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July 6, 2006
Position Breakdown: First Basemen
Ranking first baseman is a difficult task, because like second baseman (whom I'll rank next week), players usually don't start as first basemen, then end up there. To begin your career on the bottom end of the defensive spectrum means one thing--you better really hit. A quick look at our league positional stats shows that the average first baseman in the big leagues has an OPS near .850, and some quick math shows that to be a star first baseman requires elite hitting ability, as the top 10 first baseman (measured by VORP) have an average batting line of .307/.405/.584. There's not a single player on this list who projects to that kind of performance without a little bit of dreaming, but that brings me back to my first point. The next star first basemen do exist, but many of them are just not first basemen yet. Of that top 10 list with the monster performances, only three of them (Nick Johnson, Ryan Howard and Todd Helton) started their careers at the position.
1. Daric Barton, Athletics
Barton got off to a great start at Sacramento, batting .338 in April and reaching base by hit or walk 45 times in 22 games. He was batting just .171 in May however, before suffering an elbow injury that will keep him out until August. It was a freak injury on his glove arm when an opposing runner slid into it, causing what is called an avulsion, and I'll leave it to Will Carroll to actually define that. While his overall numbers may be below expectations, this is still a 20-year-old player with a near .400 on-base percentage at Triple-A. I'm not convinced that he'll ever hit for power, but I am convinced that he'll be enough of an on-base machine that it won't matter. If he does start launching more balls over the fence, that's just gravy. He'll likely end up somewhere between John Olerud and Will Clark when it comes to peak value.
2. James Loney, Dodgers
Don't call it a comeback, he's been here for years. Loney was the team's first-round pick in 2002, and drew some national attention when he hit .371 in the Pioneer League for a pro debut and then had some big games in ESPN's spring training broadcasts the following year. That was followed by three disappointing seasons with OPSes of .737, .641 and .776. At the same time, Loney was dealing with continuous wrist problems, which hampered his performance and tempered expectations. Scouts remained high on him--with his performance this year finally catching up to what evaluators thought he could do. Loney's ability to hit for average is not in doubt, but his ability to hit for power is. Despite being 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Loney's swing is designed for spraying line drives all over the field and going with the pitch, as opposed to getting a lot of leverage. Like Barton, the difference between Loney becoming a good player or a great player will depend on if the power ever comes. For what it's worth, Loney is the best defensive first baseman on this list.
3. Joey Votto, Reds
What a difference a year makes. Votto put himself on the map in 2004 when he hit .302/.419/.486 for Low Class A Dayton and then put up a .945 OPS in 24 Carolina games. Last year, he almost took himself off the map with a rough year in the Florida State League, where he got off to a bad start and then tinkered with his mechanics, losing both timing and fluidity in his stroke. The Reds worked with him in the offseason on shortening his swing and improving his approach against lefthanders. The results have been phenomenal, as Votto leads the Southern League in batting and home runs (17), while sitting just two behind Jacksonville's Craig Brazell for the RBI lead. Drafted as a catcher, Votto has good hands at first base but isn't especially athletic. If the offensive outburst continues, Votto could be in line for a look in 2007--while Scott Hatteberg is having a nice season, he doesn't represent any kind of major roadblock.
4. Chris Carter, Diamondbacks
There's so much to not like about Chris Carter from a scouting perspective. He's got a bad body, both his set-up and his swing are awkward and mechanical, he's a well below average athlete who is slow on the bases, and to call him below-average defensively is being far too kind. One scout sums Carter up in only three words: "He's just weird." So now with that out of the way, let's admit that all Carter has done since getting drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 draft is hit for average, hit a ton of home runs, and draw walks in bunches at every level. Nothing has changed in Tucson, as Carter now has 60 home runs and 157 walks in his 290 game career. With Conor Jackson seemingly locked in a first base in Arizona for the fairly distant future, Carter is going to need a trade to get his chance, as attempts to teach him to play left field were nothing short of a disaster. While Carter may sound like the second coming of Jack Cust to some, he's a much better natural hitter, with more walks than strikeouts this year. He's far more valuable to an American League team who can pick their spots with him defensively and use him primarily as a DH.
