Fantasy baseball third base primer: Breakouts, rankings and more
Last year at this time, we weren’t exactly sure what to make of the third base position, which had become uncharacteristically shallow in the fantasy game. The highest average draft position among third basemen belonged to Josh Donaldson, but it was a rather unimpressive (for a position leader) 19.7. He, Adrian Beltre and Todd Frazier were the only third basemen selected within the first 40 picks of a typical draft, and while it appeared the position had some ascending talents, it wasn’t clear if and when those players would arrive, figuratively speaking.
But we learned that quite a bit can change in one season. Donaldson hit .297/.371/.568, belted 41 home runs, led the AL in RBI (123) and majors in runs scored (122) and won the MVP. Nolan Arenado, a popular breakout candidate, came through for his believers, leading the NL with 42 homers and the majors with 130 RBI all while hitting .287/.323/.575 and winning his third straight Gold Glove award. Manny Machado stayed healthy and realized his full potential, slashing .286/.359/.502 with 35 bombs and 86 RBI, and adding a second Gold Glove to his mantle. Finally, Kris Bryant paid immediate dividends for the Cubs, finishing his NL Rookie of the Year season with a .275/.369/.488 slash line, 26 homers and 99 RBI.
All four of those players are first-round picks in typical 12-team drafts, with Donaldson leading the way at an ADP of 5.41, and Bryant last among the group at 10.98. And Arenado, Machado and Bryant are all 25 or younger, which means the third base position is once again in good hands, literally and figuratively, for the foreseeable future.
That’s not to say every owner in a 12-team league is going to have a star at the hot corner—there’s a wide gulf between the top-tier quartet and the rest of the position. Next up, by way of ADP, is Todd Frazier, the new White Sox third baseman who had one of the most befuddling turns after the All-Star Break last season. He was every bit as good as the Donaldson-Arenado-Machado-Bryant class in the first half, hitting .284/.337/.585 with 25 homers. He slashed just .233/.285/.448 after the break. He’s still a worthy top-50 pick, but there are definitely some red flags surrounding him.
You have to go down another 30 ADP slots or so to find the next group of third basemen. Matt Carpenter and Kyle Seager are strong, appropriately priced players with easily definable skill sets. Seager has turned into a rock of consistency, with his floor and ceiling right on top of one another. If Carpenter’s power pivot last season is for real—he mashed a career-best 28 homers, while maintaining a .272 batting average and .365 OBP—he, too, will turn a significant profit for his owners.
After those two, things get tricky. Adrian Beltre should be in the Hall of Fame one day, and he remains productive into his late-30s, but his age finally started to show last season. Maikel Franco hit 14 homers and slugged .497 in 335 plate appearances in his age-22 season, but he remains a rate risk this early in his career. Evan Longoria is somewhere between “no longer a star” and “just a guy,” with his power seemingly maxing out at 20 to 22 home runs as he enters his age-30 season. Matt Duffy is a nice, across-the-board contributor, but he’s not going to give you ideal power from a corner infielder. Can David Wright put together one more good year? Can Josh Harrison show that 2014 wasn’t a fluke? Did Mike Moustakas finally figure it out in ’15? Those are the grisly questions you’ll be asking yourself if you don’t act early at third base this year.
In 2014, present-day star Nolan Arenado hit .287/.328/.500 with 18 homers and a .213 isolated slugging percentage in 467 plate appearances in his age-23 season. Last year, Franco hit .280/.343/.497 with 14 homers and a .217 ISO in 335 plate appearances in his age-22 season. The big difference between the two was that Arenado already had a full season under his belt going into 2014, whereas Franco entered the 2015 season with just 58 big league plate appearances.
Could the Phillies’ youngster follow a similar trajectory to Arenado? It’s probably too much to ask him to hit 42 homers and drive in 130 runs this year, but Franco’s ISO, OBP and low strikeout rate (15.5%) are all quite encouraging. He’ll never have Arenado’s glove, but he could have 80% of his bat one day, perhaps as soon as this season. Another apt comparison could be Edwin Encarnacion, who also made the majors as a hit first, hit second, hit third, glove fourth third baseman, eventually moving across the diamond. Encarnacion struggled to find his way in the majors, but eventually became one of the league’s most bankable power hitters. Franco could be on his way to that status, as well.
I know many of you have given up on Castellanos, but let’s remember that he’s entering his age-24 season, and made noticeable strides last season, especially where we most wanted to see them. Castellanos slugged .419 with 15 homers, and his ISO was a still-too-low, though improved, .164. His batted-ball rates suggest more growth is coming. Last year, he had a 23.3% line-drive rate, a statistically insignificant 1.2% popup rate, and a slightly increased 9.2% HR/FB ratio.
Also, he saw marked improvement in the second half last year, hitting .269/.322/.478 with nine homers after the All-Star Break, which translates to a 162-game average of 21.1 homers. That’s completely within the bounds of realism for Castellanos. Remember, too, that he’s going to have the pleasure of hitting behind Justin Upton, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez. His RBI opportunities will be bountiful. And, not to belabor the point, he’s just 24 years old. Castellanos is two months younger than Kris Bryant. Let’s not write him off just yet.
Look, we know what Valbuena is at this point of his career. He’ll hurt you mightily in batting average, he’s not going to steal any bases and he’ll be in the bottom-third of Houston’s order. At the same time, the power is for real, and he has always been willing to take a walk. Last year, Valbuena smacked 25 homers and posted a 10.1% walk rate, which was actually down slightly from his 10.4% career number. He was one of 18 players to reach both of those thresholds, and while he’s nowhere near the player the other 17 are, being able to hit for legitimate power with that discerning an eye isn’t as readily available a skill combination as some might think. Valbuena isn’t going to turn into a star, but his power and on-base ability makes him a worthy endgame target in deeper formats.
No one is drafting Longoria as a star anymore, but I wouldn’t be leaning on him as a worst-case scenario, either. His batted-ball rates over the last two seasons have been nearly identical. In fact, his HR/FB ratio and ground ball rate were exactly the same (10.8% and 39%, respectively), while his line-drive rate and fly-ball rate both differed by 0.2%, year over year.
In other words, the Longoria we’ve seen the last two seasons, with the combined .261/.324/.419 slash and an average of 21.5 homers per season is who he is at this stage of his career. You do not want to be backed into believing in a Longoria resurgence. Make sure you have third base addressed before he is the best remaining option on the board.
Gallo wowed with his raw power at the major league level last season, hitting six homers in 36 games, but he also struck out a ridiculous 46.3% of the time, getting sent back to the minors when Adrian Beltre returned from injury. Realistically, the Rangers didn’t want to promote him so fast, but called him up directly from Double-A Frisco when Beltre hit the disabled list. His swing-and-miss ways were just as bad, if not worse, when the Rangers sent him to Triple-A Round Rock, but the power immediately translates to the majors.
He’s still eligible at third base in fantasy formats, even if he doesn’t stick there upon his likely eventual promotion to the Rangers this season. This team is playing Mitch Moreland in left and Ike Davis at first, so it could certainly use the pop a player like Gallo provides. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts to make use of his power, but if and when he does, he could turn into a legitimate star.