Reality Check: Early look at second base
Remember on Draft Day, when everyone strained to fill second base early for fear of what might await them in the later rounds? Suddenly, the position doesn't look so bad anymore. In fact, some might even call it deep.
Granted, I took a similar stance with shortstop about this time last year, and it ended up being as weak as usual in 2013. While you could make a case for any position being deep if you assume a best-case scenario for every player, you have to account for some thinning of the ranks, whether because of injury or performance. I see a big enough drop-off after the top 25 or so that I would still consider second base a position to target early in 2014.
But right now, sticking with just the top 20, I like what I see.
Top 10 second basemen for 2014:
1. Robinson Cano , 2B, Yankees
2. Dustin Pedroia , 2B, Red Sox
3. Jason Kipnis , 2B, Indians
4. Matt Carpenter , 2B/3B, Cardinals
5. Ian Kinsler , 2B, Rangers
6. Martin Prado , 2B/3B/OF, Diamondbacks
7. Ben Zobrist , 2B/OF, Rays
8. Brandon Phillips , 2B, Reds
9. Chase Utley , 2B, Phillies
10. Jose Altuve , 2B, Astros
Polling my Twitter followers, the only suggestion I got for the top spot other than the insanely reliable Cano was Kipnis -- who, with the season winding down, has a decent shot at 20 homers and 30 steals. Personally, I think picking Cano first among second baseman is one of the easiest calls you'll make on Draft Day, right up there with Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout at first and second overall. Pick him, and you'll have nothing to worry about. It's been that way for the last five years, and even with him turning 31 this offseason, I'm not prepared to predict anything otherwise.
But by the same token, I get it. A true power-speed threat at a position where you'd normally be making compromises is a definite luxury. Pedroia and Kinsler had been the position's top power-speed guys, but Pedroia has never had a 20-homer, 30-steal season and Kinsler, given his decline over the last two years, might never again.
For that reason, I can almost talk myself into moving Kipnis ahead of Pedroia (and, in the same vein, Kinsler ahead of Carpenter) in Rotisserie leagues, but reliability counts for something as well. Pedroia has been an early-round mainstay for half a decade and only recently turned 30. Even in a "down year," he's been the fourth-best second baseman in Rotisserie leagues and the third-best in Head-to-Head. And let's not forget he's been playing with a torn ligament in his thumb virtually all year. You don't think it's in some way responsible for his drop in home runs?
Plus, Kipnis' 17 homers and 28 steals haven't been evenly distributed over the course of the season, as any of his owners will tell you. In fact, he's been in a rut for almost the entire second half, batting .246. Sure, it's the final numbers that count, but if he tempts you to bench him from time to time, you'll inevitably miss out on some of what he has to offer. It's nitpicky, yes, but when deciphering between three players destined to go in the first two rounds, nit picking is the only way to go. Hooray for subjectivity!
On that note, Prado probably looks like he's ranked higher than he should be, judging by his season numbers. But remember, he was inexplicably batting .240 as recently as June 24. His .322 batting average since the All-Star break is much more indicative of his ability (he entered 2013 a career .295 hitter), and during that stretch, he's averaging 3.42 Head-to-Head points per game. By comparison, Carpenter is averaging 3.44 points per game this year. They're almost mirror images of each other when you consider their strengths and weaknesses. I slot Prado two spots behind Carpenter because, perception being what it is, he should come at something of a discount, but I can't justify taking him after the fading trio of Zobrist, Phillips and Utley.
Zobrist's walk rate will keep him plenty useful in Head-to-Head leagues, but he's never been a great source of batting average and, entering his age-33 season, is no longer a safe bet for even 15 home runs. Phillips' fluky RBI total has spared him from a fourth straight season of underwhelming production. Utley has been more productive than both on a per-game basis, but he's exactly why per-game production doesn't have the final say in player evaluation. I'd bet against any 35-year-old middle infielder playing a full season. He's lucky to have played as much as he has this year.
In fact, I'd drop Utley behind Altuve if I could trust the Astros offense to take a step forward next year. I'm still not sure I won't. Altuve is only 23, so I'm not sure he doesn't become a double-digit homer guy someday. And we know the steals are legit.
