Often you don't realize how good a group of athletes is until you have a firsthand comparison.
See how they all stack up:
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.
Young is still a shortstop at fantasy this season, and we won't even include him in this preview beyond this point, but it goes to show the difference in expectations between a middle infielder and a corner infielder. It's perhaps not fair that third base must share a position with first base, arguably the deepest fantasy position, in the standard setup, while shortstop shares with second base.
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.
A-Rod isn't regarded as highly as he was last season -- and he's still No. 1 overall. That shows his consistency and dominance in fantasy over the years. He's no longer a consensus No. 1, but if you take him there, you won't get any gasps. You simply can't go wrong with a guy who has averaged .302-41-127 and 19 steals over the past three seasons. Now, a strained quad did land him on the DL for the first time since July 2000, and he played in just 138 games. But they were great games, and it takes more than that to question his durability.
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.
Wish we had a crystal ball
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?
Q: Leave the questions to me. So will this finally be Ryan Zimmerman's true breakout season?
A: Again I say, yes and no. We haven't heard of a recurrence of that shoulder problem that wiped out the middle of his 2008 season, and he's entering his prime years, so the homers should jump back in the mid- or high 20s. But playing for the Nationals will prevent a huge season in terms of runs, RBIs and batting average. He simply is pitched around too much, and it seemed he got tired of it and starting chasing pitches last season. At best, we're looking at a "Jason Bay with Pittsburgh" ceiling. Draft accordingly.
Q: Speaking of "can't-miss" prospects, what about Alex Gordon?
A: Yeah, and he's on a bad team, too. I'm still not seeing much I like about Gordon, other than raw talent. I know he's only 25, but he has just been so bad against lefties. Last year he slugged .317 against them, with one homer in 167 at-bats. Ouch. And he also seems to hit worse on the road, too, which has become a trend. I know he has been making adjustments with hitting coach Kevin Seitzer all winter, but I see any improvement in those areas to be steady, not immediate. And if he doesn't improve in the next season or two, he might wind up in a platoon.
Q: Why doesn't anybody like Mark Reynolds? He put up huge numbers last season.
A: Because we're not even sure the D-backs like him. I mean, he's the all-time leader in strikeouts for a season, a rather dubious "honor," and his .320 OBP is nothing to write home about. I could see the lefty Chad Tracy getting in the mix more at third base this season (the righty Reynolds posted a .298 OBP against righty pitchers in '08). Either way, I don't see Reynolds getting to swing out of his, uh, backside another 539 times this season.
Q: Sheesh, tell me how you really feel. Talk to me about players taking the next step, such as Ian Stewart, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Blake DeWitt and Wilson Betemit.
A: Let's see, love, respect, not sure and overrated. How 'bout that?
Q: Does not compute. Need more information. Stewart ...
A: OK, I've seen Stewart play a few times, and I just love his swing. It's pure, and it's powerful. Seems like we've heard about him for years, but he's only 23. His mediocre (at best) numbers from last season provide the perfect chance to buy low on a guy I believe has upper-tier potential. It all comes down to spring training, and whether the Rockies give him a starting spot, and preferably the same starting spot each day. If they do, look out, NL pitching.
A: I more respect him than love him. This would be only his third full season in the majors, yet there's a case for him being considered an "ol' reliable" below. He's doing about what he's projected, and doing it consistently, even month to month. I think he has already settled in and become an annual .265-25-80 hitter.
A: I really don't like him from a fantasy aspect, but that move to second base and his clutch hitting at least interest me. If that lineup is killer again, he could be a nice beneficiary. But I won't be drafting him in a mixed league, if that's what you're asking.
Q: And no love for Betemit?
A: Never really have. I like the versatility on defense, but he doesn't run, doesn't draw walks, strikes out too much ... there's no way he nails down a starting job and keeps it with the White Sox.
Q: Can Jorge Cantu repeat 2008?
A: No way, but I think he'll come close. It seems like he's old since it had been so long (2005) since he was good, but he's only 27 and just entering his prime.
Q: And finally, should Hank Blalock, Eric Chavez or Joe Crede interest me?
A: Definitely not Chavez or Crede. Considering how deep this position is, you can afford to wait and see with both guys. Blalock might draw some interest, and playing DH will help him stay healthy. But he just doesn't hit consistently on the road, making him more of a fantasy platoon guy.
Q: Sounds good. You wanna get some lunch?
A: We just had breakfast about an hour a- ... sure, let's.
The ol' reliables
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, Mariners: He's in a contract year, but we know pretty much what to expect from him (and it ain't bad).
Melvin Mora, Orioles: The 37-year-old is due for a decline, but he's coming off his best season since 2005.
Edwin Encarnacion, Reds: A 26-year-old "ol' reliable"? Yup, Encarnacion is too inconsistent to hit for anything more than a respectable average, and he's a terrible hitter in the clutch, and it shows in his RBIs.
Mark DeRosa, Indians: This dude carried me in a few leagues. That positional versatility is so helpful. But even I can't expect 2008 numbers again with him moving from the NL Central to the AL Central (and a worse ballpark).
Mike Lowell, Red Sox: Assuming he gets and stays healthy, he'll be as reliable for you as he is with the Sawx.
Carlos Guillen, Tigers: Ditto here. Probably won't play in 150-plus games, but at least you know he'll play well when he plays.
Casey Blake, Dodgers: Somehow puts up the quietest .270-20-80 seasons year after year.
Pedro Feliz, Phillies; and Brandon Inge, Tigers: Low average, the occasional homer, these guys belong together.
Troy Glaus, Cardinals: If your league has a DL slot, you could do worse than having a 25-homer guy on it.
Loaded with prospects
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.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.