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Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Updated: March 9, 3:33 PM ET
2011 Position Preview: First base

By Brendan Roberts
ESPN.com

In 2010, runs per game in the major leagues fell for the fourth straight season. In 2006, the average runs per game was 9.72, but by 2010 that number had fallen almost a full run, to 8.77. Simply put, pitchers are taking this game back from the hitters.

Fantasy Baseball Draft  Kit

This is being felt in fantasy little by little with each passing season. While there still have been plenty of amazing offensive performances in recent seasons, where we see it most is in the depth at each position. We fill our fantasy rosters and play out each season, almost without notice. And then, whammo! It strikes like a thief in the night. What happened to all the well-rounded third basemen? Are there really that few good shortstops? The number of reliable fantasy options is slowly decreasing.

Except at first base.

The first base position is alive and well. Nay, it's downright vibrant, with a top tier that can carry your team, a second tier that can anchor a winning team and even very respectable fill-in types, as you'll see below. No loss of offensive firepower here.

What this does, of course, is knock down the value of each first baseman, even if just a little. Each time you glance at your 1B rankings during the draft, you see someone further down the list you like nearly as much, and that makes us want to pass on drafting one. That's not necessarily the appropriate mindset because a first baseman could be the linchpin of a good fantasy offense. But if nothing else, with first basemen, there are "consolation prizes" if you don't get the guy you want. You can't say that at third base and shortstop.

Cream of the crop

First Base Rankings

1. Albert Pujols, StL, 1B, $35
2. Miguel Cabrera, Det, 1B, $30
3. Joey Votto, Cin, 1B, $29
4. Adrian Gonzalez, Bos, 1B, $27
5. Kevin Youkilis, Bos, 1B, $25
6. Mark Teixeira, NYY, 1B, $24
7. Prince Fielder, Mil, 1B, $23
8. Ryan Howard, Phi, 1B, $21
9. Adam Dunn, CWS, 1B, $18
10. Buster Posey, SF, C/1B, $16
11. Justin Morneau, Min, 1B, $15
12. Kendry Morales, LAA, 1B, $14
13. Paul Konerko, CWS, 1B, $13
14. Billy Butler, KC, 1B, $12
15. Aubrey Huff, SF, 1B/OF, $10
16. Adam LaRoche, Was, 1B, $9
17. Carlos Lee, Hou, OF/1B, $8
18. Carlos Pena, ChC, 1B, $7
19. Derrek Lee, Bal, 1B, $7
20. Gaby Sanchez, Fla, 1B, $6
21. Mike Napoli, Tex, 1B/C, $5
22. Mitch Moreland, Tex, 1B, $5
23. Michael Cuddyer, Min, 1B/OF, $4
24. Lance Berkman, StL, 1B, $4
25. Ike Davis, NYM, 1B, $3
26. James Loney, LAD, 1B, $3
27. Freddie Freeman, Atl, 1B, $2
28. Garrett Jones, Pit, 1B/OF, $1
29. Justin Smoak, Sea, 1B, $0
30. Ty Wigginton, Col, 1B/2B/3B, $0
31. Daric Barton, Oak, 1B, $0
32. Kila Ka'aihue, KC, 1B, $0
33. Brett Wallace, Hou, 1B, $0
34. Lyle Overbay, Pit, 1B, $0
35. Matt LaPorta, Cle, 1B, $0
36. Xavier Nady, Ari, 1B/OF, $0
37. Russell Branyan, Ari, 1B, $0
38. Melvin Mora, Ari, 3B/1B, $0
39. Todd Helton, Col, 1B, $0
40. Eric Hinske, Atl, OF/1B, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

Albert Pujols is the cream of the crop at the deepest position in fantasy baseball, which almost by definition makes them the cream of the crop in all of fantasy baseball. And they are.

Normally there's some debate about who should be taken first overall in fantasy drafts, with two or three players being legit candidates. This year there's no such discussion. Why? Because it says something that Pujols has been one of those 2-3 names since he came into the league 10 years ago. That says all you need to know about him: He's as reliable as a first-round pick gets. That safety factor is priceless and transcends any concern about him playing a deep position. You get the first pick, you take Albert, you move on. It's a no-brainer.

Then you have Miguel Cabrera, who is usually just as steady and reliable, but without the double figures in steals. After posting another monster season in 2010, it seemed to us that Cabrera had tamed his off-the-field demons, and we were prepared to endorse him as the No. 2 man to draft overall, but a February DUI arrest and the stories that accompanied it tell a different tale. We cannot ignore the possibility that his on-the-field performance, and number of games played, could be affected. Simply put, he's no longer a no-questions-asked safe pick; Cabrera now comes with a high-risk/high-reward tag. The reward, of course, is that he puts up Cabrerian numbers and ends up belonging right here, in the elite tier. But there is the risk that you blow a first-round pick on a player whose mind isn't entirely on baseball this season and is no sure thing to play 160 games.

