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Previously On Baseball Prospectus…

For the earlier articles in this series, click below:

The Big Question: Is third base the deepest position in fantasy right now?

Major-league hitters produced the second-most home runs in baseball history this past season. Third basemen accounted for 718 of those long balls, while recording a .777 OPS. Both statistical marks represent more offensive production than at any other position in the game, except for first base, which manufactured 827 home runs with a .791 OPS in 2016. These are not alternative facts.

The newfound level of production, especially in the power department, far exceeds anything we’ve seen in recent seasons. Just three years ago, third basemen managed just 491 home runs and a paltry .715 OPS. Granted, that happens to be the same year that perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera permanently relocated to first base, but it wasn’t that long ago that the fantasy landscape at the hot corner was pretty barren.

Major-League third base positional splits, 2012-2016

Source: Baseball-Reference

Year

PA

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

2016

20,683

2,535

718

2,509

218

.266

.331

.445

.777

2015

20,614

2,352

641

2,391

166

.264

.324

.431

.755

2014

20,302

2,134

491

2,222

175

.259

.318

.397

.715

2013

20,418

2,175

579

2,255

137

.260

.324

.412

.735

2012

20,265

2,285

603

2,478

210

.266

.327

.427

.754

It’s truly staggering just how much production has increased over the last few seasons. The catalyzing force appears to be the recent influx of legitimate fantasy superstar caliber talent. Even after losing an elite option in Manny Machado to shortstop, there are still three consensus 2017 first-round selections at the position: Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and Josh Donaldson.

Each member of the #BigThree has experienced a meteoric rise over the last two seasons. On the heels of a dynamic major-league debut, Bryant hit .292/.385/.554 with 121 runs scored, 39 home runs, 102 RBI and eight stolen bases, en route to winning last year’s NL MVP award. At 25 years old, he’s the clear headliner, and is just getting started. During the same two-year span, Arenado has blossomed into an offensive tour de force in Colorado. He’s crushed 40 home runs, while recording 130-plus RBI, in back-to-back seasons. What’s even scarier is that the 26-year-old’s plate skills have continued to improve, as evidenced the sharp increase in walk rate from 5.1 percent in 2015 to 9.8 percent last season. While he’s a bit older than his elite counterparts, the 31-year-old Donaldson followed up his stellar 2015 AL MVP campaign in which he hit 41 home runs in his Toronto debut, with 37 home runs and the highest on-base percentage (.404) of his career in 2016.

Fantasy owners who miss out on the #BigThree won’t have to look very far to find a quality option at the hot corner in the middle rounds of drafts this spring. Baseball Prospectus’ four-star tier is stocked with a veritable smorgasbord of veteran talent in Kyle Seager, Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre, Anthony Rendon, and Justin Turner.

The model of consistency, Seager has recorded at least 650 plate appearances in five consecutive seasons and is coming off a career-high 30 home runs in 2016. Longoria finally put together the transcendent power performance (36 home runs) we’ve been waiting for since 2013. While he traded some contact to get to the power, a significant uptick in fly balls (47 percent) in tandem with an increased launch angle suggest that he could do it again in 2017. If Longoria’s loud and volatile power production is the heavy metal counterpart to Seager’s consistently smooth jazz routine, then the decision between them really just comes down to taste.

At this point, what can you even say about Beltre? In addition to elite contact skills (10.3 percent strikeout rate in 2016), he owns a .310 average in seven seasons dating back to 2010, and just hit 32 home runs at 37-years-old. After an injury-marred 2015 campaign, Rendon stayed healthy last season, hitting .270/.348/.450 with 20 homers and 12 steals. Squarely in his prime and batting in the heart of the order for the Nationals, the only risk is injury.

The final member of the second-tier options is Turner, successfully parlayed an evolutionary three-year stretch into a four-year $64 million deal to remain in Los Angeles this offseason. The 32-year-old’s reverse platoon split is really weird, but he doesn’t strike out a ton (17.2 percent in 2016) for a power hitter, and the batted-ball profile is truly majestic and bodes well for a repeat of his career-high 27 home run performance last year. Yet, for reasons that pass understanding, he’s being drafted in the ninth or 10th round (132nd overall) of 2017 NFBC drafts. He’s being vastly underrated and looks like the best value at the position right now.

