Ah, first base. Such a simple position. So straightforward. Your fantasy team has to get production from this spot, or it will die.
This year we rank a whopping 14 first basemen in our list of the top 100 players in fantasy, 13 of whom are eligible at no other position. (Adam Dunn, outfielder extraordinaire, is the only exception.) Our average projection of those 14 guys? A massive 35 homers, 109 RBIs, 95 runs scored and a .289 average. Heck, none of those players is projected for fewer than 26 homers or 91 RBIs.
That's why your standards have to be higher for first basemen. Is Nick Johnson a potentially good player when he stays healthy? Sure. Do Casey Kotchman and Daniel Murphy serve pretty nice functions on their major league teams? Yes. Is Lyle Overbay the embodiment of a "professional hitter"? I guess. But you can't afford to have "just OK" players at first base, or even at your corner-infield spot. There are just too many eye-popping stat producers eligible at first.
Does this mean you must reach to get a first baseman super-early in your draft, no matter what? Not at all. There are a lot of them. Most big league lineups are constructed around them. They earn the big bucks because they're run producers. And when a position is plentiful, you can afford to wait and let the super big boys come off the board. Given a choice between a hyper-elite producer at first base or, say, second or third, you should probably err on the side of those latter positions, where scarcity is an issue. But by the same token, you can't put off first basemen forever, because they do come off the board relatively quickly.
The line for this position isn't all that fine: In general, it doesn't matter which stud or studs you grab, because most of 'em are as consistent as the day is long. But you do -- within, say, the first six or seven rounds -- need to have a big-bopping first-sacker in tow, and you should think about taking another (in a sparse year for third basemen, it's likely that most fantasy squads will use first basemen at their corner spot) not long thereafter. It's the price of doing business in a fantasy league.
First Base rankings
1. Albert Pujols, STL, 1B, $35
2. Prince Fielder, MIL, 1B, $29
3. Miguel Cabrera, DET, 1B, $28
4. Mark Teixeira, NYY, 1B, $27
5. Ryan Howard, PHI, 1B, $26
6. Adrian Gonzalez, SD, 1B, $20
7. Pablo Sandoval, SF, 3B, 1B, $19
8. Joey Votto, CIN, 1B, $19
9. Kevin Youkilis, BOS, 3B, 1B, $18
10. Mark Reynolds, ARI, 3B, 1B, $18
11. Victor Martinez, BOS, C, 1B, $17
12. Justin Morneau, MIN, 1B, $17
13. Kendry Morales, LAA, 1B, $16
14. Adam Dunn, WAS, 1B, OF, $14
15. Billy Butler, KC, 1B, $14
16. Lance Berkman, HOU, 1B, $14
17. Derrek Lee, CHC, 1B, $14
18. Carlos Pena, TB, 1B, $12
19. Michael Cuddyer, MIN, 1B, OF, $9
20. Chris Davis, TEX, 1B, $8
21. Todd Helton, COL, 1B, $7
22. Jorge Cantu, FLA, 3B, 1B, $6
23. James Loney, LAD, 1B, $5
24. Adam LaRoche, ARI, 1B, $4
25. Martin Prado, ATL, 2B, 3B, 1B, $3
26. Garrett Jones, PIT, 1B, OF, $2
27. Paul Konerko, CHW, 1B, $2
28. Nick Johnson, NYY, 1B, $1
29. Gaby Sanchez, FLA, 1B, $-
30. Ramon Hernandez, CIN, C, 1B, $-
31. Aubrey Huff, SF, 1B, $-
32. Nick Swisher, NYY, 1B, OF, $-
33. Casey Kotchman, SEA, 1B, $-
34. Daniel Murphy, NYM, 1B, OF, $-
35. Lyle Overbay, TOR, 1B, $-
36. Daric Barton, OAK, 1B, $-
37. Russell Branyan, CLE, 1B, $-
38. Ronnie Belliard, LAD, 2B, 1B, $-
39. Garrett Atkins, BAL, 3B, 1B, $-
40. Justin Smoak, TEX, 1B, $-
Players listed at positions at which they are eligible in ESPN standard leagues. Rankings based on 2010 projections in mixed 5x5 rotisserie leagues. Dollar values based on 10-team mixed league with $260 budget.
Albert Pujols had questions about his elbow entering the 2009 season, and all he did was hit 47 homers with 135 RBIs, 16 steals and a .327 average. He's a monster, and he's only 30. Can I promise you he'll be fantasy's top producer again no matter what? Probably not. That's a mighty difficult thing to predict. But he'll be close. Pujols is so darn consistent that you'd be crazy not to take him first overall in your draft.
