Making right choice can make or break a fantasy baseball season
Reds' Joey Votto has posted three straight seasons with a .400-plus OBP
Chase Utley's history of injuries makes him risk to produce as he did in past
J.J. Hardy has most power at SS aside from Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez
Choices, choices. Fantasy baseball owners will have plenty of them come draft day. Should I load up on hitters early? Should I lock down an ace or two? Should I place an emphasis on positional scarcity? Should I target first and third basemen in the first few rounds?
Ah, choices. The spice of life. But even if you settle on a certain position at a certain time, you could be faced with a choice. Each position in the infield, except catcher, features a battle between two players likely to go within just a few picks of one another. If you're faced with one of these choices, make sure you're armed at the draft table with the information necessary to make the right choice.
First base: Joey Votto vs. Adrian Gonzalez -- Votto and Gonzalez are likely to go in the first 10 picks or so, about half a round before Prince Fielder and a full round before Mark Teixeira. The two are remarkably similar. Over their respective careers, Votto has been a better batting average and on-base guy, while Gonzalez has been the more reliable power threat, but both are strong across the board. You can't go wrong with either, and I'd be happy to have Gonzalez, but if I'm picking between the two I'm taking Votto. Conventional wisdom said that once Gonzalez got out of Petco Park, his already prodigious power numbers would explode. While he posted the best slash line of his career (.338/.410/.548), he only hit 27 homers, his lowest total since 2006. He was also aided by a .380 BABIP that did not feature a corresponding uptick in line-drive rate. That suggests to me he was a bit lucky last season.
Meanwhile, Votto has three straight .400-plus OBP seasons. His OPS has topped or approached 1.000 in each of those seasons, as well. His BABIP those three years? .372, .361, and .349. After three years, I feel comfortable saying an unusually high BABIP is a skill of Votto's. He'll even throw in about 10 steals to boot. At the top of the draft, you want to select players with the highest floors. Give me Votto over Gonzalez.
Second base: Rickie Weeks vs. Chase Utley -- Which of these oft-injured second basemen do you trust more? If I'm betting on someone staying healthy, I'll take the one who is four years younger and only coming off one injury-shortened season. Remember, when Weeks stayed completely healthy in '10 he gave us the season we always knew he could, hitting 29 homers with a .269/.366/.464 line. In just 118 games last year, he had 20 homers and nine steals.
Utley was once a fantasy owner's dream, putting up 30-plus homers, 100-plus RBI, 100-plus runs and nearly 20 steals, all from the second base spot. Unfortunately for baseball fans (except those in Atlanta, Miami, Washington and New York, perhaps), Utley hasn't been able to stay healthy the last two years, and even when he has he has posted middling numbers. Philadelphia's lineup is not nearly as strong as it once was, especially with Ryan Howard out for some time as he recovers from his ruptured Achilles. They have remarkably similar average draft positions, but Weeks is the one you want.
Third base: Aramis Ramirez vs. Pablo Sandoval -- Ramirez and Sandoval each turned in strong bounce-back seasons in '11. Ramirez hit .306/.361/.510 with 26 homers and 93 RBI for a really bad Cubs offense. Sandoval rebounded from a terrible '10 to hit .315/.357/.552 with 23 homers and 70 RBI in just 117 games. Should you miss out on the top tier of third basemen, both Ramirez and Sandoval make good targets.
Despite Ramirez's age -- he'll turn 34 in June to Sandoval's 26 in August -- I prefer Milwaukee's new third baseman. He may have had a pair of down seasons in '09 and '10, but those were largely mitigated by injuries. Even so, he hit 15 homers in just 82 games in '09 and 25 a year later in 124 games. At this stage of the draft, he's as rock solid a bet to get 30 homers from anyone. Once your draft gets past these two, things at third base start to get ugly. Kevin Youkilis might be there, but if you miss out on these two, you could be looking at Mark Reynolds' batting average/OBP-draining name in your lineup every day. That is not something you want.
You'll want to have called your third baseman's name by this stage of the draft. If you have a choice between Ramirez and Sandoval, make it Ramirez.
Shortstop: Derek Jeter vs. J.J. Hardy -- Shortstop offers more options this year than it has in previous seasons, but once you get beyond Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes, no one really brings a complete package to the table. Most of them are two- or three-category specialists, at best. At the back end of the top-10 shortstops, Jeter and Hardy are waging a battle against each other, though they bring completely different skill sets to the table. It's possible that if you have to make a decision between the two, the composition of your team to that point will drive your thought process.
Still, let me put in my two cents for Hardy. Jeter is not simply on the decline; he has declined to the point where I'm not sure I'd rank him as a starting shortstop in a 12-team league. He should still bring decent batting average, 15 steals and 90 or so runs scored, but those aren't numbers that jump off the page, even if you can wait to get him until about the 120th pick. On the other hand, Hardy is coming off a season in which he blasted 30 home runs in 129 games. We've seen this sort of power from him before when he was with the Brewers, so there's no reason to think it's a fluke. Don't let his 101-game stint with the Twins fool you, either. Target Field tamped kept power numbers down all season in '10. Hardy has the most power of any shortstop outside Tulo and maybe, maybe, Hanley.
Don't be fooled by Jeter's name and the glamorous pinstripes he adorns. If you're choosing between these two, Hardy is your guy.
Chat with me on Twitter, @MBeller.