Before I continue with my series of position primers, it occurred to me that it would be useful to explain why breaking each position into tiers is a worthwhile exercise. Proper tiering (with any luck that word will be in the Oxford English Dictionary in a few years. Come on fantasyland, we can do this!) allows you to treat the players for what they are, at least for our purposes: commodities. In the grand scheme of things, there probably won't be that much difference between Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder in a non-keeper league this year. I say this not because both are portly, left-handed sluggers, but because they're both power guys who will give you a decent average and won't run at all. I have a slight preference for Howard; you may have one for Fielder, but we can probably agree that they'll likely post similar stat lines this season
Now it's time to put this pre-draft preparation into practice. It's your pick in the second round of your draft. Howard and Fielder are both on the board, as are Ryan Zimmerman and Alex Rodriguez. You know you want to shore up your corners, but first base is a much deeper position. A cursory glance at your cheat sheet shows you your fourth tier at the position includes the likes of Justin Morneau and Adam Dunn. Meanwhile, third base is as shallow as ever. If you don't jump on Zimmerman or A-Rod, it's Adrian Beltre or bust. You're not a fan of that. So you take Zimmerman (at least I would) and live to fight another day over at first base. Guess what? Two rounds later, you can grab Morneau or Dunn, while the guy who went with Howard or Fielder now has to settle for Michael Young or Martin Prado to play third base.
It makes sense to look at first and third basemen together, because most owners are hoping for power out of both spots. The similarities end there, though. First base couldn't be any deeper, while you could argue that third base is the shallowest of the four infield positions.
The Great Triumvirate
Albert PujolsMiguel CabreraAdrian Gonzalez
In the mid-1800s, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun formed a trio of powerful senators known by the above moniker. In the 2011 baseball season, it refers to Pujols, Cabrera and Gonzalez. They may not be the orators that Webster, Clay and Calhoun were, but they're three of the top five players in fantasy baseball this season. All three will surpass 40 home runs and 120 RBI. They'll all give us great rates. Pujols will even throw in double-digit steals to boot. I'd take Pujols first overall, and Cabrera and Gonzalez third and fourth, respectively, (behind Troy Tulowitzki).
One point to note about Gonzalez. He's going to love being out of Petco. For his career, he has hit 40 points higher and slugged an astounding 128 points better on the road. Look for a career year out of him in Boston.
Just a step behind
Votto leapt up into the fantasy elite last year, posting a .324/.424/.600 slash with 37 homers and 113 RBI, taking home the NL MVP. I have no doubts that he'll be in this stratosphere for years to come, but have him a step below Pujols, Cabrera and Gonzalez because we've seen all three of them post multiple dominant years.
Ryan HowardMark TeixeiraPrince Fielder
There is almost no difference between these three players. In a vacuum, I like Howard best, but my preference is for whichever one I can get at the best price. Take any of the three, plug in about 35 homers and 115 RBI as a floor and move on with your draft. Howard has the highest power ceiling, Teixeira has the highest rate ceiling, Fielder is right in the middle.
Very different styles, but they both get it done
Kevin YoukilisAdam Dunn
I have Dunn ranked higher than most, but I think he could fit right in with the above group in a league that uses OBP instead of average. Even in an average league, I love the move to the White Sox for him. U.S. Cellular Field is a power hitter's paradise, so he should get to his usual 40-homer, 100-RBI level without an issue.
As for Youkilis, he's over the thumb injury that cost him a good portion of the '10 season. The additions of Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, as well as the return of a healthy Dustin Pedroia, give him one of the strongest groups of hitters surrounding any player in any lineup in the league. He's not going to hit for the power of any of the other eight first basemen listed thus far, but he should still give you somewhere between 25 and 30 jacks with 100-plus runs and RBI to go along with a batting average that sits a little above .300 and an OBP that pushes .400. Not bad for my ninth first basemen.
(A PROGRAMMING NOTE: I WOULDN'T LET ANY OF THE ABOVE SLIP PAST THE 40TH OVERALL SELECTION.)
This is how deep first base is
Justin MorneauKendry MoralesBilly Butler
These three round out the group of first basemen I think should be starters in a 12-team league. If the position is evenly distributed, the worst starter will be Billy Butler (at least in my opinion). That's about as deep of a position as we've seen in a long time.
Morneau and Morales are both returning from injuries, and both have questions that go beyond their recoveries. Morneau hit just four homers at Target Field last year, showing no one was immune to its effects. David Wright plummeted to 10 homers from 33 in the inaugural year at Citi Field, and similarly dealt with head/concussion issues that season, just like Morneau did last year. Wright bounced back with 29 last year, so there is a precedent for getting over ballpark effects in just one season. As for Morales, he was having a great year before quite possibly the most bizarre, on-field injury ended his season (and, in effect, the Angels'). He returns to a team where he's the clear offensive threat, and his only real protection is Torii Hunter and the $86 million man (I guess $81 as far as the Angels are concerned), Vernon Wells.
