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2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Third Basemen

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IFebruary 2, 2013

2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 Third Basemen

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    The population of third basemen in Major League Baseball is talented and getting increasingly young, and with the promotion of Manny Machado and impending ascension of top prospects Anthony Rendon, Nick Castellanos and Mike Olt (if he stays at 3B), the position is getting deeper and becoming even younger.. 

    With that said, it should be understood the position has several question marks among the top echelon of players (ie, health issues, consistency issues), so in consideration of the depth of the position it may be advisable to wait until the middle rounds to make a selection if you do not get one of the top three or four options.

    Of course, even in the middle rounds there will be some questions that attach to your selection, but if you're going to select a third baseman with some questions it would be better to gamble with a fifteenth round pick than a fourth or fifth round pick.

    (NOTE: Hanley Ramirez is included among the shortstops, as opposed to the third basemen)

    Related articles: Top 10 Catchers, Top 10 First Basemen, Top 10 Second Basemen

No. 1: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

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    When Rogers Hornsby won the first of his two Triple Crowns in 1922, it had been 13 years since the feat had been accomplished (Ty Cobb, 1909). Throughout the next several decades, there was no longer drought between Triple Crowns than the nine years between Ted Williams (1947) and Mickey Mantle (1956); that is, until Carl Yastrzemski turned the trick in 1967.

    After “Yaz” won the Triple Crown by posting a .326 batting average, with 44 HR and 121 RBI, no Major League Player led his league in all three prime offensive categories (BA, HR and RBI) throughout the remainder of the century and more than a decade of the new millennium.

    And then came Miguel Cabrera.

    “Miggy” hit .330, swatted 44 HR and knocked in 139 runs in the 13th year of the 21st century, and in so doing he led the American League in each of the three Triple Crown categories—thus ending a 45-year drought. Not surprisingly, Cabrera rates as a tier unto himself at third base and is arguably the No. 1 player in all of fantasy baseball.

    While serious questions surround many of the players on this list, there are no such concerns attached to Cabrera, who is a model of consistency. Over his ten big-league years in Detroit and Miami, he has compiled a .318 career batting average, hit 30+ home runs on eight occasions and driven in 100+ runs nine times. That kind of consistency has exceptional value in fantasy baseball.

    Projection: .330 BA, 37 HR, 125 RBI, 110 R and 3 SB

No. 2: Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers

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    As mentioned previously, questions abound with respect to nearly everyone on this Top 10 list who is not named Miguel Cabrera. While Beltre once had some health and consistency issues, he has largely avoided the health problems and eliminated the steadiness concerns over the last few years.

    But as we look towards 2013, fantasy owners have to wonder about the guys around him in the Texas Rangers lineup—specifically, who he will be asked to drive in and who will be driving him home.

    The lineup is in a state of flux. Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and Michael Young are all gone. Nelson Cruz has been accused of using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) and could be looking at a league-imposed suspension. Ian Kinsler could (should?) be moved from the leadoff spot and could (should?) be asked to increase his focus on producing home runs and RBIs to offset the losses of Hamilton, et al.

    How the Rangers front office and manager Ron Washington eventually structure the batting order will have a substantial impact on Beltre’s ultimate fantasy value. While he has produced an average of a .313 BA, with 32 HR, 103 RBI and 87 R over the last three years, there is a significant possibility that every one of those stats could regress this season.

    At this point in the offseason, it appears Hamilton will be replaced by Craig Gentry, Napoli by A.J. Pierzynski and Young by Lance Berkman. If Cruz is suspended, he will be replaced over the short term by Leonys Martin. None of those replacements appear to have the ability to replace the offensive production of the player he is replacing, with the exception of Berkman, if he can stay healthy.

    How impactful those changes will be upon Beltre’s value remains to be seen. While the Rangers front office claims it is happy with Gentry and/or Martin in center field, that could change if Cruz is suspended. At that point, the lineup would lack substantial power and the front office may be forced to add a power bat in the outfield, at first base or at DH.

    If ownership and the front office don’t add an impact bat, then pitchers will likely pitch around Beltre, forcing other (less potent) bats to beat them and siphoning statistics from Beltre. This issue bears watching throughout the spring, and for this reason it may be best to let others roll the dice by selecting (purchasing) him.

    Projection: .309 BA, 26 HR, 85 RBI, 80 R and 1 SB

No. 3: Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers

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    When I started this article I assumed Ramirez would end up slotted somewhere between fifth and seventh on my list, but the more I looked at the players' stats and injury histories and inconsistency, the more I came to appreciate the qualities A-Ram brings to the table.

