- Brian Gramling, Fantasy
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Historically, the first base position has arguably been the most important and highly sought-after position in fantasy baseball. This is usually a position that can anchor a fantasy squad. However, this feels like a weaker crop of first basemen, especially on the high end, than what is usually available going into a draft. Injury risks abound, and many former All-Stars are starting to enter the twilight of their careers. There are also no stud prospects to drool over, and the jury is out on whether any of the sub-25-year-old players can move from the middle of the pack to a place among the top 10 first basemen this season.
This is a position in which power is coveted, but last year's performance as a whole was disappointing, as just three first basemen (Edwin Encarnacion, Adam LaRoche and Ike Davis) surpassed 30 homers, with Encarnacion (42 homers) being the only one reaching 35 taters. Just five players tallied triple digits in RBIs, and only six first basemen scored 80-plus runs. Only five "speedsters" stole more than five bases, and of the 20 first basemen who qualified for a batting title, only seven of those eclipsed a .275 average.
However, considering only two-thirds of the major league teams had a batting title-eligible first baseman, these big-number groups are likely to expand with simply a little more luck this season. Another positive about this position is that although there are just a handful of studs that you'll have to spend big dollars or an early pick on, there is a considerable amount of depth with several big-name players among those first basemen ranked in the high-teens into the 20s at their position.
Cream of the Crop
The top tier at first base consists of three players -- Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Prince Fielder -- and arguments can be made for each of them as the top first-sacker this season. Pujols certainly has the greatest upside entering his second season in the American League and is now being protected in the Los Angeles Angels' lineup by offseason acquisition Josh Hamilton. After a woeful first five weeks with L.A. last season (.506 OPS, 0 HRs in 27 games), Pujols posted a slash line of .305 BA/.365 OBP/.569 SLG from May 6 through the end of the season, with 30 homers and 100 RBIs in these 127 games. He is still a top-10 overall fantasy option, though he might no longer be a top-5 pick.
If Votto's surgically repaired left knee holds up for 150-plus games, he also should provide top-10 fantasy production. He's expected to play for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, which will go a long way toward proving that he's fully healthy and not the same hitter that went homerless in his final 40 games of the 2012 season. Despite this late-season power outage, Votto still posted career highs in average (.337), on-base percentage (.474) and on-base plus slugging (1.041), and the lefty's career numbers versus southpaws are a whopping .304 average, .394 on-base and .504 slugging.
Prince Fielder does not benefit from a great home for home runs, as Comerica Park placed 17th in the category according to ESPN's 2012 Park Factors page. However, Fielder smacked 18 of his 30 homers in Detroit in 2012, and his gaudy 1.015 OPS at home dwarfed his .869 OPS on the road. Fielder also hit lefties well (.808 OPS), posting a career-high .313 batting average against them. The return of DH Victor Martinez to the Detroit Tigers lineup likely will help Fielder's run production this season, too. Considering the big man turns just 29 in May and has been incredibly durable (four straight seasons of at least 161 games), it's hard to argue that Fielder is not one of the 12 best options in fantasy baseball.
The Next Best Things
Encarnacion's 2012 season was simply amazing: .280 BA, 42 HRs, 110 RBIs, 93 runs, 13 SBs. All five of these categories were career highs by a large margin, and the best could be yet to come, as Encarnacion just turned 30 in January. His Toronto Blue Jays also made a ton of meaningful moves in the offseason and now have an improved middle infield of Emilio Bonifacio and Jose Reyes, plus the addition of Melky Cabrera in left field. These newcomers should provide "Double-E" with even more RBI opportunities, a category he excelled in last season. In 106 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Encarnacion posted a .311/.467/.613 line, with remarkable patience in these clutch opportunities (32 walks, just 20 strikeouts). But until he posts another season even close to his 2012 breakout, cynics will justifiably think his amazing campaign was a fluke.
Thankfully, Billy Butler played 20 games -- exactly 20 games, in fact -- at first base last season, which gives him much more value than just a DH-only player. Butler continues to trend upward in nearly every category and is still just 26 years old. His snail-like speed will keep his runs (and steals, of course) in check, and his so-so lineup will limit his RBI chances, but it's worth noting that Butler has hit a whopping .316 at Kauffman Stadium in his six-year career.