And the rest
Paul KonerkoDerrek LeeIke DavisAubrey HuffMichael CuddyerCarlos Pena
Should you miss out on the top-12, I like the scrap heap in the order listed above. Translation: yes first base is deep, but don't miss out on the top-12.
David WrightEvan Longoria
I struggled with what to name this tier. It's hard to call Wright and Longoria "elite" without calling the next two guys also elite (the suspense is killing you, I know). I settled on elite-est because I've developed an affinity for making up words with easily definable meanings. In this case, the next two guys may be elite, but Wright and Longoria are the most elite. Wright quelled any fears that he lost his power stroke with 29 homers last season, but he struck out a ton. While it killed the Mets, a strikeout isn't all that different from any other out for fantasy purposes, unless there was a guy on third base. Wright's a near lock to go 30-20. That's why he gets the nod as my top third baseman over Longoria, who experienced a power outage of his own last season. I'm confident he'll bounce back from the 22-homer campaign in '10, which he'll need to do to hold off the next guy on the list.
Not quite as elite, but still elite
Ryan ZimmermanAlex Rodriguez
It seems almost blasphemous to have three third basemen ranked above A-Rod, but such is the case in '11. He missed 25 games last year, and has missed 87 in the last three seasons combined. He'll turn 36 in late July, so we can't just write off nagging injuries slowing him down again. He's still one of the best hitters in the league with a great lineup surrounding him and a great home ballpark, but the days of him being a slam-dunk first rounder are behind us.
Zimmerman, meanwhile, is moving in the opposite direction. He missed 20 games himself, but still managed to belt 25 homers and drive in 85 runs. If he stays healthy this year, there's no reason he won't eclipse the 30-homer mark along with 100-plus runs and RBI. And while it might not matter for fantasy purposes, the dude is a joy to watch play third base.
I rank all four of these guys in the top-25 players, with Wright and Longoria in the top-15.
After producing three seasons that were near carbon copies in '06 through '08, Beltre suffered through an injury-riddled '09 in which he hit just eight homers and his OBP dipped all the way to .304. He was resuscitated in Boston last season, especially in terms of his rate statistics, as he posted a .321/.365/.553 line with 28 homers and 102 RBI, breaking the century mark for just the second time in his career. Now he moves to the hitter's haven of Arlington, Texas, with just as good a lineup around him as he had last year with the Red Sox.
If you don't grab one of the five above you better watch out, because...
You've fallen off a cliff
Pablo SandovalJose BautistaAramis RamirezMichael Young
Each of these four guys has major flaws. I don't trust Bautista to come anywhere near the 54 homers he inexplicably hit in '10. Even if he gets to 40, his rate stats probably will be in the .250/.350 range, so his power will come at a steep price.
Ramirez has missed significant portions of the last two seasons, and he got off to a freakishly bad start last season (.207/.268/.380 in the first half). He turns 33 about halfway through the season.
Young just isn't going to give you the power numbers you're hoping for out of your third baseman. His floor might be higher than some of the guys ranked beneath him, but if I'm already in this deep, I feel like I'd rather swing for the fences. My chances of hitting a homer are greater than Young's anyway.
That brings us to Sandoval, an interesting buy-low candidate this season. After everything went right for him in '09, nothing went right in '10. His BABIP plunged to .291 from .350. His walk rate dipped to 7.6 percent from 8.2 percent. His slash was an anemic .268/.323/.409. The good news is the Giants are committed to him, so the third base job is his to lose. He's one of the many "best shape of my life" guys heading into this year, and while that usually should give us pause; he needed to lose weight more than put on muscle, so it should be visible right from the start of Spring Training. If you miss out on those first five guys, Sandoval is the player you want to target.
The lineup completers
Martin PradoPlacido PolancoDanny Valencia
Mark ReynoldsPedro AlvarezCasey McGeheeIan Stewart
If you've waited this long on a third baseman, you've obviously filled in the rest of your offense. Your selection at third base should not be dictated by whom you believe to be the best player, but whom you believe to be the best fit for your team. If you need a batting average/runs guy, go with someone from the first group. If you need more power, go with someone from the second group.
The one guy I do find intriguing here is Ian Stewart. The power is legitimate, and he turns 26 in April. His main problem is he's terrible against lefties, posting a career .234/.330/.430 slash against them. The Rockies brought in Jose Lopez as a utility infielder to back up Stewart and Eric Young, Jr., but if Stewart continues to struggle against lefties, it could develop into a platoon situation. He's a guy I love taking a late-round flier on, because if he could ever figure out southpaws, he could skyrocket up this list.
Hit me up on Twitter, @MBeller.