- Brendan Roberts, Fantasy
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Second base is a weak position. This is not news. What is news: It's even worse than in recent seasons.
We lose Jeff Kent, who retired in January. Don't scoff -- Kent has been a fantasy stud at a weak position for about the past 16 years. We lose B.J. Upton, who qualified there in 2008 but played the outfield all last season. We lose Ryan Theriot, who also qualified there but played every one of his games at shortstop. We lose Freddy Sanchez OK, we don't lose Sanchez, but he suddenly looks average, at best, after his batting average slid from .344 in 2006 to .301 in 2007 to .271 last season. Coincidentally, Robinson Cano, a career .314 hitter coming into 2008, also hit .271.
But it's not all bad. We have a few "ol' reliables" who carry the position, and the AL MVP, after all, was a second baseman (Dustin Pedroia). Also, Ian Kinsler emerged as an early-round favorite, and Alexei Ramirez and Jose Lopez might someday become early-round favorites. And Howie Kendrick is the in vogue "sleeper of the year" pick at least according to one of our writers.
So let's clarify our earlier statement: Second base is a weak position after about the first 10 guys. There's not much depth here, folks, but there is talent. There's power-and-speed guys (Pedroia, Kinsler, Brandon Phillips, Rickie Weeks), there's power (Chase Utley, Dan Uggla) and there's speed (Brian Roberts, Kazuo Matsui, Emmanuel Burris). But the list is very top-heavy, and that's not something that is new to this position. I mean, y'all do remember the days when Tadahito Iguchi, Josh Barfield and Marcus Giles were being taken as starting second baseman in mixed leagues, don't you?
As I put a typical draft in perspective, I'd say you shouldn't be afraid to take a second baseman early, at least maybe in the first three players. As I said before, there is depth in the top 10, but an advantage can definitely be had since there is such a disparity between the top guys and the bottom guys. If you don't get one of those top guys, just choose one of the other top-10 or top-12 guys in the middle rounds or later based on the team you've put together so far.
For instance, if you need a second baseman, and it looks like you're short on steals, maybe you look at getting Matsui late. If you're short on power, Uggla might be a nice early-to-mid round fit. Need average? Placido Polanco. Need upside and can afford to take a hit on batting average? Weeks. I call these guys "category guys": They can carry one or two categories but can't necessarily carry a fantasy team. They're "complementary" players. Or heck, you could even pick an "upside" guy like Burris or a rebound candidate like Sanchez or Cano.
See, it's not so bad, is it? Lemme put it this way: If you come out of a mixed-league draft with a second baseman you don't like, you've done something wrong.
He was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2007, the MVP in 2008 and he's still only 25. So just how good can Dustin Pedroia be? Naturally, the opinions are all over the board. There are many folks who think even last season was an anomaly, that he'll never even come close to that (.316-17-83, with 118 runs and 20 steals) again. And there are many who think he can do even better. He's still developing, but how high is his ceiling? As I browse early rankings across many sites, I can see that a majority of them project Pedroia to be in the former -- the anomaly group. Well, we fall more in the latter. We're not sure he can do much better, but we think he can definitely come close to matching 2008. And all I can say is we have last year's numbers, scouting reports and years of players-entering-their-prime statistics in our favor.
Speaking of high ceilings, how about Ian Kinsler? He had 18 homers and 26 steals and that was through mid-August; he was an MVP candidate before missing the final month and a half of the season because of a sports hernia (now repaired). We've projected him to hit 21 homers and steal 23 bases, both respectable numbers, but I think that's a bit soft. Why? Because he also hit 41 doubles, and as the kid fills out (he's 26), more of those doubles can become homers, as they so often do. And I think 115 runs scored are possible, too. Our projections are appropriately conservative, which only helps people get a first-round value with a second- or third-round pick.
There's usually little key news to follow during spring training, but Chase Utley's health is among the biggest. He is recovering from hip surgery and says he'll be ready by Opening Day. That makes sense; the surgery was back in November, and he was able to play through the injury -- and play well -- for much of the second half last season. But on the other hand, the surgery was a major one; games in April are less important than those second-half (and playoff) games; Utley is a cornerstone of the franchise; and as I write this, he has yet to begin any baseball-related activities. Utley is Numero Uno among second basemen according to a lot of rankers, but I just don't see how you can count on his being ready before May. Granted, even that would still make him active a good 22 of 26 weeks, making him elite regardless. But check the spring training news closely and be prepared to drop him a full round if news of a setback comes down the pike.
