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The times, they are a changing at third base.
There are a few familiar names and established stars, sure. But we're undergoing a massive changing of the guard. This figures to be the final season of eligibility at third base for Miguel Cabrera and Edwin Encarnacion—the latter of whom is already ineligible in many formats. Hanley Ramirez has his lost eligibility, and Ryan Zimmerman and Aramis Ramirez could potentially follow suit in coming years. Alex Rodriguez, who topped these rankings for many seasons, may never play game again. And what the future of third base gained in Manny Machado it may have lost in Xander Bogaerts, who looks to begin his career as a shortstop.
What we're left with are three distinct tiers for 2014—elite, boring but acceptable, and risky but tempting—and a lot of question marks moving forward. In some ways, third base is becoming shallower when it comes to upside and deeper when it comes to floor, with many current big-leaguers and minor-leaguers profiling more as safe, dependable options than as players who could be drafted in the first few rounds or who could command salaries in excess of $25.
That being said, there are enough major-leaguers migrating to third base and a promising crop of prospects who should allow third base to be a strong fantasy position far into the future. We're not seeing an elite talent renaissance as we are with shortstops, but there's still plenty to like here.
The League Breakout
The American League has the edge when it comes to third basemen with upside right now. Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson and Machado comprise five of the best eight options, with Kyle Seager and Brett Lawrie trailing behind. The AL also houses some young players with major flaws but serious power in Will Middlebrooks, Mike Moustakas, and Matt Davidson, and moderately interesting pieces like David Freese, Mark Reynolds, and Matt Dominguez. Add in Nick Castellanos, and it's an interesting group, albeit one with a low floor.
David Wright still holds down the title as the NL's best third baseman, with Ryan Zimmerman, Pedro Alvarez, and Matt Carpenter a tier below. Here we see that the senior circuit is superior when it comes to probability and floor, with Aramis Ramirez, Martin Prado, Chase Headley, and Pablo Sandoval all viable if unexciting options. Todd Frazier, Chris Johnson, and Nolan Arenado represent the back end here, with Cody Asche, Juan Uribe, Casey McGehee, and Mike Olt left for the truly desperate.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
As you can probably discern from above, there are four options—Cabrera, Longoria, Wright, and Beltre—who are all likely to be selected within the first 30 picks of a draft. In shallower leagues, depth at third base isn't a huge issue, as the next four players—Donaldson, Zimmerman, Machado and Alvarez—are quite acceptable fantasy assets.
Third base becomes trickier in deeper leagues, where players have to settle for a lack of upside (Seager, Prado, Sandoval, Carpenter) or accept significant risk (Ramirez, Headley, Lawrie, everyone else in the AL). Depending on the composition of your team, I'd posit that if you miss out on an elite guy, it makes sense to grab a safer option in the middle of your draft, then handcuff that option with a higher-upside play like a Middlebrooks or a Castellanos late.
Players like Freese, Chris Johnson, Frazier, and Reynolds are going to be around late, and while they shouldn't be relied upon as starting options, they do make nice bench options in all but the shallowest of formats.
The Long-Term Outlook
While I've spent a good majority of this column decrying the changes at third base, fantasy owners are not without reasons for optimism for the future. Adding Matt Carpenter to third base on a full-time basis gives owners another safe mid-tier option who should be useful for years to come. Carlos Santana will likely qualify at third base by June, and his bat does play there, albeit not to the same impact it does behind the plate. Kelly Johnson should see a ton of starts at third base this season, where his power/speed combo will help mask his poor averages. Wilmer Flores' best defensive home is probably third, and Jedd Gyorko could move to third base if Headley is dealt, adding even more power to the position.
The real source of hope comes from the minor leagues, though, where two of the eight best fantasy prospects in the game—Miguel Sano and Kris Bryant—look to see their first cups of coffee in the majors this season, followed by full-time rolls in 2015. Bryant isn't a lock to remain at third, but if he does, the position will add two 30-plus-homer threats with tolerable averages.
Beyond the big two, Garin Cecchini and Maikel Franco figure to be intriguing options in short order—though the latter may see more time at first base—while Corey Seager and Joey Gallo present higher upside options who are still a few years away. Colin Moran, D.J. Peterson, and Hunter Dozier should add to a dependable middle tier when they arrive. For those in dynasty leagues, there is a surprising number of bounce back and sleeper candidates at third base who can help round out your minor-league rosters, from Kaleb Cowart and Chelsor Cuthbert, to Ryan McMahon and Eric Jagielo, to real gambles like Rafael Devers and Jeimer Candelario. It's not a crew that can stand up to the likes of the minor-league talent at shortstop, but it's deep and multifaceted nonetheless.
A Closing Haiku
More like warm corner
After elite players gone,
With more on the way