The good news about the third-base position: Our top four players entering this season were among the top five here entering last season, so there is some sense of stability, at least among the elite options.
The bad news: While there are six third basemen among our top 40, the talent falls off pretty quickly when you get to the tiers that follow. The most common theme: highly touted players who were disappointments in 2010.
That means you'll need to act early if you want any level of confidence in your third baseman. If you're willing to wait (or simply aren't able to get one of the top players), there are plenty of useful if unexciting options, as well as a number of potential breakout candidates to gamble on.
After about the top 13 or 14, however, it becomes a lot less enticing. Hopefully you've filled out your third-base slot by then and can look to a much deeper first-base pool to fill that corner infield position instead.
When it comes to draft strategy for third basemen, it's about getting either solid all-around numbers, or, at the very least, decent power and run production. With Chone Figgins not eligible at third this year (at least when drafts take place), there aren't any real steals-only players at the position to throw off draft strategy.
Cream of the crop
Third Base Rankings
1. Evan Longoria, TB, 3B, $32
2. David Wright, NYM, 3B, $27
3. Ryan Zimmerman, Was, 3B, $25
4. Alex Rodriguez, NYY, 3B, $23
5. Adrian Beltre, Tex, 3B, $20
6. Jose Bautista, Tor, OF/3B, $19
7. Michael Young, Tex, 3B, $15
8. Aramis Ramirez, ChC, 3B, $14
9. Martin Prado, Atl, 2B/3B, $13
10. Casey McGehee, Mil, 3B, $11
11. Pablo Sandoval, SF, 3B, $10
12. Pedro Alvarez, Pit, 3B, $9
13. Ian Stewart, Col, 3B, $7
14. Mark Reynolds, Bal, 3B, $7
15. Chase Headley, SD, 3B, $4
16. Placido Polanco, Phi, 3B, $4
17. Edwin Encarnacion, Tor, 3B, $3
18. Jose Lopez, Col, 3B, $3
19. David Freese, StL, 3B, $3
20. Scott Rolen, Cin, 3B, $1
21. Ty Wigginton, Col, 1B/2B/3B, $0
22. Jhonny Peralta, Det, 3B/SS, $0
23. Juan Uribe, LAD, SS/3B/2B, $0
24. Chris Johnson, Hou, 3B, $0
25. Omar Infante, Fla, 2B/3B/OF, $0
26. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Oak, 3B, $0
27. Danny Valencia, Min, 3B, $0
28. Miguel Tejada, SF, 3B/SS, $0
29. Chipper Jones, Atl, 3B, $0
30. Casey Blake, LAD, 3B, $0
31. Wilson Betemit, KC, 3B, $0
32. Maicer Izturis, LAA, 3B/2B, $0
33. Jayson Nix, Cle, 3B/2B, $0
34. Alberto Callaspo, LAA, 3B, $0
35. Melvin Mora, Ari, 3B/1B, $0
36. Brandon Inge, Det, 3B, $0
37. Matt Dominguez, Fla, 3B, $0
38. Jeff Baker, ChC, 3B/2B, $0
39. Brent Morel, CWS, 3B, $0
40. Eduardo Nunez, NYY, 3B, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.
Evan Longoria jumps to the head of the class after setting career highs in batting average and stolen bases in 2010, even though he hit "only" 22 homers (thanks in part to a career-low 11 percent home run-per-fly ball ratio). The power should return, and if the positive trend in all of his numbers continue, especially in stolen bases, Longoria should be the anchor of many a fantasy lineup. Remember, he's just 25, so his best days might still be ahead of him.
To the relief of many fantasy owners, David Wright's power returned in 2010, although he still hit more homers on the road compared to Citi Field (17-12 road-home split). Given his ability to contribute in all five Roto categories, he's still an elite option. One pressing issue, however, is his rising strikeout numbers (career-high 161 whiffs last season) coupled with a declining walk rate, and how it could affect his batting average going forward, especially after hitting a career-low .283.
Like Longoria, Ryan Zimmerman saw a slight dip in homers and run production but a rise in batting average, but all signs point to further growth. At age 26, he doesn't look like he's hit his peak just yet. In many ways, he appears to be similar to Longoria, save for the stolen-base potential and perhaps slightly less power potential. Zimmerman is as steady as they come among elite third basemen, and maybe he'll even get a little more lineup/run-production help with the addition of Jayson Werth.
Alex Rodriguez is no longer a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick, but he's still among the elite at his position. Though injuries have forced him to miss considerable playing time each of the past three seasons (and slowed him down a little on the basepaths), he still has finished with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs in those campaigns. Expect that to continue, although he might not be the .300 hitter or double-digit-steals guy he used to be. So even if A-Rod misses time this year because of injuries, he likely will still do enough to be more productive than most of the rest of his peers at the position.
The next best thing
There isn't a very big drop-off from the elite options to the second tier, but while the other four appear close to "sure things," these surprises from the 2010 season do carry that lingering doubt that last year's efforts were a fluke.