Next best things

We're actually going to split this tier, putting two in one group and five in the next. And yet all seven of these players should be off the board by midway through the fifth round.

Joey Votto and Adrian Gonzalez make up that second tier. Only Carlos Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Pujols finished higher on our 2010 Player Rater than Votto, the reigning National League MVP. What sets Votto apart from others at this position is his consistently high batting average -- he hit .324 in 2010 and is a career .314 hitter -- and his sneaky speed, having stolen 16 bases in 2010. Not that he's fast, but like Pujols, if he picks enough of the right opportunities and tallies double-digit steals, then he's an elite option. Gonzalez doesn't have the wheels, but he should have elite production in the other four categories. To think, he has been productive all these years in one of the least favorable hitters' parks in all of baseball, and now he'll head to a ballpark that favors his type of swing. He'll be pounding pitches off or over the Green Monster, and this year he'll have better hitters to drive him in, if it's the former. As long as his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery continues to progress well, we're looking at an upper-tier player with elite upside.

Then we have these five: Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard and Adam Dunn. In a general sense, this quintet has more in common than you might realize: All of them have shown elite production, but all five have question marks that prevent them from being considered safe.

With Youk, it's the thumb injury that ended his 2010 season early. He has hit .300 or better each of the past three seasons, he's a steady 25-homer, 100-RBI guy, and his high on-base percentage boosts his run numbers. By all accounts, his thumb should be just fine for Opening Day, if not well before, and his move to third base -- and the added qualification that it brings -- makes him a top-25 guy. ... Teixeira was a top-10 guy in most drafts last season, but he wasn't able to recover from his typical slow start quite as much in 2010 -- a poor September didn't help -- and his average slipped to .256. The homers, RBIs and runs are more than fine, not to mention his lineup and ballpark, but that batting average drop means elite three-category production, not four. Almost the exact same things can be said about Fielder, whose average fell from .299 to .261. Like Teixeira, he's extremely durable. But unlike Teixeira, he'll be a free agent after the 2011 season, adding a touch of motivation to what should be an already productive campaign.

Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard has averaged 45.8 homers per year the past five seasons but hit just 31 in 2010.

Howard and Dunn have the ability to lead the league in homers, but that's about where the similarities end. Howard has more upside, boasting a career average almost 30 points higher, but he also slipped in homers in 2010 and no longer has "invincibility" status, having missed time with an ankle injury last season. He still should be considered durable, and there's no reason he can't hit .270 again, but at least there are now doubts he's no longer the 40-homer guy he was prior to last season. Dunn is, especially playing half his games at U.S. Cellular Field, one of the more favorable homer parks in the majors, and he's durable, too. But his batting average slipped back to .260 last season, and he's a career .250 hitter. The Cell can't help him there, making Dunn more of an acquired taste.

Injury returns

Youkilis isn't the only player who suffered a serious injury in 2010. There are a handful of other talented options who have major upside but also major injury questions.

None typifies that more than Justin Morneau, considered by many to be the top AL MVP candidate before getting kneed in the head in July while trying to break up a double play. The resulting concussion, and then post-concussion symptoms, would eventually end his season, and at the time of this writing, he still hadn't begun baseball activities. He hit .345 with 18 homers in the first half, then missed the second half. How's that for polar opposites? This will have to be something you track leading up to your draft. If the news is good (i.e. he's back, with no repercussions), then take him with confidence. But if the concern of his concussion symptoms linger, it'd be safer to leave him for someone else.

The news is a little better regarding Kendry Morales' broken leg, suffered in the flukiest of ways (jumping on home plate after a walkoff grand slam in May), but you never know how it is going to respond to repetitive use. Consider his 2009 numbers to be a best-case scenario; count on something slightly less, just to be safe.

If you scan a little further down the rankings, you'll see a pair of sluggers in their mid-30s, Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee, who are both coming off season-ending injuries. Pena (foot) can still hit the long ball, and should fare well in his first foray in the National League and at Wrigley Field, which still ranks as a top-10 park for homers on our Park Factors page. Lee, who had his best seasons calling Wrigley Field home, likewise jumps to a new league in signing with the Baltimore Orioles. His thumb injury has lingered longer than Pena's foot injury, but let's not forget he was still a 20-homer, 80-RBI guy before the injury and should be able to pull up his .260 average in a revamped O's lineup.

Where's the ceiling?

There are a few unknowns at this position. Granted, with so many proven guys, it's tough to justify early-round picks (in mixed-league drafts) on these guys, but if you're looking for possible mid- (or late-) round thunder, these guys are on the horizon.

