games at age 35.

It's also worth passing up Lawrie, who happens to be my favorite of the stalled up-and-comers. He makes consistent contact, if nothing else, and though he hasn't set the world on fire since returning from a sprained ankle in mid-July, he has outperformed Alvarez in terms of Head-to-Head points per game. Plus, at age 23, he's still closing in on his ceiling.

Ultimately, what separates him from Middlebrooks and Moustakas is that he's shown the most at the youngest age. Middlebrooks has had his moments, but his poor plate discipline might limit him to being a poor man's Alvarez. Moustakas' low strikeout rate is about all he can hang his hat on.

Neither would compel me to pass up 2013 disappointments Sandoval and Headley, though Headley's strong September is the only thing setting him apart. Sandoval might strike some as undervalued here, but the stark contrast between his good and bad seasons makes a second straight bad season sort of a deal-breaker. His all-too-frequent weight problems make him the perfect candidate for a premature decline and certainly haven't helped him stay on the field. Still, the upside is a little easier to see for him than for a player who has yet to deliver at the major-league level.

Cody Asche isn't too far behind Arenado, another of the wait-are-you-waiting-for crop of third basemen, but he doesn't have quite the same pedigree. Maybe if the Diamondbacks open up a spot for Matt Davidson, I could see him elbowing his way into that group, but judging by his high strikeout rate in the minors, I expect him to have some growing pains as a rookie.

Todd Frazier is notable omission, seeing as he's currently a top-15 third baseman, but entering his age-28 season, he's already maxed out his potential. Frankly, I aim for more than his .250-ish batting average and 20 homers. Alex Rodriguez, as well as he's performed since returning from injury, would rank about 17th on this list if not for what we all know awaits him this offseason.

Among the prospects in the discussion, Miguel Sano is the most obvious. He's the premier power hitter in the minors right now, sort of like Giancarlo Stanton in the months leading up to his promotion, and though I could see him arriving sooner than later if he makes an impression in spring training, it's far from assured for a 20-year-old who has yet to master Double-A. Doesn't mean you can't take a late-round flier on him, of course, but for the sake of the rankings, I'll go the more conservative route. Maikel Franco put up monster numbers in 2013, climbing all the way to Double-A, but with Asche getting the first crack in Philadelphia, the 21-year-old will have to wait his turn. Garin Cecchini, a high-contact on-base machine in sort of the Kevin Youkilis mold, could factor for the Red Sox if Middlebrooks falters.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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