An interesting thing happened this week: The Marlins shifted Miguel Cabrera back to third base, benching Mike Lowell. In the short term, Cabrera owners might get some extra positional flexibility out of their star outfielder. In the long term, the Marlins seem to be paving the way for their top hitting prospect, outfielder Jeremy Hermida, while punching Lowell’s ticket out of town.

Looking at the bigger picture though, if Cabrera does indeed become a full-time 3B in 2006 it will be part of a larger talent flow that has made the hot corner arguably the most productive position on the infield. Alex Rodriguez‘s switch, David Wright‘s emergence, and the development of Aramis Ramirez and Morgan Ensberg have all contributed to the ascension of third base to the top of the fantasy food chain.

In draft leagues, position quality and depth can be key to your drafting strategy. Knowing that there probably won’t be a whole lot of difference between the fourth-best and ninth-best players at a specific position can allow you to concentrate on other areas while the “interchangeable” players are still on the board. Many people, however, are still stuck in the past when it comes to which positions are deeper and more talented than others.

For instance, conventional wisdom still holds that there are more, and better, first basemen than third basemen. Is that necessarily the case though? Any student of baseball history knows that positional strength runs in cycles,
0.1 though. Aside from Cal Ripken Jr. and Alan Trammell (and, if you needed steals, Ozzie Smith) shortstop was a fantasy wasteland through most of the 1980s. Not so today; even with the defection of Rodriguez to third base, shortstop is flush with talent, essentially even with second base in terms of production in 2005:

Average of Top 10    BA    HR   RBI  Runs    SB
Second base        .294  16.2  64.3  74.6  15.2
Shortstop          .293  13.3  57.6  78.8  18.4

The top 10 fantasy second basemen (ranked by dollars earned to date) have a little more power, but the top 10 shortstops make up for it with a little more speed. So how do the corner infield positions stack up against each other this season?:

Average of Top 10    BA    HR   RBI  Runs    SB
First base         .301  27.1  85.4  79.4   3.8
Third base         .287  25.0  81.1  73.5   5.7

Power-wise, the two spots are basically in a dead heat. First basemen still hit for a better average, though, with a corresponding slight edge in runs scored. So conventional wisdom holds serve on this one, although just barely.

In each case, the players in the top 10 are there based on the position at which they’ve played the most games in 2005. What happens if we slide Cabrera into the third-base group?

Average of Top 10    BA    HR   RBI  Runs    SB
First base         .301  27.1  85.4  79.4   3.8
3B w/Cabrera       .294  25.9  82.6  76.3   5.6

First base’s advantage dwindles to almost nothing if Cabrera is counted as a third baseman. A seven-point edge in batting average is the kind of thing that could disappear even over the course of September. If Cabrera’s position switch becomes permanent, it’s entirely possible that third base could surpass first base in production in 2006.

Looking at the names in each group, first base could get a boost if Todd Helton (10th out of 10) or Jim Thome (not ranked) return to form, or if younger players such as Justin Morneau, Justin Huber or Ryan Howard break out. Third base can match its opposite corner name for name value, though. Neither Scott Rolen nor Adrian Beltre are in the post-Cabrera 2005 top 10, while youngsters Dallas McPherson, Ryan Zimmerman and Andy Marte could all make impacts next season. In addition, far more top 10 third basemen have room to grow. There’s still plenty of ceiling left above the heads of Wright, Cabrera and even Hank Blalock. Only Mark Teixeira seems likely to find another level at first base, however. Players like Carlos Delgado and Paul Konerko simply aren’t going to get any better.

Beyond 2006, the trend is clearly in third-base’s favor. Current MLB thinking seems to be putting a premium on developing well-rounded, athletic third basemen who can both hit and play defense. First base, meanwhile, is increasingly becoming the spot where big bats who lack adequate gloves wash up like so much flotsam (Huber, a former catcher, being a typical example.)

Superstars are still superstars. You don’t pass up a Rodriguez or an Albert Pujols because Sean Casey or Shea Hillenbrand are available. But increasingly, the old rules that governed position scarcity in draft leagues are becoming obsolete. In fact, with the exception of catcher, it might be time to take them out of the equation altogether. When a lineup of 2005’s 10th most valuable fantasy players potentially features an infield of Helton, Tadahito Iguchi, Edgar Renteria and Melvin Mora, it’s pretty clear we’re living in a roto golden age.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox.

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