Fantasy Keepers: Second Basemen

It’s long been the case that when putting together a fantasy baseball team, the most difficult position to fill by far is catcher. Well, that may not be the case any longer because it’s getting pretty hard to locate a useful second baseman for fantasy purposes. This year, only four second basemen — Jeff Kent, Mark Loretta, Michael Young and Alfonso Soriano — were really helpful to a fantasy roster, and one of those four (Young) won’t qualify at second base next year.

When you consider that the catcher position limits their playing time naturally — only five catchers had at least 500 at-bats and none had 600, while 14 second basemen had at least 500 at-bats and three had 600 — the catcher crop was about as good as the second base crop this year. And the prospects for the immediate future aren’t too good for second base either, but nonetheless, I’m going to give you my top 10 keepers at the position. Here we go.

1. Alfonso Soriano, Rangers: I don’t like Soriano going forward at all. When he got traded to Texas, I thought he was heading into the prime of his career at age 26 and would greatly benefit from moving to a great hitter’s park. Instead, he’s now coming out of the prime of his career as he’ll turn 29 in January, and that great hitter’s park was the only thing that prevented him from having a terrible season. On the road, Soriano could only hit .244/.291/.444.

Still, Soriano did hit 28 homers and steal 18 bases and he’s only a year removed from consecutive 35-homer, 35-steal seasons. I don’t think Soriano will ever get back to those levels, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he keeps sliding into mediocrity — or worse — but the fact that he’s shown that he can be a fantasy stud gives him an edge over every other second baseman.

2. Marcus Giles, Braves: Giles wasn’t nearly as good this year as he had been the year before; however, his value was mainly hurt by missing 60 games. If he had gotten as many at-bats this year as last year (when he still missed 17 games), his production rate would have given him 12 homers, 25 steals, 89 runs and 70 RBIs. If he had done that, he would have had about as much value as Soriano this year.

So, if Giles can just stay healthy and put up the same numbers as this year, he’ll definitely be a top five second baseman. If he can stay healthy and get back to what he did last year, he’ll probably be the top fantasy second baseman. And since he doesn’t turn 26 until May, Giles has a better shot at improving (although maybe not all the way back to what he did last year) than any other player on this list.

3. Mark Loretta, Padres: Loretta had what appeared to be a career year last season, and then followed it up this year with better numbers across the board, hitting .335 with 16 homers, five steals, 108 runs and 76 RBIs. He’s 33 years old, but he’s also about the only second baseman with an upward trend in production.

If Loretta goes back to doing what he did last year, he won’t be a great fantasy player, but he’ll be usable, which is more than you can say for a lot of second basemen. If he reproduces what he did this year, he’ll be a top three or four fantasy second baseman yet again. It seems unlikely that he’ll get better, but it seemed unlikely that he’d get better after last season, and if he does get better, he might be the best fantasy second baseman out there. All in all, Loretta’s unlikely to be the best or second-best fantasy option at the position, but he’s safe enough that he’s unlikely to really hurt you. That’s good enough to be third on my keeper list at this position.

4. Jose Vidro, Washington: Vidro’s 2004 performance (.294, 14 homers, three steals, 51 runs, 60 RBIs) suffered from two things — injuries limiting him to 110 games and his teammates not helping him out at all. Vidro’s 30 years old, but his five seasons before this season were all good to great seasons, and the numbers he put up this year that he could control weren’t out of line with those five seasons considering how many games he played.

There’s really no reason to think, if he can play at least 140 games, that Vidro won’t hit around .300 with 15 or so homers, a few steals, 75-80 runs and 80-90 RBIs. Vidro has the potential to be one of the top three or four fantasy second basemen each of the next three or four years. He has a long track record of production and he’s not that old and the only problems with his 2004 season aren’t necessarily things that will hurt him (at least not that badly, although the arrival of Vinny Castilla and Christian Guzman in Washington probably doesn’t help) again in 2005.

5. Jeff Kent, Free Agent: Maybe Kent should be a little higher on this list, but he’ll turn 37 before next season and I worry about how many good seasons he has left in him. Also, Kent has been helped significantly by playing in Houston the last two years. Since joining the Astros, Kent has hit .276 with 26 homers, 89 runs and 92 RBIs in 547 at-bats on the road. At home, in 49 fewer at-bats (498), he’s hit .311 with 23 homers, 86 runs and 108 RBIs. In addition to playing better at home, he’s had some very good hitters surrounding him in Houston, which helps.