Adrian Beltre's lone season with the Boston Red Sox was a rousing success, as he rebounded with 28 homers, 102 RBIs and a .321 average, his best numbers since his 48-homer, .334-average outburst with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004. This time, however, Beltre has parlayed that big performance into a lucrative contract from a team with a hitter-friendly ballpark in the Texas Rangers (i.e., not the Mariners). Rangers Ballpark should at least help him maintain his power, although expecting him to hit .321 again might be a stretch given that the two seasons he cracked .300 were his free-agent walk years in 2004 and 2010.
Jose Bautista is arguably the biggest wild card among the top options at third base entering this season. Thanks to a revamped approach at the plate, he burst through with a league-leading 54 homers in 2010, including 30 after the All-Star break. No one is expecting him to repeat the 54 homers, but can he hit 40? And what will his batting average look like? He hit .284 after the break for a career-best .260 season mark, plus he drew 100 walks, showing his improved patience. He could be the biggest risk/reward player at this position.
Where's the ceiling?
There are a number of younger players hanging around waiting to jump into the elite group among third basemen, and they're lingering in the rankings just outside the top 10. Fantasy owners have to hope these guys could be this year's version of Beltre or Bautista.
Highly touted prospect Pedro Alvarez made his big league debut in 2010, hitting 16 homers in 95 games, but also striking out 119 times. There's still plenty of upside in his bat, especially if he can learn to hit lefties (.228, 2 HRs against them in '10) and cut down on those strikeouts. The power is just about there, and he could be a solid value later in the draft if you miss out on the elite players. It's worth noting that outside of a five-homer deficit, Alvarez had 2010 stats eerily similar to outfielder Mike Stanton, who is ranked much higher overall. If we project big things from Stanton, why couldn't Alvarez produce much the same?
Pablo Sandoval was a major disappointment in 2010 after entering the season as a top-five option at the position, as his average and power both took a major tumble. He did have his moments, with a .368/.433/.575 line in April and a .312/.348/.560 line in August, so there is a chance for a recovery. How much of one is a different story, though. Despite the down season, Sandoval is still a potentially decent upside play if he can come anywhere close to his 2009 stats.
Many fantasy owners have been waiting a couple of years now for Ian Stewart -- who will be 26 on Opening Day -- to have that breakthrough performance, but it hasn't really happened yet. There's still time for him to have a big season from a power perspective, but it appears he'll be a batting-average liability no matter what. Plus, the arrivals of veteran Jose Lopez and Ty Wigginton could cut into his playing time. The upside is still there, but he's not as attractive as once was.
Steady as he goes
This group actually counts as the third tier of third basemen: steady performers you can get slightly later in the draft, even if they don't have exciting, untapped upside.
Mid-round sleeper: Pedro Alvarez
Late-round sleeper: David Freese
Prospect: Mike Moustakas
Long-term prospect: Lonnie Chisenhall
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Martin Prado
Player to trade at All-Star break: Mark Reynolds
Player to trade for at the ASB: Aramis Ramirez
Home hero: Michael Young, Pablo Sandoval
Road warrior: David Wright, Chase Headley
Better in points formats: Jose Bautista
Player I inexplicably like: Casey McGehee
Player I inexplicably dislike: Ian Stewart
Aramis Ramirez got off to a horrific start in 2010, thanks in part to a thumb injury, and he stayed under the Mendoza Line until early July. However, he finished strong and ended up with another 25-homer campaign. The potential for missed time has become a concern with Ramirez, and that's what could keep him from reaching the 30-homer mark. But his batting average should also rebound closer to his .293 career mark with the Cubs. Put it all together and you have a decent consolation prize if you miss out on the top players. Given last year's stat line, he could be had for a bargain.
Michael Young would've been the safest player in this tier, but his status entering spring training is up in the air. He was going to become the Rangers' full-time DH/super utility guy after the signing of Adrian Beltre, but now there's a good chance he could be traded. Unfortunately, leaving Arlington could be bad news for Young, who hit .307 with 16 homers at home last year, compared to .260 with five homers on the road. In the past three years, Young is a .318 hitter at home and a .272 hitter on the road. So keep a close eye on where he lands, because that will determine whether he's still a safe bet or a risky older veteran.
Speaking of a productive yet somewhat unexciting player, Casey McGehee built on his surprise 2009 campaign with a solid 23-homer, 104-RBI effort in 2010 hitting mostly behind the Milwaukee Brewers' dynamic duo of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. He doesn't run much, and the lineup behind McGehee didn't do him any favors, as he scored just 70 runs. While McGehee's scouting profile doesn't suggest a lot more upside, he still appears to be a quietly effective player, especially if he stays in the No. 5 hole.
Do we want to believe?
Here's where third base really thins out in regard to either safe or upside options. Sure, just about every player has his warts, but these guys stick out, because while they could be very useful, there's a lot more downside than you might realize.