Gonzalez's fantasy stock was a lot higher in Fenway Park than Dodger Stadium, where he has just six homers and a .393 slugging percentage over 242 career at-bats. However, a full year hitting behind two other former Boston Red Sox players, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez, should give Gonzalez plenty of opportunities to reach 99-plus RBIs for the seventh straight season. He has always been a great RBI man, with a stellar .996 OPS in nearly 1,100 at-bats with runners in scoring position in his career.
Where's The Ceiling?
In terms of dynasty leagues and long-term keeper formats, there are five first basemen to pay particularly close attention to. All of these players are not yet among the elite at the position, but they have shown the potential to become regular All-Stars, and they're young enough for us to believe they could still reach that potential.
Mark Trumbo, Adam LaRoche
Justin Morneau, Damian Moss
Prospects: Mike Olt, Jonathan Singleton
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Mark Teixeira
Players to trade at All-Star break: Paul Konerko, Lance Berkman
Players to trade for at ASB: Billy Butler, Adrian Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche
Home heroes: Corey Hart, Brandon Belt
Road warriors: Paul Goldschmidt, Ike Davis
Player I inexplicably like: Ike Davis
Player I inexplicably dislike: Eric Hosmer
Paul Goldschmidt, 25, is arguably the most athletic first baseman in baseball, racking up 18 stolen bases and smacking 20 homers. And despite playing at hitter-favorable Chase Field, Goldschmidt has actually been a much better hitter on the road (.895 OPS) than at home (.781 OPS) in his young career.
The same goes for Ike Davis, 26, who was just dreadful at Citi Field last year (.188/.277/.342) compared to his road numbers (.262 BA/.335 OBP/.566 SLG). Despite his struggles in Flushing, Davis still had a huge power season with 32 homers (third-most among first basemen) and 90 RBIs.
The other three players are 23 years old. Despite playing in 10 fewer games in 2012 than he did in 2011, Freddie Freeman increased his runs total by 24 and his RBIs by 18. Although he seemed to hit a wall before the final two months of the season (.215 average, .750 OBP over his final 55 games), I expect him to improve upon his subpar clutch numbers of a .238 average with runners in scoring position and 3-for-23 (.130 BA) with the bases loaded in his young career.
Eric Hosmer was expected to take a giant step forward in 2012, but instead suffered through the mythical sophomore slump, as his stellar .293 batting average and .799 OPS as a rookie turned into a .232 BA and .663 OPS in his second year. The lefty did show off his outstanding baserunning skills with 16 steals in 17 chances, but he has really struggled to drive the ball off southpaws, slugging .303 against them in his career. Also, Hosmer batted just .172 (41-for-239) in the top half of the order last season. His best spot in the order was sixth (.860 OPS), but batting in this spot in a mediocre Royals lineup will keep his run-producing numbers in check.
Like Hosmer, Anthony Rizzo is a 23-year-old lefty who struggled against left-handed pitching last season (.208 BA/.243 OBP/.356 SLG). However, Rizzo did hit in clutch situations (.338 batting average with runners in scoring position), which is a good sign for his RBI potential. The big question is how many RBI chances he'll get, considering the Chicago Cubs scored the third-fewest runs in the majors last season.
Where's The Basement?
There are a handful of aging first basemen whose names have been called in the early rounds of plenty of fantasy drafts over the past decade. Paul Konerko has been incredibly durable in his career, logging an average of 147 games per season since 1999. Although he will be 37 before the season begins, Konerko bats cleanup on a Chicago White Sox team that finished seventh in the majors in runs, and loves hitting in his home ballpark, batting .327 with a .610 slugging percentage at US Cellular Field over the past three seasons.
Justin Morneau appears to be healthy again, and at age 31, he has a lot of life left in his powerful bat. He was curiously "un-clutch" in 2012 (.196 BA, .304 SLG with runners in scoring position) compared to his lifetime numbers of .285 BA and .476 SLG in the same situation. If he can get his RISP numbers closer to his career levels, a return to 100 RBIs is not out of the realm of possibility.
