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Monday, March 25, 2013
Goldschmidt a top-10 first baseman

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

First base used to be the first place fantasy owners turned to begin to shape their fantasy fortunes. In 2006, for example, six of the 13 players who hit over .300 with 30 home runs hung out on the far right of the infield. If you missed out on one of these power/average stalwarts, your chances at a winning season were severely diminished.

Spring Fever

However, over time, the gap between the statistical elite at first base and the rest of the positions on the field has diminished to the point where only Prince Fielder hit that .300-30 plateau in 2012. In fact, only six first basemen managed to hit at least 20 home runs with a batting average over .280.

Simply put, there's not nearly as much "can't-miss" talent at the position as there used to be and a lot of fantasy owners are going to be forced to decide between a quartet of names, none of which seems to stand out from the pack, to hold down the proverbial fort at first. When you reach the middle rounds of the draft, somebody in your draft is going to be tasked with making the call between Ike Davis, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt and Eric Hosmer.

Just in case that somebody ends up being you, let me tell you there's no reason to hem and haw about it. Only one of these four players deserves inclusion in the first base top 10. His name is Paul Goldschmidt.

Not one of these guys is going to approach the .300-30 plateau that is a very realistic possibility for the three players who will end up being selected in the first round of your draft: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Joey Votto. None of them has the positional flexibility that Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Allen Craig have to offer. And in terms of "upside" -- a chance at 40 homers (Edwin Encarnacion) or a .315 batting average (Billy Butler, Adrian Gonzalez) -- you can't confidently expect it here.

In other words, this is the best of the rest and each comes with his own particular area of strength. The one that seems the most appealing to your eye at the point of the draft when you're ready to finally pull the trigger -- Rounds 8-10 -- will depend on what category your team seems to be lacking at that time.

Paul Goldschmidt
Paul Goldschmidt appears to have the most overall fantasy upside from the crew of young first basemen waiting to make the next jump.

I Need Batting Average

Freddie Freeman has demonstrated the best eye at the plate, with his BB/K rate on the rise from 0.37 in 2011 to 0.50 in 2012. Part of the reason for the increase there is that he's swinging at fewer bad pitches, lowering the percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone he's flailed away at by 4.4 percent in the past year. At the same time, his overall contact rate has risen, meaning he's putting more balls in play and they're better balls to begin with.

Detractors will point out that, in spite of all these positive peripherals, Freeman hit just .212 once September rolled around last year. But Freeman had suffered through eye problems all season, as well as a busted finger that caused his bat grip to suffer. Those problems presumably won't be present in 2013, and as such, Freeman's comfort level at the plate -- and his stats -- could be there all season long. But what if those eye issues do resurface?

I Need Power

There's no question that Ike Davis can knock the ball over the wall and the proof is in his HR/FB rate surge from 12.0 percent in 2010 to 21.1 percent last season. (We're ignoring the "lost season" of 2011 due to injury.) So certainly, another 30 home run season is very realistic to expect. The problem is that it might be all to expect.

Davis hit just .188 at Citi Field and only 11 of his 32 round-trippers caused the Home Run Apple to emerge from that hat in the outfield. In fact, Davis could not seem to hit left-handed pitching in any ballpark, with a .174 batting average and only a .335 slugging percentage. Even if he improves a bit in this department, the run production might be spotty if there's a repeat of his .214 batting average with runners in scoring position.

I Need Speed

Hosmer may not be the fastest player in baseball, but probably uses his speed "smarter" than most. In 2011, Hosmer finished the season tied for 196th in the league with seven infield hits. In 2012, he climbed into the overall top 50 in that category with 17. He's hitting far more ground balls -- all the way up to 53. 6 percent in 2012 -- and legging out more hits as a result, but that's also the reason to be leery of his fluctuating BABIP, which dropped from .314 in 2011 to .255 last year.

When it comes to steals, he chooses his spots more wisely, too. Hosmer was caught only once in 2012, after going 11-of-16 in stolen bases in 2011. But this may be a case of diminishing returns. As Hosmer proves himself to be more of someone to pay attention to on the basepaths, the less likely it will be that opposing pitchers ignore him to the point where he'll feel the urge to take off for second.

I Want It All

In each and every category, Paul Goldschmidt is not projected to be the No. 1 player in this foursome in any single one. Yet, he's the most likely of this quartet to end up finishing first in all five categories. Of all the players we've discussed, Goldschmidt's potential for growth seems to be the largest, perhaps for one reason alone: Chase Field.

It's not typically considered to be as stat-inflating as Coors Field's reputation, but Chase Field is ranked No. 6 in ESPN's Park Factor in terms of home runs, runs scored and overall hits. It's also the No. 4 park for hitting doubles and Goldschmidt was one of 15 players with 40 or more doubles in 2012. But here's the thing: Goldschmidt's 2012 breakout happened almost exclusively on the road.

Imagine what he might do in 2013 if he starts taking advantage of his Arizona environs to the fullest.

Could this be the second coming of Jeff Bagwell? Through Sunday's action, Goldschmidt was hitting .434 for the spring, and while none of that really matters -- after all, so too is outfielder Shane Robinson of the St. Louis Cardinals and nobody will be talking MVP with him anytime soon -- the truth is that the upside here is immense, with little in the way of reasons to avoid selecting the Diamondbacks' first baseman.

Paul Goldschmidt is the clear best choice from this group to fill out the top 10 at first base. After he's gone, the best bet is to grab the player whose one-category strength is most needed on your own individual roster, be it power (Davis), speed (Hosmer) or batting average (Freeman). However, if the rest of your league has left him out there for the taking and you're the last owner to grab your first baseman, you need to grab Goldschmidt immediately.