    As I mentioned at the conclusion of the section on Miguel Cabrera, consistency has tremendous value in fantasy baseball. Championships are built on avoiding the question marks, selecting players who will consistently produce at desirable levels, unearthing players on the verge of a breakout, identifying those productive players who will get playing time as a result of injury…and a little bit of luck.

    Though he is getting a little long in the tooth, Ramirez is one of those guys who continues to provide his owners with excellent production each and every year. He reminds me of former Red Sox outfielder Dwight Evans, who began his career offensively-challenged only to become a consistently good hitter in his late-20s and throughout his 30s.

    A-Ram has hit at least 25 home runs in every season since 2004, with the lone exception of 2009 (when he hit 15 HR in 306 AB, missing much of the season with injury). In spite of these facts, Ramirez remains somewhat undervalued, as the fantasy toolbox indicates he is being drafted in the middle of the fourth round on average (and as late as the seventh round!)—long after David Wright and Evan Longoria are off the board.

    It is imperative that owners who select him practice patience throughout the 162-game season. Ramirez has gotten off to a slow start in each of the last four campaigns, only to smolder thereafter (i.e., last year he hit .333, with 18 of his 27 HR and 65 of his 105 RBI during the second half of the season).

    Many pundits rank him lower among his peers due to his age, but until the soon-to-be-35-year-old starts to regress, I recommend leaving him among your top three options at the position. Last year his contact rate was a robust 86 percent, his hit rate remained very good at 31 percent and his home run rate was a solid 13 percent—figures that are at or near the top of his annual range within all three metrics.

    His ground ball rate has increased and his fly ball rate has decreased over the last few years, but that change has had a beneficial impact on his batting average—ironically, without adversely impacting his home run total.

    At this point in his career, there are no signs of an impending regression and, therefore, there is no reason to downgrade him on this list. That should not be interpreted as a guarantee that he will outperform other options, it simply means I would prefer to bank on him rather than tempt fate on another Jekyll-Hyde performance from David Wright or a third consecutive injury-shortened campaign from Evan Longoria.

    Projection: .292 BA, 25 HR, 95 RBI, 80 R and 4 SB

No. 4: David Wright, New York Mets

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    I apologize to all of you David Wright fans out there for my Jekyll-Hyde reference. It is meant to be descriptive and not necessarily a pejorative, although I certainly understand the reasons(s) it might be taken that way.  

    Since 2008, the Mets third baseman has been on-again, off-again as if doing his best impression of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In even-numbered years he has been “on” (averaging .297, with 28 HR, 107 RBI, 98 R and 16 SB), in odd-numbered years not so much (.284, 12 HR, 66 RBI, 74 R and 20 SB). This year (2013) is an odd-numbered year. Caveat emptor.

    Over the last five years, his underlying metrics have been all over the place:

    Contact rate: low of 73 percent, high of 81 percent

    Hit rate: has varied from 31 to 40 percent

    Home run rate: fluctuated in a 10-point range (from seven to 17 percent)

    The only peripheral that has been stable during the last few years has been his walk rate, which has been 12 percent in three of the last four seasons (and was 11 percent in 2010). On the plus side, he has lowered his strikeout rate in each of the last two years, and last season it sat well below league average (16.7 percent, as opposed to the league average of 19.2 percent).

    His “off years” aren’t bad years—there are lots of third basemen out there who would be happy to lay claim to them—but they are not characteristic of a player selected at the end of the second round or early in the third round. Regardless, there are owners out there who will draft him as if he were a consistent fantasy producer. I say, good luck to them—better them than me.

    There are as many theories about how to construct a team as there are people who participate in fantasy baseball. Competitive fantasy teams are created by drafting cautiously in the earlier rounds—laying a solid statistical foundation while avoiding potential land mines. Once the foundation has been laid, championships are earned in the later rounds when owners identify players who will significantly outperform their salary or draft slot (and the “profit” those players create for their owners).

    If Wright enjoys an “on” season, he will produce stats worthy of a first-round pick; if he doesn’t, he could produce stats reminiscent of a 15th rounder. With an Average Draft Position (ADP) of 25, he provides limited upside and tremendous downside. Of course, that can be said for any first- or second-round pick—the difference is that sometimes the struggles come from out of nowhere and at other times fantasy owners have clear signs that identify players with a track record of inconsistency (Wright, Evan Longoria, etc).

    Projection: .280 BA, 22 HR, 85 RBI, 85 R and 14 SB

No. 5: Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays

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    I feel a special connection to Evan Longoria. On Sunday, April 13, 2008, my CRASS Fantasy Baseball League conducted its annual fantasy auction in Andrew Friedman’s conference room at Tropicana Field.

