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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Updated: February 20, 8:54 PM ET
2013 Position Preview: Second base

By AJ Mass

Last season, 67 players finished with a value of 7.00 or higher on the ESPN Player Rater. Of that group, only two were second basemen: Robinson Cano (9.96, ranked 17th overall) and Aaron Hill (9.16, 21st). Simply put, when it comes to the categories that count the most in determining fantasy baseball success, this position is severely lacking.

In fact, if you take the average production from the second base position from all major league teams in the categories typically used for a 5x5 league, you come up with the following stat line: .257 batting average, 13 homers, 64 RBIs, 79 runs scored and 14 stolen bases. Now, in fantasy, we're usually dealing with the "cream of the crop," so the statistical output from the portion of the player pool that actually finds its way to our team's lineups is supposed to be even greater than that of the "average player."

Yet taking a look at that flimsy "average" production, you'd be hard-pressed to distinguish that from what we might expect from a guy like Jason Kipnis, and he's borderline top five at this position. In fact, only six second basemen, Kipnis included, managed to reach the benchmarks for the average second baseman in the three Triple Crown categories last season.

The news gets even more depressing for those participating in NL-only leagues. With Jose Altuve and his Houston Astros teammates now taking up residence in the American League West, seven of our projected top 10 at this position are from the land of the DH. And there might not be tons of help on the horizon, either. Although Texas Rangers prospect Jurickson Profar is creating some buzz, he'll likely be starting the season in the minors, and who knows when (or if) he'll be called up this season?

With 13 of the expected top 20 second basemen over the age of 28, including 34-year-old Chase Utley and 37-year-old Marco Scutaro, this is a position that's really proving to be long in the tooth. If you're not going to pull the trigger on a second baseman early, you might as well wait for quite some time before settling on anyone not named Cano, Dustin Pedroia or Ian Kinsler. It's simply not worth it.

Cream of the Crop

Robinson Cano is far and away the best bet at second base, and a no-brainer first-round selection. In the past six seasons, he has never missed more than three games, making him a virtual lock for 620 at-bats, with a batting average that should be in the neighborhood of (or better than) his career mark of .308. And the power comes with it as well; his 2009 totals of 25 home runs and 103 runs are his low marks over the past four seasons.

Dustin Pedroia
Dustin Pedroia hit .318 in the second half of 2012, with nine of his 15 homers.

Whatever bad taste Dustin Pedroia's June swoon in 2012 -- he had a .269 slugging percentage -- left in fantasy owners' mouths should be easily washed away by the fact that he was playing through a thumb injury that eventually led to a short stint on the disabled list. Once he returned, he was back to form, hitting .318 the rest of the way. However, he had offseason surgery to repair torn cartilage in a finger, a different finger than the one he broke in October. Pedroia plays hard, but he carries a little bit more risk than Cano because of it.

Ian Kinsler is a far better hitter at home than on the road, as the .306 versus .238 career splits will attest. Nevertheless, there might not be a better bet at this position for 20 homers and 20 steals than Kinsler. There was talk that the Rangers might move Kinsler to first base in order to make room for prospect Jurickson Profar, but the signing of Lance Berkman helped put the kibosh on that idea. Without the mental burden of trying to learn a new defensive position, Kinsler should contribute in 2013 just as he has in the past.

The Next Best Thing

In 2007, Brandon Phillips was a 30-homer/30-steal player. Then he went into a decline that seems to have stabilized with three straight seasons of 18 home runs and 15 or so stolen bases. Certainly those are numbers that any fantasy owner would be happy with at second base, but the issue here is that it's no longer reasonable to think that Phillips is capable of anything more than that. Drafting Phillips is safe, but it's a pick with a very visible ceiling.

Ben Zobrist isn't much different than Phillips in terms of what he is likely to give you statistically, but he might end up being a bit more appealing due to his multi-positional eligibility. By being able to be slotted in at shortstop and outfield, drafting Zobrist gives the fantasy owner a lot more flexibility while forming a roster, especially given that you're likely going to be selecting him somewhere in Rounds 5-7 (in standard leagues).

