2014 Position Preview: First base

Updated: February 20, 2014, 4:17 PM ET
By Mike Sheets | Special to ESPN.com

Every position in fantasy baseball carries a reputation, and the reputation at first base is power, power and more power. The question, however, is whether that reputation still holds true. On the whole, first base still offers plenty of pop, but the truth is that the position isn't as stocked with premier sluggers as years past, when drafting a first baseman was akin to being an audience member in one of Oprah's giveaway shows: "YOU get a stud! YOU get a stud! YOU get a stud!" Consider, for instance, that only six first basemen clubbed 30 or more home runs in 2013, the fewest in the past 20 years.

But don't let that paint a gloom-and-doom picture, because the state of the first-base position is still in pretty good shape. Whether you're looking to secure a first baseman in the early, middle or late rounds, there's worthwhile production to be found. Yes, there's an advantage to grabbing one of the elite options early on, but when a guy such as Adrian Gonzalez, who we have projected to hit .294 with 23 bombs and 101 RBIs, barely cracks the top 10 in our preseason rankings, it speaks to the depth available.

In particular, there's plenty of potential to be found in the players ranked in the low-to-mid teens this year. Matt Adams, Anthony Rizzo and Jose Abreu, to name a few, may all have questions heading into this season, but they also carry the kind of upside that can make a difference in fantasy leagues. In other words, while you can't go wrong grabbing a top-tier first baseman early in the draft, focusing on filling other positions in the early rounds and waiting at first base can be a viable strategy, as well.

Cream of the Crop

Paul Goldschmidt
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesPaul Goldschmidt's splits leveled out nicely last season, and attempted more than 20 steals for the second straight season.

Two players -- Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Davis -- stand above the rest at first base this year. Both sluggers finished 2013 as top-four fantasy hitters. Goldschmidt actually finished slightly behind Davis, but he leads this year's rankings because, unlike the majority of slow-footed first basemen, Goldy is a legitimate five-category contributor. Not only did his 36 home runs and 125 RBIs rank second at the position (Davis finished first in both categories), but his 15 stolen bases ranked first, making him one of only two first basemen to swipe double-digit bags last year. Goldschmidt is the most well-rounded first baseman in fantasy and, at 26 years old, it's possible he hasn't peaked yet.

Davis' gaudy power numbers from last year, a major league-leading 53 homers and 138 RBIs, will likely regress some in 2014, and he carries some batting average risk because of his inflated 29.6 percent strikeout rate. But let's not kid ourselves: This is still elite power in a power-starved world. Even with the expected regression, Davis remains the odds-on favorite to lead the majors in home runs for the second straight year, and he offers enough counting numbers elsewhere to be worthy of first-round consideration.

Next-Best Thing

Over the past two seasons, only Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis have hit more home runs than Edwin Encarnacion (78), so he's a good bet to make another run at 40 dingers in 2014. What's perhaps more encouraging, however, is that, in addition to the power, he's shown real growth at the plate the past couple of years, culminating in career-best walk and strikeout rates in 2013. In fact, he was one of only four hitters to walk more than he struck out last year (minimum 502 plate appearances), a feat that's incredibly rare for a guy with elite power. E5 may be behind Goldschmidt and Davis in the rankings, but there's not a huge gap.

Despite being a first- or second-round pick in most formats last year, Prince Fielder now resides outside the elite at first base. He just barely finished last season as a top-10 fantasy first baseman, as his batting average, home run, RBI and run totals were all his lowest of the past three years. That said, Fielder is one of the most durable players in baseball, having playing at least 157 games in eight straight seasons, and he now moves to the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark after being shipped to Texas during the winter in the Ian Kinsler trade. Fielder's best years may be behind him (he turns 30 in May), but we like the chances of a bounce-back campaign in 2014.

Joey Votto is an elite hitter, but it's his lack of high-end power that keeps him from being an elite fantasy first baseman. He's topped 30 homers only once in his career (2010), and a dwindling fly-ball rate that's dipped every season since 2009 says he may never reach that total again. Nonetheless, the former MVP is a career .314 hitter, plays in a hitter-friendly home ballpark and hits in the middle of a lineup that finished top three in the NL in runs scored last year. There may not be sky-high upside here, but Votto remains a high-end option with very little risk and downside.

