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  • The definitive 2018 third basemen fantasy baseball rankings from SI.com.
By Michael Beller
February 14, 2018

Look at all that third base has to offer. It's produced two MVPs and six more top-five finishes in the last three seasons. Nolan Arenado led the NL in homers and majors in RBI in 2015 and '16, and while he didn’t lead either last year, we’re not going to get on him after a 37-homer, 130-RBI campaign. Kris Bryant’s “down year” in 2017 included a .295/.409/.537 slash line with 29 homers, 38 doubles, 73 RBIs and 111 runs scored. Manny Machado hit at least 30 homers and 30 doubles for the third straight season.

That’s not the end of the story. Jose Ramirez broke out and nearly won the AL MVP in the process. Josh Donaldson kept doing his thing to the tune of 33 homers and a .944 OPS. Alex Bregman took a huge step forward. Justin Turner and Anthony Rendon were arguably the best offensive players on the teams with the most and fourth-most wins in baseball, respectively. It’s a good time to be part of the third base fraternity.

Third base in fantasy baseball is a lot like its corner infield counterpart across the diamond. There are legitimate superstars in the first tier of the position, All-Star caliber players in the second tier, and enough depth for everyone in a standard fantasy league to feel anywhere between great and decent about their starter. At the same time, missing out on the top-eight or so players at the position could put a fantasy owner at a deficit. As such, prioritizing the third base position is another one of my strategy pillars this season.

In our first base primer, I drew the cut line at seven players, and while it’s not like you must get one of those seven to win a fantasy league, getting one made winning easier and was part of my preferred approach to drafts and auctions. The same is true here. Do you absolutely need one of the eight third basemen mentioned in the first two paragraphs of this column to win your league? No. Will it be easier to win your league if you have one of them? Yes.

The issue here is the dropoff once those eight players are off the board. All of them put up monster numbers last season. Most of them have a multi-year track record that all but guarantees what they did last year was real. There’s no reason to doubt any of them in 2018, and all carry top-three upside at the position.

Now look beyond them. The next third basemen by average draft position are Travis Shaw, Miguel Sano, Rafael Devers and Nicholas Castellanos. Shaw was a revelation last season, hitting 31 homers and driving in 101 runs, but the power surge came out of nowhere and isn’t quite as meaningful when 40-plus players are leaving the yard 30 times. Sano took the next step in his development last year but has missed significant time due to injury the last two seasons and still has yet to put together a full season of high-level production. Devers is largely an unknown commodity. Castellanos hit .272 with a .320 OBP last season, and while he increased his homer total for the fourth straight year, he has never showed 30-homer potential.

It’s true that if you eschew the top-eight third basemen, you’re making gains at other positions, and those gains can make up the ground you lose at the hot corner. Still, the degree of difficulty is unnecessarily high in my estimation. You don’t need to bend over backwards to make sure you have one of the elite players, but you do not want to neglect the position, either.

Five Big Questions

1. Is there some weird first-round embargo on Kris Bryant?

It’s mid-February as I write this column. Only hardcore fantasy baseball players are drafting in the dead of winter, and even they aren’t producing a ton of data. As the season begins to thaw and February turns into March, ADP numbers could change dramatically.

And yet, I’m having a lot of trouble understanding Bryant’s draft-day price tag. The 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL MVP will cost you the 14th or 15th pick in a typical draft. That’s a late-first or early-second round pick for a guy who, in three seasons, has never had fewer than 5.5 bWAR. Bryant’s worst year was his rookie year, in which he hit .275/.369/.488 with 26 homers. As referenced at the top of the column, there are serious people calling his .295/.409/.537, 29-homer campaign last season a down year.

I’m more than happy to let those people drive down the price. I suppose a lot of it owes to his disappointing 73 RBIs in 2017, a natural result of his hitting second in the Cubs' lineup for most of the season. That could be the case again this year, with Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber filling in the middle of the order. That shouldn’t scare you away from one of the best hitters in the league who is still finding ways to get better.

Bryant undeniably had a whiff problem when he entered the majors, posing a 30.6% strikeout rate his rookie year and fanning an NL-leading 199 times. Last year, his strikeout rate was 19.2%, lower than league average. Bryant also posted a career-best 14% walk rate and a .399 wOBA that was three points higher than his MVP season.

Bryant hit fewer fly balls last year than he did in 2017, and a lower rate of them sailed over the fences. He also set a new career-best mark with a 14.8% soft-hit rate. Given that he hit 39 homers in 2016 and managed 26 while striking out in more than 30% of his plate appearances as a rookie, there’s reason to bet on last year’s 29-homer season being an anomaly. In fact, Steamer projects him for 33 jacks this season, which feels more in line with his skill set.

There’s going to be a wave of, “Oh yeah, Kris Bryant is really good” sentiment in the fantasy baseball community sometime in about early May. You’ll want him on your roster when the rest of your league goes looking for his owner.

2. Can Jose Ramirez push 30 homers again?

Honest question: Was Ramirez’s 2016 season or '17 season the bigger surprise?

Sure, he had a better year in 2017, hitting .318/.374/.583 with 29 homers, an MLB-leading 56 doubles, 17 steals, 83 RBIs and 107 runs for the team with the best record in the league en route to a third-place finish in AL MVP voting. But we had reason to believe he might have that sort of year in him because of what he did in 2016. That year’s .312/.363/.462 slash line came out of nowhere, and the 46 doubles hinted at a power surge in the offing.