There's an argument to be made that four other first basemen could be first-round-worthy, depending on your preference. I think Miguel Cabrera will be fantasy's second-most-valuable first-sacker, though as a group at ESPN, we rated him third. Certainly the fact that Cabrera allegedly flaked on his teammates and went on a drinking binge during the season's final weekend in '09 gives one pause, as does the fact that he checked himself into alcohol rehab this offseason. But the Detroit Tigers expect him to be ready to go, and the guy turns just 27 in April. He's working on three straight seasons of 34-plus homers, six straight seasons eclipsing the century mark in RBIs (every full season of his career), and he's hit over .320 in four of the past five seasons.
Next, I'd take Mark Teixeira, because again, we're looking at supreme reliability: six straight years of 30-plus homers and 105-plus RBIs -- Big Tex and Pujols are the only two players in history to go 30/100 for six straight seasons. He was second in AL MVP voting last year and is my favorite to claim the award this season, as he's playing for the defending champs. But it's no major drop-off to Prince Fielder, who recovered from a (for him) subpar '08 to produce 46 homers and an eye-popping 141 RBIs in '09, to say nothing of a career-best .299 average. And the guy turns 26 in May. Most encouraging for Fielder's potential owners is that his struggles against left-handed pitching appear to be waning: In '08, he hit .239 with a .733 OPS against southpaws, but in '09, he hit .292 with a .943 OPS against them. He's amazing, and the only chink in his prodigious armor is the memory of that spooky '08.
And finally, you have to consider Ryan Howard an elite fantasy player, though he'd be my last choice in this category. Listen, on the face of it, Howard addressed his batting average concerns by hitting .279 last year to go along with his obligatory ridiculous power totals. (He's got four straight years of at least 45 homers and 136 RBIs.) If you could be guaranteed he'd hit in the .280 range every year, Howard would be among the ultimate no-doubters. But unlike Fielder, he's a total mess against lefties. Check out his diminishing numbers against southpaws over the past three years: .826 OPS in '07 (16 homers, 46 RBIs in 209 at-bats), .746 OPS in '08 (14 homers, 49 RBIs in 237 at-bats), .653 OPS in '09 (six homers, 33 RBIs in 222 at-bats). Howard will probably still hit 40 bombs, but that's a scary trend that gives his batting average real downside.
The Next Level
I'm going to put eight guys (minus Dunn, who's mentioned in our outfielder preview) into the "next level," though that may be simply an administrative distinction. I daresay any of these players could break out and produce elite fantasy seasons this year, though for one reason or another, they tend to carry a bit more risk.
First up for me is Adrian Gonzalez, who could probably use a trade out of Petco to fully realize his potential, but he's blasted 36 and 40 homers the past two seasons and hiked his on-base percentage from .357 to .405 last year thanks to a huge improvement in patience (and pitcher fear) that saw his walk rate jump from 10.6 percent to 17.5 percent. That's the kind of skill development we like to see in our young sluggers, and that's why another 40-homer season feels likely. Next, I'll give a nod to the young Joey Votto, who probably isn't really a .322 hitter (his batting average on balls in play [BABIP] was a robust .373 last year, which I don't expect to repeat), but he overcame health problems (specifically an inner-ear infection) and emotional problems (anxiety issues) to become a legit power source in '09 (25 homers and 84 RBIs in 469 at-bats). He's only 26 and is entering his third big league season, and while I think the fourth-round grade we have on him for this year's fantasy drafts is aggressive, I expect Votto to live up to it.
Next, I think you can throw Justin Morneau and Kendry Morales into a hat. Morneau is obviously coming off a mildly disappointing season, or else he'd be mentioned among the truly elite at this position. But the stress fracture in his back is supposedly healed, and if he can resume ticking off 600-at-bat seasons, there's no reason to think he can't go back to being a 30/100 candidate who might tickle a .300 batting average once again. But it would be foolhardy not to admit that there's risk.
Meanwhile, Morales shocked the fantasy world by suddenly becoming a middle-of-the-order power hitter in '09: After hitting only 12 homers total in his previous 377 big league at-bats, he drilled 34 in 566 at-bats last season. The reasons to worry about a regression with Morales are that he isn't a power hitter against lefties -- only four of his taters came against southpaws -- and he may have less protection in a Los Angeles Angels order somewhat depleted by departures. He also may have had a slightly inflated homer-per-fly-ball rate in '09 (18.1 percent), but really, since he's only just hitting his stride as a power hitter, that might be a premature thing to conclude. I think he'll get you at least 30 homers again.
