There are few worse feelings in a Fantasy draft than failing to fill a position after there's been a huge dropoff in value between the players taken off the board and the ones left behind. When that happens at third base, taking that step beyond the final elite player will feel like walking off a huge curb that you never saw.
More than at any other position, there is a Grand Canyon-sized abyss separating the top third basemen and the second tier. Miguel Cabrera is miles ahead of the third base pack, and Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and David Wright are at least several football fields ahead of the remaining third basemen. In Rotisserie formats, Wright projects to add nearly 15 places in the cumulative standings to your team's existing roster, while the next-best option, Josh Donaldson, would add just shy of 13 places. A difference of two places in the cumulative standings may not sound like much, but it's the largest such gap between elites and a second tier for any position.
The third base elite grows by one in Head-to-Head formats, as Matt Carpenter's low strikeout rate, high walk rate and healthy doubles total are enough for him to keep company with Longoria, Beltre and Wright (though most owners would probably use him at second base anyway). In either format, though, owners will take a big hit if they address their third base need too soon after the Big Four (or Five, if you count Carpenter) are claimed.
Still, the position offers some solid fallback options, as long as you don't reach for them. Even with some mild regression, Donaldson can turn in a solid season -- one that should be slightly better than Ryan Zimmerman's 2013 campaign. Martin Prado provides multi-positional eligibility and Kyle Seager offers steady, if not eye-popping, production. Chase Headley and Brett Lawrie have had better days, but both are still young enough to rebound (Lawrie especially). Whether or not they look poised to do it is something I'll address further below. If the proven veterans don't excite you or get drafted too early, there's always the upside potential presented by early-twenty-somethings Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts.
As with every position, third base presents its share of players who are difficult to project, due to inconsistency or inexperience. This sample of projection profiles begins with Longoria, whose stats were not actually all that hard to project, but this space seemed as fitting as any to make my case as to why I think he is at least on a par with Beltre and Wright, who get more respect among industry analysts.
Evan Longoria, Rays
2014 5x5 projections: .281/.356/.518, 33 HR, 101 RBI, 98 Runs, 1 SB in 595 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 15.3 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 2nd among third basemen; 512 Fantasy Points, 2nd among third basemen
After Cabrera is gone, presumably after the first two picks in the draft, it's almost a toss-up among Longoria, Wright and Beltre for second best at the position. I prefer Longoria, since he is a little more consistent and a little less of an injury risk than Wright and six years younger than Beltre.
That said, Longoria is not without his risks. After a three-year trend of reducing strikeouts, Longoria is back to Square One, as his strikeout rate has soared over the last two seasons. Over that span, Longoria has been taking called strikes at the highest rate of his career. While that's a trend to watch, it's encouraging in a way that Longoria's 26 percent strikeout-per-at-bat ratio was skewed by a midseason binge, in which he struck out in exactly one of out of every three at-bats in June and July.
With more typical strikeout rates the rest of the season, Longoria appears set for at least a mild batting average rebound, and that will fuel increases in runs and RBI. He's also practically a lock for 30 home runs, rounding out a picture of a third baseman who projects to be the best and safest alternative outside of the Motor City.
Josh Donaldson, Athletics
2014 5x5 projections: .281/.355/.465, 22 HR, 86 RBI, 84 Runs, 6 SB in 570 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 12.9 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 6th among third basemen; 455 Fantasy Points, 6th among third basemen
Even since Donaldson seized the A's starting third base job in August 2012, he has been a remarkably consistent source of batting average and home runs. In his first full season, Donaldson ranked as the fourth-most productive third baseman in Fantasy, but can we trust him to repeat? He established himself as a power hitter in three tours at Triple-A, so there is little reason to doubt he can approach last season's 24 home runs and 37 doubles. Over the last three years, both at Oakland and Sacramento, he has made steady reductions in his strikeout rate, so I have projected him to have another season in which he strikes out in less than every fifth at-bat.
Donaldson could still lose value, as he may have a hard time equaling last season's 23 infield hits, given that he doesn't have tremendous speed. A batting average around .280 is a more reasonable expectation than another .300 mark, and that dropoff, along with slightly diminished run production, is enough to knock him well below the likes of Longoria, Beltre and Wright in Roto leagues, and also far behind Carpenter in Head-to-Head formats.