The next level
Mid-round sleeper: Robinson Cano
Late-round sleeper: Alexi Casilla
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Rickie Weeks
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Dan Uggla
Player to trade for at the ASB: Freddy Sanchez
Biggest risk: Chase Utley
Home hero: Jose Lopez
Road warrior: Ian Kinsler
Player I like but can't explain why: Kelly Johnson
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Felipe Lopez
Brandon Phillips posted a 30-30 season in 2007 before slipping to 21 homers and 23 steals in 2008. Some of that can be blamed on a three-season low in games played (141); he missed the final 2½ weeks because of a broken finger. But I think that's more what we should expect from Phillips. He's a free swinger, and opposing pitchers have figured out how to stay away from him. How can I tell? After Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were traded away last season, Phillips hit .208 in 101 at-bats. Our projections for him (.272-24-84-27) are realistic, but unlike Kinsler in the category above, I think there's little chance he does better than that.
When Brian Roberts busted out in 2005 after a few years of mere above-average fantasy play, we couldn't help but be surprised. Now that he has more or less matched that fantasy value for four straight seasons, we consider him one of the safest top-tier second basemen to draft. He's in a contract season (unless the O's step up and pay him), and one of the few locks in baseball to get 35-plus steals. You can't go wrong with this guy.
Just how good will Alexei Ramirez be? Well, the obvious comparison is to Alfonso Soriano, and the pairing fits. But there are differences. First of all, I don't think Ramirez has quite the power (though he's close) and steals upside Soriano has; then again, I think he could hit for a higher average, and since he has played only one big league season, we really have no way of knowing. And here's the real kicker: He qualifies at second base, but he'll likely start at shortstop for the White Sox in 2009. Draft him with the "proven performers" and don't look back.
The upside guys
We waited for Robinson Cano's typical second-half surge, and we got it. It just wasn't as juiced up (he hit .307) as previous seasons, and his average was lower to begin with. Cano's batting average on balls in play dropped last season, and many consider it a fluke. I'm in that camp, and it comes from watching balls off his bat in 2008 and before that. The guy is a legit .300 hitter, even if we don't project him that way. Enjoy a good average and decent runs and RBIs in that mighty Yankees lineup, all for the cost of just a mid-round pick.
There's just something about career .262 hitters that make fantasy owners nervous, especially when they're non-prospects who debut at age 26 and then hit that mark. But Dan Uggla has 90 homers in his first three seasons in the majors. Ninety homers! Manny Ramirez didn't do that. Neither did David Wright or Miguel Cabrera. OK, so he's also in a bad ballpark for hitters. Let's just call Uggla a category guy to grab if you're short on power after early-round drafting (or buying).
Ah, Howie Kendrick. Our own Jason Grey, whose work I truly respect and appreciate, originally projected 500 at-bats and a .315 average for Kendrick, and he was chastised a bit for it in our rankings summit. I was in the "chastising" group, more for the at-bats, since Kendrick seems to have a knack for suffering freakish injuries. But I also understand where Jason is coming from, and I must admit it made me think about how much potential Kendrick has. I'm falling more in line with Jason's thinking by the day.
And finally, Rickie Weeks is on this list every year. Is this finally the year he stays healthy and puts it all together?
That's the thing about this position: There's plenty of mid-range depth, with a handful of players who are almost assured of boosting certain categories. Need something? Here's a checklist:
Batting average: Placido Polanco, Freddy Sanchez, Orlando Hudson
Power: Dan Uggla, Mark Ellis, Aaron Hill
Steals: Felipe Lopez, Kazuo Matsui, Luis Castillo, Emmanuel Burris, Alexi Casilla
Runs: Mark DeRosa, Akinori Iwamura, Asdrubal Cabrera
RBIs: Jose Lopez, Kelly Johnson
In the minors
These four players have the goods to make an immediate impact if called up, and they might get that opportunity this season:
Jason Donald, Phillies: Able to play second base, shortstop or third base, Donald might get a shot to play second for the Phils if Utley's hip gives him more trouble. Donald hit .300 in Double-A last season and likely is ticketed for Triple-A to start the season.
Carlos Triunfel, Mariners: There are disputes about the kid's age (he's young regardless) and maturity level, but not his talent. He's good enough defensively (at second base and shortstop) to fit in the bigs, and his bat is quickly developing. He even has a little plate discipline.
Chris Nelson, Rockies: The former first-round pick has moved slowly through the system, in part because of injuries. But he might get a shot to play a little at second base for the Rox, and any offensive player who plays half his games at Coors Field
Luis Valbuena, Indians: Valbuena was dealt to Cleveland from the Mariners in the Franklin Gutierrez trade in part because of Triunfel's presence, but that doesn't make Valbuena any less of a prospect. He's not anything special defensively, but he's said to have more offensive upside than the Indians' current starter at second base, Asdrubal Cabrera.
There's really just one strategy that proves applicable in this case: Don't go cheap. I'm not saying to go expensive (although I'm also not outlawing it), but don't stick your cheapest starter at second base because you won't get much in the nether regions here. As I said before, second base is weak outside the top 10 or 12 guys, and keeping your hands in your pockets when all of those guys are tossed can leave you circling that position as one to upgrade from the get-go.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.
Brendan Roberts profiles the second-base position for the 2009 Fantasy Baseball Draft Kit.