If he re-signs with Houston, the only concern I’ll have is his age. If he signs elsewhere, like Detroit, I’ll be worried about his age, his ballpark and maybe even the talent around him. I think Kent has the potential to be the best keeper at the position, but he also carries the risk of being useless as a fantasy player pretty quickly.

6. Ray Durham, Giants: Durham has been remarkably consistent, putting up an OPS above .800 in seven consecutive seasons. In the first five of those seasons, he also played at least 150 games every year. Unfortunately, his first two seasons in San Francisco, Durham’s only been able to play 110 and 120 games. That means that his offensive production, which is good, is reduced by about a third, which hurts a lot. Another problem is that he stopped stealing 20-plus bases a season when he joined the Giants.

Durham actually, despite missing 42 games, put up some really good fantasy numbers. He hit .282, and managed to hit 17 homers, steal 10 bases and score 95 runs in his limited playing time. Even if he’s unable to play every game, Durham should be at least a top 10 fantasy second baseman for a few years (he turns 33 at the end of this month). If he can stay healthy for most of a season, he could move up into the top 3-5.

7. Mark Bellhorn, Red Sox: Bellhorn’s an interesting player because the only reason a large portion of the country probably knows anything about him is because he hit some important home runs in the postseason. If you’ve been paying close attention, however, (and you probably have been if you’re reading this) then you know that he’s had very good seasons two of the last three years.

In 2002, Bellhorn smacked 27 home runs while playing for the Cubs. This year, he hit 10 fewer homers, but batting second in Boston’s lineup allowed him to score 93 runs and drive in 82. In between those two years was a terrible season that was hurt by injuries. Bellhorn’s 30 years old and he’s shown that when he’s healthy, he’ll hit for power but not average. However, he’s also shown a remarkable ability to get on base, which should keep him near the top of Boston’s lineup, which should keep making him a useful fantasy player because he plays second base.

8. Placido Polanco, Free Agent: Just like Polanco will make a great bargain for some team on the free agent market this off-season, he could also be a great value for your fantasy team next year. Polanco has always hit for average, hitting .295 for his career. The past two years, however, he’s added power, hitting 14 and then 17 home runs despite playing only 122 and then 126 games.

If Polanco is allowed to/healthy enough to play a full season of 140-150 games, he should be even better next year, depending on where he signs. He’s only 29 years old, and he’s shown definite improvements in his offensive ability over the last years.

9. Luis Castillo, Marlins: Castillo’s kind of a forgotten man because he no longer steals a ton of bases and he still doesn’t have any power at all. Each of the past two seasons, Castillo only stole 21 bases, after averaging 48 steals per season the previous four years. However, I feel much better about his base-stealing ability now than I did a year ago. In 2003, Castillo’s 21 steals were accompanied by 19 times caught stealing, which is awful. This year, he only attempted 25 steals and was successful 21 times, which is excellent.

So, he appears to have not lost the ability to be a good base-stealer, which means he can get to 30-35 steals again if given the opportunity. It seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 29 years old, he hits .300 or close to it and scores 100 runs or close to it most seasons, so he definitely has his uses. He’s not going to hit more than a couple homers or drive in more than 45 runs, but he shouldn’t be a total drag on your team and he could be a boon if he gets the steals back up.

10. Bret Boone, Mariners: Like with Kent, I’m very concerned about an age-related decline with Boone because he’ll turn 36 in early April. Unlike with Kent, Boone did not have a 2004 season that inspired any confidence. After three impressive seasons (two tremendous seasons sandwiched around another season that wasn’t great, but still better than anything he had done earlier in his career), Boone fell apart this year.

He hit 24 homers, stole 10 bases, scored 74 runs and drove in 83 runs, but he only hit .251/.317/.423, which is a dramatic fall from the .294/.366/.535 line he put up in 2003. Now, it’s possible that he’ll bounce back and put up a nice season in 2005, but I wouldn’t count on it. It’s also possible that he’ll continue to decline, dropping from about an average fantasy starter at second base to a barely usable fantasy starter, even at second base. And after next year, as he goes into his age 37 and 38 seasons, who knows what you’ll get out of him?

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