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Spring brings a bumper crop of second basemen Utley, Polanco,and Cantu rank as emerging stars

Second base is second rate no more.

Thanks to breakout hitters like Philadelphia's Chase Utley, Detroit's Placido Polanco and Tampa Bay's Jorge Cantu, fantasy owners no longer need to throw up their arms in defeat if they don't land Alfonso Soriano or Jeff Kent early on. There's no need to treat these guys like NFL tight ends at the draft table anymore, even if Soriano does switch to outfield, like the Washington Nationals hope.

What had ranked as the weakest fantasy position on the board has come a long way, baby. And in a very short time.

Utley, Polanco and Cantu put up numbers that rank among the best at the position in the history of their franchises last summer. All of them were pleasant surprises who should now be underlined on your cheat sheet.

Utley, 27, is a left-handed swinger who had "hot prospect" written all over him and didn't disappoint at Citizens Bank Park.

Cantu, 24, is a righty who seemingly came out of nowhere and took advantage of Hall-of-Famer-to-be Roberto Alomar's surprise retirement to beat the devil out of the ball for the Rays.

Polanco, 30, also swings from the right side and the need to get Utley into the lineup was a big reason he was dealt from the Phils to the Tigers last June. He was able to shed his "utility player" tag big time in Motown.

Utley's slugging percentage led all second basemen last season and he finished second to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kent in homers (29-28) among NL second sackers, despite not getting a full-time gig until mid-May. Both he and Kent had 105 RBIs.

Another bonus with Utley is his ability to steal bases; he went 16 for 19 last season and is 22 for 26 in his career. The only negative is his low batting average (.219) against left-handers, but it's balanced nicely by a .469 slugging percentage with seven homers and 25 walks in those situations.

Cantu, who hit just seven homers in 1,024 at-bats in Class AA ball in 2001-02, was perhaps the biggest reason the Devil Rays went 39-34 after the All-Star break last season. Though he can't run (one steal, 24 times grounding into double plays), he had 69 extra-base hits and established a franchise record with 117 RBIs.

Except for steals, Cantu's 2005 campaign wasn't much less than what Alomar produced during his finest hours in the majors. As a member of the 1999 Cleveland Indians, Alomar hit .323 with 24 homers and 120 RBIs. He averaged 14 homers and 77 RBIs per 162 games over 17 seasons with a .300 career batting average.

Polanco lost playing time to both Utley and third baseman David Bell in Philadelphia, but his line drive stroke was perfect for cavernous Comerica Park. Though finding a regular job was difficult with the likes of the Cardinals and the Phillies, Polanco never hit below .288 in any of his six full seasons before 2005.

Though Polanco didn't have enough at-bats to qualify for the batting crown in either league, among regulars his .331 mark was second to only Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs, who hit .335.

The Phillies, Tigers and Devil Rays figure to field tougher lineups top to bottom this season.

The continued development of National League Rookie of the Year Ryan Howard (.288-22-63) can only help Utley with the Phillies, who ranked second in the league with 4.98 runs per game last season. Utley figures to bat in the five or six spot.

Fast-developing designated hitter Jonny Gomes (.282-21-54) should be more comfortable with the Rays, who averaged 4.63 runs per game to rank eighth in the AL. The return of center fielder Rocco Baldelli, who missed all of last season, from knee and elbow injuries should also help Cantu see better pitches, probably from the three hole in the order.

Detroit shortstop Carlos Guillen, who was a monster in 2004 with 57 extra base hits, 97 RBIs and a .318 batting average, missed 75 games with a knee injury last season. Getting him back should help the Tigers improve their 11th-place AL finish with 4.46 runs per game last season, and Polanco figures to lead off.

Who might be this year's Utley, Polanco or Cantu?

Milwaukee's Rickie Weeks struck out once every 3.75 at-bats last season, but a poor eye (83 strikeouts with just 19 walks) didn't hurt Cantu much in '05. Weeks has the potential to approach 20-25 homers and steals.

Robinson Cano made Tony Womack expendable with the New York Yankees last year and Cano finished with 14 homers and a .297 average. But he really figured out AL pitching late, when he batted .384 after Aug. 31.

