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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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Player News
Twins 1B Joe Mauer happy with 'normal' offseason
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(8:34 pm ET) Twins first baseman Joe Mauer was happy to have a "normal" offseason after dealing with concussion-like symptoms the previous year, MLB.com reports.

"I had a very productive offseason," Mauer said Saturday. "The last couple years I had a lot of things to deal with, especially last year with the concussion. I didn't really get a good base heading into the year. I feel great this year and I hope it stays that way."

Mauer believes that his vigorous stretching exercises this offseason will help keep him healthy in 2015.

"You have to pay attention to your body. I'm getting older," Mauer said. "I'm finding out what works and doesn't work. Trying to make adjustments."

Manager Paul Molitor indicated that he's noticed a difference in Mauer this spring.

"I think it means a lot for him," Molitor said. "I think coming back last year after what had happened the previous season, you always have those questions. He's got friends that have gone through it with Corey Koskie and Justin [Morneau]. We all know how validated our concern is over concussion issues. I'm sure there was a little hesitancy there. Like I said when I had a chance to visit with him this winter, he's excited to be back and not have to be concerned about those type of things."

Mauer endured a down offensive performance last season, hitting .277/.361/.371 with just four home runs in 455 at-bats.


Report: Blue Jays sign Dayan Viciedo to minor-league deal
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(8:27 pm ET) The Blue Jays have signed outfielder Dayan Viciedo to a minor-league deal, FOXSports reports.

The White Sox designated Viciedo for assignment when the team signed Gordon Beckham and released him after he cleared waivers. Multiple teams reportedly had interest in the outfielder, who hit .231/.281/.405 with 21 home runs and 58 RBI in 523 at-bats last season.

The Blue Jays are dealing with an injury to left fielder Michael Saunders, but it was announced Friday that Saunders is only expected to miss up to six weeks after initially being thought to be out until the All-Star break. While Saunders is out, Viciedo could figure into the mix in left field if he makes the team's 25-man roster.


Giants' Madison Bumgarner to take the ball on Tuesday
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(8:08 pm ET) Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner will take the ball when the team opens spring games on Tuesday, according to MLB.com.

While Bumgarner will start the game, he's only expected to throw one inning. "I'm looking forward to getting out there, facing some hitters and getting back into competition at game speed, playing baseball," Bumgarner said. "But right now, it's just about making sure you're ready to compete whenever the season starts."

Bumgarner is also expected to start for the team on opening day once the regular season begins. He posted a 2.98 ERA over 217 1/3 innings last year.


Christian Bergman motivated by Rockies' pitcher signings
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(8:04 pm ET) Rockies pitcher Christian Bergman chose not to feel slighted when the team added several rotation options this offseason, MLB.com reports.

"It motivates me in a sense, but when I achieve the goals that I want to achieve, that could go away," Bergman said Saturday. "Then you have to find new motivation. I like to motivate myself with more internal things than what other people say, because that changes -- day to day, even."

Bergman made three starts and four relief appearances during the Arizona Fall League, going 2-0 with a 4.34 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 18 2/3 innings, and chose to work on elements of his game against the quality competition.

"I worked on particularly my cutter and curveball, some basic stuff -- particularly getting back on top of the ball, getting everything going downhill," Bergman said.

Bergman, who missed two months last season due to a broken hand, went 3-5 with a 5.93 ERA and 31:10 K:BB ratio in 54 2/3 innings over 10 starts in 2014.


Diamondbacks' Jeremy Hellickson dealing with rib cramp
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:51 pm ET) Diamondbacks pitcher Jeremy Hellickson had to cut a bullpen session short on Saturday due to a cramp near his ribs, according to MLB.com.

Hellickson doesn't expect to miss any time due to the issue. "I feel fine. It's more of a cramp than anything. It was a precautionary thing to shut it down," Hellickson said. "It doesn't even hurt right now.

The team will evaluate Hellickson on Sunday, and that will determine whether he takes any days off. Manager Chip Hale said the team's trainers do not expect Hellickson to miss any time as of right now.

The 27-year-old posted a 4.52 ERA over 63 2/3 innings last year.


Tigers to use Kyle Ryan as a reliever this year
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:42 pm ET) The Tigers view pitcher Kyle Ryan as a reliever this season, according to MLB.com.

Ryan pitched five games in relief with the club last year, but made one strong start against the White Sox late in the season. Despite the success in his one start, manager Brad Ausmus said the team will look at Ryan as a reliever. "We're going to use him, at least at the start of Spring Training, out of the 'pen," Ausmus said. 

Throughout his minor-league career, Ryan was mainly used as a starter. He posted a 2.61 ERA over 10 1/3 innings in the majors last year. 


Dodgers' Erik Bedard to start spring opener
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:35 pm ET) The Dodgers will turn to Erik Bedard during their spring opener on Wednesday against the White Sox, according to MLB.com.

Bedard isn't expected to open the season in the team's rotation, but should be used as depth in case the club loses a starter at some point. The 35-year-old posted a 4.76 ERA over 75 2/3 innings with the Rays last year.


Diamondbacks' Tomas to see time at third and in the outfield
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(7:28 pm ET) Diamondbacks infielder Yasmany Tomas will play third and in the outfield this spring, according to MLB.com.

Tomas has mainly been used as a third baseman early in camp, but has started to shag balls in the outfield during batting practice. The club plans to use Tomas in the outfield once spring games begin. The idea behind the move is to give the Cuban infielder as many at-bats as possible. "We've told Tomas that if there's a day when he is not going to play third, we're going to put him in the outfield just to get at-bats," manager Chip Hale said.

Tomas was mainly used as an outfielder while in Cuba, but Arizona is attempting to transition him to third. He's looked raw in fielding drills during camp, but both Tomas and Hale remain cautiously optimistic about the move. "It feels like it's been a long time since I played third base, but I like the position and I feel good about it," Tomas said.

The 24-year-old is expected to earn a starting spot with the club to open the season.


Yankees' Brendan Ryan (back) making progress
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(6:57 pm ET) Yankees infielder Brendan Ryan is making progress in his recovery from a strained back muscle, he told MLB.com Saturday.

"It's no big deal," Ryan said. "I've had a lot more serious issues in my back before. I wasn't too concerned. It being February, let's just make sure."

Ryan is taking treatment and expects to resume baseball activities next week.

"I don't know what they're going to allow me to do," Ryan said. "If not batting practice, maybe some baseball stuff. I imagine they might baby-step me into it. We always want to jump right back into it. I'd imagine some dry swings or hit off the tee. We'll see.

"I don't want to speak for them. That's how I get in trouble."


Rockies' Tulowitzki, Gonzalez to start running bases next week
by R.J. White | CBSSports.com
(6:32 pm ET) Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez are slated to start running the bases next week, MLB.com reports.

The team is taking it slow with both players after they lost a significant part of the 2014 season to injuries after undergoing surgeries in August. Neither player will see time in Wednesday's Cactus League opener.

"There are still some things they need to do on the field before they're even ready to go into a game -- running bases, specifically," manager Walt Weiss said Saturday. "Last year, we'd have been very happy with the way they're at right now when we thought about their recovery and everything they had to go through. With where they are now, we're very encouraged by it."


 
 
 
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