Freddie Freeman produced a breakout season in 2013, hitting a position-best .319 along with 23 home runs and a career-best 109 RBIs. The performance made him the No. 3 first baseman in fantasy, behind only Davis and Goldschmidt. Freeman's 77.5 percent contact rate doesn't line up with a .319 batting average (last year's .374 BABIP probably deserves the thanks for that). However, he did make some real strides at the plate last season, as his walk and strikeout rates were both career bests, and the way he erupted in the second half (.335/.408/.544) is encouraging, at the very least. It's possible he hasn't yet reached his ceiling.

Where's the Ceiling?

Eric Hosmer
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesEric Hosmer's batting average was remarkably consistent in last season's second half: .324 in July, .323 in August, .324 in September.

Eric Hosmer finished 2013 as a top-10 first baseman, which is a fine feat by itself. It's even more impressive, though, considering he accomplished that after clubbing just one home run in his first 61 games. From June 1 on, he batted .318/.367/.494 with 16 dingers and was one of the most valuable first basemen in fantasy. Hosmer still hits too many ground balls to expect a huge spike in power this season, but with a little more consistency in 2014, he could still hit 20 homers. That, combined with double-digit steals (he's the only first baseman with double-digit swipes in three straight seasons), makes Hosmer a complete package at a position where there are very few.

Anthony Rizzo's first season was ultimately a disappointment, as he finished as the No. 27 first baseman in fantasy, largely thanks to a .233 batting average and a .222/.316/.389 slash line in the second half. Still, he clubbed 23 homers (top 10 at the position), substantially increased his walk rate from 2012 and sported an 80 percent contact rate, which, along with an unlucky .258 batting average on balls in play, suggests fantasy owners should expect a better batting average in 2014. Only 24, Rizzo may be a couple of seasons away from a true breakout, but there's plenty of potential here for a guy whom many fantasy owners have already soured on.

Whether you call him Big Country, Big City or Big Mayo, Matt Adams' calling card is power, which, if you hadn't guessed, is big. The 6-foot-3, 260-pound first baseman averaged one homer for every 17.4 at-bats last year. As a comparison, Goldschmidt, who cracked 36 bombs in 2013, homered every 16.8 at-bats. Adams has yet to prove he can consistently handle left-handed pitching, and his swing-and-miss tendencies put a cap on his batting average potential. Still, when he got full-time at-bats for the first time last year in September, he put the Cardinals' offense on his shoulders, batting .315 with eight dingers and 15 RBIs in 25 games. With everyday playing time in 2014, Adams could do some real damage in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup.

Brandon Belt got his first crack at everyday playing time in 2013, and he responded with career-bests across the board. What will the 25-year-old do as a follow-up? After hitting .260/.336/.448 in the first half last year, Belt made real strides after the All-Star break, upping his walk rate and producing a .326/.390/.525 slash line. His fly-ball rate is trending in the right direction, as well, which could lead to some power growth this season. The pitcher-friendly AT&T Park won't do Belt any favors (he hit 31 points higher on the road last year, with 11 of his 17 homers), so there's a ceiling on his power upside, but another step forward in 2014 could push him into the top 10 at the position.

Jose Abreu is the biggest unknown at the position this season, which means the risk factor can't be ignored. That said, he also has the potential to drastically out-perform his average draft position. The 27-year-old Cuban import possesses huge raw power (he's the Cuban single-season home run record holder), making him a great fit for the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field, and his plate discipline (.457 career OBP in Cuba, including more walks than strikeouts each of the past four seasons) should help his transition to the major leagues. Don't ignore the risk, but the upside here is intriguing.

Where's the Basement?

The warning signs with Albert Pujols were there heading into 2013, and he produced the worst campaign of his storied career, though a plantar fasciitis injury attributed to his struggles and cost him the final two months of the season. Sure, it's possible he'll bounce back to some degree this season, as he's just one year removed from batting .285-30-105, and some metrics show that he actually performed better last year than he did in 2012. However, Pujols is now 34, and on top of his eroding skill set, he now has to be considered an injury risk. A rebound in 2014 is no sure thing.