Dare I place Billy Butler in this category? Yes, because for all his big league experience (four years worth), he's still just 24. For all he already does (.318, 15 homers, 78 RBIs in 2010), he could be in the category below, but if he could just turn a few more of those 45 doubles into homers, he'd be a few categories above. At his age, there's still hope for that. Meanwhile, Gaby Sanchez is three years older and less of an unknown. He had a better than advertised rookie season, especially in the RBI category (85), posting an .839 OPS with runners in scoring position. He doesn't have the lineup support or favorable ballpark that many top sluggers have, but the fact that he finished 81st on the Player Rater this soon in his major league career leads to hope that he can be a legit fantasy first baseman.

Scouts salivate over Mitch Moreland's potential, and he showed it in the postseason, with a .348 average in 46 at-bats. The Rangers have him locked in at first base, and it should mean something that they sent Chris Davis down to play him, then traded former top prospect Justin Smoak, then held off interested trade partners looking for him all offseason. He has a sweet swing and top-tier upside; it's just a matter of whether he can hit lefties well enough to get there.

Prior to the 2010 season, stories of Ike Davis' mammoth home runs regaled owners in deep leagues, and by the end of April, we were seeing it in person. Not only is there 30-homer upside in that bat, there's 40-homer upside. What's most encouraging is that he already is showing he can hit offspeed stuff, hit lefties better than righties (he's a lefty swinger) in 2010, and posted better numbers at his unfavorable home ballpark than on the road (albeit with fewer homers). There's big-time upside here, though with him striking out 135-plus times a year, it's unlikely he'll hit better than .280.

Could Freddie Freeman be this year's Jason Heyward? It's believed the 21-year-old will get the chance to start at first base for the Atlanta Braves, and Freeman fits the bill as one of the top offensive prospects in baseball. He hit .319-18-87, with 35 doubles, in Triple-A, not bad for a kid who was not even the legal drinking age much of the season. Again, this is a deep position, so there's no need to take chances, but you can't ask for much more upside from a late-round sleeper pick.

And finally, we have four former top prospects who have yet to show themselves at the big league level. Justin Smoak had this offseason to put his miserable rookie campaign behind him and start fresh. He had become known for slow starts when jumping levels, but it's worth noting that he eventually figured it out in all his previous stops. ... The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Kila Ka'aihue hit 24 homers in a mere 94 games in Triple-A (with a .319 average) in 2010, then added another eight with the Kansas City Royals. It's too soon to expect big numbers for a full season in the bigs, but the Royals appear likely to give him that chance. ... Brett Wallace didn't show us much in his rookie season, but if he can be more selective at the plate, he has the right ballpark to flourish. ... And Matt LaPorta appears to be a Four-A player (good in the minors, not the majors), but maybe a fresh start elsewhere, if he gets one, can change that.

Steady as he goes

None of these guys reach our top 10 at the position; that's the bad news. The good: You know what to expect from them, and in many cases, it's still very helpful. There's something to be said for reliability. So if you find yourself taking quite a few chances and want proven production from a position you expect it from, here ya go. Not much needs to be said about them, because what you see is what you get.

Paul Konerko
Can Paul Konerko match his 39-homer, 111-RBI bounceback performance from 2010?

At 35, Paul Konerko seems ageless, and as long as he's in the lineup every day and playing half his games in a hitters park, no reason he can't remain productive. ... Aubrey Huff bounced back nicely with a vintage .290-26-86 stat line, and he could easily repeat that in the middle of the San Francisco Giants' lineup. ... Adam LaRoche has been moving around plenty in recent seasons, but his numbers haven't; he hit 25 homers in each of the past three seasons. He also is coming off his first 100-RBI campaign. ... Michael Cuddyer has been with one team his whole career, but his home ballpark did change in 2010. He appeared to miss the Metrodome in the homers category (18 homers at home in '09, seven in '10), yet he still managed 81 RBIs and matched his runs output (93) of a year earlier. ... Lance Berkman didn't produce like he belongs here in 2010, but he should produce with the St. Louis Cardinals. Redbirds manager Tony La Russa knows how to use veterans such as him (read: he knows when to sit them) to keep the prolonged slumps from happening. Plus, Berkman is said to be in great shape for his move to the outfield -- hello, added position eligibility -- and is still at an age (35) that suggests he should have another year or two of modest production left. ... OK, so we know we're not going to get even 20 homers from James Loney, but 88 RBIs aren't bad. ... And finally, Daric Barton falls into a similar class, with little power but .280-average, 80-RBI potential.

Digging deeper, you'll see a few power swingers, Garrett Jones and Russell Branyan, who can boost your homers category on the cheap if they're playing regularly. You'll see a few more who can produce when fully healthy (which might be sparingly) in Xavier Nady and Todd Helton. ... And finally, there's Lyle Overbay, who is decidedly blah but has a history of hitting well in the second half of the season.

