The fantasy baseball landscape at third base looks much different than it did at the end of last year. Only three players who ranked in the 2011 top 10 for third base according to ESPN’s Player Rater are currently in the top 10: Adrian Beltre (6), Jose Bautista (8) and Emilio Bonifacio (9). With fantasy elites Miguel Cabrera (currently ranked 3rd) and Hanley Ramirez (5th) gaining eligibility at third, the position has suddenly become much deeper. This begs the question: is Alex Rodriguez still capable of being a top 10 third basemen in fantasy baseball?
Rodriguez’s early power struggles have been well documented, though he did show signs of breaking out on Wednesday in Kansas City, blasting two home runs and looking like, at least for one night, the A-Rod of old. But what can we expect from a nearly 37-year-old Rodriguez, coming off a season in which he played 99 games and finished 12th on the Player Rater? Even though he comes in at 10th as of Sunday, after checking out the numbers, there is some reason for doubt.
The two home runs he hit against the Royals were his 6th and 7th of the year, leaving him on pace for 25 home runs over a full season. That would be a career low for seasons in which he played at least 100 games. Maybe Rodriguez can catch fire, but I do not see a huge spike in power going forward. His batted ball rates seem to have a definite trend to them at this point, with his ground ball rate increasing at least two percentage points each year since 2009 and his fly ball rate decreasing by at least three points in that same period. While his HR/FB ratio is actually up to 18.9% this year, his best rate since 2009, he is simply not giving himself as many chances to hit the ball out of the ballpark with a dramatic drop in his FB% (37.2% in ’11 to 29.6% so far in ’12). While his swing certainly looked more like what we are used to seeing the other night, I am not so sure that this is not the new A-Rod.
While he may not be an elite source of power anymore, the good news is that he can still get on base. His OBP is at .368, which puts him behind only David Wright and Cabrera among qualified third basemen this year. This is good news for those of you in leagues that count OBP (like mine). His walk and strikeout percentages of 10.9% and 18.6% respectively are both right in line with his career averages, so he is a safe bet to continue getting on base like this. In addition to his ability to take a walk, Rodriguez is also contributing a solid average this year, with both his LD% and his BABIP above the career numbers. The other wild card with A-Rod is his speed. This is a guy who could be counted on for 20 steals once upon a time. After stealing only four bases in both of his previous two seasons, Rodriguez already has six in 45 games this season. This is a pretty good indication that his lower body is feeling better after multiple procedures the last few years.
Rodriguez is not what he used to be — anyone watching the games can see that. But if he can keep the average up near .290 and get back to a 10-15 stolen base level, he is still an extremely useful fantasy player. Even with the additions of Cabrera and Ramirez, injuries to guys like Evan Longoria and Pablo Sandoval may mean A-Rod can get back into the top 10 this year. If you are in need at the position, trying to buy low might be a good idea, especially if you have enough power elsewhere on your roster.
Edwin Encarnacion has surprised everyone by getting off to a blazing hot start and grabbing the top spot on ESPN’s Player Rankings for third base. Once ranked the 56th best prospect in the game in 2005 by Baseball America, Encarnacion never quite flourished in Cincinnati before they traded him to Toronto. While he posted decent power numbers in his first two years as a Blue Jay, Encarnacion is on pace to hit 51 home runs with 131 RBI over 162 games, both of which would smash his previous career highs. And while I am not at all suggesting that he will live up to this pace, I do think he will be a top 10 third basemen at season’s end. A massive spike in his HR/FB ratio — 17.9% this year, 9.4% last year, 12.3% for his career — suggests that his home run pace will slow. However his BABIP is at .252, which is nearly 30 points below his career average, suggesting he may have actually been a bit unlucky to this point. Of course all the home runs could have a lot to do with that number.
The Hot Add
Kyle Seager is generating a lot of buzz among fantasy baseball circles this week, seeing his ownership in ESPN leagues rise 17.1% in the last 7 days. Baseball America tabbed him as the Mariners’ 9th best prospect after 2010 as a result of his .345/.419/.503 line in the high-A California League. This season he has started 34 of the team’s 49 games at third and fantasy owners have taken notice. I do not see him helping those of you in 10-team leagues much, but he would definitely be worth a look in deeper leagues if he is still available, as I suspect the batting average will improve steadily as he continues adjusting to big league pitching. As an added bonus, Seager could pick up 2nd base eligibility in standard ESPN leagues (minimum of 10 games played for eligibility at new position) this season as he has already made 6 starts there so far.