Next up, I prefer Carlos Pena, though I'm in the minority among my ESPN brethren, who have Pena rated the No. 14 first baseman. (The lesson there, I think, is that the next several players all have similar upsides and downsides, and it comes down to personal preference.) I assume most folks are worried about Pena's batting average, which was a woeful .227 in '09. But look at this: Pena hit a more respectable .247 in '08 with an expected batting average of .250, and hit .227 in '09 with an expected batting average of .265. For me, that smacks of an unlucky season (which, of course, was cut short by a broken wrist). In addition, while Pena joins the ranks of first basemen who struggle against lefties, he doesn't usually struggle quite as much as he did in '09: .236. His career mark in that stat is .258, including .286 in '07 and .280 in '08. I think he's a lot likelier to hit .250 than .230 again this year, and his power is truly elite.
Next, I think a lot of people have given up prematurely on Lance Berkman. There's no question that Berkman, at age 34 and coming off a season in which he was dogged by a calf problem, comes with increased injury risk. His diminished power in the second half last year (he had only one homer in his first 127 at-bats after July 1) seems directly related to injury, because once he got well, he blasted seven dingers in September. Berkman's days of 45 homers and 136 RBIs (which he produced in '06) are behind him, but he can still be good for 30/100 in his sleep can and produce a near-.300 season while he's at it. I'll grant that he doesn't have the same upside as some younger guys on this list, but he'll come at a discount in '10.
Billy Butler is something of an experts' darling this year, because he eclipsed the .300 mark and posted a .925 OPS after last year's All-Star break, compared to .789 before. Is this the classic case of a young kid who'll build on second-half success? It could happen. Butler has power potential beyond the 21 dingers he hit last year, as evidenced by his 51 doubles, which explains why those examining his career arc think he might be ready to bust out. I have to admit, while I like Butler, I think we're still a year or two early on him; he's still a ground-ball hitter (47.3 percent in '09), and he'll turn 24 in April. He's already an excellent hitter, but I think he might stay just a smidgen power-deprived this season.
Finally, Derrek Lee might be the opposite of Berkman. They're roughly the same age, but Lee already (and finally!) had his bounce-back campaign, following up three seasons of mediocre production related to back injuries with a monster '09: 35 homers, 111 RBIs and a .306 average. You won't get Lee at the same kind of discount you did last season, obviously, but if he stays healthy, all this guy knows how to do is kill opposing pitching. Unfortunately, health is the big question. Personally, if I had to pick one guy to stay away from in a star-strewn list of near-elite first basemen, it'd be Lee, because his back has been a problem in multiple seasons.
Mid-round sleeper: Carlos Pena
Late-round sleeper: Matt LaPorta (once he's eligible)
Prospect: Justin Smoak
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Adam Dunn
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Nick Johnson
Player to trade for at the ASB: Adam LaRoche
Home hero: Billy Butler
Road warrior: Adrian Gonzalez
Player I like but can't explain why: Adam LaRoche
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Todd Helton
Where's The Ceiling?
Chris Davis was a fantasy darling in drafts last spring. Whoops. That's why I always say that on average, you're not going to be punished for staying away from the hot young name. Occasionally, one will explode, but give me the proven veteran most of the time, even if his upside isn't thrilling. Davis whiffed an unbelievable 114 times in 258 at-bats before the Texas Rangers had seen enough and sent him to the minors. When he returned, Davis did hit .308 in 133 at-bats, but he was abetted by a very favorable BABIP in those final couple of months. The power is obviously legit with Davis, and if you're taking him, say, in the 14th or 15th round of a 10-teamer, I can't complain. But the notion that his average will do anything but slaughter you is, I think, misguided. (Realize also that with one more failed audition, Davis could be passed by heralded prospect Justin Smoak.)
Matt LaPorta isn't actually eligible at first base yet (he's eligible only in the outfield), but he's expected to start there for the Cleveland Indians. Ex-manager Eric Wedge seemed to have a vendetta against the kid, often leaving him languishing on the big league bench despite his team's awful record, and then LaPorta needed hip surgery at season's end, so the future here is cloudy. But unlike Davis, LaPorta makes decent contact (on 80 percent of his swings in '09), so while he doesn't offer elite power upside yet, he won't ruin your average.
Daric Barton turns 25 in August, but it's true that he's been basically a washout in his first two-plus major league seasons. He's never been a real power prospect, but this former first-rounder was supposed to have a .300 hitting stroke. We'll see. Like Davis, Barton has a heralded prospect waiting behind him in the minors: Chris Carter. And Jeff Clement, formerly a catching prospect in Seattle, looks slated to begin the year as the Pittsburgh Pirates' starting first baseman. That he'll stay there all year is by no means guaranteed; the Bucs hedged by signing Ryan Church, who could start in the outfield, and Garrett Jones may replace Clement if necessary. Clement flashed 20-homer power at Triple-A, but his problem is likely always going to be contact. There's no reason to take a chance on drafting him.
