Third base has become a very deep position in fantasy as well. Where once was 4-5 guys and a lot of mess is now 18-20 deep with guys who could be viable starters for a fantasy squad, depending on need and roster construction.
1. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers – Cabrera ended the season with an injury, costing many fantasy owners down the final stretch of the season, especially in head-to-head leagues. Cabrera had surgery on the mystery injury, first identified as a “core” injury, then as a lower oblique injury, and then reclassified as a groin tear. No man wants to tear anything in that region of the body, but Cabrera’s power was especially sapped within his swing, not specifically in his home runs, but in his hard-hit average statistics. Cabrera may not be 100% for some time in the season as he gets his legs back under him, but he’s moving to 1B, which should allow him some recovery time on the field. Enjoy the last season of Cabrera’s 3B eligibility and his incredibly elite statistics that come with it. For me, he’s the #2 player in all of fantasy, even with the injury.
2. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers – Beltre hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention that his consistent elite production has warranted the last few years, likely because he’s been the second star on his team the whole time, first behind Josh Hamilton, and now behind Yu Darvish. With Prince Fielder in the lineup, there’s the risk that national attention will once again not focus on Beltre the way it should, but you certainly shouldn’t ignore him. Beltre is a high-average, high power guy who will give you 200+ R/RBI. He might not come off the board as the #2 3B, but he’ll be worth every penny if you grab him as such.
3. David Wright, New York Mets – While Wright’s supporting cast isn’t exactly stout, he’s continued to produce when healthy. Wright started a trend in 2008 of playing 150+ games in even seasons and running into injuries in odd seasons. This year is an even season, and in his last even-numbered season, Wright put up a .306 average, 21 homers, 93 RBI, and 15 steals on a bad Mets team. He is 31 now, so some of those injuries could begin to become more nagging, but he’s one of few 3B that you can count on in steals and his other numbers are strong enough to warrant ranking this high.
4. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays – If Wright’s injury-prone, Longoria was flat-out fragile coming into 2013. Then he played 160 games, posted nearly 700 plate appearances, and knocked out 32 home runs. The big difference between Wright and Longoria is that Longoria is doing it with a .265-.295 average, which Wright is flirting with .300. If Longoria’s healthy, he’s a good bet for 25+ home runs and solid R/RBI number, but understand that in 2011 and 2012 combined, Longoria played only 200 games, so the risk is certainly there to lose him.
5. Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics – This is high, and I’m willing to be out on a ledge with this guy (though the more I listen to guys from Baseball HQ and Baseball Prospectus talk Donaldson up, the better I’m feeling about this ledge!). Donaldson was a breakthrough guy in 2013, mainly as he completely redefined his approach at the plate. He attacked pitchers, forcing his pitch to be thrown, resulting in a reduction in strikeout rate by over 5% while adding 7% to his walk rate. According to a recent Baseball HQ podcast (a suggested listen for hardcore fantasy players!), Donaldson ranked behind only Atlanta’s own Freddie Freeman in control of his plate appearances in 2013. He swung at more strikes and fouled off more pitches than anyone but Freeman in all of baseball. I’m not sure that there’s 25+ homer power, especially playing in the spacious Oakland ballpark, but something near his numbers of last season is certainly feasible, and those numbers had him as an elite 3B in 2013.
6. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals – Zimmerman has been rumored since midseason 2013 to be suffering from “Steve Sax disease”, where he seemingly cannot make the most routine throws anymore from his position at 3B. Depending on how he comes out in 2014, Zimmerman could be headed across the diamond to 1B very soon. His bat, when healthy, is typically solid, and he’s got a fairly potent lineup surrounding him, but the injury worries seem to creep up every season, making Zimmerman just a bit too risky for me to put in my top 5.
7. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners – Once again, I’m jumping on a guy after a short time of highlight productivity, and you’ll see that unlike most other lists, I don’t have a young rising player at my #15 slot at 3B, mostly because of the number of guys I highlight along the way with one season or two of high-end fantasy production. Seager is a guy whose at bats simply look much better than a guy with a .260 average, and there’s reason to think that he will be able to improve those numbers going forward. Seager also offers fantasy owners one of the few legit double-digit steals options at the position. With the Seattle lineup solidifying around him, Seager should be a fantasy asset for years to come.
8. Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh Pirates – Any fan of the ESPN Fantasy Focus baseball show understands why I giggle a little every time Pedro’s name comes up. Thank you, Matthew Berry! Alvarez does one thing for fantasy owners, but he does it very, very well. He hits balls a long, long ways. Usually he does this with other Pirates on base, and in the end, fantasy owners end up with solid home runs and RBI from Alvarez. His contact rate is too weak to expect anything above a .250 average, and I have him projected about 15 points below that number in my own projections for 2014. Like Jedd Gyorko at 2B, if you have solid batting average guys with minimal power around him, Alvarez could be the perfect balance for your team.
9. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles – As a “real” baseball player, Machado might have no other peer at the position. His defense is so far above his competitors that before his late-season injury, he was actually in competition with Andrelton Simmons to lead the league in defensive runs saved for 2013, finishing with 35 to Andrelton’s 41. That is incredible defense from a 3B, and Baltimore knows good hot corner defense when it sees it! The reason Machado is #9 has to do somewhat with that injury and the questions regarding how he’ll initially return to start the season, even though he’s been cleared and is likely to be ready for opening day. Machado may not hit 20 home runs, but he’s going to give a solid average and good R/RBI numbers due to his position in the batting order. He won’t do anything that will blow you away numbers-wise, but at the end of the day, he’ll be a top-ranked guy based on doing all things well.
10. Brett Lawrie, Toronto Blue Jays – I might be buying way too much into the post-hype sleeper thing here, and I’ll be the first to admit it if I’m wrong. Lawrie just oozes talent on the field, but like another uber-talented player, Bryce Harper, he can’t seem to save himself from himself. His reckless play on the field earns a lot of respect from teammates and opponents alike, but it doesn’t translate to time on the field for your fantasy team. Lawrie has all the tools to be a 20/20 player with a playable .270ish average, but he often mires in slumps due to overworking himself (per observations in 2013 from ESPN’s Keith Law’s Behind the Dish podcast) and hurts his fantasy stock with those slumps and missed time due to injury. Eventually, one would hope the talent would win out and the numbers would show up, but I’ll be honest in saying this is more a hedge than a strong feeling.
11. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies – Arenado is another guy who garnered tons of prospect hype coming up through the Rockies system, and many owners were somewhat disappointed when he arrived in the bigs in 2013 with his production. Arenado isn’t a prototypical power guy, but his batting average wasn’t what many projected for him either. Keep your expectations for 2014 modest, and you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised with Arenado’s solid 15-20 HR power and decent average. Just be careful not to jump into a bidding war with someone who thinks that Coors will mean 30 HR or a .300 average right away for Arenado.
12. Chase Headley, San Diego Padres – The Padres wanted badly to cash in on Headley’s huge 2012 season, but then 2013 started. He likely cost his team significant prospects and himself major money with his mediocre 2013. Headley has the talent to be a 30/20 sort of hitter, but he also is inconsistent enough that a 10/10 season is just as likely. I think he ends up somewhere in the middle, and there is the chance that with the right trade offer, he could be traded to a better hitting environment midseason.
13. Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants – Yes, I’ve heard all the “Muscle Panda” and “Slim Panda” comments from the offseason – since 2010. Every year it seems Sandoval has a renewed vigor for the game and is dropping weight before the season starts, and that is going to make him the next 3B superstar. The problem is that by midseason, he’s always back to his oversized self, which leads to increased nicks and little injuries, and even with his solid contact and decent power, he still struggles to top 130 R/RBI to add to his stats, so his counting contributions aren’t as solid as the reputation would suggest.
14. Chris Johnson, Atlanta Braves – Johnson isn’t going to put up 30 homers, and another run at .330 is probably not in the cards, but he’s very underrated in what he offers to fantasy owners in solid average and good low-end power. He has been cited as a fall back candidate due to his BABIP in 2013, but those writers have failed to note that Johnson’s 2013 BABIP looked very similar to his career BABIP line, which is aided by his line-drive approach to hitting. That may not lead to a ton of long balls, but he does end up helping a fantasy team plenty with his batting average and giving enough in other categories to make him a solid backend starter.
15. Aramis Ramirez, Milwaukee Brewers – The Brewers are hoping Ramirez gives them at bats this year, and so do fantasy owners. Ramirez is in the back-end of his career and finds his way on the DL way more than any fantasy owner would like, but when he’s healthy, he’s going to give you solid production. I’d compare him to Chase Utley at the 2B position, but 3B is deeper even than a deep 2B position, so Ramirez is a good utility or corner infield type rather than a starting 3B.
Position strategy: The first four are the elite at the position, and they’re legitimately worth making an effort to get. However, if you don’t get one of the top 4 guys, be willing to wait on your 3B because there’s very good depth at the position. The position is flux with young talent that could be moving in soon like Matt Dominguez in Houston, Matt Davidson of the White Sox, and Nick Castellanos of the Tigers and guys like Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Miguel Sano of the Twins coming soon as prospects.