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Often you don't realize how good a group of athletes is until you have a firsthand comparison.
For instance, there was this running back/linebacker we played against in high school who just gave us fits. Big and powerful, the guy was a man among boys, almost literally. So I figured the guy was headed for a brilliant college career ... but it turned out he was merely average. Good enough to play in Division I, but not dominate. It provided me a glimpse of just how challenging Division I college football is.
Well, in an over-publicized maneuver, one of our fantasy darlings over the years, Michael Young, is expected to move to third base at some point this season. Young has provided across-the-boards numbers as an early-round pick, and fantasy owners loved seeing him as their shortstop thanks to his consistency and durability.
Now at third base, he's merely average. Or average, at least, in mixed-league play. Granted, he had a down 2008 season, and we aren't calling for a bounce-back, but .282-12-82, with 102 runs and 10 steals, just looks so much better at shortstop than at third base.
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But that's the way it is, and it means there are roughly 16-17 third basemen starting in a 12-team mixed league (12 at 3B, maybe 2-3 at CI, and 1-2 at UTIL) versus more like 18-19 starting shortstops (12 at SS, 6-7 at MI). It'd be nice if those numbers were switched.
So you have 16-17 starting third basemen. The number of third base-eligible players (including guys such as Kevin Youkilis and Aubrey Huff, who gained qualification during the season) who hit 20-plus homers in 2008: 18. The number with 70-plus RBIs: 17. Yeah, plenty of good ones to go around. It means something when a player such as Mark Reynolds (28 homers, 97 RBIs) is all but forgotten in mixed-league rankings.
That said, the class of elite (first round-worthy picks) is cut in half with the losses of Ryan Braun (OF) and Miguel Cabrera (1B) to other positions. Alex Rodriguez and David Wright stand out there, but that next tier is loaded with talent, as you'll see below. I don't need to tell you which guys to like. You either think of Evan Longoria or Aramis Ramirez as high picks (which you'll need to use to get 'em), or you don't. They are taken in the best-pick-available-regardless-of-position rounds, and I'm OK with that. Seems like I always have third base nailed down after the first 5-6 rounds.
But if you don't, relax. Just target a few other "studs" and call it a day. Heck, even if you have to end up with a Mark Reynolds or Edwin Encarnacion, you're still in good shape.
|Even a "down" season for Alex Rodriguez merits enough attention to be a top-ranked fantasy player.|
Fellow New Yorker David Wright is up next, and he's definitely worth a top-five pick because of his amazing all-around production. Heck, I've heard readers make compelling arguments for him being considered in the top three. The reason I say no is because of his decline in steals (24 in 2007 to 15 in 2008), which I and many others predicted would happen as he fills out as a power hitter. The Mets are still an aggressive team under manager Jerry Manuel, but you figure he is so important to that offense, and has enough big boppers behind him, that the team wouldn't want to risk outs and injury by having him run regularly. He's a pick-your-spot kind of base stealer, and those guys usually finish in the 15-20 range. He's great all-around, but don't count on him carrying your steals category.
Mid-round sleeper: Chris Davis
Late-round sleeper: Ian Stewart
Prospect: Mat Gamel
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Chipper Jones
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Mark Reynolds
Player to trade for at the ASB: David Wright
Biggest risk: Mike Lowell
Home hero: Garrett Atkins
Road warrior: Adrian Beltre
Player I like but can't explain why: Casey Blake
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Hank Blalock
We hear the term "next Ryan Braun" used more often than we should. It stands for "stud prospect who will produce huge numbers immediately." Well, Longoria was the next Ryan Braun. Or maybe that should be Braun was the former Evan Longoria. Either way, how many homers would Longoria have hit if a J.J. Putz fastball hadn't broken his wrist? He hit 27 homers and racked up 85 RBIs in 122 games. The better comparison here is Wright. Longoria might have even more power (40-homer power?) than Wright, but maybe not the average capabilities (yet) or speed. Still, I can assure you that you'll need to spend a top (probably early second-round) pick to get him. If you like him that much, go for it.
