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January 21, 2014

State of the Position

First Basemen

by Craig Goldstein

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First base is always an interesting position, especially for those of us who are in dynasty leagues (or just into prospects) because it lacks the high-end prospects in the minors but manages to maintain a huge portion of value in fantasy. Because of the depth that the position picks up at the major-league level, thanks mainly to position changes, the strategy it sees can actually be similar to the one Bret mentioned in the State of the Position: Catchers writeup, in that many people will go into a draft planning on passing until the later rounds. With catchers, this can be because at some point, all that’s left are similarly (but poorly) skilled players, so it just doesn’t matter who you end up with. It’s different at first base in that, while there are elite talents at the top, the depth of the position provides some cushion for those who choose to draft/spend elsewhere early on.

That depth is the defining aspect to the position. While outfield may rival first base for its depth, it also has between 3-5 positions to fill, depending on the league, while first base only has the one (though CI is also filled by 1B-eligible players). The top of the depth chart at first base appears more muddled than ever, with Chris Davis the reigning king thanks to his power explosion in 2014. Still, Paul Goldschmidt might be the better investment thanks to a steadier track record and impressive versatility (he led all first baseman with 15 stolen bases). We’ve seen Eric Hosmer and Brandon Belt finally, hopefully, solidify themselves reliable first-base options with upside, adding talent to what has become a very robust middle tier.

That middle tier is comprised of former first-rounders (Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols), up-and-comers (Belt, Hosmer, Anthony Rizzo), and multi-position types (Mark Trumbo, Brandon Moss, Buster Posey). While the middle tier encompasses more than just those named above, even the lower tier can provide plenty of production, with retreads like Kendrys Morales, Adam Lind, and Justin Morneau as uninspiring but viable options (depending on the depth of your league).

The League Breakdown
Unsurprisingly, the AL holds an advantage for this position, thanks to the ability to filter players through the designated hitter spot. This not only helps get more players on the field in the course of a given season, but has also allowed AL teams to sign players to long-term deals with the idea that they can transition him to DH down the line, giving them a talent advantage. That means that if you miss out on the top tier of talent, there are plenty of players to choose from later on, with an emphasis on question marks like Corey Hart and Lind, as well as blatantly flawed but still helpful pieces like Chris Carter.

Despite this though, the NL has countered fairly well—holding 50 percent of the five-star first basemen, 40 percent of the four-star first basemen, and 83 percent of the three-star first basemen. Despite this, the best play in NL leagues is to jump on first base talent while you can. The talent at the top is rich, and the infusion of power that is Trumbo and a full time gig for Matt Adams will help, but wait too long and you’ll be staring Adam LaRoche in the face.

The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
In shallow mixed leagues it pays to go after the top tier of first-base talent (Goldschmidt, Davis, Votto, Encarnacion) and perhaps a few others depending on how you slice it, but after that, waiting is the answer. With 19 players who reached the 20 home run plateau in 2013 (not including names such as Hosmer, Belt, Allen Craig, or James Loney), there’s more than enough talent to go around 10-12-team leagues.

In deeper leagues it might make more sense to reach for the middle tier guys before the dregs of the position start to show themselves. Unlike with catchers, first base offers plenty of upside in its middle ranks, making it worth spending that earlier draft pick on it. More than almost any other position, a black hole at first base will hurt because most every other team in a deep league will be generating a large amount of production from the position.

The Long-Term Outlook
It’s not hard to predict that first base will continue to be a bastion of power in a league that seemingly loses some every year. What is more difficult to predict is who that power will come from, over the long term. We’re already seeing the decline of one of the games greats, in Albert Pujols. Add in that most first basemen aren’t first base prospects, and it’s even harder to peg down who the future stars of the position are.

The position does benefit from the lack of players moving off of it though—giving it a continuity that other positions don’t have. It’s also able to capture great hitters who are no longer able to field their positions, as well as designated hitters that see time at first base, even if it is only briefly. The biggest threat to the long-term health of the position is either retirement or third base prospects getting in better shape.

When it comes to legitimate first base prospects, the list is as short as it is risky. Jonathan Singleton leads the way, thanks both to his talent and proximity to the majors. Behind him are some high upside but flawed players like Dan Vogelbach (defense) and Ronald Guzman (proximity to majors). It thins out from there considerably, with some vocal believers in Dominic Smith and some quieter supporters for C.J. Cron. The issue of course is that with the exception of Singleton, not one of these players is going to be an impact bat that is available in the next couple years. The best hope for an infusion of impact talent is the continued deterioration of third-base or corner-outfield talent (i.e. Ryan Zimmerman, Michael Cuddyer) or the transition of elite prospects like Miguel Sano across the diamond.

There’s enough now talent at the position that it eases the anxiety of waiting on the next wave, but the best way to acquire up and coming first base talent is to acquire talent and wait for it to end up at first base.

The Closing Haiku
Haikus are stupid
I do not get the appeal
Of them or Dom Smith

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

17 comments have been left for this article.

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