    After the auction we watched batting practice through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of the office and then watched the Rays game from a luxury box. During the course of the game I determined I would like to stay in town for an extra day to catch the Rays-Yankees game the next night. One of Friedman’s staffers arranged for me to get a box seat ticket for the game—just two rows behind the Tampa Bay on-deck circle.

    During pregame I had the chance to chat with Longoria for a couple of minutes. He autographed a baseball for me and, as I shook his hand, I wished him well: “Here’s hoping you hit your first big league homer tonight!” In the seventh inning he did just that. From my vantage point I got a great picture of him hitting his first career home run.

    Okay, so it isn’t much of a connection, but it is a connection nonetheless. I have been a fan and rooted for him ever since.

    What does that have to do with fantasy baseball? Nothing. I just wanted to share that story—this is the first time I have had an excuse to do so on Bleacher Report. Okay, so it wasn’t much of an excuse, but it was an excuse nonetheless.

    After all, what else was I going to write? You probably already know everything you need to know about him. When he is good, he is very, very good…and he is usually good when he is healthy. The problem is that he has made it through a season injury-free in only two of his five big league campaigns. In 2012, he played in 74 games and made just 312 plate appearances (273 ABs). It’s hard to compile fantasy stats while on the disabled list!

    When he is healthy he generally combines a high-70s contact rate with a low-30s hit rate and an outstanding home run rate (18 to 20 percent). His walk rate is well above big league average, and his strikeout rate is slightly above major league average – a small tradeoff for his power production.

    And 2013 will be his age-27 season!

    But what of his health? Do you feel lucky?

    Well, do you?

    Projection: .275 BA, 26 HR, 90 RBI, 75 R and 4 SB

No. 6: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals

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    Zimmerman was poised to make a move into the top tier of third basemen after the 2010 season, but he was injured in 2011 and battled shoulder problems throughout the first half of last year – so his ascension to elite status has been delayed.

    Fantasy owners should be wary when it comes to grabbing him. He is capable of providing great production when healthy, as was evidenced by his .319 BA, 20 HR, 64 RBI and 2 SB during the second half of last year, but it seems quite possible that performance was an “outlier” produced by a 22 percent home run rate (well above his previous career high of 16 percent).

    He stopped hitting fly balls at a desirable rate after the 2010 season (only 33 percent over the last two years combined) and has become prone to hitting grounders (49 percent over the same two-year period). These metrics are counter-productive for a corner infielder who is supposed to be a source of home runs.

    He produces excellent contact (low-80s) and hit (32-to-34 percent) rates, suggesting that last year’s batting average (.282) should be the floor of what can be expected. With the Nationals lineup getting deeper and stronger, it seems his RBI and runs scored should tend to improve somewhat. But what can be expected of his home run production?

    It says here that he would be a stretch in the first four rounds, but that he would be a worthwhile investment if he should still be available in the fifth or sixth round.

    Projection: .285, 18 HR, 90 RBI, 90 R and 4 SB

No. 7: Chase Headley, San Diego Padres

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    The first three tiers at third base were Cabrera (elite); Beltre-Ramirez (proven studs); and Wright through Zimmerman (stud, but with question marks). With Headley we enter a fourth tier that will carry us through the end of this list—guys with stud potential without a track record to rely upon.

    The Padres’ soon-to-be-29-year-old third baseman had a huge breakout season in 2012, but that is no guarantee of future success. Due to the fact his career performance prior to last year paled in comparison, he is a prime candidate for a significant regression in 2013. Can you say, “career year”?

    Historically, Headley has paired a very good hit rate (typically 33-34 percent) with a marginal contact rate (mid- to high-70s) and a poor home run rate (six percent average from 2009-11) to produce a track record of fantasy irrelevance.

    But last season he burst onto the fantasy radar with an astounding 21 percent home run rate, producing 31 home runs and 115 RBI in just 604 at-bats. The problem is whether last year has any implication for 2013 and beyond, as he had hit only 36 home runs in 1,883 ABs in the four-plus seasons preceding last year.

    None of his metrics from last season were significantly different from what he had done in the past, with the exception of the home run rate. It is my judgment that that home run rate is unsustainable, as even in the minor leagues his rate was considerably lower than what he managed to do last year.

    If he is able to maintain even half the gain he achieved last year he would reach 20 HRs, but that would still place his rate well above anything he did previously.

    Projection: .275 BA, 18 HR, 80 RBI, 80 R and 16 SB

No. 8: Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Lawrie is being included on this list because of what he might accomplish in the future, not because of anything he has done in the past. He was accompanied by a lot of hype when he arrived in the major leagues in August of 2011, but up until this point he has not come close to delivering on the promise. Potential is a wonderful thing, but it is just that—potential.