So which season was more unexpected? I’m going to say 2017, even though Ramirez was no longer a mystery going into last year. What we can say with certainty, however, is that no one will be surprised if he’s in the MVP mix again this year. To do that, he’ll need to prove that last year’s bump in power wasn’t a mirage. The underlying factors suggest that it wasn’t.

First, Ramirez had a 10.7% strikeout rate last season, after posting a 10% rate in 2016. He puts his bat on the ball a lot, which is something you have to do if you’re going to hit 25-plus homers. That’s a great starting point.

The next thing you have to do to get the ball over the fence is hit it in the air. Ramirez had a 39.7% fly-ball rate last season, up from 36.3% in 2016. Compared with the previous season, Ramirez hit four fewer grounders, four fewer line drives and 23 more fly balls. It’s just one year, but those numbers are suggestive of a player who changed his approach at the plate, with the goal of getting more lift on his balls in play. Ramirez also increased his hard-hit rate to 34% from 26.8%, and while that’s more descriptive than predictive, it does speak to skill growth for a player who was in his age-24 season, a prime part of a player’s career for such improvement.

Even if another 29-homer season feels like a stretch—and it might be for a guy who, as great as he was last season, hit 19 homers in his first 1,100-plus plate appearances and never had a minor league season with more than seven bombs—Ramirez seems to have found a new floor. The hit tool is for real, and it’s now reasonable to expect him to leave the yard at least 22–24 times. Ramirez may threaten the 30-homer mark again this season, but he doesn’t need to do so to remain a fantasy star.

3. Is there a more undervalued player in the league than Anthony Rendon?

I don’t want to brag, but sometimes circumstances force you to go against your will. Here’s what I said about Rendon in my bold predictions column last year.

All Rendon did in his last two healthy seasons was slash .279/.350/.462 with an average of 21 homers, 101 runs, 84 RBIs and 15 steals per year. Despite that, fantasy owners seem to take him purely as a fallback option, with his ADP at third base remaining just inside the top-10 deep into draft season. Never mind that he's fully healthy or that he's going to hit fifth every day in a lineup that includes Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton in front of him. Rendon might not hit that 101-run total because of his spot in the lineup, but all the other numbers are within his reach. There's an established top four at third base, and no one is breaking up the Bryant-Arenado-Machado-Donaldson quartet. Rendon, however, will round out the position's top five.

So, what did Rendon do? He had the best season of his career, hitting .301/.403/.533 with 25 homers, 41 doubles, 100 RBIs and 81 runs, and that was with Eaton missing the entire season and Turner spending two months on the DL. Heading into last season, Rendon had never disappointed in a healthy season. He stayed healthy for the second straight year and set career highs across the board.

The fantasy community has taken notice, driving Rendon’s ADP up into the mid-50s. Still, that feels a little light for a low-risk, high-reward player whose team context could be even better this season, assuming Eaton and Turner stay healthy. Hitters coming off the board before Rendon in a typical draft that I would take him ahead of include Andrew Benintendi, Rhys Hoskins, Marcell Ozuna and Starling Marte.

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4. What’s the realistic expectation for Rafael Devers?

Devers rose quickly through the Red Sox' farm system, graduating a level every year before making his MLB debut last season. He logged 240 plate appearances across 58 games, hitting .284/.338/.482 with 10 homers and 14 doubles. This season, he’ll break spring training with the team as its starting third baseman. But despite last year’s strong debut, he remains a largely unknown commodity.

Devers never played above High-A ball until last season, when he spent 77 games with Double-A Portland and hit .300/.369/.575 with 18 homers. He then played nine games with Triple-A Pawtucket in a brief stopover before joining the Red Sox in late July. He got out of the gates hot but slashed just .245/.304/.453 over a month as the league got a better look at him. Devers projects as a high-average, middling-OBP player who should hit for decent power, though possibly slightly below average for a fantasy third baseman. There’s always identifiable upside with a young player filled with potential, but there’s also considerable risk. The Red Sox will give him plenty of leash, and there isn’t really a readymade replacement, but a slow start could complicate things for the talented 21-year-old.

Taking Devers means passing on higher-floor, lower-ceiling options like Nicholas Castellanos, Jake Lamb, and Mike Moustakas. If your team can afford a risk, I’d prefer him to that brand of player. If someone like Travis Shaw or Miguel Sano slips, though, I’d likely take a pass on the unknown.

5. Who’s the best bet to provide late-round value?

Eugenio Suarez isn’t going to win you a championship, and if he’s one of the five best players on your team, you’re in trouble. But the guy produces, and he has an ADP of 199.88, which places him in the 17th round of a 12-team draft and 15th round of a 14-team draft. In other words, you can get Suarez, a rock-solid contributor, for close to nothing.

Suarez has been an everyday player for the Reds the last two seasons. He has slashed .254/.342/.435 in that time with 162-game averages of 25 homers, 26 doubles, 79 RBIs, 85 runs and eight steals. Last year—which, remember, was just his second season as an everyday player—he made noticeable improvements, cutting his strikeout rate to 23.3% from 24.7% and increasing his walk rate to 13.3% from 8.1%. The result? His OBP jumped 50 points to .367, and he put up a .356 wOBA that ranked 46th in the majors, ahead of Jonathan Schoop, Francisco Lindor and Alex Bregman.

Suarez may only be a third base option in deep leagues, but he’s a reliable corner infield starter in leagues that use that position. I’d trust him over the likes of Evan Longoria, Joey Gallo, Todd Frazier and Maikel Franco.

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