Fantasy baseball position primer: How to get value at top-heavy third base
- Any of the four best third basemen will help you win a fantasy title. But if you miss out on the members of that MVP quartet, who should you target?
There isn’t another position on the field that can compete with the top four at third base in fantasy baseball. Kris Bryant won the NL MVP in his age-24 season. Nolan Arenado led the NL in homers, RBIs and total bases for the second straight year in his age-25 season. Manny Machado hit .294/.343/.533 with 37 homers, 96 RBIs and 105 runs in his age-23 season. The old man of the bunch, 31-year-old Josh Donaldson, followed up his 2015 AL MVP campaign by posting a higher offensive WAR than everyone but Mike Trout and Jose Altuve. All four will, and should, be off the board within the first 10 picks of your draft.
After that, the position drops off significantly. That isn’t a knock against the next tier of third basemen, which includes Kyle Seager, Adrian Beltre, Jonathan Villar (who won’t play third this year but is eligible at the position), Matt Carpenter (ditto) and Todd Frazier. But look at those names and compare them to those in the opening paragraph. The first four guys could legitimately be the top two finishers in their respective leagues in MVP voting. The next tier certainly has its strengths, but we’ve long since left the MVP realm behind once those players start coming off the board.
The third tier at the position is littered with high-upside unknowns and low-risk veterans who won’t carry your team to greatness but will likely get the job done at a reasonable price. Alex Bregman is going to be one of the most divisive players on draft day. Is he the league’s next great under-25 player? Even if he is, will his growth be at all linear? Can Jose Ramirez sustain his surprising production in 2017? Can Miguel Sano leave the disappointment of his second year behind and find the trajectory he set for himself as a rookie? Can Jake Lamb really slug better than .500 again? Who’s the more boring pick, Evan Longoria or Justin Turner?
These are the questions facing fantasy owners who aren't lucky enough to snag Bryant, Arenado, Machado or Donaldson. But as discussed with the top of the first base position, that’s not a death sentence. Fantasy baseball wouldn’t be fun if you had to own one of four predetermined players to compete for your league’s championship. Just know that, on draft day, there are more questions than answers once you get outside the top tier at the position.
Five Big Questions
1. Is the Alex Bregman hype machine out of control?
Bregman has all of 217 major league plate appearances under his belt, but his FantasyPros consensus ranking is higher than that of Anthony Rendon, Eric Hosmer and Zack Greinke, and his NFBC ADP has him off the board before Hosmer, Greinke and Jason Kipnis. What’s more, the helium tank is still pumping, with Bregman trending higher and higher as we get closer to draft season. How much is too much for a player who, while incredibly talented and possessing an immense ceiling, still has yet to prove much in the majors?
Bregman slugged his way to the Astros last year, hitting .306/.406/.580 with 20 homers and 22 doubles between Double and Triple A. In his 49-game stint with Houston, he slashed .264/.313/.478 with eight homers and 13 doubles. One of the best recent comparisons we have for Bregman—in terms of hype, minor league success and games played as a rookie—is Kyle Schwarber. Both hit the majors as 22-year-olds after extensive college careers and a short, dominant run in the minors. Schwarber racked up 273 plate appearances in 2015, hitting .246/.355/.487 with 16 homers and six doubles. Unfortunately, he lost what should have been his first full season to a significant knee injury. Still, his 2016 draft-day price tag can be instructive for prospective Bregman owners.
If Bregman’s ADP can hold steady around 90th overall, which places him in the middle of the eighth round of a 12-team league, I can live with the risk-reward balance. There’s no doubting his talent, and counting stats should be in abundance in a lineup with Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. If his price climbs 15 to 20 slots, though, the risk-reward balance becomes askew. Just look at the experience of Sano last year. There are few Trouts and Bryants in the world. There’s plenty of room for Bregman to be excellent but also to struggle in year two.
2. What’s in store for the biggest season of Anthony Rendon’s career?
It’s hard to remember, but in 2014, Rendon finished fifth in NL MVP voting and hit .287/.351/.473 with 21 homers, 17 steals, 83 RBIs and 111 runs at the age of 24. He lost half of the 2015 season to a knee injury and put together a nice bounceback last year, falling just short of the standard he set for himself as a rookie across the board. Now 26 years old, Rendon is at a crossroads. Two years removed from the knee injury that interrupted his career, 2017 has the feel of the season that will determine how high he can climb in the majors.
The middle of the third base position, from Seager on the high end to Ramirez on the low end, has an ADP range of 66.74 to 95.42. Rendon is toward the tail of that, checking in at 91.4. When I look up and down this list, he’s the one player who sticks out as a potential steal. The other players are appropriately priced but don’t bring much profit potential. Rendon has the ceiling to finish as the No. 5 third baseman, but he barely has a top-10 price tag.
The justification lies in comparing his 2016 season with his breakout '14 campaign. Here are all his pertinent numbers from those two years, from the surface to the peripherals.
2014: .287/.351/.473, 21 HR, 39 2B, 17 SB, 83 RBIs, 111 R, 8.5 BB%, 15.2 K%, .186 ISO, 10.4% HR/FB, 37.8% hard-hit
2016: .270/.348/.450, 20 HR, 38 2B, 12 SB, 85 RBIs, 91 R, 10 BB%, 18.1 K%, .180 ISO, 10% HR/FB, 36.5% hard-hit
That’s the exact same player. With two full seasons like that under his belt, it’s safe to say that is the real Rendon. Even if that’s his ceiling, there’s nothing wrong with that level of production, especially when it comes at an average price of the 91st pick. But what if it represents his floor? What if, as he hits the beginning of his physical prime and with the knee injury well in his rear-view mirror, Rendon can find another level of production this season?