Next 10 second basemen for 2014:
11. Aaron Hill , 2B, Diamondbacks
12. Brian Dozier , 2B, Twins
13. Daniel Murphy , 2B, Mets
14. Jedd Gyorko , 2B, Padres
15. Anthony Rendon , 2B, Nationals
16. Jed Lowrie , 2B/SS, Athletics
17. Howie Kendrick , 2B, Angels
18. Jurickson Profar , 2B, Rangers
19. Emilio Bonifacio , 2B/OF, Royals
20. Dan Uggla , 2B, Braves
Hill is the last of the second tier of second basemen, having scored as many Head-to-Head points per game as Zobrist this year. You would have liked to see him play a full season, obviously, but he's done enough in half a season to convince me he's closer to being the guy we saw in Arizona last year than in Toronto the previous two. He'll turn 32 next year, making him no sure bet to stay healthy, but whatever. You'll take the production when you can get it.
What follows are what I consider to be the most interesting five players at the position -- the ones with the capacity to force their way into the top tier at the position or become completely irrelevant. Gyorko and Rendon are obviously the upside picks, but their prolonged slumps have overshadowed their flashes of potential, dropping them behind the less exciting Dozier and Murphy. (Incidentally, Nick Franklin also fits the description, but he's fallen so far over the last couple months that I worry he's gotten trapped in whatever vortex sucks all the potential out of every Mariners hitting prospect and don't anticipate the masses going gaga over him in March.) I actually like Rendon a little more than Gyorko long-term, believing him to be the more complete hitter, but you can't be too safe with Danny Espinosa still lurking.
Speaking of safe, you shouldn't sleep on Dozier and Murphy just because they're lacking in pedigree. Though Kipnis, Pedroia and Kinsler are best known for contributing both home runs and stolen bases, Dozier and Murphy have shown they can provide at least a dozen of each, with Dozier offering a little more power and Murphy offering a little more speed. All those little contributions certainly add up in Head-to-Head leagues, where Murphy ranks fifth among second basemen to date and Dozier is performing about like Pedroia in terms of points per game (3.15 to 3.18) since stepping up his production June 15.
Lowrie is closer to Dozier and Murphy than Gyorko and Rendon in that he won't get much better from here, but given his extensive injury history and inability to stand out in any one category, I rank him last of the group, even with the dual eligibility (something Dozier, Murphy, Gyorko and Rendon won't carry into next year, by the way).
What's that? No Kolten Wong , who most publications will rate as the top second base prospect entering 2014? No Scooter Gennett , who's hitting .335 in place of an injured Rickie Weeks down the stretch this season? Wait, no Rickie Weeks ? Yeah, now you see what I mean. I was sure I'd get all three -- who I consider sleepers, to some degree -- in my top 20, but it just didn't happen. Even Neil Walker , a mainstay in the middle tiers for the last two or three years, couldn't make the cut. Too much meh from him.
For Wong, Gennett and Weeks, the issue is playing time. Unless the Cardinals trade David Freese in the offseason, which is far from assured, Wong can't hope for much more than the part-time at-bats he's getting now. Gennett has been great and all but has overachieved to some degree and still has to contend with another year of Weeks in Milwaukee. I could see the Brewers trading Weeks a little easier than I could see the Cardinals trading Freese, but until it happens, I have to assume Gennett and Weeks will cut into each other's playing time.
Yes, Profar has his own playing-time concerns, but with his pedigree and skill set, he's going to be a monster someday. I want him on my team in case someday begins next year. And Bonifacio ... have you seen what he's done with the Royals? Something about playing in Toronto, man. You can't run unless your name is Rajai Davis . Even Jose Reyes isn't immune.
Uggla we could discuss removing given his struggles the last two years. But his power is still among the best at the position, and I have some small hope his corrected vision will get his batting average back up to the respectable range. I think the floor is high enough and the ceiling attainable enough that he deserves to be drafted in most leagues. I can't say that for all the guys behind him.
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