When it comes to looking ahead to the 2012 fantasy baseball season by highlighting the potential impact rookies at each position, there’s just no slowing us down. Why? Because it’s never too early to begin thinking about next year, even if you’re still trying to win your league right now. And for those of you in keeper leagues, particularly deeper ones, these primers will be especially helpful, because you’ll find out which young players may be worth snatching up now — before other owners get a clue — so you can hang onto them next season, when their value kicks in. Think of it like an investment requiring only a little up-front cost that could pay off big in the near future.
Much like my Mining the Minors columns on this site, which focus on current-season impact more than long-term upside, these 2012 rookie primers are meant for players who will fulfill or are expected to fulfill their rookiedom next year. Also much like my MTM work, the point here is to find the right mix of opportunity and talent, so that you’re picking up a player who can contribute, either in a starting role or as a reserve, from Day 1 or soon thereafter. Chances are, I’ll hit on many of these same players in depth at some point in future Mining the Minors columns, but for now, it’s good to get ahead of the curve with a snapshot of the talent at each position.
To give you a brief idea of just how this sort of thing can be worthwhile, I’m in two deep keeper leagues, one AL-only and one NL-only, and around this time last year, I picked up Mark Trumbo, Jordan Walden and Brandon Beachy. Worked out pretty well, if I do say so myself.
Time to get to the third basemen.
To be considered, the players must currently be eligible to maintain their rookie status for 2012, meaning they have yet to exceed 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched. Certainly, a few listed below may surpass these numbers in the final weeks of this season, but nonetheless, it’s worth pointing them out now.
PLAYERS RANKED IN ORDER OF 2012 FANTASY IMPACT
OPENING DAY STARTERS AND BACKUPS
Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays
Lawrie, 21, is in a class by himself here. Dude is absolutely crushing it in the bigs after doing the same thing in Triple-A earlier in the season (.353/ .415/.661). In fact, while critics tend to bring up the hitter-friendly factor of the PCL this year, Lawrie’s MLB OPS is actually eye-dentical to his OPS at Las Vegas (1.076). Yes, his time with the Jays must be considered a small sample size (just 111 ABs), but it’s good to know that the No. 16 pick in 2008 is still showing solid discipline (11% BB, 22% K), while also continuing to swipe more than enough bases (6SB, with 0 CS) to chip in there, as well. The only downside I can find is that Lawrie will lose his 2B eligibility — something that shouldn’t be pooh-poohed in the fantasy world — but otherwise, I think he can be a back-end Top 10 3B next year, making him a starter in every league under the sun. Of course, unless you already own him in a keeper or dynasty league, the price you’ll have to pay to acquire his services is going to be inflated by the upside and hype. Putting such weight on such a young player is always a risky proposition, but I think Lawrie is one of the ones, much like Ryan Braun back in the day, who could be worth it right away.
Todd Frazier, Reds
In a perfect world, Frazier would have been playing third base for the Reds much sooner, but Cincy was fooled into thinking Scott Rolen still had something left in the tank after an unexpected bounceback performance in 2010. Meanwhile the 25-year-old Frazier was being shuffled all over the field in the minors, which couldn’t have been helpful to his development. Since Rolen hit the DL in mid-July (I know, shocker), Frazier has received pretty regular PT, hitting just .225, albeit with a .226 BABIP. Still, he’s shown enough pop (6 HRs in 89 ABs, career minor-league ISO around .190) to offer hope that maybe, finally the org will give him a genuine shot at the hot corner starting with Opening Day 2012. Such a role would make Frazier a worthy starting corner infielder in NL leagues or a useable starter at 3B in deeper ones. Of course, Rolen is still under contract for another year, and we all know how much Dusty Baker loves his vets.