Top prospects

The Royals' Eric Hosmer's prospect status is intact now after a lost 2009 season, and while he's blocked at first base for now, there's talk of moving him to right field, which could get him to the bigs as early as the second half of this season. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds' Yonder Alonso is even more blocked than Hosmer. Unfortunately, attempts to move Alonso to the outfield haven't fared well, and there's talk he could be had via trade if the price is right. He has immediate fantasy upside if he's dealt to a team that has a slot for him at first base.

Brandon Belt went from relative no-name to one of the top prospects in baseball with a .352-23-112 season at three levels of the minors last season. He also could be moved to the outfield, and the Giants seem committed to finding a spot for him as early as this season. As early as 2012, he could be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter for them.

And finally, there's big Chris Carter, a 6-5, 230-pound (that's being generous) Oakland Athletics prospect. He has hit 98 homers in the minors over the past three seasons (plus three in the majors), but he also has struck out 427 times. Yikes! He'll start in the minors to work on making contact more often, but if pressed into duty this season, he could hit homers in bunches.

The DHs

Designated Hitter Rankings

1. Adam Lind, Tor, DH, $10
2. David Ortiz, Bos, DH, $9
3. Vladimir Guerrero, Bal, DH, $7
4. Luke Scott, Bal, DH, $4
5. Jim Thome, Min, DH, $3
6. Hideki Matsui, Oak, DH, $2
7. Dan Johnson, TB, DH, $0
8. Jack Cust, Sea, DH, $0
9. Travis Hafner, Cle, DH, $0
10. Juan Miranda, Ari, DH, $0
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2011 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team (one-catcher) mixed league with $260 budget.

You know how earlier in this position preview I talked about the drop in offense? Well, that fact has forced owners to open their minds in the middle to late rounds in drafts and lock down their DH (or utility) slot with an actual DH. In a typical 10-team draft, as many as 3-5 owners will be unwilling to burn a roster spot on a guy who can only DH, since that utility/DH slot can be so useful. But why search for some unproven fifth or sixth outfielder who might hit 20 homers when you have somebody who already does?

Adam Lind already does, though his drop from 35 homers in 2009 to 23 last season seemed like an epic fail. But he still has the same 30-homer power, he's just 27 and if the Toronto Blue Jays sit him more against lefties, he'll pick up that batting average too. It also might help his value, though only a little, if he gains first base qualification, which is quite possible. ... Speaking of adding position eligibility, Luke Scott, who quietly hit 27 homers in 2010, should add outfield eligibility early in the season, with new teammate Vladimir Guerrero locking down the DH spot. Vlad, meanwhile, still has a few good years left in him, though you shouldn't: a) expect anything close to what he produced in 2010; and b) expect him to gain position eligibility. If only he had played in two more games in the outfield in 2010 (he played 18 there). ... Hideki Matsui also fell two games short and also is unlikely to gain outfield eligibility during the 2011 season. But that's OK; his at-bats at DH help keep him healthy and he still has the bat to produce 20 homers and 75 RBIs with the A's.

David Ortiz and Jim Thome likely don't even bring gloves to the ballpark, but these distinguished veterans still showed they can carry a big stick, hitting a combined 57 homers. Both are at ages in which they should be expected to decline, but because both have shown they have something left, it'd be foolish to write them off. Mark my words: Both will fall much further in your draft than their 2010 numbers suggest they should, and you shouldn't feel ashamed to get either of them.

At this point, we kind of know what to expect from Jack Cust and Travis Hafner. It's not enough to help mixed-league owners week in and week out, but both players do make for nice free-agent pickups when the timing is right. Cust can help when you see a series of right-handed starting pitchers on tap for the Mariners, and Hafner can help when he's in one of his patented hot streaks.

And finally, there's Dan Johnson, who is still in line to get at-bats at first base for the Rays (with Manny Ramirez being the DH). Most fantasy owners (and maybe even Rays fans?) are more than willing to write off Johnson, but many scouts (and at least a few people on our ESPN Fantasy staff) aren't willing to write him off after watching him hit 37 homers between Triple-A and the majors in 2010. He's an intriguing late-round candidate if you're short on pop, especially since he should gain first base qualification fairly quickly if he can lock down at least a platoon job in Tampa.

Bottom line

Pretty impressive, eh? There's still plenty to talk about in terms of fantasy potential here. The top guys are worth every bit of that early-round pick you'll have to use to get them, but if you don't, you should still come away from your drafts with at least a first baseman you're content with, and it's likely you'll find another one useful enough to fill your corner infield spot, too.

Brendan Roberts has written about fantasy baseball and football for ESPN Fantasy.