With 3rd basemen, go for consistency

The Baltimore Sun

Ihave never seen a richer stock of third basemen than we have going into this season.

Alex Rodriguez is probably the best player in baseball. David Wright is the best young player in the game. Miguel Cabrera is probably the best young hitter.

George Brett and Mike Schmidt came up together in the 1970s, but the position couldn't claim nearly the same depth of hitting talent in those years.

That's all a way of saying this is a fun group to write about as I work my way through the positional previews.

I'll start right at the top with A-Rod, regarded by many as the obvious No. 1 pick in mixed drafts. I'm not so sure about that.

When you look at his four seasons with the Yankees, you see two monumental Most Valuable Player years in 2005 and 2007 but two significantly less impressive campaigns in 2004 and 2006.

Granted, a "down" season for Rodriguez is .290 with 35 homers, 110 RBIs and runs and 15 steals. That's still first-round talent, but No. 1 overall? I might rather have Wright, who could hit .320 with 30 homers and 25 steals and is young enough that he could jump to a higher plateau.

I'm not advising against A-Rod at No. 1. I just think it's crazy that so many analysts say you can pencil in 50 homers and 140 RBIs if you get him. He simply isn't reliable at that level.

I was happy that fantasy guru Ron Shandler expressed a similar line of thinking at a forum in Columbia recentlly. If you get a chance to attend Shandler's Baltimore-Washington session next spring, take it. His presentation was chock full of useful information, and it was a fun chance to gather with other fantasy nuts from the area.

Anyway, after Rodriguez come Wright and Cabrera. You can't go wrong with either as the top hitter on your team.

Milwaukee's Ryan Braun won't be a third baseman this year, but he's still eligible for the spot and is going in the first round of some mixed drafts. I like Braun. Who wouldn't after he killed major league pitching all of last year? I'm also impressed at the faith many of my favorite projection systems have in him.

But I'm not quite sold on him as a top-10 overall player. He doesn't have the most discerning batting eye, and it's hard for most free swingers to hit .320 with any consistency. Maybe Braun is that rare bird like Vladimir Guerrero, but his minor league numbers didn't suggest he would hit like he did in 2007, so I'm feeling a tad cautious. Not that a .290 average with 30-35 homers and 15 steals is anything to turn away from.

Ryan Zimmerman draws less hype, but he's actually younger than Braun and has two solid seasons under his belt. The best breakouts candidates are players in their mid-20s who have established themselves as quality performers. Zimmerman is a textbook case.

I'm not saying it will be this year, but I think he'll take a major power jump in the next few seasons. The move from RFK to a more neutral hitter's park (that's what most say about the new place in Washington) should help. This may be the last chance to get a coming superstar at a reasonable price.

Adrian Beltre has gone from hugely overvalued after his flukish breakout in 2004 to kinda, sorta underappreciated. A star? No. But reliability is precious in fantasy, and Beltre is exceptionally durable, makes enough contact to keep his average respectable and has settled into a nice 25-homer, 10-steal rhythm. A lot of owners still hate him. Take advantage.

Alex Gordon makes a nice post-hype target. Everybody, including me, expected him to step right in and hit .300 with power and speed last year. But he absolutely stunk in the first half. His minor league pedigree remains strong and the 25-homer, 20-steal potential is still there, so this is the year to buy Gordon at a discount.

Kevin Kouzmanoff is another one whose price might be depressed by a bad start last year. He raked over the last four months, so bid for .290 with 25 homers.

Chipper Jones is an interesting case. He'll be overvalued in more casual leagues because he was so great last year. But he might be undervalued by owners who over-think because they'll expect him to get hurt. Expect the quality to be there but accept that he'll probably miss 30 games. Take advantage if bidding is too tepid.

Mike Lowell is a veteran due for a fall. His .324 average last year was fueled by incredible luck on balls in play. Expect him to drop back to 2006 level (.284 with 20 homers, 80 RBIs) or even a little worse.

Don't bet on a big rebound from Scott Rolen. He's moving to a better power park, but he's admitted that his shoulder will never be as strong as it once was. On top of that, a fragile player on turf is a bad mix.

I know some experts are touting Josh Fields as a breakout candidate because he was so good down the stretch last year. But I see a guy who will always struggle to hit for an acceptable average because he swings and misses so much. He also might not play full time.

Gosh, the third sackers were so interesting they used up a whole column. I told you they were fun.


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