American League third basemen had a big bounce-back season last year. The 10 best eligible players at the position earned $253 in 2015 compared to $204 the year before. This is somewhat misleading where future earnings are concerned, as Chris Davis, Xander Bogaerts, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Santana are no longer eligible at third heading into 2016. Despite this, most of the improvement at third base should hold in 2016, thanks to a relatively injury free season in 2015 as well as the emergence of a core of young studs centered around future superstar Manny Machado. Based on last year’s results, third base in the AL could be an even better place to go shopping at the top end of the player pool.
The studs here were Machado and Josh Donaldson, and both return for another blockbuster engagement. Donaldson ($37) and Machado ($35) were the second- and third-best hitters in AL-only 5x5 leagues. Machado was one of two players in Major League Baseball to put up a 30/20 season (Paul Goldschmidt was the other) and what Donaldson didn’t provide with this legs he more than made up for with his thunderous bat, becoming only the second third baseman in history to reach or eclipse 40 home runs, 120 runs, and 120 RBI in a single season (Rodriguez was the other one, accomplishing the feat in 2005 and 2007). You’re going to have to pay at least $30 to get either one of these studs, and it is possible that one or both of them crack the $35 barrier.
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Sizing up the senior-circuit crop at the hot corner.
As noted in last week’s NL-only write up, the idea of position scarcity in fantasy leagues is mostly a myth, and third base is no different than almost every other position in the National League. Last year in 5x5, the top 10 NL third basemen earned $209, or only slightly less than the top 10 NL first basemen ($216) and the second basemen ($212) did. This calculation assumes that players with dual eligibility at 2B/3B are all used at second, so you could make the case that at the top third base was the strongest infield position in the NL last year.
Todd Frazier departed for the American League this winter, but the NL still has two third basemen who are absolute studs. Kris Bryant beat out Nolan Arenado in real life (with a .317 TAv to Arenado’s .299), but since fantasy leagues don’t adjust for Coors-aided numbers, Nolan Arenado was the man in NL-only. He was the only NL third baseman who earned $30 or more in 2015, but these numbers may not be repeatable as even in Coors it is extremely difficult to assume that Arenado is going to drive in 130 runs again this year. Thirty to 35 home runs are a realistic expectation given the venue, but a mild drop in home runs could happen too. Arenado should still be a top-20 player, but some slippage is possible.
Scanning the menu of keystone fantasy options in the junior circuit.
Welcome back to Baseball Prospectus’ position-by-position look at AL-only players. After tackling catchers and first basemen the last two weeks, today we’ll take a look at second basemen.
One of the most significant differences between AL- and NL-only leagues has been at second base, particularly with how power shakes out in each league. In the NL, Neil Walker and Jedd Gyorko were the only second basemen who hit 15 home runs or more in 2015. Contrast this with the AL, where 11 second-base-eligible players hit at least 15. It is odd to think of second base as a power position, but that’s exactly what fantasy managers should be targeting in AL-only, particularly since Jose Altuve is the only player at the position who runs. Altuve had 38 steals in 2015; Brian Dozier and Jason Kipnis were next with 12 apiece. This lack of all-around production at second means that while there are several good players at the position, the only superstar is Altuve, who earned $39 in 2015 and has now put up a whopping $84 in earnings since 2014.
One of the reasons I focus on player valuation as much as I do is because it is a good way to separate myths and facts. The mythology in fantasy baseball is that “position scarcity makes it harder to find a good second baseman.” The reality is that in NL-only leagues the top 10 second basemen earned nearly as much ($212) as the top 10 first basemen did ($216) in 2015.
Some of this misperception comes from how misunderstood stolen-base value is, specifically when it comes to the best player at the position. Dee Gordon earned $41 in NL-only 5x5 last year, or two cents fewer than what Paul Goldschmidt did. Gordon could slip somewhat if his batting average drops as expected, but even if he had “only” hit .289 in 2015, he would have earned $34, or good for fifth overall in the National League. In mixed leagues you might be able to discount speed, but in -only leagues you do so at your own peril.
Examining the junior-circuit options at this position.
Last year’s AL first basemen were one of the most predictable groups at the position in years. The good news for AL-only fantasy owners is that of the eight first basemen who earned $24-29 at the position, six of them will be back in 2016, with Prince Fielder and Kendrys Morales moving to DH-only (assuming a 20-game positional eligibility requirement). This stability makes it relatively easy to sink $25-30 on any of the top five players, and you might even be willing to go into the low $30s to lock in 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI for a premium option. In my early (unpublished) AL-only bid limits, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Edwin Encarnacion all have a bid limit of $30 or higher, with Eric Hosmer sitting in the $25-29 range. None of these players are quite the studs that their National League counterparts are, primarily because none of them offer a significant base stealing component in their respective games. The danger last year came not with the elite first basemen but with the next tier down. Seven first basemen cost between $16-25 in the expert leagues and Hosmer was the only one to turn a profit. Four of these players not only lost their fantasy managers money, but lost $10 or more on their average salary. While Abreu and Cabrera also lost their fantasy owners money, getting $27 worth of stats back on a $37 investment is much better than getting back seven dollars on a $17 investment.
While the temptation is to simply pay the big dogs, first base is dominated by a number of past-their-prime performers who are entering into or firmly entrenched in their decline phase. Ten of the 15 projected starters at the position will be 30 years of age or older in 2016, with only three projected starters younger than 29. On the surface, the age curve at first base seems to lend itself to stability but there is a false sense of security baked into this assumption. While PECOTA can and does predict gradual decline, it fails to account for players simply falling off of the map. Victor Martinez (now DH only for 2016) and Adam LaRoche were the graybeards who died on the vine last year, but it is entirely possible that Mark Teixeira (age 36), Albert Pujols (36), Mike Napoli (34), or even Edwin Encarnacion (33) will be this year’s victims. One thing that helps a great deal in the American League is the glut of DHs who are also eligible at first base. In addition to the 15 starters at first, there are seven players who are projected to DH but will also have their first base eligibility carryover from 2015. We often look at the position with a glass is half empty mentality and lament players like Fielder and Morales who aren’t first base eligible, but the reality is that there are over 20 first-base-eligible players in the AL who will have the opportunity to produce a full season of fantasy value.
An overview of the fantasy options available at this position for the coming season.
In fantasy baseball, 2015 saw a revitalization of sorts at first base. After a down year in 2014 where merely five first basemen earned $25 or more in mono formats, 2015 saw eight first basemen crack this barrier. The big categorical jumps at the position came in home runs and batting average. The position picked up nearly 100 home runs from 2014 (or three home runs per every 600 plate appearances) and jumped from a .252 batting average in 2014 to a .259 batting average in 2015. Where in drafts and auctions last year the temptation was to go small at the position to avoid overspending on modest production, last year’s spike in production suggests that it might be better to go big early. Where only two first basemen cracked the Top 25 overall in mixed league rankings in 2014, five first basemen turned the feat in 2015, with a sixth barely missing the cut.
Mining for values in a position group where value can be hard to find.
With the possible exception of closers, there isn’t a position in fantasy baseball that is associated with a greater amount of dread than catcher. This is particularly true in -only leagues, where there are 24 catching slots to fill and only 15 starters to choose from. If this isn’t bad enough, this isn’t like other positions on the diamond where you can at least pick up a few steals or a smattering of home runs from more than a few backups. If you do get stuck with a defensive cipher, it is possible that you will get zero offensive production from the position for the entire year.
Fantasy managers often lament the decrepitude of a position incorrectly, relying on faulty memory and anecdotal evidence. But last year it turns out that their whining was not misplaced; the position was bad.