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September 4, 2013

Fantasy Fool's Gold

Third Basemen

by Ben Carsley

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If nothing else, our first edition of Fantasy Fool’s Gold last week can serve as a case study of how shallow the first base and catcher positions are in terms of budding fantasy talent.

Thankfully, third base is not so fallow.

Home to many a converted shortstop or future first baseman/right fielder, third base is sort of the baseball equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. You’ll find players of all shapes and sizes and all offensive and defensive profiles, and determining who may be of fantasy value at the position one day can be a struggle.

Yet with many of the game’s established stars and up-and-comers manning the hot corner, today’s third base prospects have a tall task ahead of them if they’re to become viable fantasy assets in any but the deepest of leagues.

With that in mind, we bring you five third baseman who you might be tempted to overvalue as you look to round out your dynasty infields. As with last week, many of the observations below come courtesy of the BP minor-league team.

Garin Cecchini, 3B, Red Sox
Cecchini entered the 2013 season unbeknownst to the majority of non-Red Sox fans, but a quick ascent through the mid-minors now has him very much on the mainstream prospect radar. In 262 plate appearances in High-A this season, Cecchini did mean things to pitchers, putting up a .350/.469/.547 line with 14 steals in 21 attempts. Sure, his .400 BABIP helped, but Cecchini also walked more often than he struck out and posted a TAv of .358. That led to a midseason promotion to Double-A, where Cecchini has cooled off some but is still hitting for a .301 TAv as a 22-year-old.

Yet while Cecchini still has plenty of relevancy for dynasty leaguers, there’s danger in forecasting him as an elite offensive player or surefire top-10 third baseman. For one, Cecchini doesn’t profile as a big power bat, with a lack of lift in his swing likely limiting him to around 15 homers a year. He’s also not a lock to stay at third base, as he’s still stiff at the position despite some improvement there from his early career.

That brings us to the trait that perhaps causes the most common misconception surrounding Cecchini: his speed. In 2012, Cecchini went 51-for-57 in steals in Single-A, prompting the entirety of prospect fandom to let out a collective “zomg.” As evidenced by his 2013 stats, though, Cecchini is far from a speedster, possessing just below average to fringe-average wheels. He has the instincts to swipe 15-or-so bags in his prime, but that’s it. It’s still a decent overall package, with the potential for a .280 average and double-digit steals and swipes, but it’s not terribly sexy if it’s not coming from third base. He’s a good—not great—fantasy prospect.

Brandon Drury, 3B, Diamondbacks
The Nick Punto of last offseason’s Justin Upton deal (in terms of name value), Drury is beginning to turn some heads this season. The 21-year-old is hitting a nifty .300/.360/.498 in 583 PA in Single-A, sending 15 balls out of the park and posting a respectable BB-to-K ratio of 0.51. Is Drury someone dynasty owners should be keeping an eye on in the deepest of leagues?

Well, yes, but that doesn’t mean you should be running out to add him right now. Drury’s mini-breakout shouldn’t come as that big a surprise. Jason Parks pegged Drury as “an interesting candidate to move up the ranks if he can find his stroke and refine his approach at the plate” before the season began, citing Drury’s upside as a role-5 player with 5 hit and 5 power potential. Those who have seen Drury during the season say that his approach has indeed improved, with some liking the hit tool enough to believe in Drury as an everyday player.

This is a largely positive review of Drury, so what gives with him being listed here? Think of risk vs. reward. Drury is still just in Single-A, meaning a ton can go wrong between now and any possible MLB debut. He doesn’t profile a star offensive player and lacks any carrying tool. Drury may receive some hype as a sleeper this offseason, and in one sense he is, but don’t look at his Single-A numbers and be fooled into thinking he can put up that type of line in the majors. Unless you’re in a deep NL Only keeper league, make Drury prove himself against better competition before your bite.

Maikel Franco, 3B, Phillies
Along with Cecchini, the inclusion of Franco here may disappoint the “Hey, we want guys who don’t even show up on Google” crowd of obscure player-lovers. But as one of the more prominent power-hitting corner infielders making his way through the minors, Franco is a player sure to attract a ton of attention from fantasy owners playing in every format. And, as with Cecchini, Franco destroyed High-A for half the season before a mid-season promotion to Double-A, where he’s actually been better by several measures.