Matt Dominguez, Marlins
Drafted No. 12 overall in 2007, Dominguez, 22, was in line to break camp with the Marlins last spring until he hit just .190 and sent to the minor league side of spring. Soon thereafter, he broke his left elbow, which meant he didn’t start his season until May. He doesn’t offer any true above-average skill on offense, though he does have some power — he’s hit about 14 HRs per year in his four seasons — but Dominguez’s glove is his calling card. As a defensive whiz whose offensive potential is limited and who will almost definitely have the starting job from Day 1 next year, he’s in a similar situation to what we saw from Brent Morel of the White Sox in 2011. That said, I think Dominguez will do a little bit more with the stick, enough to be a corner/utility type in deep NL play. He was recently called up for his debut, so the Marlins — and fantasy owners — will get a chance to see what he can do in the majors this month, in preparation for next year.
Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager, a third-rounder in 2009, didn’t do much in his first exposure with Seattle in July, but he caught fire upon his recall the following month, raising his average all the way up to .312 with a 4-for-4 day on August 24. Yes, he’ll soon surpass the 130 ABs, but he’s worth discussing here. The 23-year-old came up as a second sacker but has moved to third in deference to Dustin Ackley. I actually see Seager as sort of a poor man’s Ackley because both players’ games are built around making contact and getting on base rather than much in the way of power or speed. That makes Seager an odd fit at 3B, where owners generally want and expect big-time production in HRs and RBIs. Plus, there’s the worry that the Mariners’ lack of offense will limit the counting stats where Seager could be useful, like runs. He’s not a long-term answer type, and the org does have a few other 3B options that aren’t too far off, but assuming Seager remains the top guy to begin 2012, I see him as a fringe starter (possibly at corner or utility) in deep AL leagues next year. There is one possibility that would make Seager slightly more valuable: He’s played 3 games at SS and got some time there throughout his career in the minors, so if your league has a 1- or 5-game eligibility requirement, then Seager could become a sneaky play as a starting shortstop in AL leagues, where the position is shallow and weak on the whole.
Jimmy Paredes, Astros
Like the guy immediately above, Paredes doesn’t fit the typical profile of a third baseman. He’s more about speed than power, having averaged 34 SBs in his past three minor league campaigns. Maybe that explains why the 22-year-old came up primarily as a second baseman, where his offensive skill set would translate better. Alas, with Jose Altuve looking like the future keystoner in Houston, Paredes best (only?) shot at a regular role appears to be the hot corner. The other problem he faces is that, unlike Kyle Seager, Paredes has awful plate discipline (4% BB rate), and his current .290/.326/.419 line in 124 MLB ABs (yes, he’ll lose his rookie eligibility this year, too) is propped up by a .386 BABIP. He could wind up being a useful real-life utility player because of his versatility, but I have a feeling the Astros might think he’s better than he is and give him a bigger role to start out in 2012. That would make him a possible fantasy consideration as a reserve in NL leagues, but it could also expose him in the long run.
Alex Liddi, Mariners
I highlighted Liddi, the first player born and raised in Italy to make it to the majors, in a Mining the Minors column last month. With his power — and let’s face it, his background — I’d like to see the 23-year-old get a shot at regular ABs next year. After all, he did hit 30 HRs this year (even if it was in the PCL), which would make him a more traditional fit at 3B than Kyle Seager. But Liddi strikes out a ton (28% career, and a career-high 170 whiffs this year), so consider him a high-risk/high-reward type. If he pans out — that is, he manages to make enough contact to survive by hitting .230 — he could be lesser version of Mark Reynolds. But that’s a big if. Too big to count on him as anything more than a fringe reserve in AL play.
Juan Francisco, Reds
This 24-year-old Dominican likes to swing the bat, and when he does make contact, things happen, as his ISO hasn’t fallen below .223 in any of his past three seasons. And his .293/.354/.422 slash stats in the majors — in 116 ABs over separate stints since 2009 — are pretty strong. But he’s also whiffed 33% of the time as a Red, which is a reasonable translation of his career minor league strikeout rate of 24%. There’s also the issue of his below-average defense at third, let alone the fact that Todd Frazier blocks him, so there’s no clear path for a starting job. Francisco is good enough with the bat to serve as a sometimes-starter and pinch-hitter, but that doesn’t really do much to help Cincinnati either. Really, between 1B Yonder Alonso, C Yasmani Grandal and Francisco, the Reds have plenty of excess, yet valuable, pieces that they need to find a way to move for the betterment of the franchise — and the benefit of the players themselves. Unless that happens, though, Francisco is no more than a fringe reserve in deep NL-onlies.
