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January 24, 2014

Get to Know

First Base Prospects

by Craig Goldstein

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Given all of the major-league talent and production that plays at first base, you’d think that there’s a veritable cornucopia of names that are lurking just below the surface, waiting to be promoted and produce. Well, you’d be wrong. So very, very wrong. And not the kind of wrong where you don’t want to be right, either.

Instead, what we find is a smattering of players who have a strong enough offensive profile to withstand the weight of expectations placed on a first baseman, while also featuring a lack of defensive ability so distinct that their teams aren’t even attempting to play them out of position with the hope that they could somehow not be a first baseman. Instead, the depth at the major-league level is created when teams ultimately give up on the guys they are playing out of position and transition them down the defensive spectrum, because, at this point, winning games starts to matter.

With that in mind, please understand that this list will either be shorter, or contain less impact than one might reasonably expect given the type of bats the end up at first base. The type of power bats that will ultimately populate the first base slots in the fantasy universe will instead come from those prospects who failed to play enough defense to justify their prodigious bats. This includes such luminaries as Miguel Cabrera (LF/3B), Albert Pujols (LF/3B), Chris Davis (RF/3B), and many more. It’s a time-honored tradition, and we’ve already seen one highly thought-of prospect walk the beaten path from third to first base this offseason.

Names for 2014

Jonathan SingletonHouston Astros
A clear frontrunner among first-base prospects, Singleton has a lot of things going his way. He can hit for power and average, and he still has youth on his side. Add in favorable conditions when it comes to the players in his way and it’s a no brainer. Singleton need only outperform Jesus Guzman and Brett Wallace to take hold of the starting job in Houston. It’s likely that doesn’t happen before late May/June though, as Houston has everything to gain by holding him back until they retain another year of free agency. It could be late June if they decide they don’t want to trifle with the idea of Singleton gaining Super Two status. He made the decision easier on them when he missed the first 50 games of 2013 thanks to a second positive test for a drug of abuse (marijuana). The upside for Singleton? They don’t test for marijuana in the majors. Healthy averages and mid-20s-home-run power can be expected from Singleton’s peak seasons, and a mid-2014 arrival is likely.

Maikel FrancoPhiladelphia Phillies
The first of many to make the transition from minor-league third baseman to major-league first baseman, Franco will reportedly make the position switch in time for the 2014 season. While he won’t begin the season there, the big leagues are certainly within Franco’s grasp. While scouting stat lines can be dangerous, it’s hard to overlook Franco’s impressive .339/.363/.563 slash line in 292 plate appearances upon being promoted to Double-A Reading in 2013, along with his 70 (!) extra-base hits across two levels. So let’s not stat scout—Franco has excellent hand-eye coordination that allows him to overcome some noise and length in his load and swing. His bat speed is impressive and enables him to not only make contact, but hard contact. The body is a bit of an issue and likely prompted his move across the diamond, but the bat is good enough to play there. It would have been an impact offensive profile at third base, and while it’s playable at first, the question now is how impactful can it be? Franco is likely to begin the season at Triple-A and any extended absence from Ryan Howard could prompt his call up.

Others: Japhet Amador — Astros, Jordan Lennerton — Tigers, A DEEP AND NEVER ENDING VOID

Names for 2015 and Beyond

Dan VogelbachChicago Cubs
Having never had the pleasure of dining at a Beef O’Brady’s establishment, I can’t know for sure, but it at least sounds like the kind of place that Vogelbach might frequent. Nevertheless, the portly prospect has endeared himself to many for his red-ass style of play and the ability to punish most any pitch within the strike zone. The downside is that it’s questionable that he’s even a first baseman. He’s listed as such thanks to the Cubs being in the National League, but most any club would stash him at designated hitter if they had the option. All that said—this kid isn’t going to hit, he’s going to mash; and if he is a butcher at first base (he is), it hardly affects most fantasy players. Average and power can be expected from Vogelbach, and if that’s starting to sound familiar among first-base prospects, it’s because if you’re going to even get on the radar, you’re going to have to do both. The risk with Vogelbach is that he gets shunted to DH and is bad enough that a team won’t even risk him in the field for the meager amount of games it takes to qualify at 1B. That won’t be an issue until he’s on an AL team, though.

