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 5×5 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.
If you miss out on one of them—or are wary of sinking well over 10 percent of your budget on one player—there are a few options in the next tier you may have the stomach for in AL-only. Todd Frazier, Kyle Seager, Adrian Beltre, and Mike Moustakas all earned $20 or more in mono-league formats, with Frazier cracking the $25 barrier. Ten AL third basemen hit 18 home runs or more in 2015 while six drove in 75 runs or more. If there is an area where third base was deficient last year, it was in batting average. Donaldson was the only AL third basemen to hit .290 or higher last year (Yunel Escobar joins him from the NL). Batting average notwithstanding, there is enough production returning this year that you need not worry if you miss out on one of the big two.
Unlike in 2015, there isn’t a rookie or a young and emerging player at third like Machado about to burst through and catapult toward superstardom. Joey Gallo is the highest rated prospect at the position in Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 at third base, but in leagues that only use major league games played, Gallo will only have outfield eligibility. He may not break camp with the Rangers and doesn’t seem to have a starting position to open the season, but a fast start in Triple-A could force the issue.
In 2010, Beltre and Evan Longoria were the best AL-only third basemen, earning $30 apiece and beating Rodriguez by $5. Since then their fantasy earnings have taken different trajectories, with Beltre earning $136 since 2011 while Longoria has only earned $97. Beltre has been an amazing performer both in reality and in Roto, but injuries slowed him down a little bit last year. He only missed 18 games, but a sprained thumb ligament sapped his power at the plate, leading to a pedestrian .262/.314/.365 slash line in June and July along with a mere two home runs in 137 plate appearances. A healthy Beltre could go back to producing $27-29 in value but Father Time is nipping at his heels. Longoria was healthy, but he continued to be a good fantasy option and not a great one. Longoria hasn’t cracked $23 in AL-only earnings since 2010.
They don’t quite have the name value that Beltre and Longoria do (did?) but both Frazier and Seager could earn more than either of those venerated names will this year. Frazier didn’t quite run as much as he did in 2014, but he did steal 13 bases, which would have been good for second among AL third basemen behind Machado. A number of analysts keep knocking Frazier down, but he smacked 35 home runs for the Reds last year and the move to the White Sox shouldn’t have much of an impact on his power. It is also possible that moving to a bolstered Chicago lineup will help his counting stats.
Seager is getting drafted behind his brother Corey in NFBC drafts, but while Corey should eventually surpass Kyle in fantasy, there’s a good chance that the older Seager will hold off his brother for one more year. The pedestrian batting average and lack of double-digit steals will keep Seager from ever sniffing $30, but I don’t mind the idea of paying a little bit more than what Seager can earn for his consistency and durability.
After years of disappointment, Mike Moustakas finally broke through in a big way, putting up the best offensive season of his major league career by far and hitting 20-plus home runs for the first time since 2012. Moose’s valuation will be determined almost entirely by his batting average and how much the gains he made last year are sustainable. While diving into single-season batted-ball data can lead to dubious analysis, Moustakas did cut down on his strikeout rate for the third year running and improved his quality of contact as well. The power may have been a little fluky, as his batted ball distance dropped slightly in 2015.
There is a significant drop off in the AL this year after Moustakas, and if you aren’t willing to spend at least $20 on a third baseman you might want to hold back and not overpay anyone in this next group. Danny Valencia ($18) and Trevor Plouffe ($17) both delivered solid earnings last year, but you might not want to bet on a repeat performance, particularly in Valencia’s case. If Valencia plays full time this year, there is serious batting average risk. Valencia surpassed last year’s expectations by putting up uncharacteristically great numbers against right-handed pitching. Plouffe is a solid citizen and probably gets maligned too much in fantasy circles, but a return to 15-home-run power is a likely scenario for Minnesota’s third sacker given that his batted ball profile didn’t change much in 2015.
Nick Castellanos, Chase Headley, and Pablo Sandoval are the last three third basemen I would recommend paying $10 or more for in AL-only leagues. Castellanos seems like a guy with upside, but his offensive output has been stagnant the last two years. Many expected Headley to see a power boost moving from Petco to Yankee Stadium, particularly after he hit six home runs in 224 plate appearances for the Yankees in 2014, but it didn’t work out that way. Headley’s infield-fly rate jumped while his hard hit ball rate dropped, which makes for a troubling trend. Sandoval had the worst season of his career on both sides of the ball and he completely disappeared in the second half. If there is a silver lining to his train wreck of a season it is that he had some bad BABIP luck and his rate of hard contact didn’t change much from one half of the season to the other.
Given the drop off after the top seven third basemen (eight if you count Brett Lawrie, who was profiled at second base for this series), this is a position where allocating a little extra money at the top is a viable strategy. If you “have” to settle for or a Sandoval type, this is fine, but don’t go too far past $10-12. If your league uses on base percentage instead of a batting average, Luis Valbuena (earned $3 more in OBP formats), Donaldson ($2), and Jed Lowrie ($2) gain the most value, while Beltre (-$2), Castellanos (-$2), and Sandoval ($2) were the biggest losers at third base in OBP leagues.
If you do wind up diving into the bottom of the barrel at third base, below are some other players who are AL-only or very deep mixed league plays (16 teams or more). They’re not flashy, but at the right price, profit is profit. The retrospective valuations in this piece for 2015 can be found here.