Ryan Howard's qualitative numbers have dropped sharply in each of the past four seasons to a career-worst .219/.295/.423 last season. He also drew a surprisingly low 25 walks in 292 plate appearances last year, and the Phillies didn't bolster their lineup this offseason with great on-base percentage players -- new CF Ben Revere had a .333 OBP last season, new 3B Michael Young tallied a .312 OBP and RF Delmon Young's OBP was an anemic .296 last year -- to give Howard more RBI opportunities.
Lance Berkman shouldn't be forgotten in Texas, but owners can't bank on the 37-year-old logging 120-plus games given his recent injuries and the younger bats itching for playing time, including Mike Olt, Mitch Moreland and uber-prospect Jurickson Profar (who could bump Ian Kinsler or Adrian Beltre to first).
And for deeper leagues, take a flier on Brandon Moss, who was the only first baseman with at least 20 road at-bats to post an OPS over 1.000 in away games last year. Moss tallied a whopping 1.050 OPS in 126 at-bats on the road, and should be his team's regular first baseman. Although he bats left-handed, Moss has a better average (.261) versus southpaws than against righties (.249) in his short career.
Steady As He Goes
Three players remain steady picks as starting first basemen or corner infielders in leagues with 12-plus owners. Mark Teixeira battled injuries last season, but at age 33, this switch hitter can still mash. He's no longer a .300 hitter, but with a full season of games, he'll certainly drive in 100 runs in the middle of New York's order and also should score 90-plus runs. The interesting split on Teixeira is that he batted .218 with a pedestrian .742 OPS at Yankee Stadium last season, continuing a trend of plummeting numbers in the Bronx following his .312 BA and 1.013 OPS in the Stadium's first year in 2009. However, Teixeira did post an .858 OPS on the road in 2012 to make up for his home woes.
Mark Trumbo quietly smacked 32 homers last season, with 20 of those coming on the road. He'll likely stay at the No. 5 slot in the batting order, a spot where he posted an .889 OPS last season. Although he tailed off considerably after Aug. 1 last season (.208 BA, .250 OBP, .302 SLG in 50 games), the addition of Josh Hamilton to the lineup should allow Trumbo to eclipse 100 RBIs this season.
Adam LaRoche is still a bit undervalued, as there's certainly no shame in any of his 2012 numbers: .271 BA, 33 HRs, 100 RBIs, 76 runs. The left-handed hitter had a better home run rate against southpaws (a homer per 15.3 at-bats) than he did against right-handed hurlers last year (a homer per 18.3 at-bats), which is a good sign, and hopefully he carries over the momentum of his monster September, in which he slugged .654 and hit 9 homers in 28 games.
Start 'Em Elsewhere
Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana and Mike Napoli all qualify as first basemen, but there is no earthly reason to put any of these guys at any position other than catcher. Todd Frazier, Kevin Youkilis and Michael Young are all 1B and 3B eligible, and with third base being the weaker position, this trio is better served at the hot corner (or corner infielder). Allen Craig and Mark Trumbo are solid starting first basemen in larger fantasy formats, but with outfield eligibility, fantasy owners might be better suited slotting them in at the OF position. Same goes for Chris Davis, Corey Hart and Michael Cuddyer, especially in smaller leagues.
Points Versus Roto
Points-based fantasy leagues seek the all-category helpers, and there are a few first basemen who qualify as points-league studs, such as the obvious candidates of Pujols, Votto and Encarnacion. Youngsters Freeman and Rizzo are more than serviceable as well. And don't forget about high-K, high-walks guy Adam Dunn.
For Roto leagues, the goal is to capture the rarest of categories. Although the first base position is mostly about power, there is a little speed to be had, as Goldschmidt, Hosmer and Brandon Belt are all projected to record double-digit steals in 2013, and none of them will cost you a pick in the first three or four rounds.
It can be done, but it's difficult to win a fantasy league without a productive first baseman. That said, don't panic after the top five or six sluggers are off the board. Whether you're seeking the upside of a young buck, or would rather stick to the proven commodities in the form of veterans, this position features plenty of both entities. Just make sure that when you are mapping out how many total first basemen will be drafted, consider the gaggle of two-position players (C/1B and OF/1B mostly) and the utility spots, which owners love to fill up with sluggers from the first base position.
Brian Gramling previews the first base position for fantasy baseball for the 2013 season.