Fantasy baseball position primer: Second base offers plenty of questions

1:28 | MLB
Fantasy Baseball: Top picks for the 2017 season
Friday March 10th, 2017

The middle infield renaissance is centered at shortstop, but second base is in better hands than it has been in quite some time. Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy finished in the top three in MVP voting in their respective leagues last year, with the former winning his second batting title in three years and DJ LeMahieu making it a positional sweep in the National League. Brian Dozier tied the MLB record for single-season home runs by a second baseman with 42 and was the first player to hit 40 from the keystone since Ryne Sandberg did it in 1990. Jonathan Villar was one homer away from turning in the first 20-homer, 60-steal campaign since '86. Robinson Cano produced his sixth MVP-caliber season in the last seven years, and Ian Kinsler got back to his previous five-category form. Shortstop has more star power and a brighter future, but second base should not be overlooked up the middle.

But despite all of that, there are a lot of questions at this position—certainly more than any reasonable person would expect at a spot where there aren’t much more than 20 viable fantasy options (and that includes players like Trea Turner, Jean Segura and Matt Carpenter, who qualify at second for fantasy purposes but will play elsewhere for the majority of this season). Second base really shouldn’t be capable of producing as many questions as it does, and yet, here we are.

Get ready for the 2017 fantasy baseball season with our top 300 player rankings

This is another position where timing will be crucial; in that regard, it’s catcher on steroids. Take the realities of the catcher position, improve the overall quality and depth of the player pool, and you have second base. Catcher has one great player in Buster Posey and one very good one in Jonathan Lucroy. Second base has an MVP candidate in Altuve, a great player in Cano and its fair share of very good players, including Dozier, Murphy and Kinsler. Catcher has potential rising stars in Gary Sanchez and Willson Contreras. At second base, you’ll find Turner, a player who’s already head and shoulders above those catchers and has a higher career ceiling than either. And where catcher dies out before reaching its low-end fantasy starters, second base gives the fantasy community just enough options for every owner to feel, at the absolute worst, decent about where they stand at the position after the draft.

With that, welcome to second base, a position teeming with more talent and questions than it has enjoyed in years. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Hey, that just mirrors the great talent influx across baseball over the last five years,” congratulations: You're more equipped to talk about the sport than most people who get paid to do so.

POSITION PRIMERS: C | 1B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP

Five Big Questions

1. What’s the outlook for Dee Gordon?

Gordon sunk a lot of his teams last year when he violated the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and earned himself an 80-game suspension. He ended up playing 79 games, hitting .268/.305/.335 with 30 steals in what was a troubling year for the 28-year-old. Thanks to the suspension and his already dubious fantasy skill set, he likely has only one season to make good with the fantasy community.

Gordon was overdrafted last year, the result of an anomalous batting title in 2015 and two straight seasons with at least 58 steals. Even at his best, he was a three-category player, and there was always the chance that his batting average and run scoring could fall off, given his own limitations as well as those of the Marlins' offense. Even before he ran afoul of the league office last year, those limitations were becoming clear.

But even if Gordon never has a season like he did in 2015, he’s still one of the better options in the position’s middle tiers. Last year’s struggles and suspension have brought his draft-day price tag more in line with a realistic outlook for the season. You take Gordon knowing you’re getting an elite base stealer and hoping that you’re getting a positive contributor to runs and batting average. The Marlins are seemingly forever a work in progress, but with Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Justin Bour behind Gordon in the lineup, he could surpass 90 runs again this year. There’s plenty of value in a .290-90-50 player, which Gordon could very well be. Anything short of that, however, and he likely will not live up to his draft-day value. And be sure to downgrade him in OBP leagues, where his 4.8% walk rate makes him an even tougher sell.

2. Was Jonathan Villar a one-year wonder?

The baseball world taketh away, but the baseball world also giveth, snatching Gordon from us but replacing him with Villar, one of the league’s greatest surprises. Once a utility infielder, Villar made a star turn last year and earned himself a key role in the Brewers' intriguing rebuild.

When the Brewers picked up Villar from Houston last year, conventional wisdom said he was just keeping shortstop warm until they were ready to promote Orlando Arcia. When Villar ended April hitting .236/.353/.333, it seemed that day would arrive sooner than expected. He saved his season in May, however, slashing .355/.450/.482 and stealing a base in every other game, and never looked back, finishing the season at .285/.369/.457 with 62 steals, 19 homers, 92 runs and 63 RBIs. Two players in MLB history had at least one season of a .285 average, a .360 OBP, 60 steals and 19 homers. Perhaps you’ve heard of them: Joe Morgan and Rickey Henderson.

Villar is a switch-hitter who has always been better as a righty than a lefty, and for the first few years of his career, he made modest gains on both sides. But even his best season as a lefty was about league-average in just 61 plate appearances. The most remarkable feature about his breakout season, then, was his performance against righties. Villar hit .276/.363/.422 in 488 plate appearances as a lefty; add to that a dominant .309/.385/.545 line from the other side, and you get the recipe for a breakout season. It’s this newfound ability to succeed from both sides of the plate that should have the fantasy community excited about Villar in 2017 and beyond.