Luis Valbuena, Astros ($12)
It was a story of two halves for Valbuena in 2015. He hit 19 home runs prior to the All-Star Game, eclipsing his career high in home runs of 17 on June 20 and leading to idle speculation that a 35-40 home run season could be in the offing. However, those home runs came with an awful .199 batting average, taking away a sizeable portion of Valbuena’s fantasy value. The power came down to Earth in the second half but the average improved somewhat, leading to a season that looked more in line with Valbuena’s career norms (albeit with more home runs). Valbuena was hitting way more fly balls in the first half than he usually does, which is saying a great deal given his typically high fly ball propensities. He was pushed into more of a platoon/job sharing arrangement in the second half, and this led to more of a typical Valbuena performance. Bet more on the latter in 2016. While 15 home runs are realistic, you shouldn’t pay for more.
Yunel Escobar, Angels ($20)
You can be forgiven if you find yourself wondering why a third baseman who earned $20 in mono-league formats last year is down in the bargain bin amongst cheaper AL-only options and not profiled among the stronger players at the position. A quick look back at Escobar’s prior earnings tells you all that you need to know. Escobar earned eight dollars in 2014 and $12 in 2013. I am a big believer in paying a player for what he can earn and I am constantly haranguing my readers not to ignore batting average, but nothing in Escobar’s profile prior to 2015 indicates that a batting average over .300 is sustainable. Escobar’s BABIP jumped 65 points last year while his contact profile barely moved at all. Escobar’s ground ball rate spiked, particularly in the first half of the season. It is possible that he benefited somewhat from facing weaker infield defenses in the NL East. Now Escobar moves to a tougher division in the AL West and a home park that will suppress what little power he has even more. Add to this a thin lineup once you get past Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Kole Calhoun, and it all adds up to an anticipated value drop for Escobar in 2016.
Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians ($9)
It’s a shame that Chisenhall does not play for the other Ohio team, because then I could make a confusing Loni Anderson/Lonnie Chisenhall reference revolving around a late 1970s/early 1980s television sitcom that no one would understand. Oh well. Anyway, Chisenhall has now been around for parts of five seasons with Cleveland and profiles as a second division regular. In fantasy, the ceiling is quite limited but assuming Chisenhall can scrape together enough at bats he should still have some value in AL-only leagues. The presence of Giovanny Urshela will likely push Chisenhall to the outfield, but for fantasy you will get one more year to use Chis at third base.
David Freese, Free Agent ($12)
Spring training is close but last year’s Angels starting third baseman still hasn’t landed anywhere. Freese still seems likely to sign a major-league contract, but this winter has seen a weird market that has been less dynamic than usual for hitters, in part because a number of National League teams are in rebuilding mode. If your league allows you to stash free agents in early auctions or drafts, I’d gamble the dollar or reserve pick on Freese and hope that he signs somewhere. If the Angels were willing to move Escobar to second, Freese could slot back in at third again.
Tyler Saladino, White Sox ($6)
Saladino is eligible at third base based on last year’s games played but he is slated to start at shortstop for the White Sox on Opening Day. Saladino is worth looking at in fantasy because of his 33 steals between the minors and majors in 2015, but otherwise he looks mostly like a black hole outside of AL-only formats. Another issue with buying Saladino is that Tim Anderson is close to the majors and could be up as early as June if not sooner. Saladino could earn $8-10 if Anderson doesn’t make it to the White Sox, but I’d rather bet $2-3 and hope for a profit on Saladino.
Giovanny Urshela, Indians ($3)
Urshela made his major league debut in 2015 and was extremely underwhelming with the bat, putting up a .225/.279/.330 slash line in 288 plate appearances. Urshela is expected to be a defensive-first player, but even in 2016’s diminished offensive context he will probably have to come closer to his 2014 minor league line to stick in the long term with Cleveland or any other franchise. If Urshela is playing every day, he will have to be owned in AL-only, but a $6-7 bid is the likely stopping point, even taking into account some upside based on his youth.
Matthew Duffy/Colin Moran, Astros
Valbuena is the starting third baseman for the Astros but as noted above he is a miserable option against southpaws; last year he had a putrid .158/.265/.316 slash line against lefties. Duffy has mostly played third base in the minors and would be a logical platoon partner for Valbuena. Duffy put up 941 OPS against lefties in 2015 at Triple-A. Minor league numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, but they do speak to the idea that Duffy should at least get a shot on the weak side of a platoon. Moran’s minor league numbers look pedestrian on the surface, but as Greg Wellemeyer pointed out back in August, Moran’s raw ability gives him a leg up on prospects without the same tools or raw ability and he (Moran, not Wellemeyer) did show some improvement in power even though it hasn’t translated to his home run totals. Moran probably won’t be up until 2017, but if he does have a fast start in the minors, neither Valbuena nor Duffy should be considered serious obstacles.
Mike Olt, White Sox ($0)
Baseball just isn’t fair. The trick of memory makes it seem like Mike Olt has had countless opportunities to make a name for himself as a major leaguer, but the reality is that he has had all of 400 plate appearances stretched across three seasons to prove that he can handle the unenviable task of surviving against major league pitching, something very few mortals have the capability of doing. Olt will turn 28 in August, and barring a Todd Frazier injury and a miraculous Olt streak it is highly likely that Olt is never going to make it as a big-leaguer. This isn’t even a fantasy related note since Olt is not fantasy relevant this year but just the usual reminder of how damn hard this game is.
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