That’s certainly a possible outcome, and it's one that deserves more attention than we can give it here. The important takeaway for our purposes, though, is that Rendon is essentially locked in at .275/.345/.450, 20 homers, 10 steals, 80 RBIs and 80 runs, with the possibility of gains in every category. If one player in the position’s second tier is capable of finding another gear, Rendon is it. If you miss out on the Bryant-Arenado-Machado-Donaldson quartet, make Rendon your top target.
3. Should I buy into a Miguel Sano rebound?
If there’s a cautionary tale for Bregman, it’s Sano’s 2016 season. Before we take that comparison any further, understand that I am not making an apples-to-apples comparison based on their skill sets. Bregman and Sano are very different players, and the former likely has too much contact ability to struggle the way the latter did last season. Still, no matter how much talent a second-year player has, most of them have to prove it before you can fully buy into their ceiling. Sano provided an abject lesson in that reality last year.
After an incredibly promising rookie season in which he hit .269/.385/.530 with 18 homers in 335 plate appearances, Sano was completely undone by the whiff last year. He struck out in 36% of his trips to the plate, leading him to a .236/.319/.462 slash line. Things got so bad for him at one point that he spent about a week at Triple A in an attempt to get his mind right. It didn’t really work.
The silver lining is that when Sano made contact, good things happened, which you can see in his .462 slugging percentage and .227 isolated power. Sano hit 25 homers and posted a 40.1% hard-hit rate, which ranked 14th in the league, sandwiched between Bryant and Corey Seager; you’ll remember them as the players who finished first and third, respectively, in NL MVP voting. Sano’s 20.8% home-run-to-fly-ball ratio, meanwhile, was good for 16th. There’s no question about his power, but there is plenty of question about whether he can make enough contact to utilize that power to the fullest.
Sano did make an interesting change in his setup last year. Here’s what he looked like at the plate for all of 2015.
Notice the slightly open stance? Here’s how he looked in April of last year.
Here he is in August.
See how the stance is now closed? Sano opened back up in September, and while he struck out in 40% of his plate appearances that month, he posted his second best monthly OPS of the season.
I’d expect to see Sano start this season with that slightly open stance, which he used to great effect in 2015. The best element of his draft-day case, though, is that there’s a lot of room for profit. Sano carries a FantasyPros consensus ranking of 132 and an NFBC ADP of 113.08. No one is really fighting you for him. Given his power potential and price tag, he’s a great low-risk, high-reward player this season.
4. Is Todd Frazier’s power worth it?
Let’s have some fun with blind resumes, even though we know one of the two players will be Frazier.
Player A: .225/.302/.464, 40 homers, 24.5 K%, 9.6 BB%
Player B: .222/.321/.499, 41 homers, 32.0 K%, 11.8 BB%
Player A avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $12 million contract this off-season and has an NFBC ADP of 73.42. Player B was a free agent until February, nearly signed with a team in Japan and is barely on the draft-day radar. Player A is Frazier; Player B is Chris Carter, who finally found a home with the Yankees about a week before pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. That should help answer the question put forth above.
To be fair, the exercise above does sell Frazier a bit short. He stole 15 bases last season, his third straight year with at least 13 swipes. He also has cleared thresholds of 80 runs and RBIs each of the last three seasons, doing so on bad offensive teams in 2015 and '16. Frazier does what he does very well. But in most cases, it still isn’t worth taking on the rate sinkhole.
First of all, Frazier is coming off the board in the same neighborhood as Carpenter and before Beltre and Rendon. We’re not talking about a player at the bottom of a tier here. If you’re thinking about Frazier, you’ll have other, stronger options available to you. Second, the resurgence of power across the majors last season makes Frazier’s 40-homer power less valuable given the collateral damage he does elsewhere. If you’re considering Frazier for his power, you can pass on him and replace his power with two players later who won’t undermine your rates.
Still, someone in your league is going to take Frazier, and there is a way to make him a positive part of a fantasy team. If your first four or five hitters are all strong in batting average or OBP (whichever rate your league uses), Frazier becomes a lot more palatable. A good team for Frazier might start with Altuve, Joey Votto, Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich. That’s the sort of core that can pay the price associated with Frazier’s average and OBP to get his power.
5. I’m waiting until the bitter end at this position. Who should I target?
Nick Castellanos has quietly progressed every year of his career. In 2016, his age-24 season, he slashed .285/.331/.496 with 18 homers, 58 RBIs and 54 runs. Injuries cost him about two months, and had he stayed healthy, he would have set career highs in every category. Still, he played to a 162-game pace of 26 jacks, 85 RBIs and 79 runs.
The peripheral stats confirm that Castellanos made significant gains last year. He hit the ball harder than ever, evidenced by a 35.7% hard-hit rate, a new career high. He hit more fly balls and fewer grounders, which helped him to those career-best 18 homers, even though he played just 110 games. Castellanos also cut almost a full percentage point off his strikeout rate and kept his walk rate flat, year over year. All of these are signs of a young player improving as he enters his mid-20s.
Castellanos has the ability to jump a tier or two this season, but he doesn’t need to do so to justify his status as a great late-round target. He's coming off the board after the 200th pick in a typical draft. You won’t find another third baseman that late with his combination of track record and potential.