Fantasy Keepers: Third Basemen

The group of third basemen available for use on your fantasy team wasn’t bad to begin with. Then, the best shortstop in baseball switched to the position, an underachieving third baseman started achieving and a tremendously talented third base prospect reached the majors. Now, third base is chock full of quality players to pick from. Here is my list of the top 10 players worth keeping at the position.

1. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees: His fantasy value doesn’t benefit from positional scarcity as much as it did before, but he’s still the best bet at his position. Rodriguez had his worst season with the bat since the late 90′s, but I expected him to suffer a little after moving from Texas to New York. His production dropped almost across the board — batting average (.298 to .286), on-base percentage (.396 to .375), slugging percentage (.600 to .512), home runs (47 to 36), runs (124 to 112) and RBIs (118 to 106).

However, he also had his best season with his legs since 1998, stealing 28 bases. So, in the end, he still put up a season with a .286 average, 36 homers, 28 steals, 112 runs and 106 RBIs. That’s good production no matter what position you play, and he’s still only 29 years old. I don’t know if he can be expected to steal 28 bases again, but there is a good chance he could get back up to 40-plus homers. And playing in that lineup, he could see a bump in his runs and RBIs as well.

2. Adrian Beltre, Mariners: Beltre was a decent hitter in the major leagues at age 20 and improved to hit .290/.360/.475 with 20 homers and 85 RBIs the next season. Then, he took a step backward after complications with appendicitis and his career seemed to have stalled the last two years. Suddenly, this season he hits .334 with 48 home runs, 104 runs and 121 RBIs. Am I overreacting to one great season by putting him second? I don’t think so.

What we know about Beltre is that he showed great promise as a very young player, suffered from an injury problem and couldn’t get back on track, just finished a tremendous season and, finally, won’t turn 26 until early next season. I don’t expect him to match this season (when he was significantly ahead of Rodriguez as the best fantasy third baseman), but is there any reason he can’t hit .310-.315 with 30-35 homers and 100-115 RBIs? And is there any reason he can’t keep doing it for at least the next three or four seasons? I don’t see a reason.

3. Scott Rolen, Cardinals: Rolen has long been a solid fantasy player, but this year he was a great fantasy option at third base. He set career highs in batting average (.314), on-base percentage (.409), slugging percentage (.598), home runs (34) and RBIs (124) and scored the second most runs (109) of his career. As great as he is, it’s unlikely that he’ll be quite this good again.

Rolen will reach his 30th birthday right around the beginning of next season, and that’s about the age you’re more likely to start getting worse than you are to keep getting better. Would it shock me if Rolen comes out and hits .315 with 35 homers, 110 runs and 125 RBIs next year? Not at all. But I think it’s more likely that he hits .290-.300 with around 30 homers, 100 runs and 105-110 RBIs. Those are very good numbers and he should be able to keep contributing, but don’t necessarily expect him to match his 2004 numbers, because those were far and away the best of his career.

4. Eric Chavez, A’s: After four consecutive seasons as a very good, very consistent offensive player, Chavez took a significant step forward this season. For starters, he hit well against lefties for the first time in his career, putting up a .306/.412/.481 line in 183 at-bats. That allowed him to hit .276/.397/.501 for the season. Unfortunately, an injury limited him to 125 games and 475 at-bats, which meant he finished with only 29 homers, 87 runs and 77 RBIs.

If Chavez had played his normal amount of games and produced at the same rate, he would have finished with about 35 homers, 105 runs and 95 RBIs. Chavez turns 27 in December, which means he should be in his prime for at least the next two or three years. While he’s in his prime, he should be able to hit .280-.290 with 35-40 homers, 100-110 runs and 100-110 RBIs with 6-8 steals thrown in. At the very worst, assuming good health, he should hit .270 with 30 homers, five steals, 90 runs and 90 RBIs, which is still a darn good fantasy player.

5. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs: The great rollercoaster career of Ramirez continues. He was very good in 2001, terrible in 2002, decent last year and then tremendous this year when he hit .318 with 36 homers, 99 runs and 103 RBIs. He’s also only 26 years old, and he’s been at least a decent fantasy option in three of the last four seasons.

I don’t expect him to match his 2004 season, but there’s no reason to think he’ll revert to his 2002 atrocity and there’s not really even much reason to believe he’ll go back to just being the decent hitter he was in 2003. I think he’ll fluctuate between his 2001 and 2004 levels for at least the next three or four years. That means a .300-.318 average, 34-36 homers (give or take another two or three), 83-99 runs (probably closer to the latter because the former was with the putrid Pirates) and 103-112 RBIs.

