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Fantasy by Jay Skurski: Third base, shortstop are iffy propositions

The left side of the infield has the potential to be a graveyard this year in fantasy baseball.

Outside of Detroit slugger Miguel Cabrera – who may not even have eligibility at third base in your league because he’s shifting across the diamond to first – there are very few “sure things” at the hot corner.

The top of this year’s draft rankings are filled with veterans on the wrong side of 30 like Texas’ Adrian Beltre, the New York Mets’ David Wright and Milwaukee’s Aramis Ramirez.

Beltre, amazingly, is entering his 17th year in the big leagues, despite the fact he turns 35 during the first week of the season. He’s been rock solid the past three seasons with Texas, hitting between .296 and .321 while averaging 33 home runs and 100 RBIs a season. A slide in production seemingly has to start soon, but given the dearth of production from those behind him, Beltre will continue to be a hot commodity on draft day.

Wright has averaged just 123 games per season over the last three years with New York, with 53 home runs and 212 RBIs over that time. His production is steady, but his ability to stay on the field remains a concern.

Likewise for the 35-year-old Ramirez, who played only 92 games for the Brewers last season. Like Beltre, he’s entering his 17th year in the majors. Ramirez has missed 38 or more games three times in the past five years.

Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria finally stayed healthy in 2013 and produced accordingly. He hit 32 home runs, drove in 88 and scored 91 times. He brings power to a position where there isn’t much.

As far as elite talent goes, things aren’t much better at shortstop. According to ESPN, the top 25-ranked players at the position averaged 482 at-bats, a .268 average, 11 home runs, 51 RBIs, 60 runs and 14 steals.

The best available player at the position is the Dodgers’ Hanley Ramirez. The 30-year-old slugged .779 with runners in scoring position last year. He’s likely a first-round pick, but doesn’t come without risk. In two of the past three seasons, Ramirez has missed about half the year because of injury.

Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki takes advantage of the thin air in Coors Field, hitting .314 at home compared to .276 on the road. Like Ramirez, however, Tulowitzki has struggled with injuries. He’s played at least 130 games only twice in the past six seasons.

The third-ranked shortstop is Washington’s Ian Desmond, a potentially undervalued player this year who led the position in total bases last season. If Desmond can cut down on his strikeout numbers (22.1 percent of at-bats last season), he’s got the potential to increase his home run total (20) from 2013.

With so few elite options at third and shortstop, it becomes imperative for fantasy owners to dig deeper for sleepers. Here are a few candidates:

• Starlin Castro, SS, Chicago Cubs: His name recognition might stop Castro from being a sleeper, but his production dip in 2013 could scare potential owners away. According to ESPN, Castro swung at more pitches out of the strike zone (428) last year than any other player at his position. He finished with only 59 runs scored and 44 RBIs. But at just 23 years old, he’s still a work in progress and worthy of a mid-round selection based on his still significant potential.

• Xander Bogaerts, 3B/SS, Boston: Bogaerts may have third-base eligibility at the start of the season, but he’s expected to be the starting shortstop for the Red Sox, so he should qualify there soon enough. The 21-year-old had only 44 at-bats in the regular season in 2013, but was a staple of Boston’s postseason lineup. He hit a combined 15 home runs in the minors last year, and should see some pitches to hit in the defending World Series champions’ lineup. Bogaerts has good plate discipline and is an attractive middle-rounds selection, especially in keeper leagues.

• Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta: The 24-year-old Gold Glove winner is an elite defensive player, so he’ll get plenty of at-bats even if he’s struggling at the plate. Simmons could be poised for a big jump in production this year. It’s easy to think he was a bit unlucky last year, with only a .247 average on balls in play. Like Bogaerts, he’s got great plate discipline, striking out only 8.4 percent of the time. If more of those struck balls find holes, Simmons’ on-base percentage should jump.

• Manny Machado, 3B, Baltimore: The 21-year-old would be closer to an elite player than a prospect if it weren’t for a season-ending knee injury in 2013 that required reconstructive surgery. He’ll start the season on the disabled list and there’s no telling how long he’ll be there, so you can’t draft Machado to be a starter. You might be able to steal him later in the draft, though, if he starts to slip. Machado has drawn comparisons to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. He’s not close to that level yet, but his production last year – 14 homers, 51 doubles and 71 RBIs – suggests he could get there.

• Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit: The Tigers’ expected starter on Opening Day, Castellanos hit 18 home runs in Triple-A. He’s another prospect with big-time keeper potential who could contribute in 2014.

• Matt Davidson, 3B, Chicago White Sox: Acquired in an offseason trade with Arizona, Davidson will start the season in Triple-A. He had a good spring – hitting .308 with a pair of homers and six RBIs in 17 games – and the Sox are happy with his progress.

• Maikel Franco, 3B, Philadelphia: He won’t steal you any bases, but Franco has big-time power. He hit .320 with 31 homers and 103 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A last season. Ranked the 17th-best prospect by Baseball America, Franco is expected to start in Lehigh Valley, but could get a crack in the majors if Cody Asche struggles.

• Addison Russell, SS, Oakland: Current shortstop Jed Lowrie is already talking like a player who knows his time could be short. That’s how much potential the 20-year-old Russell possesses. Lowrie, though, had a career season for the A’s in 2013, so it’s doubtful Russell will get a look at the majors. He’s strictly a keeper pick.