We still haven’t even talked about a pair of the most alluring options at the position, Alex Bregman and Jose Ramirez, both of whom are currently going in the seventh round (93rd and 95th overall, respectively) on average in 15-team NFBC drafts. Trust me, we’ll get there. Simply put, there’s no shortage of intrigue (and home run power) among the rest of the alternatives in three star tier, which include: Todd Frazier, Jake Lamb, Mike Moustakas, Maikel Franco, Nick Castellanos, and Yulieski Gurriel.

Even the lower tiers are populated with a mix of high-upside speculative targets and solid, yet unspectacular, veteran options. Arguably the most intriguing fantasy commodity in this range is Miguel Sano. He still possesses the pure unadulterated talent to evolve into the four-category stud fantasy owners envisioned at this time last year. Another versatile option to consider is, Hernan Perez, who burst onto the scene in Milwaukee, becoming one of just 14 players to steal 30 or more bases last year. Finally, let’s not forget about the potential impact a slimmed down and motivated Pablo Sandoval could have in Boston this season. Third base is crazy deep.

Mixed League Strategy

If that comprehensive rundown wasn’t enough to convince you about the depth at the position, then I’m not sure what will. In deeper mixed leagues, the risks and deficiencies associated with the pool of third basemen outside the top eight options (five- and four-star tiers combined) are enough of a factor, that I would strongly consider sinking the auction dollars, or a pick in the first six or seven rounds of a snake draft, to ensure that I land an upper-echelon starter. For example, I’d much rather draft Beltre or Rendon in the sixth round than a much riskier alternative like Franco or Javier Baez in the ninth round.

Understanding the right moment in a snake draft or auction, when embracing risk is appropriate or even warranted, can be the difference between constructing a championship caliber roster or a middle of the pack finisher. If you’re going to embrace the risk and bet on someone outside of the elite eight at the position, the two names that fit the bill are Bregman and Ramirez.

The Breakout Candidate: Alex Bregman, Astros

Bregman’s odyssey to greatness took an unexpected detour, when he began his major-league career on a 1-for-32 cold spell. On the surface, it looked like he couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat, but that wasn’t the case. As former FanGraphs author August Fagerstrom expertly revealed in early September, even when the 22-year-old was struggling, he was still putting together quality at-bats, making consistent hard contact and not striking out an exorbitant number of times. The LSU product went on to hit .308/.355/.562 with 24 extra-base hits (eight home runs) in just 183 plate appearances.

It’s easy to focus on his small sample in the big leagues, but fantasy owners shouldn’t gloss over his stellar minor-league performance. In 80 games between Double-A and Triple-A, Bregman hit an absurd .306/.406/.580 with 20 home runs and seven steals. Firmly entrenched in the second spot of a loaded Astros lineup, it’s not unrealistic to think he could hit .275 with 20-to-25 home runs, double-digit steals and a boatload of counting stats. That’s the optimistic view. It’s also overlooking the fact that he could strike out a quarter of the time, which wouldn’t be ideal. However, he didn’t have contact issues in the minors, so that could’ve been an outlier last fall. All things considered, the floor is dramatically higher for Bregman than many other sophomore hitters. This is a potential fantasy stud and he’s available in the middle rounds this spring. Go get him.

The Burgeoning Superstar: Jose Ramirez, Indians

The 24-year-old was one of six hitters (Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Jean Segura) to record a .300 batting average while hitting 10-plus home runs and stealing 20-plus bases last season. Of that group, Segura (52nd) and Ramirez (95th) are the only ones going outside the first round of early 2017 NFBC drafts. After establishing himself as an everyday player on a World Series caliber roster, it’s pretty apparent that the “breakout” has already occurred. What I’m talking about is ascension into the upper tiers at the position. There’s still some anchoring with Ramirez fantasy value that hasn’t yet occurred among mainstream fantasy owners. His raw stat line doesn’t scream “fantasy superstar,” but in the current landscape where stolen bases and batting average are at a premium, his skill set is extremely rare.