Where's The Basement?
Todd Helton turns 37 in August, but he's still not particularly close to the end of the outrageous contract the Colorado Rockies gave him lo these many years ago: He'll make $16.6 million this year and $19.1 million in 2011, and in 2012 the Rockies will presumably buy him out for another $4.6 million rather than pay Helton $23 million. Phew. Now, it's true that Helton bounced back from an injury-ruined '08 season to bat .325 last year. If he's healthy, he'll be a .300-plus hitter. The problem is that his OPS, which used to flirt with (and sometimes exceed) 1.100 back from 2000 to 2004, has now settled in the high .800s or low .900s. You're not getting 20 homers from Helton, not even in that ballpark. So while he's an OK option as a corner infielder (provided you find extra power elsewhere), you certainly don't want to pay for Helton's name.
As of this writing, it was unclear whether Carlos Delgado would play another big league season, as the first base jobs appear to be drying up. He got only 94 at-bats last year before season-ending hip surgery, so while the notion that he clubbed at least 30 homers in 11 of his previous 12 seasons before '09 is enticing, it's fair to wonder what he'd have left in the tank if a team should sign him late. Could he be worth a last-round gamble in a 10-team league? I suppose so. And Aubrey Huff is only 33, but his power has fallen off a cliff the past two seasons; after hitting 32 bombs in '07, Huff managed only 15 the past two years combined, and the move from Camden Yards to AT&T Park for a left-handed power hitter is well nigh disastrous.
Steady As She Goes
James Loney inspired wildly differing opinions in our baseball summit this January; some see more plate discipline in '09 and a guy who doesn't turn 26 until May, and think he could hit .320 with 20 homers. Others see Daniel Murphy. The truth may rest somewhere in the middle, but it's hard not to categorize Loney as "steady" so far, considering he hit exactly 13 homers with exactly 90 RBIs each of the past two seasons. Adam LaRoche has a reputation as an awful first-half player and a stud after the All-Star break, and with good reason: His career OPS before the break is .773 and after the break, it's .909. He's an in-season roller-coaster ride, for sure, but in the end, LaRoche probably will give you what he always does: 25 homers, 90 RBIs and a .280 average. Paul Konerko responded to his subpar '08 season with 28 homers and 88 RBIs in '09, which isn't exactly the 40/110 that Chicago White Sox fans got used to back in the middle of the last decade, but it's not bad. There's nothing wrong with using him as your corner man.
Start 'Em Elsewhere
There are an awful lot of first basemen who, because of the impressive depth at the position, are more valuable elsewhere. Kevin Youkilis, Pablo Sandoval and Jorge Cantu obviously deserve to be rostered in all leagues, and despite the fact that each of them may see their most playing time at first base this year (though Huff's acquisition by the Giants makes that less likely in Sandoval's case), each will have tons more value in your third base spot. Adam Dunn and Michael Cuddyer are each also eminently ownable but may give you a bit more value as outfielders. A guy like Troy Glaus, who's attempting a comeback with the Atlanta Braves, will stay at first base for his real-world club, but you can justify taking a major flier on him only as a third baseman. And Garrett Jones, who surprised with a 21-homer season last year, has outfield eligibility, though I have severe doubts about his ability to maintain real fantasy value at any position throughout '10.
The Do-Not-Draft list
I'm not going to list truly terrible players here, because you know not to draft them. Instead, my advice circles around not accepting mediocrity among first basemen, and realizing that if you're not getting 30/100/.290 out of your first-sacker, you're falling behind. That's why it doesn't do you very much good to take guys like Lyle Overbay, Daniel Murphy, Daric Barton, Casey Kotchman or any other of the number of potential platoon guys who might be fine ballplayers and who might produce perfectly respectable numbers if they were, say, shortstops or second basemen, but who just don't have enough upside to play in a fantasy team's corner-infield slot.
You don't have to reach super-early for a first baseman, because there are plenty of truly excellent ones. But you should be thinking about grabbing one stud in the first six or seven rounds at the latest, and then consider adding another one soon thereafter. In a year when third base looks remarkably thin, you're probably going to be using two first basemen in your lineup, and you have to realize that just getting "average" stats is a hindrance. There are so many great hitters who play this position that, while I'm not particularly hung up about which first basemen you get, you do need to make sure you grab a couple of true sluggers.