Commentary

2010 Position Preview: Second base

Chase Utley still the head of the class, but more players joining top tier of position

Updated: March 30, 2010, 3:57 PM ET
By Brendan Roberts | ESPN.com

The second-base position gets a bad rap.

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It's said to be a weak position, but at least in mixed leagues, it's not. I count at least 14 second basemen I'd be happy to end up with, which is enough for a 10-team league and four to fill out a middle-infield spot. And we're not talking serviceable. Eight of those players are top-100 options. It's not like it was five years ago, when the position really was weak. But times change and with it, players come and go. Today's class of second basemen is head and shoulders above that of the mid-2000s.

Does the second-base position lack depth, especially in AL-only and NL-only leagues? Yes. There are simply more players at that position that you wouldn't want anywhere near your lineup. But that does mean it doesn't lack overall quality. We have six second basemen in our top 40, the same number of third basemen we have in our top 40. How 'bout them apples?

And I'm not just talking about steals-valuable, either. As I type this, we have 10 second basemen projected to hit 20 or more homers, and only four to steal 20 or more bases. We have high-average guys in our top five (Robinson Cano) and not-so-high-average guys (Ian Kinsler).

The only label you can put on second-base position is "strong top tier, lacks late-round depth." That's it. As long as you avoid the albatrosses known as Freddy Sanchez and Kaz Matsui (both fine players, but they don't usually provide 10-team-mixed-league value), then you're OK. Take your second baseman before, say, Round 13, and it won't stand out as the weakness you might have expected it to be.

The Elite

Chase Utley
Howard Smith/US PresswireChase Utley was his steady self in 2009, hitting 31 homers with 23 steals and a .282 average.

Chase Utley stands in a class of his own here, really, especially after proving neither NL pitchers nor major hip surgery could slow him down. He played through hip pain much of the second half and playoffs in 2008, and did it at a high level. Then, after going under the knife in the offseason, he was expected to miss at least a month or two of the season. He was playing in exhibition games by mid-March, and proceeded to play in 156 games. Only 30 players in all of baseball played in more. And the hip didn't slow him down, either; he hit another 30 homers and set a career high with 23 steals. Now you see why we have him in our top-6, and there's even a feasible argument for him being the third overall pick.

There's a bit of a drop to the next tier, but because we're still talking top-40 picks here, and because there are five players lumped together before another drop-off, I feel the need to mention them here.

First up is Ian Kinsler, whose value varies greatly for being such an early pick. Some consider him even in the top 10 because of his 30-30 potential. In fact, it's not even "potential" anymore -- he was a 30-30 player last season. But he's kind of like the second-base version of Grady Sizemore, in that many people wonder if he can truly be considered a durable player, and also question his 66-point drop in batting average last season. Which is the real Kinsler, the .319 hitter (2008) or the .253 hitter (2009)? Well, I personally would say the .319 hitter. His .334 BABIP in 2008 is much more believable for a player with his speed than the ridiculously low .241 BABIP last season. I think he hits .290-plus, but we've understandably taken the conservative route with him and put his average closer to the 2009 number. That's why he falls outside our top 20. But to get him, you'll likely have to take him inside the top 20.

The next four guys have differing talents, but one thing they do have, which is why they're safely in the top 40, is durability.

Second Base rankings

1. Chase Utley, PHI, 2B, $30
2. Ian Kinsler, TEX, 2B, $23
3. Robinson Cano, NYY, 2B, $20
4. Dustin Pedroia, BOS, 2B, $19
5. Brian Roberts, BAL, 2B, $19
6. Brandon Phillips, CIN, 2B, $18
7. Ben Zobrist, TB, 2B, OF, $15
8. Aaron Hill, TOR, 2B, $14
9. Howie Kendrick, LAA, 2B, $11
10. Jose Lopez, SEA, 2B, $10
11. Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE, 2B, SS, $9
12. Dan Uggla, FLA, 2B, $8
13. Ian Stewart, COL, 2B, 3B, $3
14. Placido Polanco, PHI, 2B, $3
15. Martin Prado, ATL, 2B, 3B, 1B, $3
16. Rickie Weeks, MIL, 2B, $2
17. Kelly Johnson, ARI, 2B, $2
18. Scott Sizemore, DET, 2B, $2
19. Maicer Izturis, LAA, 2B, SS, $2
20. Luis Castillo, NYM, 2B, $1
21. Akinori Iwamura, PIT, 2B, $-
22. Kazuo Matsui, HOU, 2B, $-
23. Alberto Callaspo, KC, 2B, $-
24. Clint Barmes, COL, 2B, $-
25. Casey McGehee, MIL, 2B, 3B, $-
26. Felipe Lopez, STL, 2B, $-
27. Mark Ellis, OAK, 2B, $-
28. Orlando Hudson, MIN, 2B, $-
29. Skip Schumaker, STL, 2B, OF, $-
30. Julio Lugo, STL, 2B, SS, $-
31. Luis Valbuena, CLE, 2B, SS, $-
32. Ronnie Belliard, LAD, 2B, 1B, $-
33. Eugenio Velez, SF, 2B, OF, $-
34. Freddy Sanchez, SF, 2B, $-
35. Adam Kennedy, WAS, 2B, 3B, $-
36. Eric Young Jr., COL, 2B, $-
37. Chris Getz, KC, 2B, $-
38. Alexi Casilla, MIN, 2B, $-
39. Jeff Keppinger, HOU, 2B, 3B, $-
40. Jeff Baker, CHC, 2B, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.

The fewest games Cano has played in the past three seasons is 159 games in 2008. Now that's durability. But that's not why Cano is here; it's because he became more than just a batting-average guy in 2009. Cano racked up 75 extra-base hits (48 doubles, two triples, 25 homers) in his age-27 season, showing he can lift the ball as well as line it (though the sheer number of at-bats he got helped). Did the new Yankee Stadium help with that? Sure it did, but he actually had more extra-base hits on the road than at home. Given his lineup, sweet swing and age, there's no reason he can't at least repeat his 2009 performance.

Meanwhile, Dustin Pedroia played in 154 games. (Slacker!) His average dropped under .300 for the first time in his career, but there's more to the story there. First of all, his at-bat-to-strikeout rate actually improved -- he was the toughest player in the majors to strike out -- and his line-drive percentage, which is his bread-and-butter, was the same as it was a year prior. All indications are Pedroia just didn't have the same luck as he had in 2008. Now, he did hit more balls in the air than ever before, which helped him maintain his extra-base-hit numbers despite a drop in average, but his peripherals were still pretty solid. He's probably not the .326 hitter he was in 2008, but he should get back over the .300 mark in '09.

Brian Roberts (159 games) is a doubles machine, having hit 107 of them over the past two seasons, including a major league-high 56 in 2009. Those doubles, combined with a triple, 16 homers and 16 steals of second base means he put himself in scoring position 89 times, and then moved himself over a slot 14 more times with a steal of third base. And that, my friends, is why he's a horse in the runs-scored category. He's not just about the steals and a respectable batting average; the guy scores runs in bunches, and that can't be discounted.

Brandon Phillips (153 games) is just one of those guys who puts too many pitchers' pitches into play to hit for a high average. But he has a powerful swing from his compact frame, and 20-something homers are nearly assured, as are 20-something steals. Now, if the guys around him in the lineup aren't hitting, it shows on his runs and especially his RBIs, but with continued development from Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs, not to mention solid contributors Orlando Cabrera and Scott Rolen also in the lineup, he should score and drive in runs at a respectable pace.

The Next Level

Two breakout players from 2009, Ben Zobrist and Aaron Hill, slot in next. Zobrist was considered a fluke when he jumped out to that fast start the first two months of the season. Then he went and showed us by hitting for a better average after the All-Star break than before it (albeit with seven fewer homers and five fewer steals). His skill set is more the second-half player than the first -- decent .290ish average, maybe 20 homers, 15 or so steals -- and that works just fine at this position, especially given that he also qualifies in the outfield, another position that lacks depth in the late rounds.

Aaron Hill
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAaron Hill broke through in a big way with 36 homers in 2009.

Hill broke out in a big way, returning from concussion problems to play in 158 games and clout 36 homers, and he did so without racking up a ton of K's. Hill's ground ball/fly ball ratio didn't change markedly from previous seasons, indicating that he just developed more power at age 27, turning more of the 47 doubles he hit in 2007 into home runs. Unfortunately, he still hit a ton of fly balls, and he pulls the ball a lot, meaning even the .286 average he recorded last year will be tough to repeat, but he's got Dan Uggla power with a batting average that won't hurt you, and that's a very good thing.

The only reason Howie Kendrick is in this category is because of his potential, not his performance. The most big league games Kendrick has played in a season is 105, and that was last season, when he lost his starting job and fell into a platoon with Maicer Izturis. Not only did he not hit .330 like many expected, he didn't even hit .300. But Kendrick still has one of the best batting eyes in baseball, is only 26 and even showed 15-homer power and 15-steal capability. Put that with the .330 average he is legitimately capable of and you have a solid mixed-league second baseman.

Like Phillips, Jose Lopez doesn't draw many walks, making his .297 average in 2008 a tough one to repeat. (He also has become a little pull-heavy, which doesn't help.) Unlike Phillips, Lopez can't steal bases, and though he's 26, he never will. If you've seen him play, you know this. These two weaknesses take him well out of the top tier, but what he does have in abundance, like the top guys, is hand speed. The kid can turn on a pitch; according to hittrackeronline.com, all 25 of his homers in 2009 went from straightaway left field and toward the line. So the power, and likely the RBIs, will be right there with the top second basemen, but the other three categories won't.

Speaking of turning on pitches, might I introduce you to Dan Uggla, who is a first baseman in a second baseman's body. Simple as that. His homer totals in his career have gone 27-31-32-31, his RBIs 90-88-92-90 ... and his K's have gone 123-167-171-150. It's alarming that his batting average dropped to a career-low mark and his doubles dropped quite a bit for the second straight year, but his walks also rose for the second straight year, and low average or not, as you can see above, he's almost assured of 28-plus homers and 88-plus RBIs. If you are lucky enough to get an Ichiro batting-average type in the early rounds, you then are free to circle Uggla as a guy to grab in the middle rounds.

Where's The Ceiling?

A wide variety of players here:

Ian Stewart was a career .293 hitter in the minors, then comes up and limps to a .259 average in 2008 and .228 mark in 2009. But I think he's better than that, much better. The power (25 homers) is real, but I really think he'll get that batting average up to .270 or higher in 2010. He does strike out a lot, and his fly ball/ground ball ratio leans a bit toward the fly ball side of things, but that's not so bad given his home park's expansive outfield. There's no way he bats just .221 again at home. Therefore I think Stewart's ceiling is almost as high as Aaron Hill's is.

Martin Prado
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIMartin Prado has transitioned from utility guy to solid hitter and starting second baseman.

There's a good reason Martin Prado seems to have the word "sleeper" attached to him in every reference this preseason; there are so many things to like about him. He was a poor man's Ben Zobrist in 2009, taking the starting job away from Kelly Johnson after bouncing around the diamond the first few months of the season. He immediately played the part of a solid second baseman, knocking doubles around the field and even collecting 11 homers. He doesn't run, but he's 26, has a starting job to himself now, and still brings qualification at 3B and 1B into this season, as well.

Rickie Weeks ... wait, Rickie Weeks in this category?! That's right. Raise your hand if you confidently know what Weeks can do for a full season. That's what I thought. It seems like he's been around forever, but he's still only 27 -- obviously not a high-mileage 27 -- and there's a lot to like about him. He strikes out a lot, which keeps his average below .250, and of course he's arguably the biggest injury risk there is. But he also has 20-20 potential, and he walks enough to still post a decent runs total. Plus, manager Ken Macha is tossing around the idea of Weeks leading off, which likely would get him runs and maybe have him run more. I'm not a fan of Weeks, but even I admit that if you're looking for a high-upside sleeper at the end of a mixed-league draft, Weeks would be a decent option. You can always pull the plug quickly.

Even though he's still recovering from a broken ankle (and subsequent surgery) he suffered in the Arizona Fall League, Scott Sizemore is expected to be the Tigers' starting second baseman in 2010. If it weren't for the major ankle injury, I'd have no problem endorsing Sizemore as a mixed-league sleeper. But steals is part of his thing; he's billed as a fine all-around fantasy option who isn't exceptional in any one category. Sizemore is one of those players who could hit right away, considering he only got better as he rolled through the minors. But you're better off taking a wait-and-see approach with him in non-keeper leagues.

Eugenio Velez is hardly a prospect, or even a valuable fantasy option at this point, but I bring up his name because if something were to happen to Freddy Sanchez, which if recent history has shown is completely possible, Velez, Sanchez's backup, would be a good guy to pick up if you need steals. Velez is very fast, and can rack up steals in bunches (he had 64 steals in one Single-A season back in 2006). No need to draft him, but just make a mental note.

Where's The Basement?

Kelly Johnson probably bottomed out in 2009, but do we really know for sure? The Diamondbacks will see if he can be revived after signing him this offseason, and at age 28 he should be able to bounce back. But he has a disturbing two-year trend of hitting much better against lefties than righties, not a common trait, or particularly usable trait, for a lefty hitter.

More than once have I used this line: "Need someone late? Just pick up Kazuo Matsui. Sure he's injured a lot, but he'll hit .280-something, steal 20-something bases ..." Pshah! Matsui did approach 20 steals in 2009 (he had 19), and he actually had more at-bats than any season but his rookie season in the majors. But he hit .250. And with him now being 34, and with a lot of mileage in Japan, we can't count on a bounce-back season.

Snapshot

Mid-round sleeper: Ian Stewart
Late-round sleeper: Martin Prado
Prospect: Scott Sizemore
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Howie Kendrick
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Freddy Sanchez
Player to trade for at the ASB: Robinson Cano
Home hero: Ian Kinsler
Road warrior: Jose Lopez
Player I like but can't explain why: Ian Stewart
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Brandon Phillips

Steady As She Goes

The following players have had their moments, but they're nothing but late-round filler picks at this point.

Before you go thinking Placido Polanco will get back to hitting .300 with the Phillies, consider that he is 34 now and that Citizens Bank Park, while a favorable place for homers, doesn't really boost batting averages. He's in a better situation, no doubt, but to draft him anywhere before the late rounds, he has to hit .300 or better, given his lack of other assets. We can't be assured he will. ... Luis Castillo actually had a resurgence of sorts in 2009 in the games, batting average and steals areas. He also had just 16 extra-base hits in 580 at-bats. Repeating his 2009 numbers is the best he can do at this point. ... Akinori Iwamura is a Pirate, and while he helps big league teams with his pitch selection and smart play, he won't help fantasy owners much, except for providing a few steals.

Orlando Hudson signed with the Twins and should start for them. He's fantastic defensively, but let's just say there's a reason the Dodgers picked up Ronnie Belliard and started him at second base often in the playoffs. Hudson has offensive limitations, and won't help fantasy owners in any one category. ... Mark Ellis can help fantasy owners with double-digits homers and steals, and he still has an everyday job. But he's a career .265 hitter, souring mixed-league owners on him. ... Clint Barmes is a very similar player (decent homers and steals, low batting average). If Barmes qualifies at shortstop in your league -- he played 16 games there in 2009 -- then his value climbs maybe even to mixed-league bench level. If he doesn't qualify there, consider him a matchups play for his homestands; he hit just .207 on the road in 2009.

Finally, three solid players who should provide solid batting averages: Skip Schumaker, Adam Kennedy and Felipe Lopez. Schumaker made a successful move to second base in 2009, and we expected a slight jump in value. He did hit .300, but his steals dropped to two and his homers to four, relegating him to NL-only material. ... Kennedy was much more valuable, tallying a .289 average, 11 homers and 20 steals. But he has changed homes this offseason -- he signed with Washington -- and really hasn't fared as well in the NL as he did in the AL. ... Lopez is in neither league as of the time of this writing. He's unsigned, and is unlikely to get regular playing time when he does sign. He can still hit .300, but it's an empty batting average.

Start 'Em Elsewhere

Second base really isn't stronger than any of the other infield positions, so there's no point in telling you to start a multi-position player at another position. But the one thing I will mention here is that soon-to-be uber stud Gordon Beckham is expected to move to second base in 2010, meaning he should get qualification there by the end of April, a boon to his already-rising value.

Here are a few other players who will qualify at other positions, in case it helps you:

Martin Prado: Qualifies at second, third and first base, but should start for you at second base.
Casey McGehee: Likely will start at third base for the Brewers (over Mat Gamel), but is a better start at second base.
Luis Valbuena: Likely will start at second base, but also qualifies at shortstop. Julio Lugo: Still has shortstop qualification but likely will platoon with Skip Schumaker at second base.
Nick Punto: The scrappy Punto should be good for 350 at-bats and 15 steals while qualifying at second base and shortstop.
Willy Aybar: Showed decent pop in 2009, but is strictly a reserve at first, second and third base.
Jeff Keppinger: Starts the season with second- and third-base qualification, but should add shortstop.
Cristian Guzman: Regular shortstop expected to move to second base, although that could change after the Kennedy signing.

The Do-Not-Draft List

The players you don't want in mixed leagues, and why:

Alberto Callaspo: Because all he offers is batting average (few homers and steals and little run production on the Royals), and even that is pretty empty.
Freddy Sanchez: Still can hit doubles and hit for a decent average, but lack of walks and speed hurts him in the runs category.
Jeff Baker/Mike Fontenot: Likely will platoon at 2B for the Cubs, but you shouldn't be enthused about having either of them.
Alexi Casilla: Was given his chances to nail down the Twins' 2B gig, but now it's O-Dog time.
David Eckstein: Hasn't helped fantasy owners since he was a Cardinal.
Ronnie Belliard/Blake DeWitt/Jamey Carroll: Belliard likely will start for the Dodgers, but none of these guys are very interesting.

Bottom Line

Second base is strong at the top, average in the middle rounds and weak in the late rounds (or in terms of sleepers), so you're better off aiming for a second baseman early in the draft. You still will be OK if you have to grab one in the middle rounds, but if people start filling middle-infield slots and exhaust the middle tier, you're in trouble. In other words: Don't wait 'til the late rounds to fill your 2B slot.

Brendan Roberts writes fantasy baseball and football for ESPN Fantasy.

Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN Fantasy. He has been covering fantasy sports as an editor and writer for more than eight years and was awarded the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2006 from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. Roberts can be read in both the fantasy baseball and football areas at ESPN.com.

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