If your fantasy baseball draft strategy focuses around solidifying your middle infield early in the draft, you may come across the difficult decision of which second baseman to take in the first couple rounds. According to Mock Draft Central's average draft position statistics, the consensus has been choosing either Robinson Cano (ADP: 9th) or Chase Utley (ADP: 16th) as the first two second basemen off the board. Let's take a look at which second base option will better help your chances of winning your league in 2011.
Utley was the undisputed best second baseman in the major leagues each year from 2005-2009. Over that five year span he hit 146 home runs, an average of almost 30 per year at the normally light hitting second base position. To prove his versatility, he also averaged 15 stolen bases a year during that period. Despite this success, Utley's draft stock has fallen the last couple of years due to injuries and concerns he may be another poorly aging second baseman. The big question for our purposes is what to expect from Utley in 2011, which he will play as a 32 year old. Utley's injury history consists of a broken hand in 2007 as a result of being hit by a pitch, arthroscopic hip surgery in November of 2008, and a sprained right thumb in 2010 after sliding into a base. I would not be so quick to put the "injury prone" tag on him. Two of the three injuries that caused him to miss time were fluke contact injuries and the result of bad luck. The hip surgery was in the 2008 off-season and was sandwiched between Utley's playing 159 games in 2008 and 156 games in 2009. I will let others decrease his draft day value because of the "injury prone" tag, but it will factor minimally into my valuation of Utley.
In 2010, Cano took over the top spot as the must have fantasy second baseman. Cano hit .319, 29 home runs, and topped 100 in both the Runs and RBIs categories. He was fantasy gold and officially moved ahead of Utley who played only 115 games. Cano's numbers also seem pretty sustainable. His BABIP was around his career average. His HR/FB ratio was a bit on the high side, but may not regress due to his home ballpark. He has shown consistent LD/GB/FB numbers throughout his career. Even with the expectation of a bit of regression after his breakout year, the consensus would have to project him in the 25/100/100 range. His one fantasy relevant weakness was in the stolen base category - he won't steal more than a few bases each year.
Based on recent history, if Cano and Utley both play full, healthy seasons I would project both of them to have about 25-30 HRs and 100 Runs and RBIs in 2011. The areas that may determine whose fantasy value is superior are steals, average, and age. Utley's advantage over Cano is in the steals category. Utley averaged 15 steals a year for the 6 year period between 2005 and 2010. This is despite missing time due to the three injuries mentioned above. In a full season Utley should be good for 15-20 steals which is very valuable in fantasy land. On the other hand, Cano offers value in the batting average category. Most people would expect Cano to bat in the .310-.320 range while Utley has batted in the .280-.300 range the last few years. Given the choice between a player that steals more bases and a player with a higher batting average, I usually favor the player with the steals, especially in rotisserie format. Steals are easier to predict while average is more at the mercy of BABIP fluctuations and is not as consistent from year to year. Cano could easily have a below average BABIP as he did in '08 when he hit .271. Bottom line is that I will always take the steals edge over the batting average edge. This would give Utley the edge in my book, though the last factor - age - is a strike against Utley. While I mentioned earlier that I would not factor Utley's injury history into the equation too strongly due to the nature of his injuries, I must consider the age factor. Outside of catcher, second base has proven to be the position in which players wear down the quickest. This must be factored into the decision regarding a 32 year old versus a 28 year old. If anything, I think Utley's 115 games played in 2010 may slightly increase his 2011 performance. I doubt he would still be feeling the effects of a sprained thumb suffered last summer and the lightened work load last year may have saved the rest of his body from the usual amount of wear and tear.
Using all the moving parts to come up with an actual ranking for these two players is difficult. I believe their HR/Run/RBI numbers should be similar in 2011. Utley will steal more bases, but Cano is more likely to hit for a higher average. I would also assume a bit more downside risk for Utley due to his age and position. All else equal, I would say I may favor Cano very slightly at the top of drafts as I prefer to minimize risk early. Of course, in this situation all else isn't equal. If I want to draft Cano I have to use a late first rounder, while I could get Utley in the mid to late second round. So my final stance is that, while I'd slightly rather have Cano, I'd be more likely to draft Utley at the cheaper price. The risk adjusted difference in my projections does not justify the full round price difference that early in the draft. I'd rather draft a team with Utley and Mark Teixeira/Adrian Gonzalez than one with Cano and Ryan Howard/Prince Fielder.