Jason Kipnis seemed to wear down in his first full big league season, dropping from a .277 average, 11 homers, 49 RBIs and 20 steals (in 21 attempts) in the first half to a disappointing .233-3-27 and 11-of-17 in steal attempts in the second half. Certainly his speed/power combination makes Kipnis appealing once the top names are off the board, but we're going to need to see him produce for an entire season before elevating him into the upper tier at second base.

We understand the hesitation in selecting Aaron Hill, given that he's still just a few years removed from that dismal 2010 season in which he single-handedly destroyed your batting average (528 at-bats at a dreary .205 clip). Still, the move to Chase Field seems to have caused something to click, and you can't argue with the slash lines in his new home (.315/.372/.547) as compared to his old stomping grounds in Toronto (.271/.324/.446).

Looking for a Breakout

Clearly the Pittsburgh Pirates have some faith in Neil Walker's ability to recover from the herniated disk in his back that ended his 2012 season prematurely, or else they wouldn't have signed him to a one-year, $3.3 million deal. Of course, it is just a one-year deal, so perhaps they're not that confident that they can expect much more than a .280 average and 15-20 home runs.

Jose Altuve's value comes down to his stolen base output. Some have pointed to the fact that he was successful on only 75 percent of his steal attempts last season as a sign that he might not be as fast as advertised. But keep in mind, he's only 22 years old, and he's still a little immature on the basepaths; six of the 11 times he got caught stealing last year came when the Astros had a lead. If he chooses his spots a bit more wisely, he might well come closer to 50 thefts than 30.

Daniel Murphy likes to swing the bat early in at-bat, as evidenced by his career .332 batting average on the first pitch. While he hits the ball on the ground far too often to be counted on as reliable source of power, if the New York Mets somehow manage to be more than the sum of their parts, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see Murphy produce 75 runs and RBIs in 2013. With a .290-plus batting average, that could well put him in the top 10 in the Player Rater among second basemen.

Dustin Ackley's first full major league season didn't go quite as planned. After hitting .273 in 90 games as a rookie, his .226 sequel was just sad. However, Ackley did have surgery in October to remove a bone spur in his ankle, and perhaps trying to play through the injury was at least partially to blame for the decline. With the fences being moved in at Safeco Field, expect a slight improvement from his HR/FB rate of 2.6 percent at home, making a run at 20 homers in 2013 within the realm of possibility.

Older, But Not Necessarily Wiser

The numbers don't lie: 115, 103, 83. Those are the games-played totals for Chase Utley over the past three seasons. Chronic knee problems don't suddenly get better at the age of 34, and with this being the last year of his contract with Philadelphia, color us concerned that the veteran attempts to prove himself worthy of a new deal by perhaps playing more than he should. Combine that with the realistic chance that the Phillies try to squeeze every last bit of juice out of Utley before throwing him away and the injury risk increases exponentially.

Optimism in Dan Uggla might be at an all-time low after his second straight season with a sub-.235 batting average and a career low in home runs (19). The Atlanta Braves may look to his .282 batting average over the final month of the season and think that Uggla is back on track, but that still doesn't explain why Uggla hit the fewest fly balls of his career, with a lower percentage of them clearing the fences than in any prior season.

Marco Scutaro has always been a solid contact hitter, but even so, 2012 was completely off the charts. His contact rate on pitches in the strike zone was an insane 98 percent, and there's just no way his .400 BABIP in September is repeatable. Everything fell into place for Scutaro and the San Francisco Giants following the trade from Colorado, but it's really hard to believe that at age 36 he suddenly transformed from a career .276 hitter into Tony Gwynn.

Omar Infante returned to Detroit after four-plus seasons in the National League and saw his batting average descend right back to his career AL numbers: .254 average, 41 points lower than his lifetime NL output. Additionally, in just 64 games, he committed 10 errors for the Tigers. No, defense doesn't count in fantasy, but if your bat isn't helping and you're struggling in the field as well, then how long can you be expected to remain in the starting lineup?