The next three ranked guys are probably thrown into the "oldies but (very) goodies" class. Kevin Youkilis' value jumps this season with his 3B qualification. Oh, and the career season he had in 2008. He finally avoided the second-half fizzle (his pre- and post-All-Star numbers were strikingly similar) and put up the season many thought he'd have. At age 30, there's no reason to believe he won't do it again. ... After an injury-plagued start to his career, Aramis Ramirez has settled in to become a steady .300-30-100 (or better) producer. Also age 30 and still in a great lineup, there's no reason for that to change. ... And finally, there's good old Chipper Jones. He's not technically old (36), even by baseball standards, but he has a lot of mileage and has been banged up a lot in recent seasons. So 130 games can't be counted on. But as long as his batting eye is there, he belongs in this tier. Do you realize the worst he has hit over the past three seasons is .324 in 2006, and his average has increased both years since?
And we finish off this tier with three wild cards: Chris Davis, Aubrey Huff and Garrett Atkins. Davis alone took up about an hour of discussion in our rankings summit in January, and the opinions on him ranged anywhere from 35-plus homers in 2009 to no more than maybe 20 homers. Yes, that much disparity. But all of us agreed there is untapped power upside here after he hit 17 homers in 80 games as a rookie. We've projected him somewhere in the middle, but I personally would lean toward 35-homer land. He has tremendous torque and bat speed, and from a 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame. Reminds me of a lefty version of a young Troy Glaus, and I like that. Plus, he hit more homers in fewer at-bats on the road last season, indicating the power isn't Rangers Ballpark-related. I'm counting on 30 homers from him. ... Huff, well, I've been counting on 30 homers from him since about 2005 (just ask my friends), and he finally delivered it last season. He's a professional hitter now, sound and consistent, and he's still just 32. There are plenty of good seasons left in him. ... As for Atkins, he took a step back last season from his 2007 numbers, which were a step back from his 2006 numbers. What scares me here is that, although he hit more homers on the road, he hit 102 points better at home last season. Gulp! Is he becoming Coors Field-reliant? What if he gets traded, what if there's a long road trip? This is why splits can be important.
Here are players who could (or maybe even have) performed like upper-tier players, but questions abound as to whether they will. As such, why don't I just Q&A myself, a la Matthew Berry.
Q: How's it going, self?
A: You know how it's going.
Q: Oh, yeah. So which Chone Figgins is real, the one who hit .330 with 41 steals in 2007 or the one who hit .276 with 34 steals in 2008.
A: Um, both. That 2007 batting average was a total anomaly; the 2008 is for real. But if he plays in 135-plus games following two injury-plagued seasons, I think 45 steals or more are definitely attainable. Let's say .280 with 46 steals. Sound about right?
|Fantasy owners are still trying to figure out Ryan Zimmerman's ceiling playing for such a mediocre Washington team.|
Here are the consolation prizes should you not get a top guy and/or not want to take a risk on any of the players above.
|Adrian Beltre has hit at least 25 homers the past three seasons for Seattle.|
Six guys I have my trained eye on. Worth noting: The first three guys are among the top prospects in baseball:
Brett Wallace, Cardinals: Can hit any pitch, in any spot, at any speed. I wouldn't be shocked if he pulled an "Albert Pujols" and managed to make the team (thanks to Glaus' injury) and hit immediately.
Pedro Alvarez, Pirates: The Bucs' future stud has been in the news for the wrong reasons (contract, alleged poor conditioning), but it shouldn't take away the fact that he is a future All-Star.
Mat Gamel, Brewers: Perhaps my favorite prospect, but his defense is horrid. Where will he play? If only he were in an AL organization.
Mike Moustakas, Royals: This first-round pick is a good all-around player, and the Royals haven't been shy about seeing what their youngsters can do midseason.
Dayan Viciedo, White Sox: Manager Ozzie Guillen seems to like this young Cuban defector, and third base is open for the taking. Hmm.
Conor Gillaspie, Giants: Love his high-average capability, and he probably will get a shot with San Fran late in the year.
And finally, don't forget about these former prospects to see if they'll get a shot in the bigs and make some noise: Josh Fields, Brandon Wood, Dallas McPherson and Andy LaRoche.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.