Chase Headley, Padres
2014 5x5 projections: .261/.347/.431, 21 HR, 75 RBI, 74 Runs, 12 SB in 590 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 11.6 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 11th among third basemen; 423 Fantasy Points, 10th among third basemen
There's really no good way to put a positive face on Headley's 2013 stats. His home run power evaporated, and the usually selective hitter showed signs of living up to his name, increasing his chase rate.
Headley's mysterious dropoff in production finally got an explanation last September when he revealed he had been playing the whole season with a torn meniscus. We may not know how much of a factor the injury was, but in sizing Headley up for Draft Day, the disclosure provides a reason to expect Headley to make at least a partial recovery of his 2012 value, when he hit .286 with 31 home runs, 115 RBI and 17 stolen bases. His projection assumes a partial rebound and could understate Headley's production, should he make a full recovery.
One reason not to bank on Headley repeating his 2012 success is his current injury: a strained calf sustained in late February. While Headley has been making progress throughout spring training, calf injuries have been known to linger. It's just one more reason to temper expectations, leaving Headley on the fringes of the top 10 at third base.
Manny Machado, Orioles
2014 5x5 projections: .267/.304/.425, 18 HR, 65 RBI, 83 Runs, 4 SB in 640 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 10.4 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 14th among third basemen; 402 Fantasy Points, 12th among third basemen
Machado enters 2014 with a world of uncertainty, not only because he is coming off knee surgery, but because his development took an unexpected turn last season. Instead of building on the home run power he displayed as a rookie (seven home runs in 191 at-bats), Machado turned into a line drive hitter in 2013 and eschewed the long ball in favor of doubles. Lots of doubles, 51 of them, 39 of which came before the All-Star break.
Machado's flyball rate did rebound in the second half, and as his line drive rate regressed, the doubles dried up and the homers returned. Since Machado was more of a flyball hitter in the minors than he has been with the Orioles, and given his second-half reversal, owners should look to Machado as more of a power source this season. An increased emphasis on hitting flyballs could dampen Machado's batting average, though a slow or delayed start would also likely limit his chances for a major power breakout.
Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
2014 5x5 projections: .275/.328/.429, 16 HR, 63 RBI, 76 Runs, 6 SB in 520 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 10.2 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 16th among third basemen; 367 Fantasy Points, 15th among third basemen
Since exploding onto the Fantasy scene as a power/speed threat who could hit for average in late 2011, it's largely been a downward spiral of injuries and declining performance for Lawrie. He did provide some hopeful signs last season after returning from a month-and-a-half layoff due to an ankle injury. He struck out just 32 times in 262 at-bats and had made some mild improvement on his ground ball rate, but the end result during that 70-game span -- a .279 batting average with six home runs, 32 RBI, 30 runs and seven stolen bases -- doesn't bode well for a return to his rookie glory.
Lawrie's projection reflects the improvement we can expect in his batting average, though I didn't assume he could maintain his late-season strikeout rate, which was far out of line with prior marks. If he does, he could hit above .290, but we have yet to see meaningful signs that a high average would come with 20-plus home run power. Also, a 22 for 35 conversion rate for steals over the last two years is not a good sign for a comeback in that category. With so much of Lawrie's career clouded by health issues and high ground ball rates, it's hard to see him producing enough to merit more than a late-round pick.
Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
2014 5x5 projections: .253/.321/.396, 13 HR, 60 RBI, 73 Runs, 3 SB in 530 at-bats
2014 overall value (projected): 8.3 Standings Gain Points (5x5), 25th among third basemen; 334 Fantasy Points, 22nd among third basemen
As a prospect, Bogaerts showed he could hit for good power for a shortstop and get on base. Given that he did those things as a 20-year-old in Double-A and Triple-A is impressive, but that doesn't mean he's ready to become the next Troy Tulowitzki just yet. Not only could it take Bogaerts time to adjust the majors, but the sizable dip that his flyball rate took upon moving to Triple-A Pawtucket could foreshadow some struggles to hit for power with the Red Sox. Also, Bogaerts has been a good, but not great, contact hitter, so his higher minor league batting averages have been heavily driven by high BABIP rates he may not be able to sustain going forward.
That leaves Bogaerts with mediocre projections, and at third base, they leave him out of the top 20. At shortstop, he would squeeze just inside the top 20 in Head-to-Head formats and falling just short in Roto formats. Since it's almost a certainty that Bogaerts will gain shortstop eligibility, he is worth a flier in standard mixed leagues that have a MI slot.