Kelly Johnson hit only .225 last season in Toronto, and now that he's moving over to divisional rival Tampa Bay, he'll face much of the same pitching he saw in 2012. It's hard to imagine the needle moves too much higher in that department, though he could easily be a 15-homer/15-steal player with a lot of playing time.

Coming with Baggage

Howard Kendrick
Howard Kendrick, left, hit just eight homers last season after hitting 18 longballs in 2011.

With Howard Kendrick, the question has to be one of how valuable a player can be when he strikes out four times for every walk and doesn't provide any compensatory run production. Kendrick's fly ball rate dropped in 2012 to a career-low 20.8 percent, limiting his power numbers, and in terms of speed, he has stolen exactly 14 bases in three consecutive seasons, so fantasy owners shouldn't expect more than that. At 29, he has likely reached his plateau.

Jemile Weeks doesn't have any power and has had little opportunity to use his speed; his .218 second-half batting average had to be partly to blame for his meager four steal attempts during the same span. Now throw in the mix the trade for Jed Lowrie, and there's even less of a chance Weeks ends up being an everyday starter in an already-crowded infield. No thanks.

Maicer Izturis could be an interesting role player for the Toronto Blue Jays, with his ability to play second base, shortstop or third base. But even though he might be able to finagle a few starts each week, barring an injury or suspension to a regular starter, you're not going to be able to wring too much value out of Izturis, even if he can manage to post a .275 batting average and steal 15-20 bases.

Kansas City will decide between oft-injured Chris Getz and defensive liability Johnny Giavotella to man the bottom spot in their lineup. Getz's batting average, which sat at .275 when he got hurt last season, could well give him the first shot at things, but keep in mind that even Juan Pierre would be favored over Getz in a home run derby.

Future Snapshot

Obviously, Jurickson Profar is the name that is on everybody's radar, but for now , the Rangers have gone on record as saying he likely will start the season at Triple-A. However, he has bailed on Team Netherlands and the World Baseball Classic in the hopes that he can earn himself a spot on the Opening Day roster, perhaps even manning the outfield as well as middle infield.

Playing in near anonymity for a stripped-down Miami Marlins team, Donovan Solano starts his sophomore season as the likely starting second baseman. He did hit .300 from Aug. 2 on last year, and while he might not get you much in the counting categories, at least you know he's playing for a team that can afford to give him a chance to grow.

Also in the conversation, albeit in muffled tones, for an outside shot at late-2013 action are Houston's Delino DeShields Jr., St. Louis' Kolten Wong and Baltimore's Jonathan Schoop.

Points Versus Roto

In a format where your hitters lose points for strikeouts, Danny Espinosa and his NL-high 189 whiffs will force you to ignore his 20-20 potential. After all, when you're looking at a net 50 points between total bases and strikeouts, you'd be far better off taking a chance on a Jeff Keppinger type far later in your draft.

Another guy who kills you with his wild swinging is Rickie Weeks, who hit only .230 last season while striking out once every four plate appearances. On top of that, when you struggle to manage 60 RBIs while hitting 20-plus home runs, the return on investment for a points league is already dangerously low.

Tyler Greene walked just 19 times last season, making contact with just 72.3 percent of all pitches he attempted to hit. His 3.47 plate appearances per strikeout ranked him as the 13th-worst offender in all of baseball among hitters with at least 300 at-bats. Factor in the adjustment period that accompanies a change of leagues and that number could get even worse.

Gordon Beckham hit only .234 last season, and just .230 the year before. But his OBP in both of those seasons was .296, which is quite the promising bump, especially when you consider that his BB/K rate jumped to 0.45. The translation to all these numbers for points leagues is a late-round flier who will be worth far more in this format than in a standard category-based scoring system.

The Bottom Line

You can certainly wait on your second baseman and be in the same sinking boat as more than half of your league mates if you wish, but why give yourself such a handicap? Robinson Cano gives you first-base production from a very weak position, making him worthy of a first-round selection. Of course, you might not have a chance to select him at the back end of a snake draft, which is why you're going to want to take a long hard look at Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler in Round 3. After that, though, you might as well build your team's strength elsewhere, because the pickings get slim quickly with the "4" spot on your scorecard.