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If 2014 was a transitional year at third base, 2015 was the year the transition took hold. Four new superstars took their place in the fantasy spotlight, as Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado were among the top 11 hitters in 5×5 mixed leagues while Kris Bryant posted one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory, finishing 25th overall in a season shortened slightly by service-time shenanigans. Despite losing short-lived third basemen like Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis to other positions, for the first time in a long time third base has legitimate studs who don’t look like they’re merely biding time at third until they move to the other side of the diamond. The idea of anchoring your entire fantasy team with a third baseman is no longer a wild dream of the future, like having your own robotic servant or shooting powerful lasers out of your eyes, but a reality of the here and now.
If you don’t have the stomach—or the wallet—for the big four, fear not. There are some second-tier options that are as tasty as a sweet 1970s vintage guitar lick. Matt Carpenter went from being a quality batting average choice to a masher at the hot corner, while Todd Frazier continued to offer big time power while losing only a little ground in speed. Kyle Seager isn’t a world-beater in fantasy but his consistency puts him a cut above some of the other choices at third. Maikel Franco has 30 home-run potential. Even if playing for the moribund Phillies depresses his run and RBI potential, he could still earn $20 or more in NL-only in 2016.
Below this tier is yet another solid core of third basemen who can do just enough to keep you from crying your eyes out that you missed out on one of the Big Four. Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre are no longer considered elite, but can do enough damage to make them worth their while. Mike Moustakas finally emerged from years of underperforming to put himself in this third tier as well. Where 20-plus home runs were once a steep hill to climb, power has returned to third base with a vengeance. The hot corner isn’t just hot; it’s sizzling like the deep fryer at your favorite chain restaurant!
The position is so solid that Nick Castellanos and Lonnie Chisenhall have gone from being the great hopes of the future at the position to mere afterthoughts. Justin Turner, Matt Duffy, David Wright, and Yasmany Tomas—among others—are probably better choices than these two one-time top prospects.
The League Breakout
The two leagues are more or less even at third base; how the position shakes out during your auction depends on whether or not players like Brett Lawrie are slotted at second or third. The top four of Machado, Donaldson, Frazier, and Seager is formidable, but there isn’t much in the way of additional ceiling for any of them. If there is a drawback to third base in the AL in 2016, it is that there is very little in the way of rookies or emerging players to dream on for fantasy managers. Miguel Sano a DH-only at the moment, and will be moving to the outfield—not third base—in 2016. Giovanny Urshela is the highest-rated player who hasn’t played a full season in the majors yet, but much of his value is tied to his glove, not his bat.
The NL would have been the stronger circuit if the Reds hasn’t traded Frazier to the White Sox, but their top four of Bryant, Arenado, Carpenter, and Anthony Rendon rivals that of the American League in any event. However, after those four and Franco, it does seem like a weaker group that relies less on raw power and more on solid counting stats across the board. Justin Turner and Matt Duffy aren’t nearly as sexy in fantasy as their AL counterparts, but both could post close to $20 in earnings if their batting averages hold and they stay healthy all year. David Wright and third-base eligible Yasmany Tomas could get better, but with any slippage at all the NL loses a lot.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
With first base providing much more depth and quality at corner infield once you get past the first few names, I like the idea of taking one of the big four names at third in the first or second round of a 10 or 12-team mixed league. Waiting too long for a third baseman won’t rob you of the ability to grab a starter, but the drop from Machado or Donaldson at the beginning of a draft to Turner or Duffy at the end is a far more precipitous drop than the gap from Paul Goldschmidt to Brandon Belt. The replacement level at third base is also a little weaker than it is at first if you do suffer an injury in-season.
In deeper mixed leagues, it is a good idea to try and focus more on runs and RBI than it is to get too hung up on what a third baseman might be able to do for you in home runs or stolen bases. Jake Lamb is intriguing, but I’d prefer to make sure I get a healthy amount of numbers across the board than gamble on upside that isn’t considerably high. In 15-team leagues, it is okay to miss out on a really big name, but don’t get caught waiting too long or you might get stuck with someone like Yunel Escobar.
If you do have to go this route, be aware that there are number of players with third base eligibility who will play every day but have limited value in mixed leagues. Cody Asche is third base eligible and could see some time in the outfield and at first base for the Phillies, but that and two dollars will buy you a cup of coffee. Yangervis Solarte is perfectly acceptable in NL-only; in mixed leagues there simply isn’t much here to consider.
The Long-Term Outlook
With two of the three oldest players at third in 2015 either retiring (Aramis Ramirez) or out of a job (Juan Uribe) at the time of this writing, third base gets younger this year by default. After a 37-year-old Beltre, Wright and Escobar are next oldest starters at the age of 33. While it is a young position, this is in part due to the fact that players like Beltre who stay at the position throughout their careers are an anomaly. The career path at third tends to involve either moving across the diamond to first base (or to DH in the American League) or facing a relatively early retirement. You do see some players move from second base or shortstop to third base as they get older, but that didn’t happen often last year. Eugenio Suarez and Escobar manning third are odd exceptions; many of the players at third right now seem to be positional mainstays who will not be moving off of the hot corner in the foreseeable future.
All of this handwringing about the future doesn’t even seem necessary when three of the four best players at third, eight of the 30 projected starters are 25 or under, and most of them still have some upside baked into their future. Rendon, Moustakas, and Seager aren’t quite this young, but are young enough to give this crop more staying power than third base has had in years.
With so many of the top young players at the position already up in the majors, the prospect pipeline doesn’t have a lot of oomph in it. Joey Gallo is listed as a third-base prospect, but is blocked by Beltre for at least one more year. The other two third base prospects in the top half of Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101—Rafael Devers and Ryan McMahon—likely won’t be in the majors until 2017. This leaves a number of lesser lights who could be up in 2016 but are not expected to have a significant fantasy impact. Eric Jagielo could be up in Cincinnati if Suarez’s bat can’t hack it or if Zack Cozart is traded. Richie Shaffer won’t stick at third for the Rays because of Longoria, but could see some time at first base or DH this year. Kaleb Cowart could push Escobar to second and move Johnny Giavotella to the bench or Triple-A for the Angels. Colin Moran could push Luis Valbuena to a utility role in Houston if Moran has a hot start in the minors.
For now, it is better to enjoy what we have now rather than worrying too much about what the next great crop of third basemen will look like. It seems like only yesterday that Beltre and Wright were young up-and-comers exciting the baseball world with their potential; today they are the elder statesmen at their position. Take a deep breath, look around you, and appreciate this moment for what it is. We don’t know if or when the baseball gods will grant us another one like it.
A Closing Haiku
Blue eyed deity
Rocky Mountain, third base high
Third is majestic