But what's behind that sudden change? Could a toe tap that wasn’t present before 2016 be to thank for his newfound success as a lefty?

Here’s Villar from the left side of the plate in 2015:

And here he is in 2016:

Whether the toe tap is responsible is hard to determine, but the fact that there was a demonstrable change is encouraging. If Villar can keep that up, he can be just as good a fantasy player as he was in his breakout season.

3. Where does Jose Altuve rank among the game’s elite?

In five short years, Altuve has morphed from a novelty to a legitimate MVP candidate. He now has three straight seasons with at least a .313 batting average, .353 OBP, 30 steals, 200 hits and 40 doubles, and last year, he added more power to the mix, belting 24 home runs, which resulted in a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting. Heading into his age-27 season, Altuve has a place among fantasy baseball’s elite hitters. But where does he slot among them?

Mike Trout is in a class all his own, a tier of one in a game filled with superstars. Altuve is part of the second tier, one that includes Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson. Those are the only hitters with at least three industry analysts on FantasyPros ranking them inside the top-seven, so it feels like a fair place to put down a line of demarcation, with apologies to Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera, Corey Seager, Charlie Blackmon, Carlos Correa and Joey Votto.

Altuve has to be behind Betts, who has more power potential, slightly less speed potential and the same on-base ability. Altuve is also behind Bryant, who won his first MVP award in his age-24 season by hitting .292/.385/.554 with 39 homers last year—and for pure fantasy purposes, he also brings eligibility at three positions. I’d also put Arenado and Goldschmidt ahead of Altuve. The former has led the NL in homers, RBIs and total bases for two straight years (and is entering his age-26 season), and the latter is an almost impossible package of on-base ability, power and speed for a first baseman.

Altuve, then, checks in after at sixth among hitters on my board and seventh overall, with Clayton Kershaw also ahead of him. That’s quite a long way to come from where he started his career. Altuve can be the centerpiece of a championship fantasy team.

4. Is there more to come from Rougned Odor?

It seems greedy to ask that about a second baseman who hit 33 homers last year and silly to wonder about a player in his age-23 season. Odor is already very good, and he is still growing. But I’m just not willing to bet on a more productive fantasy season from him in 2017.

Odor was a strong three-category player last year, driving in 88 runs and scoring 89 more to go along with his 33 dingers. If you play in a batting average league, you were happy with his .271 average, even if it felt fluky. If you’re in an OBP league, though, his .296 mark negated some of what he did in the counting categories. All told, it was a net positive season that was not without its drawbacks. Still, it’s a hard sell that Odor will provide more fantasy value this season. He could very well grow into more natural power as he progresses into his mid-20s, but it’s a stretch to believe that he can squeeze out any more than the 33 homers he belted last season. He could certainly add more runs and RBIs, but that's largely dependent on his teammates and nearly impossible for fantasy owners to project.

Any argument that Odor will be a more productive player in 2017 must to be based on him making more contact, and there’s just no way to make that case in good faith. Odor struck out in 21.4% of his plate appearances last season, and his 12% swing-and-miss rate was tied with five others for 30th in the league. His 77.9% contact rate ranked 91st in the league, and he offered at 41.8% of pitches he saw out of the zone, the sixth-highest percentage in baseball. That’s a troubling mix, and one that suggests Odor got every last ounce of production out of his batted-ball and plate-discipline profile last season. Unless the latter changes, he’s not going to be a better fantasy player this year. Given his draft-day price (40.15 ADP), I’ll let someone else make that bet.

5. Who’s my target if I miss out on the obvious starting options?

For that answer, let's turn to the North Side of Chicago, where the Cubs once again have one of the most enviable problems in baseball. With Rizzo, Bryant, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber locked into the everyday lineup, how do they find enough playing time for Ben Zobrist and Javier Baez?

That uncertainty seems to be driving down Zobrist’s price: Last year’s World Series MVP is still available into the 15th round of a typical 12-team draft. Zobrist was one of the Cubs' quiet stars last season, hitting .272/.386/.446 with 18 homers, 76 RBIs and 94 runs. That made him the 12th-ranked second baseman and 119th overall player in standard 5x5 leagues last season. He can easily reach those ranks again this season.

Zobrist isn’t a headline-grabbing player, but he is as steady as they come. From 2011 through last season, he has hit floors of a .269 batting average, .353 OBP and 10.3% walk rate every year, averaging 17 homers per season. In the five seasons in that window during which he played at least 145 games, he knocked out a minimum of 142 hits. Zobrist spent much of last season in the middle of the Cubs' order, hitting third, fourth or fifth in 117 of his 142 starts. A player with that skill set in a lineup likely to score 800-plus runs can’t help but be a boon to a fantasy team’s run and RBI totals. With Dexter Fowler now in St. Louis, Zobrist could also be a candidate to lead off, especially against lefties. That would make great use of his on-base skills and could push him to the first 100-run season of his career.

No one is going to groan with disappointment when you draft Zobrist, but he’s a safe bet to slash .270/.360/.420 with 15 homers, 80 runs, 75 RBIs and five steals. There’s a lot of value in such a player as a 15th-round second baseman who also happens to have outfield eligibility.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide — from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Grant Wahl, Andy Staples and more — delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.