Surprising position eligibility for 2013
Tristan H. Cockcroft [ARCHIVE]
February 21, 2013
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Roster construction in fantasy baseball is like piecing together a puzzle.

Every player -- each piece -- has a value defined by his statistical output; but it's fitting these pieces into your roster's required slots that is key. Like those puzzle pieces, some players fit in certain spots but not others. And some spots -- like bonuses on a Scrabble board -- are more valuable than others.

More on position qualification

Tristan wrote more about position qualification in his Sept. 5 Hit Parade. You can view it by clicking here.

Ah, but there's a wrinkle to this proverbial puzzle: In fantasy baseball, these pieces can shift and change shape. Players change positions all the time, and keeping up with where a player qualifies is an important first step to your draft-day research.

Think position eligibility is overrated? Think again. While it's true that some fantasy owners go overboard -- Hanley Ramirez does not belong in the first round any longer just because he's shortstop-eligible -- the truth is that a player's value can shift by as many as $6-7 in an auction format, or as many as five rounds in a draft, simply based on his position eligibility.

Let's let the numbers do the talking. The chart below measures the 2012 major league averages from each of the eligible positions in traditional fantasy baseball leagues to illustrate how each compared. Home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and runs scored are averages per 650 plate appearances.

A side note: Keep in mind that the DH numbers, specifically the home runs and RBIs, shouldn't be taken too seriously due to the sample size. They came in a considerably smaller number of plate appearances -- nearly 10,000 fewer than were accrued by any other position -- and they, as with all these positions, only account for performance by players while they were slotted in the lineup at that spot.

Clearly, catcher, second base and shortstop were the three weakest positions in 2012, as any fantasy owner would expect. First base, third base and outfield (look at those steals!) were the strongest, predictably.

Make sure, therefore, to check every player's eligibility in advance of your draft. As the story I'll outline in a minute shows, you might be surprised by some players' 2013 position eligibility. The following players might be the most unexpected:

Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays -- 1B-only

His was the discussion that started it all; it was the revelation in a sim league of mine in early January that Encarnacion was no longer eligible at third base that kick-started the idea for this column. In that league, which begins its annual draft the day after New Year's, two owners came to the realization after we were underway that Encarnacion lacked the requisite games to be used at the hot corner. One of these owners was on the verge of drafting him assuming he could use Encarnacion at third base; the owner would have been sorely disappointed to learn that he'd have been forced to bench either Encarnacion or Paul Goldschmidt if not warned beforehand.

After playing 663 of his 690 games in the field through 2011 at third base, Encarnacion appeared there just once in 2012, compared to 82 times at designated hitter and 68 times at first base. And with a 23-year-old Brett Lawrie firmly entrenched at third, Encarnacion's chances at reaching even the 10-game, in-season threshold at the position are slim.

That's not to say that the loss of third base eligibility significantly depresses his 2013 value. As the chart above shows, the primary difference between first and third base is three home runs and four RBIs, at least as positional averages go. Still, that's potentially $1-2 in auction value and there's little question that a first-and-third eligible player is more valuable than a first base-only player.

Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers -- 2B-only

Keith Law's -- and, frankly, the world's -- top overall prospect for 2013 snuck in curious position eligibility, using the "most games played in the majors" rule from the old rotisserie handbook: He appeared in five games at second base, compared to three at his natural shortstop position. That cements his initial ESPN eligibility at second base, the second-thinnest position to catcher by my calculations in terms of value relative to replacement in standard leagues, and it presents an added benefit: He could conceivably play shortstop regularly if he's promoted in-season, earning dual eligibility at the second- and third-weakest fantasy positions.

But that assumes Profar makes the team. He's currently blocked at shortstop by Elvis Andrus, who played 153 games and 92 percent of the Rangers' innings at the position in 2012, and he's stymied at second base by Ian Kinsler, who has played 288 games and 88 percent of the team's innings there the past two seasons combined.

Mike Olt, Texas Rangers -- 1B-only

While we're talking about one Rangers prospect, we might as well talk about the other. Olt, a natural third baseman, played his most games at first base: 8 (compared to only five at third). Like Profar, Olt isn't especially likely to make the team's Opening Day roster, and it might take an Adrian Beltre injury for him to be promoted and appear frequently enough at third base to qualify there in-season. Olt has a shot at time at first base or designated hitter, however, considering the injury history of Lance Berkman or the platoon limitation of Mitch Moreland.

Emilio Bonifacio, Toronto Blue Jays -- OF-only

Bonifacio is the player whose eligibility might shock you most; the only reason he's not first on this list is that he's not as attractive a draft target as, well, Encarnacion. Still, there's a buzz surrounding the Blue Jays following all their winter moves, and Bonifacio is an intriguing mid-to-late rounder even in shallow mixed leagues because of his speed and the possibility he might occasionally occupy a top-two spot in the team's retooled lineup. What fantasy owners should not do, however, is allow Blue Jay buzz to fool them into thinking that Bonifacio is eligible anywhere in the infield [e] at least not at the start of the season. He didn't make a single appearance in 2012 at either third base or shortstop, which were eligible positions of his on draft day, and he made only 15 appearances at second base.

Second base is Bonifacio's most probable in-season eligibility addition for 2013. He's slated to see the majority of his time there, though he'll need to fend off Maicer Izturis to win the starting job. Doing so would be key; with second base eligibility, Bonifacio might add as much as $4 to his auction value or vault him as many as three rounds in draft rankings. The Blue Jays might also regard him a super-utility type, a kind of modern-day Tony Phillips, in which case he might earn as diverse eligibility as what...
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