Here are some hints regarding other positions for draft day:

*Catchers / infielders

Don't wait on: C -- Victor Martinez, Cleveland; Jason Varitek, Boston. 1B -- Albert Pujols, St. Louis; Lee; Mark Teixiera, Texas; Todd Helton, Colorado; Howard. SS -- Miguel Tejada, Baltimore; Michael Young, Texas; Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia; Jose Reyes, N.Y. Mets; 3B -- Alex Rodriguez, N.Y. Yankees; Miguel Cabrera, Florida; David Wright, Mets; Chone Figgins, Anaheim.

Go easy: C -- The Yankees' Jorge Posada's batting average, home run total and RBIs have declined all of the past three seasons. 1B -- The Dodgers' Nomar Garciaparra hasn't had more than 230 at-bats in a season since 2003. SS -- The Braves' Edgar Renteria has seen his batting average go from .330 in 2003 to .287 in '04 to .276 last season. 3B -- The Orioles' Melvin Mora had 19 fewer hits (168) in 43 more at-bats (593) in 2005 than in 2004.

Fast facts: Pirates 1B Sean Casey hit into 27 double plays last season, most in the bigs. . . . Rollins brings a 36-game hitting streak into 2006, during which he batted .379. . . . No player has ever had more at-bats (601) in a season without hitting a homer than Oakland C Jason Kendall.

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*Outfielders / DHs

Don't wait on: OF -- Vladimir Guerrero, Anaheim; Manny Ramirez, Boston; Bobby Abreu, Philadelphia; Jason Bay, Pittsburgh; Carl Crawford, Tampa Bay; Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle; Andruw Jones, Atlanta; Carlos Beltran, N.Y. Mets; Grady Sizemore, Cleveland; Gary Sheffield, N.Y. Yankees. DH -- David Ortiz, Boston; Travis Hafner, Cleveland.

Go easy: OF -- Cincinnati's Adam Dunn has struck out once every 3.79 plate appearances during his career and has led the National League in whiffs each of the past two seasons with a total of 363. He also hit just .197 against left-handers. . . . If you draft Colorado's Matt Holliday, grab a reliable fourth outfielder for road trips. He was .357-12-52 at Coors Field last season, .256-7-35 away. . . . One reason the Red Sox didn't shed too many tears when Johnny Damon put on pinstripes was his .282 batting average in the second half of last season, compared to .343 in the first half. DH -- Oakland's Frank Thomas has the same number of strikeouts as base hits (88) the past two years.

Fast facts: San Francisco's Barry Bonds enters this season with 607 career intentional walks. Cincinnati's Ken Griffey Jr. is second among active players with 210. . . . Scott Podsednik of the White Sox stole third base 17 times in '04 . . . According to the Web site www.baseball-reference.com, as a 23-year-old Houston's Willy Taveras (.291-3-29-34 steals) had a season that was most similar in history to that of the late Kirby Puckett (.296-0-31-14), who was 23 in 1984.

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*Pitchers

Don't wait on: SP -- Johan Santana, Minnesota; Roy Halladay, Toronto; Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox; Bartolo Colon, Anaheim; Barry Zito; Oakland; Rich Harden, Oakland; Cliff Lee, Cleveland; Felix Hernandez, Seattle; C.C. Sabathia, Cleveland; Pedro Martinez, New York Mets. RP -- Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees; Francisco Rodriguez, Anaheim; Chad Cordero, Washington; Huston Street, Oakland; Joe Nathan, Minnesota.

Go easy: Roger Clemens is mighty tempting but even if he returns to Houston, he can't re-sign until May 1. . . . Boston's Josh Beckett has nine career stints on the disabled list. . . . Cincinnati's Eric Milton led the National League with 55 doubles allowed and topped the majors with 40 homers surrendered.

Fast facts: The Padres' Chris Young should enjoy going from Texas to San Diego. The former Princeton University basketball standout comes to Petco Park, which yielded 549 runs last season to rank 29th in the majors, from The Ballpark at Arlington, which gave up 797 to rank third. . . . San Francisco's Jason Schmidt has averaged more than 100 pitches per start for eight consecutive seasons. . . . Yankee Randy Johnson gave up a career-high 32 homers last year.

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com

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