Ronald GuzmanTexas Rangers
Here’s one to file away for 2017 (or perhaps beyond). As a player with the potential for a 6+ hit tool and 6 power tool, it might shock people to see him rank 10th in the Rangers farm system (loaded though it is). Such are the perils of being limited to first base and playing in Low-A. The 6-foot-5 Guzman has a lot of length to him, though he does well to control that length when it comes to his swing. The advantage of all that lank is that we can project him to grow into some power down the line. While Low-A is a bit of a knock against him when it comes to evaluating risk, we should keep in mind that at 18-years old he was young for the level and he more than held his own. Guzman is a personal favorite of mine, as I think he finds a way to retain a solid contact percentage despite his size, while slowly adding power as he matures. The issue of course is whether he’s worth a current investment given his distance to the majors. Even at a level per year pace (which would assume no speed bumps along the way), Guzman would be reaching the majors in 2017. He’s worth keeping tabs on, but it might be best if you let someone else slow cook him for you, before paying for him a year or two from now.

C.J. CronLos Angeles Angels
Another guy who falls into the likely-DH camp, it’s still possible that Cron will see time at first base—or at least enough to earn him first base eligibility. Seen as a polished product when drafted out of Utah in the first round of the 2011, Cron dislocated his knee cap after a mere 34 games resulting in ligament damage and subsequent surgery. Still, Cron returned to play 129 games in 2012, playing well at High-A as a 22-year-old. He put up a decent slash line of .274/.319/.428 in Double-A this past season, but decent isn’t exactly going to cut it given the high offensive bar at first base. He’ll need to access his monster raw power if he’s going to matter to fantasy owners, because it’s unlikely that his hit tool will allow him to help in batting average. There’s a chance he ends up as a right-handed masher, which means little to us in the fantasy world, as he’d be on the short side of any platoon. The thing he has going for him (or against him in some respects) is his age. 2014 will be his age-24 season, and he’s already reached Double-A. He should reach the major leagues in short order, and Mark Trumbo heading to Arizona helps clear out some of the log jam in front of him.

Dominic SmithNew York Mets
The 11th-overall pick in the 2013 draft, Smith features a beautiful swing from the left side. Hitting for a usable average shouldn’t be much of a problem for Smith, but power might be. He’s able to make hard contact, but thus far that hasn’t translated to over the fence power, and 20 home runs might even be a stretch. Obviously as a recent draftee, there’s a lot of change that can take place between now and the big leagues, but as of now Smith looks more like the 2013 James Loney than James Loney the prospect. Obviously that’s a helpful fantasy option in the end, but if that’s a realistic probability as opposed to a floor, his floor becomes a very real concern.

Greg Bird — New York Yankees
This is going to shock you, but Bird is like the other prospects on this list with the potential for above-average power, a solid hit tool, and the athleticism (or lack thereof) to limit him to the position of the week. Bird does well to work deep counts and knows the strike zone, which can be a separator when it comes to first base prospects. Unfortunately his swing can get long, and he has only reached Low-A, so there’s a lot of risk built in. That said, he played 2013 as a 20-year-old, so it’s not as if he was old for the level. The drawbacks come in the form of the limited impact he provides as well as the obstacles in his way. Gary Sanchez was covered last week, but if he can’t hack it at catcher, his likely destination in first base, and his bat has a little more punch to it than Bird’s does. For him to be truly fantasy relevant, the power is going to have to play to its utmost degree as a 20-home-run bat just isn’t that sexy. Bird is someone to keep an eye on, but he’s yet another name that would be far more attractive if he played a different position.

Matt SkoleWashington Nationals
Missing most of an entire season when one is already old for a level is generally a bad thing, and so it goes with Skole. Already fighting an uphill battle as a relatively old first base prospect, a torn UCL was probably the last thing Skole needed. If we ignore age though, Skole has mashed at every level he’s played at, showing the ability to hit for average and power. The scouting reports don’t paint quite as rosy a picture, giving him the potential for an average hit tool and plus power. Those are generally positives, but the holes in Skole’s swing mean he could have trouble making that power functional. I’ve never been a fan of Skole’s (to the point that it’s a running gag that I love him), but I can’t deny that if the tools play out, he’ll be a big leaguer. Whether the payoff is worth the risk? That’s for you to decide.

Others: Matt Olson — Athletics, Christian Walker — Orioles, Travis Shaw — Red Sox, Max Muncy — Athletics

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

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