Many of us remember 2014 as the year of the breakout pitcher, but it was also The Year the Hot Corner Went Cold. Just one year before, there were four third basemen who hit more than 30 home runs, but no one at the position pulled off the feat in 2014. Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre all saw their power diminish, and now Cabrera is no longer eligible at the position. The fourth slugger, Pedro Alvarez, is also no longer a third baseman and was platooned more frequently in his final two seasons with the Pirates, thus cutting into his production.
Even with the highly anticipated debut of Kris Bryant on the horizon, expectations for third base were muted heading into last year's draft. There wasn't much to be excited about beyond Josh Donaldson, Todd Frazier and Bryant (you could also count Anthony Rendon, who was also eligible at second base). This trio stepped up with big power, but breakouts from Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado and Matt Carpenter brought some lustre back to the position.
The hot corner may be hot again, but what does that mean for your approach on Draft Day? Though the top tier may be generating some excitement, the overall picture at third base is not all that different from that at first base -- a position that is frustrating for many owners this season.
With Donaldson, Machado and Arenado, third base boasts three legitimate first-rounders this year. Kris Bryant doesn't have that stature just yet, but he, Frazier and Carpenter are all viable early-round options. Rendon is an intriguing bounce-back candidate, Kyle Seager is as reliable as they come, Beltre is solid if no longer elite, and Maikel Franco and Jung-Ho Kang could build on impressive rookie seasons.
All in all, then, there are 11 third basemen who are not only worthy of drafting in 12-team mixed leagues, but worthy of taking by the middle rounds. However, two of them -- Rendon and Kang -- are better off slotted at their other position, meaning that there are not quite enough sure-fire quality starters to go around, even in a Head-t0-Head league. Even more so in Rotisserie leagues, where you also have to fill a CI slot, you will have a strong incentive to nab someone from the Seager/Beltre/Franco group if you didn't take care of your third base need in the early rounds.
Some owners may not feel that sense of urgency, opting to hold out for Mike Moustakas or Matt Duffy. After all, both ranked right alongside Seager and Beltre last season. However, Moustakas reverted back to being an extreme pull hitter after a brief foray into all-fields hitting in the first half of 2015, so he could be due for some serious batting average regression. Duffy's '15 stats look legit, but they give him more value in Roto than in a points league. If you're drafting Duffy for the batting average and potential steals, you could probably get the same thing from Josh Harrison or Daniel Murphy much later in the draft.
Bryant made a splash as a rookie, finishing as the No. 4 third baseman in Roto value and sixth in Fantasy points. For as much as Bryant strikes out, he may hit far worse than last season's .275. Then again, for as hard as he hits the ball, he could make up for lost batting average points with more extra-base power. Bryant could also use his power and speed to minimize the damage to his batting average, even though he was one of the majors' most extreme pull hitters on ground balls and line drives last season.
Like Bryant, Franco could use his rookie season as a stepping stone to an even better 2016, but he could also be hard-pressed to maintain last season's pace. Nick Castellanos has a much better chance to break out than Bryant or Franco, but that's only because he is starting from a lower baseline. He did seem to turn a corner by hitting for more power in the second half (.208 Isolated Power). There was no such surge for Yasmany Tomas, who had nine extra-base hits in 154 second-half at-bats, but sporadic playing time could have hurt his production. Tomas started to get into a groove in midseason, and this year, he could get a better chance to build some consistency.
After batting .293 with 16 home runs in 126 games last season, one would think Justin Turner would no longer need to look over his shoulder. Once again, the Dodgers have a crowded infield situation, so a slow recovery from microfracture surgery on his knee could open the door for one of Chase Utley, Enrique Hernandez or Alex Guerrero.
David Wright won't be done in by the Mets' bench depth, but in trying to play with spinal stenosis, his playing time could be in question. At best, Wright will hit the team's limit of 130 games for him, but if he isn't able to successfully manage his condition, he could miss far more time.
Yangervis Solarte and Luis Valbuena had power breakouts last year, but both look to be among the shakiest bets for playing time among mixed league third base options. If Solarte's power, which didn't arrive until last July, returns to wherever it came from, it's conceivable that he could sit in favor of Brett Wallace, or manager Andy Green could slide Cory Spangenberg over from second base. Valbuena's power credentials are better established than Solarte's, but his flyball tendencies limit his ability to get on base. With Marwin Gonzalez, (the other) Matt Duffy and prospects Tyler White and Colin Moran available as alternatives, it's easy to imagine Valbuena will be on a short leash.
Any one of the Astros' trio of rookies -- Duffy, White and Moran -- could take over third base and make a big impact, but it's hard to know which one might get the first shot if Valbuena falters. Duffy and White do have the advantage of having advanced beyond Double-A, plus they are both in the team's first base mix as well. Brandon Drury does not have a clear path to playing time, but his versatility should help him find plate appearances. He can play second, third and shortstop, and the Diamondbacks don't have mammoth roadblocks at any of those positions.
Richie Shaffer showed in a late-season callup with the Rays that his power already translates to the majors, though so do his tendencies to strike out and pop out. Even if you like the home run clout, there is no apparent place for Shaffer to play at the big league level. The same is true right now for the Athletics' Renato Nunez and the Indians' Yandy Diaz, and both are ticketed for the minors in any event. However, both could make an impact as mid-season callups if all goes well.
The Big Picture
Third base is top-heavy to be sure, and if Bryant and Franco improve on their rookie campaigns, the top tier could get even bigger. Yet without many obvious breakout candidates or impact rookies, there may not be many fallback options -- either in the draft or on waivers -- if you fail to lay claim to one of the top producers.
If you do miss out on the bounty of high-end third basemen, keep in mind that some of the best fallback options, like Harrison, Castellanos and Tomas, have been going late in drafts. There is no need to panic and reach too soon for middling options like Evan Longoria or Trevor Plouffe.