5. Travis Ishikawa, Giants
While Ishikawa's numbers have failed to impress, his season has been one of starts and stops, and he's been called up for three brief stays with the big league club, where he's gone 7-for-24 (.292) with three doubles and a triple. While he doesn't have the quickest bat, his swing from the left side is nearly picture-perfect mechanically, and he's a patient hitter with rapidly developing power. In many ways, he is similar to Justin Huber in that he doesn't have many weaknesses, but lacks that one skill that allows him to project as a star. With the slow start, he's developing a reputation as a player who takes a long time to adjust to new levels, as he struggled initially in both the Sally League and California League as he's moved up the ladder.
6. Justin Huber, Royals
After a breakout season in 2005, Huber has struggled in a return engagement to Omaha, with just four home runs and a .243 average in his last 40 games. Huber does many things well, but nothing exceptionally so. He should hit for a decent average in the majors with 15-20 home runs a year and a good walk rate, but he'll never be more than just an average first baseman who doesn't hurt a team, but also isn't the guy you want playing every day on a first-level team either. That said, he certainly is a better option in Kansas City--especially after considering the salary--than Doug Mientkiewicz.
7. Eric Duncan, Yankees
Duncan began the year at Triple-A Columbus and had what amounted to a five-week nightmare, batting .209 in 110 at-bats without a home run. He was dealing with back pain all along, and after a month on the disabled list, he's picked things up at Double-A, with five home runs in 95 at-bats to go with a .274 average. While he's rarely produced in a full-season league, Duncan has youth and tools on his side. He has plenty of power potential from the left side, makes good contact and has a much-improved approach. His statistics have rarely impressed, but he has always been young for his level until this year, and the Yankees believe that moving him off of third base, where he struggled with throws, could be the key to bringing his bat to life. How he fits into the Yankees' plan is anybody's guess, but he could become their top trade chip at the end of the month if the bat stays hot.
8. Kyle Blanks, Padres
How can you not get excited about a guy who is 6-foot-6 and pushing 300 pounds? Blanks is much more than the next Calvin Pickering or Walter Young--he's an impressive athlete who is a solid defender and doesn't embarrass himself on the base paths. While he's extremely raw, Blanks has a good idea of the strike zone, and draws his share of walks. He has just nine home runs in 257 at-bats, but Blanks' raw power rivals that of nearly any minor leaguer, and the Padres believe that power will begin to show up more often in games as he learns to identify pitches better and curb a tendency to overswing, as he has more than enough pop to get the ball out of the park with his natural stroke. Blanks is still a big project (in more ways than one) who is going to require patience, but so far, so good.
9. Mark Hamilton, Cardinals
The Cardinals got one of the steals in the 2006 draft with Hamilton in the supplemental second round, as the Tulane star's draft stock seemed to never recover from a slow start at the plate despite the fact that he finished among college baseball's leaders in both home runs and walks. Anything but fleet of foot and a below average defender, Hamilton's bat will have to carry him to the big leagues, but it's plenty good, as evidenced by five home runs in his first 14 pro games. In a system desperate for power hitters, Hamilton is already the best in the St. Louis system.
10. Joe Koshansky, Rockies
Well, maybe it was for real after all. Koshansky was a 6th-round pick in 2004 as a senior out of Virginia, so while he hit 36 home runs last year at Asheville in just 120 games, the fact that he was 23 years old and playing in the Low Class A South Atlantic League's launching pad left scouts cautious. Jumped two levels to Double-A this year, Koshansky continues to mash, with 20 home runs in 287 at-bats. His swing is designed only to punish balls so he strikes out a lot (83), and he's a clogger on the base paths, but his kind of power in Coors Field could create some scary results. Unfortunately, the Rockies already have Todd Helton signed through 2011, which could make Koshansky 2007's version of Ryan Shealy--sitting around at Triple-A and waiting for a trade.