OTHER TRIPLE-A NAMES TO KNOW
Russ Canzler, Rays: Fellow FanGrapher Tommy Rancel wrote about the versatile, righty-hitting Canzler last month. As Mr. Rancel points out, the 25-year-old — who hit .314 with a .930 OPS, and knocked 40 doubles and 18 HRs — is just the type of player who would make sense as a useful utility man for the Rays, which makes him someone to keep an eye on in case he gets a shot.
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals: His .300/.417/.463 line at Memphis has helped the 25-year-old make his big league debut this year (just 15 ABs), and about all that stands between him and a longer look would be another David Freese injury. So basically, expect to see him at some point in 2012.
Taylor Green, Brewers: While he’s not a heralded prospect, hitting .336 with 22 HRs and 91 RBIs earned Green, 24, a call-up late last month, just in time to be eligible for the postseason roster. Lord knows Casey McGehee, while still the regular third baseman, has struggled this year, which may have opened the door, ever so slightly, for Green next year.
James Darnell, Padres: At 24 in the Double-A Texas League, Darnell did what he was supposed to do, which is tear it up, slashing .333/.434/.604. That performance pushed him to Triple-A mid-season, where he’s struggled a bit (.770 OPS), but he’s also found himself in the majors due to Chase Headley’s injury, getting some time in at third and also in left field. He needs to ripen a bit more at Tucson, and the Padres need to determine if he can stick at the hot corner long-term, or if he’s better suited for left.
Brandon Laird, Yankees: Laird, the 23-year-old brother of Cardinals catcher Gerald, made his debut this year and does have some pop, but his approach needs to improve. Plus, it’s not like the Yanks are going to give him any real time, so opportunities will be minimal.
Jared Goedert, Indians: Some thought he would get a shot this time last year after posting an .890 OPS with 27 HRs across Double- and Triple-A. Alas, an oblique injury put off the start to his 2011, and even though he’s hit since getting healthy (.839 OPS, 15 HRs in under 300 ABs), he’s yet to make it to the bigs. With the rest of the Indians infield set, the only chance he has now would be to unseat the disappointing Matt LaPorta at first. And at 26, time is running out.
Conor Gillaspie, Giants: Gillaspie, a first-round pick in 2008, has a good idea of what he’s doing at the dish, with a career 12% BB rate and 15% K rate. But that’s about the extent of the 24-year-old’s abilities, and he’s stuck behind Pablo Sandoval in San Francisco.
Zack Cox, Cardinals: The 22-year-old, who was the No. 25 pick overall in 2010, has had a fine first full season as a pro, hitting .306/.363/.434 with 13 HRs and 27 doubles, while reaching Double-A Springfield. He’s St. Louis’ third baseman of the future, so it’s unlikely they would rush him and risk stunting his development. But his intriguing high-average, gap-power bat could force the organization’s hand by mid-year 2012, especially if David Freese and Matt Carpenter can’t get the job done.
Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox: After hitting .285-23-94 at Double-A, Middlebrooks actually has managed to get in 16 games at Pawtucket this season as a 22-year-old. His 8% BB rate leaves something to be desired and improved upon, and something would need to go horribly wrong with Kevin Youkilis (signed through next year with a 2013 club option), but Middlebrooks could sniff some at-bats in the bigs late next season. Or as with any Red Sox prospect, he could become trade bait, thus becoming another team’s third baseman of the future sooner than he would in Boston.
Jedd Gyorko, Padres: The 2010 second-rounder’s season has gone about as well as could be expected, with a .333/.400/.552 slash line and 25 HRs, 47 doubles and 114 RBIs between Hi- and Double-A. Just 22, he needs another year in the minors before he’s really ready, but he may be the guy who solves San Diego’s problems at third, as he’s more likely to stick there than James Darnell, and he has more upside than the stalled Chase Headley.
Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11