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June 26, 2013

Sporer Report

The 2014 First Round: A Look Ahead, Part One

by Paul Sporer

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We’re taking a break from my series on streaming hitters with sharp splits to discuss the future a bit. There is nothing in particular about this point in time that makes it worth discussing 2014 now. Most teams have played about 75 games, but I didn’t even know that before I planned this; again, the point in the season is irrelevant. It’s just something I like to do around the start of summer as the first check-in point.

As much as I love to enjoy the here and now of the season we’re in the throes of, I also like to look forward and see how the current season might be affecting the following spring’s drafts. We are about nine months from the 2014 draft season so a whole lot will change from now until then, but I guarantee that some of what we’ve seen thus far will stick and have a lasting impact on 2014. In fact, in part one of a two-part look at what we’ve learned (or think we’ve learned) thus far, we start with something that I’m certain will be true in March 2014.

ALBERT PUJOLS ISN’T A FIRST-ROUNDER ANYMORE

He will be 34 years old next year and he has now spent each of the last three seasons getting off to annoyingly slow starts. We don’t yet know if he’ll rebound as he has in the first two of the three years, in which he posted 960 and 935 OPS totals while hitting over .300 each time to save his season and maintain superstar status. The simple fact is that even if he does have his second-half surge, it likely will not be enough to overcome a host of up-and-comers who have made loud cases to be included in the top 12-15 picks, including several of his first-base counterparts around the league.

A TRIO OF FIRST BASEMEN ARE ON THE RISE

Discussing potential risers into the first round is my favorite part of this exercise which I usually engage in a couple of times during the year and then again immediately following the season before really diving into how my official first round shapes up in late winter. First base has long been a remarkably important position on the fantasy landscape, often delivering the certain power production that all owners crave. The depth of the position is rarely in question and most first-round backup plans include simply defaulting to a stud first sacker.

This year was one of those rare times of question. After Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto, the position was in a state of flux with “can he do it again?” questions surrounding 2012 breakout Edwin Encarnacion, “will he ever do it again?” questions tailing Adrian Gonzalez out to LA, and almost no belief in a repeat from Billy Butler (29 HR and 107 RBI, both career highs). Some draft season helium for Paul Goldschmidt and Allen Craig paired them with those six, as the eight first basemen who routinely found the top 50, though only Pujols, Fielder, and Votto were seen as cornerstones.

As I mentioned earlier, the departure of Pujols may not be voluntary thanks to two guys I’ve already named here as well as the breakout player of the first three months: Chris Davis. Davis, Paul Goldschmidt, and Encarnacion are currently the top three first basemen on ESPN’s Player Rater. Encarnacion is actually one-upping his 2012 season as he paces toward bigger runs scored, runs batted in, and home run totals while dropping a mere nine points off of his batting average.

Goldschmidt’s breakout season might be getting more attention if it weren’t for Davis. Goldy was two stolen bases short of a 20-20 season last year, which is remarkably rare at first base, and he paired it with 82 runs scored and driven in, as well as a healthy .286 AVG. His minor-league career suggested more power was on the horizon (back-to-back 30 HR seasons in 2010-2011 at High-A and Double-A), and now he is just one home run away from matching last year’s total despite logging just 54 percent of the plate appearances he needed for last year’s 20. He has become an incredible middle-of-the-order run producer, pacing toward a .306-108-41-140 season. The speed has dipped, but hardly stopped as he paces toward 13 swipes. Those are pure gravy at this point, but it’s nice to still have them.

Davis leads the majors in homers over the last calendar year at 48 (Encarnacion’s 42 are second) and his 60 are just four back of the MLB lead when you combine 2012 and 2013, though he did his damage in 881 PA while Miguel Cabrera (64 HR in 1041 PA), Edwin Encarnacion (63 in 975), and Adam Dunn (61 in 936) all needed more chances to topple him. I was among Davis’s heaviest skeptics heading into this season. Repeating his 33 bombs from 2012 wouldn’t be unreasonable and might even be likely, but I figured him to have a batting average much closer to Dunn’s (.005 er, .193) than Joe Mauer’s (.330). He is now just six homers and 15 RBI from his 2012 totals, all while hitting .331 with a .408 OBP.

His 10 percent walk and 26 percent strikeout rates are easily career bests for seasons where he’s had as many PAs as the 319 he’s logged to date (he had an 11 percent BB rate in 136 PA during 2010) and the more-disciplined approach has aided him toward the severe punishment of pitchers over the first three months. He is pacing toward a ludicrous .331-112-57-147 season, and while it feels like he’s been around forever, he is just 27 years old—which is just two years older than Goldy and actually trails Encarnacion by three.

Nevertheless, all three are building remarkably impressive résumés to be top picks in next year’s drafts. If I had to give Pujols’s spot to just one of them, it would be Goldschmidt for me, but that’s my personal bias toward people named “Paul” and his bonus speed. Encarnacion is probably most “deserving” of the spot given that he will have two first-round-level seasons in a row if he carries out the remainder of his current pace.

BUSTER POSEY ISN’T A FIRST ROUNDER, EITHER

He was a dubious 2013 inclusion to begin with as he had virtually no wiggle room to come down and still be a bona fide first rounder. Repeating his 2012 first half to post a .289-70-20-86 season would’ve been completely fine, but we’d have never seen him in the first round this past March. Instead he added nearly 100 batting average points, eight runs, four homers, and 17 RBI to his first half numbers en route to an MVP award and all-around excellent season. Now he’s pacing toward a very solid .307-64-17-90 season line, but that’s not first-round material, even at catcher.

The problem with relying on batting average guys atop the draft is that they have little chance of repeating a truly special mark due to simple variance and/or regression. Posey’s 25 percent line drive percentage from last year was seven percentage points higher than the 18 percent mark he’d established to that point. It’s not a huge surprise to see it down at 16.7 percent this year and his .336 batting average from last year down to .307 along with it.

Additionally, the star tier at catcher is strong, so Posey isn’t the unquestioned top backstop by a wide margin in the way that Robinson Cano was at second base coming into 2012. In fact, Yadier Molina is actually leading the charge in 2013 with his gaudy .353 AVG while Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, and the still-eligible Mike Napoli have all excelled.

***

In part two next week I will present a few more points, discussing some risers and fallers before finally unveiling my current first round based on the 2013 influences to date.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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