With only Cody Asche to block him in the majors, it’s reasonable to project that Franco could see some MLB time in 2014. The Phillies have started giving him some time at first base as well—more on that in a moment—which could also lead him to steal some at-bats from whatever now inhabits Ryan Howard’s uniform. Yet while Franco is likely to always be an aggressive player, he’ll need to refine his approach, quiet his pre-swing mechanics and learn to at least begrudgingly take a walk on occasion if he’s going to play as a first division regular.

Franco is still a top-50 fantasy prospect in my book because of the potential for 25-plus homers from third base, but he’s far from a safe bet to reach such a ceiling. Franco’s defense at third isn’t terrible but he’s not a lock to stay at the position, and the bat loses a lot of its luster if he moves across the diamond permanently. There are very few players who can swing with the frequency and violence with which Franco does and be productive, and so there will be plenty of opportunity for advanced pitching to exploit his approach as well. Personally, I’m cautiously buying on Franco long-term, but if you’re counting on him to be an immediate contributor when he reaches the majors, I think you’ll be disappointed. There is many an adjustment to be made here, even if the talent is clear.

Luis Jimenez, 3B, Angels
I’ve always found it surprisingly easy to talk myself into Jimenez as a sleeper prospect. I’ve owned him in two 20-team keepers with MiLB rosters (yes, I have a problem) and I was pretty pleased to see the Angels call him up early this season and then again a few days ago. If you’re playing in the type of league in which Jimenez is a reasonable pickup, then yes, you likely already missed the boat on him for 2013. But with the Angels offering little in the way of 3B depth and 2014 around the corner, is Jimenez someone to keep your eye on next year?

His slash line in Triple-A would seem to indicate the answer is “yes.” He’s hit .284/.326/.411 in 218 PA, which largely builds off the .309/.334/.495 line he posted in a full season in Triple-A last season. Though he hasn’t shown it this year, Jimenez has moderate pop (18 homers in 2012, 16 last year) and enough speed to steal 10-or-so bases a year, although he’s far from a burner. Jimenez doesn’t strike out (11.9 percent), doesn’t walk (5.5 percent) and is fringe-average to below-average defensively at third base.

Yet while I think Jimenez will stick on an MLB roster for a while, and found him to be an underrated prospect, don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s a fantasy diamond in the rough. Since such a huge part of Jimenez’ game is putting the ball in play, his value is likely to fluctuate pretty wildly depending on his BABIP. If he flukes into a .330 mark, maybe he can flirt with a .270 average and .310 OBP. But if he doesn’t, it could get ugly fast for Jimenez, who’s only sustainable offensive skill seems to be the ability to hit doubles. It’s tempting to imagine Jimenez batting down the order for a solid offensive Angels team next year and mark him down as a sleeper, but only those in AL Only or very, very deep mixed leagues should pay him any mind.

Zach Lutz, 3B, Mets
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Lutz is old. If you think that should disqualify him form a column like this, I can see where you’re coming from. At the same time, you don’t lose fantasy points for having a boring MiLB track record, and once you’re in the majors, there’s no such thing as “too old for the level.” Plus, if the goal here is to identify players who look like they can contribute to fantasy rosters but who will ultimately fall short of their minor league numbers, Lutz certainly fits the bill.

The 27-year-old has quietly produced for three consecutive seasons in Triple-A, hitting around .300 with an OBP of around .380 in nearly 1,000 PA. Despite an upper-cut swing Lutz has moderate usable power, and has been prone to the strikeout throughout his career. To Lutz’ credit his strikeout rate has fallen for three years in a row, and he’s not adverse to taking a walk, adding some value to the overall offensive profile.

But while Lutz has a good approach and respectable hit tool, he fails to do anything else particularly well on a diamond. His defense at third base is well below MLB average, and while that normally wouldn’t impact his fantasy value the odds of him ever seeing enough playing time at third to qualify there in the long run are miniscule. There’s reason for optimism in terms of Lutz carving out a career for himself as a corner infielder bat (with reverse platoon splits) off the bench, but his impressive MiLB resume shouldn’t fool you. This is not David Freese: The Sequel.

Ben Carsley is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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