To get an idea of what makes third base such a premium position in the game -- and in fantasy leagues -- you need to look no further than the top of the list. That's where two-time defending American League Most Valuable Player Award winner Miguel Cabrera resides, setting the standard for third-base play across the sport, even though he'll actually be manning first base for the Tigers this season.
Over the last few years, third base has evolved into one of the deepest positions in the game and a place where a team's top-tier performers are locked. Franchise cornerstones like David Wright, Evan Longoria and Chase Headley take their grounders from that corner of the diamond and produce at an exceptionally high level at the plate.
Here's a closer look at third base and how those who play it can impact your fantasy team this season:
TIER 1: Miguel Cabrera
The two-time AL MVP Award winner stands alone -- especially when it comes to his performance -- and we have him rated in a class of his own at the position. After the Tigers dealt Prince Fielder this offseason, Cabrera returns to first base, his primary position from 2008-11. But Cabrera remains fantasy eligible at third base after playing 145 games there last season. Overall, Cabrera is MLB.com's second-highest rated fantasy player (just behind Angels outfielder Mike Trout) and the top infielder on the board.
Cabrera may no longer have Fielder protecting him from the cleanup spot in the Tigers' lineup, but he has a healthy Victor Martinez and a Detroit lineup that is expected to be just as high-powered (and likely more efficient on the basepaths) with the infusion of Ian Kinsler. Also, the opportunity now to play first base again could allow Cabrera to keep his legs fresh. Cabrera excels in the power and rate-stat departments, and he did so last year while nursing injuries for most of the season. If he can stay healthy, watch out.
TIER 2: Adrian Beltre, Wright, Longoria
This second group of third basemen consists of a trio of players who, largely, will deliver precisely what you expect. They've been consistent cornerstones for years now and are reliable players who can impact a team when chosen in the first few rounds of a draft.
Beltre has been exceptional the last two seasons in Texas, and though his age (he'll turn 35 shortly after Opening Day) compels you to believe his performance will dip at some point, he's proven otherwise. Last season, he led the AL with 199 hits, while driving in 92 runs, scoring 88 runs and belting 30 home runs.
But if age is the one concern for Beltre, health is it for Wright. The Mets All-Star was equally fantastic while in the New York lineup last season, hitting .307 with 63 runs, 18 homers, 58 RBIs, 17 stolen bases and a .904 OPS in just 112 games. But Wright has missed at least 50 games in two of the last three years.
Health has been a popular talking point for Longoria as well, and he showed in 2013 what he can do with a full season. He played a career-high 160 games last year, and hit 32 homers, drove in 88 runs and finished sixth in the AL MVP Award race. This year, Longoria will shoot for his third 30-homer season in four years.
TIER 3: Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Zimmerman, Josh Donaldson, Kyle Seager
As 2013 proved to be a memorable year for Pittsburgh and Oakland, you can point to the individual performances of Alvarez (41 homers, 103 RBIs) and Donaldson (.281 average, 24 homers, 85 RBIs), respectively, as a huge part of the reason why. Both turned in MVP-caliber seasons to lead their teams to the postseason, and they could be fixtures in those conversations for years to come.
Zimmerman is another player who knows a thing or two about leading a franchise out of despair, helping resuscitate the Nationals over the last few seasons. It was a disappointing 2013 for the club, but the Washington icon still drove in 88 runs, hit 27 homers and batted .275 from the heart of the lineup.
Seager is surely hoping he and a reinvigorated Mariners lineup -- now with Robinson Cano -- can have the same impact in Seattle. There's no question the 26-year-old has quietly emerged as one of the position's best, steadily producing over the last few seasons.
TIER 4: Headley, Aramis Ramirez, Manny Machado, Brett Lawrie, Pablo Sandoval
This fourth tier consists of some players at the position who have been productive from the hot corner for full careers (like Ramirez) and others who are relative upstarts (like Machado and Headley). Offseason reports are that Sandoval is in terrific shape, and fantasy owners are hopeful that will lead to production similar to 2011, when he hit. 315 with 23 homers and 70 RBIs. Headley, meanwhile, will also be looking to replicate a past performance, hoping his strong September (following an otherwise dismal season) is an indication that he's capable of another season worthy of consideration for the National League MVP Award.
There figure to be many MVP-type seasons in Machado's future, as the young Orioles infielder has demonstrated a remarkable talent in the field and at the plate. It's incredible to think he's still only 21 as he continues to improve after a breakout 2012 season. Machado led the AL last year with 51 doubles, though a knee injury ended his campaign. Injuries were also an issue for the 35-year-old Ramirez, who has been excellent overall in his last three seasons. If he can get back to numbers like he posted in 2011-12 (53 homers, .303 batting average, 198 RBIs), he'll make for one of the most reliable veteran fantasy players.
That leaves Lawrie, who is still struggling to find both good health and consistency at the plate. The once-elite prospect still has plenty of time to mature (he's just 24), but he needs to see more than 107 games, which is all he got last season.