What Happened to the Corner Infielders?

For ages, fantasy baseball has relied on a key offensive foundation of heavy-hitting first basemen, and most years there was a strong group of third basemen as well. The corner infielders have anchored power and elite production for ages. For a long time in my casual friends league, where there are two DH slots, many teams would use two 1B there, or perhaps a 1B and 3B. Granted that until recently, we didn’t have a CI slot, but the fact remains that the corner infield pool was deep enough to allow several teams to stack their teams with these players.

When it comes to the middle infield, there were always some elite options. In the olden days — I’m over thirty, so I can wax nostalgic — there were Three R’s (Reyes, Rollins, Ramirez), along with Tulowitzki, Cano, and Utley. However, one of the reasons the MI options made it into the first round was due to the lack of MI talent behind them — miss out on a top-10 MI option, and you’d struggle all year. There were plenty of first basemen to find in the later rounds, so missing on Pujols and targeting Cano was a winning strategy when you could still pick up a 25+ HR bat for first base afterward.

When you look back on old rankings from sites and magazines, you find far more corner infielders in the top two tiers than middle infielders. Sometimes the numbers were a little close (14 CI to 10 MI). However, just seven years ago, the number of 1B in the top two tiers could equal the number of both 2B and SS options. When you add in 3B, then the difference in one publication was staggering: 27 CI to 15 MI. It’s true that when it comes to tier rankings, everyone uses different criteria, but again, this concept has been set in stone for ages.

As I started compiling my top-200 list for dynasty leagues, I noticed how many more MI were making it in the top-50, compared to years past. In 2016 my top-50 had 15 corner infielders, compared to 12 middle infielders. This year, my list is 15 corner infielders, but now 17 middle infielders. It doesn’t seem that extreme, but 5 more MI out of the top-50 makes up 10% of the total amount.

My results prompted me to look at some other sources. One of my go-to sources has tier rankings based on projected value for 2017. There are 10 total CI in the top two tiers. However, there are 10 second basemen in those same two tiers, and 12 shortstops! That is a one-year ranking, but the flip-flop from power-hitting CI being so numerous to a glut of MI players with potentially high value is astounding.




The Explanation

What’s caused this 180-degree turn for corner infield? There are numerous factors, but let’s highlight some of the most obvious ones.

  • Superstar CI options are aging. Albert Pujols no longer reigns at the top of rankings. Adrian Beltre still provides value for 2017 projections, but long-term rankings won’t have him so high due to his age. Other examples: Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman, Evan Longoria
  • Truly elite CI are rare, but there are plenty in the “average” category. Guys like Hosmer, Abreu, and Carpenter are good, but they’re simply not elite enough to get into the top-tier of value. Other examples: Wil Myers, Nick Castellanos, Anthony Rendon.
  • The youth explosion in middle infield has been going strong for several years. Most of the time, a lot of hyped prospects don’t hit the ground running. I am pessimistic about prospects, and I was proven right with the likes of Profar. However, in that same time frame, we’ve seen plenty of other MI options take off without missing a beat. Bogaerts and Correa led the way, and plenty more have followed them. Other examples: Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell, Rougned Odor, Corey Seager.
  • Home runs were at an all-time high in 2016. Is it so essential that you overpay for someone like Chris Davis or Todd Frazier, simply because they have a shot at 40 HR? After last year, the HR-only batters took a hit in value because everyone across the board was hitting more home runs. Adam Dunn’s profile (low-BA, high HR) is barely worth considering right now, compared to five years ago when you could still use his type for a profit. Other examples: Chris Carter, Carlos Santana, Miguel Sano.
  • A lot of young phenoms break in at MI, but move to CI later, so we just have to wait. Hanley Ramirez used to be an elite SS, and then he shifted around the diamond and is now at 1B. Rendon and Carpenter used to be options at 2B, but now they’re CI. Manny Machado started at 3B in deference to JJ Hardy, but now he’s back to SS. While players are still young and athletic, they may play up the middle. When some start to age or have bad defensive metrics, they may move to CI or OF. Some potential future movers include: Troy Tulowitzki, Daniel Murphy, Robinson Cano.

Looking Forward

So how does this affect your draft strategy? When it comes to keeper leagues, clearly there’s a high value on young players who should produce for years and years. It’s tempting to say that you can afford to wait on corner infield because of this: because your focus should be on the long-term, grab the youngsters at MI first, then pick up a veteran CI later. Who could fault you if you wanted Machado as your cornerstone, and you settle for Abreu or Frazier as a CI?

Then again, the relative scarcity of CI at the top, compared to previous years, means you could place a premium on any young-ish CI: Bryant, Goldschmidt, Rizzo, Arenado. Personally, as a Cubs fan I’d have a hard time passing on Bryant at the top of a draft, or even Rizzo if I was late in the first round. Votto and Donaldson aren’t “young” anymore, but they still can produce like a top-10 bat, so they also warrant consideration. The depth of MI should give you a nice option outside of the top-10, whether you go for an “old” veteran like Cano or an unexciting producer like Elvis Andrus.

For keeper leagues, I can go with either strategy. It truly depends on where you draft and who you personally like. In my top-25 for dynasty, it’s 7 CI to 9 MI, and the CI tend to be a little older than most of the MI keepers. However, as I get into the 25-50 range, though there are still a decent number of CI, the age difference gets even worse — CI options get older, whereas there are still youngsters for MI such as Segura, Aledmys Diaz, and Russell. If I can’t have Bryant or Arenado (or Trout), then I’d target a great MI like Seager, Machado, or Correa for my first pick.

In 2017 leagues, you do have to keep in mind the youth of these MI options. I don’t have a lot of fear that Bogaerts or Correa will collapse in production, per se, but Correa’s stats were technically worse in 2016 than they were in 2015. If you paid full 2015 price for him before 2016, then you officially lost money on him, even though he’s still a great SS. For that reason, there’s a high chance you’ll see me take Goldy or Donaldson before I’d risk taking someone like Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story or Trea Turner. In fact, in a redraft league, my top MI is Altuve due to the elite BA and SB, not one of the phenoms.

An elite bat is still worthy of a top-10 pick, regardless of position. The slew of phenom middle infielders is going to make the next ten years an exciting time for baseball. However, keep in mind that hype doesn’t always mean production. The corner sluggers are a bit rarer than they used to be, but the top guys are still strong options, and in fact you still have to consider taking one of them before you grab a MI. Like any draft day, you’ll have to adjust your strategy as you go. The corner infielders aren’t gone, but be smarter about who you draft.

 

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Kevin Jebens
Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.