Mark Reynolds did hit 32 homers last year, but add to that another 200-strikeout season, a major drop in stolen bases and that horrific .198 batting average and fantasy owners are left wondering what to expect from him in his new home at Camden Yards. Sure, the power appears legit and he does draw his fair share of walks, but will he steal enough bases again to offset the fantasy hit to the batting-average category?
There are still a number of formerly touted prospects with a chance of breaking out, and then there's Chase Headley, who seems locked into a low-teens homer total and .260-ish average. He did steal 17 bases last year, which is among the best in a position mostly devoid of speed. That might be his saving grace for now, as Petco Park cuts into his power and that San Diego Padres lineup looks even more questionable with Adrian Gonzalez now gone. There's still a chance for him to break out -- there's a reason he was a top prospect in the first place -- but there's also a chance that he is what he is right now.
While the Padres have given Headley plenty of playing time to prove his stuff, the St. Louis Cardinals are still waiting to get a full season's worth out of David Freese, who did hit .296 last year (albeit with a high .376 BABIP) before missing the second half with injuries. There's still time for him to show his stuff -- he did hit 26 homers at Triple-A in 2008 -- but the window of opportunity could be closing.
Chris Johnson was a revelation in the second half for the Houston Astros, hitting .316 with 11 homers. So while such numbers projected over a full season would make him a solid fantasy option this year, there's also a suspicion that his performance was a fluke. He had an extraordinarily high .387 BABIP, which seems unsustainable for a guy of his skill set, and he had a disturbing 15-walk/91-strikeout ratio in 341 at-bats. Those underlying stats make it unlikely he'll match his 2010 performance. The upside might not be there, and there still could be more downside than you might think.
Thanks but no thanks
It's hard to call this group a "do not draft" list, but there's a reason these players are this far down the rankings. Unlike first base, it's hard to feel confident drafting players in the late-teens, early-20s part of this list. However, if you're in an AL- or NL-only league, you might have to live with 'em, for better or worse.
Scott Rolen showed glimpses of the old Rolen in the first half last year, hitting 17 homers before the All-Star break. However, he hit just three after the break, even though most of his other numbers stayed about the same. He might still have something left in the tank, but he doesn't have much value outside of deep leagues.
Jose Lopez crashed back to earth in 2010, following up his 25-homer campaign from 2009 with a 10-homer, .239-average, 49-run disaster as part of one of the worst offenses in baseball history. He is leaving Safeco Field for Coors Field, which could do wonders for his numbers, but only if he can get regular playing time anywhere in the Colorado Rockies infield, which is far from assured at this point.
Edwin Encarnacion had a strange winter. The Blue Jays non-tendered him, he was claimed by the Oakland Athletics, then returned to Toronto. He did hit 21 homers with a .244 average in 332 at-bats last year, and the Jays will try to find room for him somewhere in the lineup, possibly at first base or DH. Like Lopez, there's still plenty of potential for him to put up nice numbers, if he were assured regular at-bats.
Placido Polanco is in a peculiar position because he doesn't provide the power you'd want from a third baseman, but he seems to always be good for a .280-.290 average and decent runs-scored numbers, especially in that Philadelphia Phillies lineup. He'd be more attractive in mixed leagues if he were still eligible at second base, but in his current status, he's probably of most value as a corner infielder in NL-only or deeper mixed leagues.
Mike Moustakas, one of the jewels of the Kansas City Royals' system, finally broke through in 2010 with 36 homers, 124 RBIs and a .322 average, splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A. His defense might not be big league-ready yet, but the Royals don't have a lot blocking his way either. He could flash that power in the bigs sooner rather than later, while everyone hopes his career progresses better than the Royals' previous can't-miss third-base prospect, Alex Gordon.
The Florida Marlins' Matt Dominguez already has major league-ready defense, but his offense might not be ready yet, as he hit 14 homers with a middling .744 OPS in Double-A last year. Like Moustakas, Dominguez doesn't have anyone obvious blocking his way to the majors, but he also could be more of an offensive liability should he come up.
Brent Morel could be competing with veteran Mark Teahen and fellow prospect Dayan Viciedo for the Chicago White Sox's third-base job. He hit .322 combined in Double-A and Triple-A, and then started the final 17 games of 2010 for the big club, hitting .231 overall. There's batting-average potential in his bat, but nothing to get overly excited about just yet.
The Cleveland Indians' Lonnie Chisenhall might be at least a year away from the majors, but he did impress many by hitting 17 homers with 84 RBIs and a .278 average for Double-A Akron in 2010. Like the prospects above, there really isn't anyone standing in his way, so there's a chance he could seize the job in spring training.
The bottom line
Third base might be thin overall, but there's plenty of early-round talent up top and a handful of potential stars waiting to break through for you risk-taking owners. You wouldn't be faulted for going with a sure thing early, but if you're a gambler, there are plenty of lottery tickets out there. Just remember that not all of those tickets will be winners.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy.