Commentary

2012 Position Preview: Third base

Hot corner is in flux as depth falls off after handful of elite options

Updated: March 26, 2012, 4:44 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

Third base is a position in flux. There was a time not so long ago when you could draft an elite third baseman early in your fantasy draft and feel pretty secure that he would fill that slot in your lineup for an entire season. That luxury no longer exists.

Of all the players who played at least 80 percent of their games at the position, only seven managed to play in at least 125 games in 2011. And one of those players was Chipper Jones, who will turn 40 in April and is not what anyone would ever consider calling a paragon of health.

The other names on this short list of "stability" include less-than-stellar offensive forces like Brent Morel, Danny Valencia and Alberto Callaspo. These are not exactly players you're going to want to build your team around, if you'd even consider drafting them at all.

In short, there are a lot of question marks to be found at third. Third base in 2012 has a bunch of unproven quantities hoping to establish themselves alongside a ton of aging veterans who hope that they can make it through the season in one piece.

After the top dozen or so names, the drop in expected run production is significant, so you might want to strike quickly and grab two of the top-tier names before they're gone. Barring that, you're probably better off looking elsewhere for that extra corner man or utility performer, because in 2012, the hot corner is simply not that hot.

Cream of the crop

Third Base Rankings

1. Jose Bautista, Tor, 3B, OF (5)
2. Evan Longoria, TB, 3B (11)
3. Adrian Beltre, Tex, 3B (27)
4. David Wright, NYM, 3B (29)
5. Pablo Sandoval, SF, 3B (33)
6. Ryan Zimmerman, Was, 3B (34)
7. Brett Lawrie, Tor, 3B (46)
8. Aramis Ramirez, Mil, 3B (58)
9. Alex Rodriguez, NYY, 3B (67)
10. Michael Young, Tex, 1B, 3B (93)
11. Kevin Youkilis, Bos, 3B (95)
12. Mark Reynolds, Bal, 3B, 1B (153)
13. Ryan Roberts, Ari, 2B, 3B (162)
14. Martin Prado, Atl, 3B, OF (164)
15. Mike Moustakas, KC, 3B (187)
16. David Freese, StL, 3B (192)
17. Edwin Encarnacion, Tor, 3B, 1B (202)
18. Emilio Bonifacio, Mia, SS, 3B, OF (210)
19. Chase Headley, SD, 3B (213)
20. Mat Gamel, Mil, 3B (220)
21. Chipper Jones, Atl, 3B (230)
22. Daniel Murphy, NYM, 2B, 3B, 1B (234)
23. Sean Rodriguez, TB, SS, 2B, 3B (243)
24. Danny Valencia, Min, 3B (266)
25. Chris Davis, Bal, 3B, 1B (269)
26. Brent Morel, CWS, 3B (290)
27. Mike Aviles, Bos, 2B, 3B (294)
28. Jed Lowrie, Hou, SS, 3B (303)
29. Casey McGehee, Pit, 3B (321)
30. Lonnie Chisenhall, Cle, 3B (324)
31. Pedro Alvarez, Pit, 3B (338)
32. Ian Stewart, ChC, 3B (345)
33. Placido Polanco, Phi, 3B (347)
34. Scott Rolen, Cin, 3B (359)
35. Wilson Betemit, Bal, 3B (367)
36. Eduardo Nunez, NYY, SS, 3B (369)
37. Ty Wigginton, Phi, 3B, 1B, OF (370)
38. Chris Johnson, Hou, 3B (385)
39. Maicer Izturis, LAA, 2B, 3B (400)
40. Alberto Callaspo, LAA, 3B (401)
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2012 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Overall position ranking is indicated in parentheses.

Jose Bautista played 25 games at third base last season, which allows him to continue to hang on to his eligibility at this position for yet another year. That's never a guarantee, as the Toronto Blue Jays have been using him predominantly in the outfield since 2009. With 97 home runs over the past two seasons, 18 more than the nearest hitter, he's proven his power surge is no fluke.

An early-season oblique injury sapped Evan Longoria's speed and threw off his timing at the plate to the tune of a 50-point batting average drop. Yet he still managed to hit 31 home runs and drive in 99. Even if his HR/FB rate of 17.6 percent drops a bit, he still should do better in all categories with a full season of healthy action.

Adrian Beltre was also on the shelf for a good portion of 2011, spending five weeks on the disabled list nursing a left hamstring strain. Yet, in that high-scoring Texas Rangers offense, he drove in 105 runs and finished fifth in the American League with 32 home runs. Beltre's career may be peppered with peaks and valleys, but there's no reason to think he'll drop off all that much given the very good chance he'll have 100 extra at-bats in which to compile those counting stats.

The New York Mets are moving in the fences at Citi Field so that it won't be as difficult to hit home runs. Last year, the park ranked 14th out of 16 National League parks in terms of the number of balls that cleared the fence. David Wright is sure to be the biggest beneficiary of the change, though with the lineup changes in Flushing, we're not sure a lot of those extra homers won't be of the solo variety.

The next best thing

If not for a broken hamate bone that cost him six weeks, Pablo Sandoval might well have hit more than 30 home runs last season. As it is, Sandoval became only the seventh switch-hitter in major league history to hit over.300 (with at least 300 at-bats) and have a slugging percentage over .550 twice in his career. Need we remind you the Kung Fu Panda is only 25 years old?

Another member of the 2011 walking wounded at third base, Ryan Zimmerman missed two months of the year with an abdominal strain. Still, he hit .306 over the second half of the season and he should definitely be able to get back to the 20-homer level for the fifth time in his career with the return of a normal swing.

[+] EnlargeAramis Ramirez
Jerry Lai/US PresswireWe fear Aramis Ramirez could miss the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field.

Perhaps Aramis Ramirez might see a slight dip in batting average in his new home, as his career .270 in Miller Park is far less than his .308 lifetime at Wrigley, but then again maybe it's just the Milwaukee Brewers pitchers that caused him fits. However, after seeing Ramirez strike out at his lowest rate since 2004, perhaps that higher batting average can sustain itself.

Can oldies be goodies?

A torn meniscus pretty much ended Alex Rodriguez's 2011 season early. Although he did come back for the final month or so of the year, that .191 regular-season average after Aug. 21 is best left forgotten. Only three third basemen have managed to hit 30-plus home runs after age 35: Mike Schmidt (twice), Gary Gaetti and the Coors-aided Vinny Castilla. Expect the power numbers to bounce back a bit, but don't pay for the A-Rod of old.

Michael Young played all over the place last season, but was most often kept to DH duties in an effort to keep his bat in the lineup amid a crowded infield. That kept his bat surprisingly fresh and he managed to post a 200-hit season for the first time since 2007. The power numbers are unlikely to be there, which limits his upside at this position, but his likely versatility and a probable .300 average make him worth a draft pick.

Given Kevin Youkilis' track record of injury over the past few seasons, you shouldn't expect 500 at-bats. He still walks a lot but also has seen his ground ball rate steadily rise since 2008. While that might be good news for a young speed demon, it raises a lot of red flags for a veteran like Youkilis. It's certainly possible that he has another April like 2009's .395 with five homers and 15 RBIs. Just make sure that if you draft him, you secure a Plan B sooner rather than later.

Chipper Jones has only played more than 140 games once since 2003, and he'll turn 40 in April. Quite frankly, either one of his knees could go at any time. Yet for all his missed time last season, he still almost hit 20 home runs. His high ground ball rate (49.3. percent) suggests he won't get close to that kind of power again, but if the Atlanta Braves rest him appropriately, there may be one last season left in the tank.

Mark Reynolds is only 28, but he seems closer to the other guys in this grouping. Maybe it's the fact he went from being a 40-homer/20-steal player in 2009 to someone likely to go 40-5 in just three seasons that creates the illusion of age. At least Reynolds managed to avoid reaching the 200-strikeout milestone last season for the first time since 2008, even if he did still lead the league with 196. Let's just say he'll give you some well-needed power, but he's definitely not your guy in points leagues.

An infusion of young blood

It wasn't much of a sample size, but in 43 games last season that fell between a broken left hand and a broken right finger, Brett Lawrie certainly turned a lot of heads. With nine home runs and seven steals in 2011, we're definitely looking at 20-20 potential here for the upcoming season. Of course he's going to have to improve on that 18.1 percent strikeout rate or he may see a steady diet of curveballs until he proves he can do better than hit .158 against them.

After a slow start, Mike Moustakas hit .316 with four home runs from Aug. 1 on, so it looks like the rookie just needed time to get used to life in the big leagues. Overall, there's still a disparity of nearly 100 points in his left-right splits, but even that gap closed up nicely over the last 50 games of the season. If he continues to grow at this pace, then a .275, 20-HR season might not be out of the question.

With seven home runs in 212 at-bats, Lonnie Chisenhall showed that he can hit the ball out of the park when he makes contact. Unfortunately, as is often the case with young players, those solid hits are few and far between. Chisenhall struck out just shy of 22 percent of all his plate appearances, so until he can improve on that, we're going to have to hold off declaring him to be anything more than a backup for fantasy purposes.

Do we want to believe?

Take away Ryan Roberts' hot first month of the 2011 season, an April where he hit .313 and five home runs and you're looking at a player whose final line doesn't really impress. Would you be interested in a guy who hit .239 with 14 home runs? And exactly how sure are you that he'll have a single month as good as last April at any time this coming season?

Martin Prado hit .307 for two seasons before his average took a nosedive to .260. What was the difference? Plain and simple, it's the curveball. Prado used to be able to handle it, hitting .313 in 2009 and .292 in 2010 against those deceptive pitches. Last season's .218 against the curve proved to be Prado's undoing and it may well derail him again in 2012.

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireWhen we last saw David Freese, he was leading the Cardinals to a World Series title.

World Series MVP David Freese had almost 40 percent as many RBI (21) in the postseason as he did during the 2011 campaign. But that's no reason to overpay for him on draft day. Not only will he be in an Albert Pujols-less lineup, but we're still talking about a player who hit just .272 in the second half of the year and who strikes out around one of every five at-bats.

Mat Gamel qualifies at third base, though he'll likely take over for Prince Fielder at first base for the upcoming season. The Brewers clearly believe in his bat, since they promoted him from Triple-A last season when they needed a DH for interleague play. Sure, his lifetime average currently reads .222, but in his only sustained time in the majors, he hit five homers in 128 at-bats. Project that out to 500, and you could have yourself a 20-home run guy here.

Long shots

Odds are that Edwin Encarnacion will have to DH to get into the lineup, though he may well be used to spell Brett Lawrie at third base occasionally, as well as see action at first base or in the outfield. Not having to worry about committing errors seems to help his bat, as he hit .296 with 11 homers at DH, compared with just .213 and three home runs when at the hot corner.

Chase Headley simply is not going to get it done for you from a power standpoint. He's hit fewer fly balls each season since 2009 and fewer of those fly balls have cleared the fences. Plus, he hit only .239 when behind in the count last season, which is not exactly what you want to see in a No. 2 hitter, a likely landing spot for him in the 2012 lineup.

It's not easy to feel good about a guy who hit only .156 for the Colorado Rockies last season and was demoted to Triple-A twice. But Ian Stewart is getting a chance to make a fresh start with the Chicago Cubs, and while he's never going to win a batting title, a .250 season with 15 homers isn't so crazy to contemplate.

After being traded to Oakland in June, Scott Sizemore suddenly seemed to find himself, hitting all of his 11 home runs post-deal. He also struck out 93 times in 93 games, so if he doesn't improve on that, you know the batting average isn't likely to rise above .250 for the year. Still, the playing time will be there in the same way that it wasn't in Detroit.

Future snapshot

Though he's likely destined for the minors, Nolan Arenado led the minor leagues with 122 RBIs at Class A Modesto last year and was the MVP of the Arizona Fall League. He has been invited to the Colorado Rockies' spring training.

Washington Nationals' 2011 No. 1 pick Anthony Rendon may end up getting moved to another position, what with Ryan Zimmerman sitting there at third base, but there's every chance he'll be headed to the big leagues around the same time Bryce Harper starts making headlines.

Boston Red Sox prospect Will Middlebrooks hit .302 with 18 home runs at Double-A Portland last season before getting a promotion late in the year. He has some defensive growth to do, but if he starts well this season and Kevin Youkilis gets hurt -- and that's not a huge stretch -- he might well get a call.

Matt Dominguez was originally a shortstop, but was moved to third base because Hanley Ramirez was playing that position for the Miami Marlins. Now it seems as though Ramirez is blocking his path to the show again, so it may be some time before he gets to make the jump.

Points versus Roto

Players with a much greater OBP than batting average will have more value in points leagues. That means bumps for guys like Kevin Youkilis, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts. Players whose value dips as a result of that comparison include Adrian Beltre, Mike Moustakas and Brent Morel.

The other big factor to consider is that of a low BB/K rate. Chris Davis, Mark Reynolds and David Freese are definite Debbie Downers in that department. Ryan Zimmerman, Martin Prado and Edwin Encarnacion are three of the names who deserve to rise a bit on your charts, relative to their peers, if you play with a -1 for the K.

Bottom line

For whatever reason, third base seemed to be cursed in 2011, resulting in the need to have a viable backup ready to go at the drop of a hat. Odds are that the carnage won't be nearly as great headed into 2012, but because of all the question marks at the position, once the top half-dozen or so names are off the board, you might want to double down on your selections and hope to at least break even.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can email him here.