6. David Wright, Mets: After flying through the minor leagues, Wright made it to the majors this year and hit .293 with 14 homers, six steals, 41 runs and 40 RBIs in just 263 at-bats this year. If you double his numbers (assuming the same production over 526 at-bats), he would have been the seventh-best fantasy third baseman at the tender age of 21.

Now the question is whether he maintains that level of production, declines a little bit or even improves on that impressive showing. Considering what he did in the minors and then what he did in the majors, I would expect him to at least hit .290 with 25 homers, 75 runs and 85 RBIs next year. More likely, he’ll be a little bit better than that and he’ll keep getting better over the next few years. I know I’ve said I only look at the next three years when discussing keepers, but he’s so young and so close to being great already, that he’s one of those players you could be able to keep for at least the next 10 seasons.

7. Hank Blalock, Rangers: Blalock had a terrible debut in the majors, then had a very good second season and looked to be on the verge of quickly making the leap to superstar level when his OPS stood at .974 at the end of June this year. After that, however, he really struggled. Blalock hit .303/.369/.572 before the All-Star break and .240/.338/.406 afterward. He finished the year with a .276 average, 32 homers, 107 runs and 110 RBIs.

Those are very nice numbers, but what do they mean for next year? Is he likely to just match that output or is he going to exceed it and be closer to what he did the first half of this season or is he going to keep struggling and be closer to what he did the second half of this year? Since he’s only 24 years old and he was very good in the minor leagues and he’s been very good in the major leagues for a season and a half, I’m inclined to believe he’ll be fine next year. I’d expect him to hit .280-.290 with 30-35 homers, 100-110 runs and 100-110 RBIs next year and maybe improve to the point where he’s eventually a .300-plus average, 40-plus homer guy.

8. Aubrey Huff, Devil Rays: Huff had somewhat of a slow start this season, but recovered to post fantasy numbers not very different from those he put up last year. After hitting .311 with 34 homers, 91 runs and 107 RBIs in 2003, he hit .297 with 29 homers, 92 runs and 104 RBIs in 2004. He’s basically been a .300-30-100 guy for 2 1/2 seasons now, and he’s still in his prime at 28 years old.

The only problem I have with Huff is that I don’t think he’s going to continue to play at third base. He only played 22 games at third in 2002 and 2003, and wasn’t supposed to play there at all this year, but none of Tampa Bay’s other options at the position worked out and he ended up seeing 87 games at the hot corner. If Tampa Bay can ever find somebody who can handle third and hit a little, Huff will likely find himself either in the outfield or at DH. Aside from that, however, he’s a good keeper and he’s definitely going to qualify at third for at least 2005.

9. Mike Lowell, Marlins: Lowell’s not great, but he’s been a consistently solid fantasy option the last three seasons. This year, he hit for the highest average (.293) of his career, but was slightly down from last year in homers (27) and RBIs (85). He’ll turn 31 before next season starts, but he should have at least two or three more good seasons left in him. I’d expect him to hit .280-.290 with 27-30 homers, a handful of steals, 80-90 runs and 85-95 RBIs. There’s not much chance he’ll be one of the top three or four fantasy third basemen, but there’s also not much chance he won’t be one of the top 10.

10. Troy Glaus, Diamondbacks: Glaus is the riskiest of the potential keepers on this list as he’s only been able to play 149 games the last two seasons combined. The good news is that in those 149 games, he swatted 34 home runs. It’s a simple fact that when Glaus is healthy, he’s going to put up some nice numbers. Over the course of his career, he’s averaged 36 homers, 10 steals, 102 runs and 101 RBIs per 162 games. The problem lies in expecting him to be healthy enough to play close to that amount. The other problem is that since hitting .284 in his amazing 2000 season, Glaus’ batting average has settled right around .250.

Still, Glaus is only 28 years old. If he can play 140 games, I’d expect him to hit .250 with 30-35 homers, 80-90 runs and 90-100 RBIs. If he can somehow get close to 160 games, he could easily top 40 homers and 120 RBIs, and he certainly won’t be hurt by playing his home games in Arizona. Glaus is a definite risk, but he’s also got definite potential and could end up among the top two or three fantasy third basemen in any given season.

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