There are reasons to be skeptical of the elevated .333 BABIP, but he struck out in just 10 percent of his 618 plate appearances, while hitting .312/.363/.462 last season. More importantly, he managed to hit double-digit home runs (11) and steal 22 bases. A five-category contributor, Ramirez earned $25 in 15-team standard mixed leagues according to Mike Gianella’s retrospective player valuations. That’s one dollar less than Donaldson. The broad base of skills set the floor ridiculously high going forward.

The Late Round Value Pick: Danny Valencia, Mariners

The 32-year-old lefty-masher hit .287/.346/.446 (.287 TAv) with 17 home runs in 517 plate appearances in Oakland (where things did not end especially well) last year. He did most of his damage against southpaws, hitting .318/.389/.535 with seven homers in just 144 plate appearances, but he did manage to hit 10 home runs off right-handers, with a respectable .742 OPS, in 373 plate appearances. The veteran journeyman isn’t going to morph into a fantasy superstar, but in leagues that allow daily lineup changes, he’s a valuable bench piece to plug in against left-handed starters. Currently going in the 22nd round (320th overall) in NFBC average draft position, Valencia costs almost nothing. We know his limitations, but there’s zero risk drafting him this late, and a ton of profit potential, even if he just hits lefties.

Long-Term Forecast

Established superstars in Bryant, Arenado, Seager and Rendon are still under the age of 30, and veteran studs like Donaldson, Longoria, Turner and Frazier have yet to turn 33, which means that the immediate future is especially bright. That’s before we factor in the next wave of young, potential up-and-coming performers like Ramirez, Bregman, Lamb, Franco, Moustakas, Castellanos and Sano. It’s difficult to envision the depth at the position deteriorating anytime soon. Aside from Beltre, who will turn 38 in April, there aren’t any other established stars on the figurative back nine of their career. This is as good as it gets.

Prospect Pulse

Nick Senzel, the second overall selection last June, destroyed the Midwest League in his pro debut, hitting .329/.415/.567 with seven home runs and 15 steals in just 210 at-bats. The 21-year-old possesses the classic “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” profile in the sense that he lacks a standout carrying tool, but is above-average virtually across the board, with no apparent weaknesses. He could find himself entrenched in the Reds lineup at third base by this time next year, and is the exact type of long-term investment you want to be consistently making in a dynasty league.

The last prospect left standing in Boston (for now), Rafael Devers will be just 20-years-old this season. He’s coming off a stellar performance in the Carolina League (High-A) where he hit .282/.335/.443 with 51 extra-base hits (11 home runs) and 18 stolen bases in 128 games. As my colleague Ben Carsley wrote earlier this offseason, “Devers has upside as a Kyle Seager-esque fantasy third baseman who can hit .280 with 25-plus homers and plenty of RBI.” There’s still time to invest in dynasty leagues, but the clock is running out faster than an Andy Reid two-minute drill.

Hunter Dozier took one of the biggest leaps forward of any prospect in the game last year. After nearly two years mired in a tailspin at the plate in Double-A, and a dismal 2015 campaign in which he nearly fell off the fantasy radar entirely, it’s good to have him back. He’s transitioned to the outfield full-time in Kansas City, but could be the long-term answer with Moustakas slated to hit free agency at the end of the 2017 campaign.

Prospect Lineouts…

You certainly recognize the last name Vladimir Guerrero Jr. While he’s unlikely to stick at third base long-term, he hit .271/.359/.449 with eight home runs and 15 stolen bases in 62 games as the youngest everyday player (17-years-old) in the rookie-level Appalachian League…What is Matt Chapman? The A’s 2014 first-round selection struck out in 30 percent of his 589 plate appearances, while hitting 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season. If you’re having Matt Davidson flashbacks right now, I don’t blame you…Jeimer Candelario isn’t exciting and he’s blocked by the reigning NL MVP…Opinions within the prospect community remain split on Austin Riley, who hit 20 home runs while striking out 147 times in 543 plate appearances at Single-A…Limited to just 276 plate appearances due to injury, Ke’Bryan Hayes is still a country mile from the major leagues…Milwaukee’s Lucas Erceg and Boston’s Bobby Dalbec are names to keep on the fantasy radar…

The Final Stat