Ryan Howard hasn't played a full season since 2011 (last season was cut short by a knee injury). Whether he stays healthy in 2014 obviously remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that the lefty slugger no longer deserves to be playing every day, no matter how long the Phillies keep running him out there as a way to justify the ill-advised contract extension they gave him back in 2010. The 34-year-old Howard is a big liability versus left-handers (.173/.218/.321 last year), holds a 66 percent contact rate the past three seasons (which is "hacker" territory), and his walk rate is in a downward spiral. There's still power to be had here, but is the potential downside worth it?

It was a lost season for Mark Teixeira in 2013, as he played in just 15 games because of a wrist injury. Reports are that he's nearing 100 percent health, but how long will that last? He turns 34 in April, and let's not forget that he missed significant time in 2012, too. Once an elite fantasy first baseman (he produced eight straight seasons of 30-plus HR prior to 2012), Teixeira now sports a .249 batting average over his past 1,700 at-bats, and it's fair to question whether the power will fully return this year after a season of battling wrist issues. Given the depreciated draft-day price tag, maybe Teixeira can still be a cheap source of power if he stays healthy, but don't count on much more than that.

Steady As He Goes

If you miss out on the elite players at first base, getting a player who offers strong, consistent production year in and year out is often the next best thing. Adrian Gonzalez is a perfect example of that. He's averaged a .293 batting average, 20 homers and 104 RBIs over the past two seasons and has finished ninth or 10th among first basemen on the Player Rater in both campaigns. The 30-plus HR days may be over, but that's OK. You know what you're getting here, and it's still pretty darn good.

Allen Craig's power numbers last year were disappointing (only 13 home runs), but the rest of the package was pretty enticing, as he batted .315 with 97 RBIs in 134 games (a foot injury ended his season early) and finished as a top-10 fantasy first baseman. A fly-ball rate that has dropped every year since 2010 suggests a 20-HR season may be his ceiling, but the guy can flat-out hit (.312 batting average over his past 1,200 at-bats) and should continue to be an RBI machine in St. Louis.

Mike Napoli's fantasy value takes a hit now that he's lost his catcher eligibility, but that doesn't change the numbers he produces each and every year. He registered a career-best 92 RBIs in his first season in Boston in 2013, and he's socked at least 20 home runs in six consecutive seasons. A strikeout rate that was a career-worst 32.4 percent last year means Napoli will remain a batting average risk, but his yearly power output is money in the bank, and there's value in that.

Start 'Em Elsewhere?

Two of the top catchers in fantasy -- Buster Posey and Carlos Santana -- enter 2014 with first-base eligibility. That said, there's little reason to use these guys anywhere other than catcher, where they carry the most value. Consider, for example, that Santana was the No. 6 fantasy catcher last year, yet he didn't even crack the top 20 at first base. It's also worth noting that the Twins are moving Joe Mauer to first base this season. This won't affect his value this year, as he maintains catcher eligibility in 2014, but he'll likely be eligible only at first base in 2015 and beyond. Keeper league owners should keep this in mind.

Allen Craig and Mark Trumbo, both top-12 first basemen last season, are also outfield eligible. Whether you use them at first base or outfield really depends on the construction of your roster. That said, in larger formats, they'll carry a little more value in the outfield. The same goes for Brandon Moss and Nick Swisher, who also hold dual eligibility at outfield and first base.

Points Versus Roto

Point-based leagues reward players with high OBPs (and don't penalize for low batting averages), so guys such as Mike Napoli and Nick Swisher, who offer solid power production but can be a drain on your batting average in rotisserie formats, are much more valuable. Even a premier player such as Joey Votto gets a slight value boost in points leagues. While his .305 batting average ranked 16th in baseball last year, his .435 OBP ranked second overall.

As we've discussed, very few first basemen can be considered legitimate stolen base threats, but players who do swipe the occasional bag don't get the same value boost in points leagues. While Paul Goldschmidt is still elite without the steals because of his power production, Eric Hosmer's value takes a small hit in points-based formats.

Bottom Line

First base is a position that allows flexibility. Landing an elite first baseman is valuable, sure, but it's by no means a necessity. Take solace in the fact that you can miss out on the first handful of sluggers and still secure a guy with 25-100 potential. It should go without saying that the longer you wait on draft day, the less of a sure thing you're going to get. Then again, there are enough upside players available in the middle of most drafts that, if you do your research, you'll still be able to get plenty of bang for your draft-day buck.

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