    Last year at this time, his potential seemed limitless, and he was one of the hottest prospects in all of baseball. In 2011, he hit .293 with 9 HR in 150 at-bats—those stats projected over an entire season suggested a 25-30 HR season was in the offing. But he fell woefully short of those expectations last year (.273, 11 HR in 494 AB).

    His struggles may be explained by the impatience he demonstrated last year—was he pressing to live up to the hype? According to fangraphs.com, he swung at nearly one-half of all pitches thrown to him last season (48.3 percent), including nearly one-third of all pitches thrown outside the strike zone (31.7 percent).

    These spikes were accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of ground balls he hit (50 percent, up from 38 percent), with fly balls experiencing a commensurate decrease (from 45 to 29.7 percent). It should also be noted that his stolen base success rate came in at just 62 percent, meaning he could see the green light less often in 2013.

    He needs to relax and practice patience, both at the plate and on the base paths.

    The good news is he is a year older and has a better lineup around him. He started off strong last year, but dealt with a succession of nagging injuries (back, calf, knee and oblique) and fatigue as his first full season in the majors dragged on.

    It seems likely he will settle down and let the game come to him a little more during the upcoming season, as opposed to pressing and trying to force the issue. Also, he almost assuredly learned a lesson about the physical conditioning required to maintain strength throughout the long regular season.

    Projection: .275 BA, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 80 R and 15 SB

No. 9: Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners

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    Like Lawrie before him, Seager swings at too many pitches (47.9 percent), but he has better strike zone judgment. He strikes out less than league average (16.9 percent), and while he also walks less than league average, he made significant improvement in that area in 2012 (7.1 percent walk rate, up from 6.5 percent the year before).

    He makes good contact (81 percent), but has seen his batting average held back by a combination of a low hit percentage (29 percent), low BABIP (.286) and the oversized outfield in Seattle, which has also depressed his home run rate (10 percent).

    The fact that the fences at Safeco Field are being moved in could have a positive influence on his hit rate, home run rate, etc., but he also could see some regression as pitchers make adjustments. In light of his 42-percent fly ball rate and 22-percent line drive rate, the relocation of the fences could have a significant impact on his home run total. (His 2012 home stats include a .223 BA and just five home runs)

    For now, let’s say the movement of the fences and the adjustments that will be made by opposing pitchers will offset one another. Whether he improves on last year’s performance will ultimately be determined by how he, in turn, adjusts to the pitchers.

    Projection: .270 BA, 20 HR, 75 RBI, 65 R and 10 SB

No. 10: Will Middlebrooks, Boston Red Sox

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    There were lots of options here at the end of the list: Todd Frazier, Manny Machado, Mike Moustakas, Martin Prado, Pablo Sandoval and Michael Young, just to name a few. At various times I leaned towards Moustakas (who has more potential upside) and Prado (who is a safer bet), but I eventually settled on Middlebrooks, as I think he has a greater likelihood of achieving his potential than “Mous” and more upside than Prado.

    He assumed the starter’s role in early May and never looked back until a fractured wrist sidelined him for the rest of the season in mid-August. Still, he performed admirably in his rookie season, hitting .288 with 15 HR and 54 RBI in half of a season of at-bats (267 ABs).

    That said, there are a couple of very significant question marks surrounding the BoSox third baseman as the new season dawns. His 2012 metrics were good enough to put his name on the back end of this list, but he has a lot of work to do if he wants to keep it there.

    Let’s start with his plate discipline—it needs significant improvement. He is overly aggressive and doesn’t take many walks (registering a 4.6-percent walk rate in 2012). He swings at a lot of baseballs (44.6 percent) and misses far too many of them (24.5-percent strikeout rate).

    He struggles to make contact, accruing a marginal 75-percent contact rate last year, though it is fair to say that when he makes contact good things typically happen. He posted an excellent hit rate (34 percent) and a superlative home run rate (21 percent), though the HR-rate likely won’t be sustained even though he is a right-handed hitter playing half of his games in Fenway Park. He also accumulated a .335 BABIP, which also seems assured to regress.

    As with Lawrie, he needs to practice patience. The Red Sox won’t be a playoff team, so he should avoid trying to do too much and concentrate on honing his approach at the plate. It is critical for his development that he develops his strike zone judgment and learns to lay off pitches outside of the strike zone; this will force opposing hurlers to throw more pitches in the strike zone (where he can do more damage).

    Projection: .265 BA, 17 HR, 65 RBI, 60 R and 9 SB

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