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February 14, 2013

Pre-Season Positional Rankings

Top 15 Fantasy First Basemen

by Paul Singman

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In the coming weeks, the fantasy team here at Baseball Prospectus will be rolling out our positional rankings. Each team member assigned to cover a position will create an initial top 15 (more for outfielders and starting pitchers) on his own. He will then send that list to the rest of the team for discussion, at which point we will debate the rankings, both in terms of each player’s specific placement and the merits on which he was included in the top 15. This back-and-forth debate will yield the final list, which will be presented by the original author with notes on the pertinent players. We encourage you to bring your opinions into the fray using the comment section below.

Today, we continue the rankings with a look at our top 15 first basemen.

As usual, first base is a deep fantasy position that offers useful bats into the twenties. Following a recent trend, however, this year’s first basemen lack that signature-slugger starpower to warrant selection over their more-agile counterparts in the outfield. We see a clear nucleus at the top—a triumvirate of $200 million dollar men who, given their salaries, seem worthy of a mere first-round selection or $40 auction bid from one of us.

After that, the scene becomes much more muddled. A healthy crop of young, rising stars are scattered about aging veterans, who may or may not have another quality season in their tanks. One thing this position doesn’t lack is disagreement—with a number of players coming off of either career-best or career-worst years, I’ve seen plenty of divergent opinions on how best to rank them. With the help of the rest of the fantastic BP fantasy crew, here is my attempt to do so, including commentary on each player to help you flesh out my thinking.

First, the list:

  1. Albert Pujols, LAA
  2. Joey Votto, CIN
  3. Prince Fielder, DET
  4. Edwin Encarnacion, TOR
  5. Adrian Gonzalez, LAD
  6. Paul Goldschmidt, ARI
  7. Billy Butler, KCR
  8. Allen Craig, STL
  9. Freddie Freeman, ATL
  10. Mark Teixeira, NYY
  11. David Ortiz, BOS*
  12. Anthony Rizzo, CHC
  13. Ike Davis, NYM
  14. Eric Hosmer, KCR
  15. Paul Konerko, CHW

Honorable Mentions: Mark Trumbo, LAA and Chris Davis, BAL

*Ortiz started seven games at first last year, and thus has 1B eligibility in Yahoo leagues. This ranking assumes 1B eligibility.

Notes:

  1. Even with an incredibly slow start, Pujols managed to find his groove and meet the hit the 30-homer and 100-RBI benchmarks. Last year, he hit .217 with 0 homers in April, so even if we get a .225 average with a few dingers during the first month of the season, we should be happy, right? Expect more of the same from Pujols: 100/35/110/10/.300.
     
  2. Left knee surgery (a day before I traded for him in Tout Wars) slashed away a third of Votto’s 2012 season and spoiled what was looking like a monster fantasy campaign at the All-Star break. Now that he is healthy, Votto will get another crack at putting together an April-to-October effort, and when has done that, the results have always been impressive. He offers a truly elite batting average with great counting stats, and, like Pujols, the ability to chip in close to 10 steals. In OBP leagues, Votto is simply not fair.
     
  3. Perhaps the safest player out there, considering that he has missed all of one game in the past four years, Fielder delivered in his Tigers debut with a .313 average and 30 home runs. Continued reduction in his strikeout rate the past three years—from 19 percent to 15 to 12—indicates that he is a good bet to continue batting around .300. Although the Tigers lineup hardly needed another boost, the addition of Victor Martinez, batting fifth behind Fielder, should bump the latter’s run total closer to the century mark.
     
  4. Encarnacion exploded for 42 home runs last year, good for fourthn the majors. However, he did so not by hitting an unrealistic percentage of his fly balls for homers, but rather by simply hitting lots of fly balls. His 50 percent fly-ball rate was third highest in the majors, and as long as he maintains this “aim-high” approach, a 35-homer encore is reasonable. Encarnacion’s surprisingly good plate discipline keeps his batting average respectable, and the completely revamped Blue Jays lineup could work wonders for his counting stats.
     
  5. Gonzalez endured a well-publicized power outage during the first half of the season, but he rebounded to hit .317 with 12 home runs in the second half. Some people are reading into his declining walk rate and increasing chase rate and prognosticating doom, but I believe that A-Gon will rebound in 2013, and offer a .300 average with 25-30 homers and plenty of RBI.
     
  6. Goldschmidt had a solid first full season in the majors, batting .280 with 20 homers and 18 steals. It’s easy to get lost in this 25-year-old’s upside, but the reality is that an increase in homers will likely come with less steals and a lower average next year. I’ve still ranked him aggressively, but I wouldn’t advise reaching higher for him.
     
  7. Plenty of people look at Butler’s relatively boring stat lines and think, “How’s it worth it to draft that guy?” The real question should be, “When hasn’t it been worth it to draft him?” Butler’s mini-breakout last year, which consisted of a .313 average and 29 home runs, will likely cut away most of the surplus from his value. Still, I’m always amazed at how quickly in drafts you are stuck choosing between players with serious question marks, and Butler provides a rock-solid option in those early-to-middle rounds.
     
  8. The oft-injured Craig has yet to do it, but he’s very capable of a 25-homer, .300-average campaign if he can avoid the disabled list. If Craig manages to notch those totals, he will turn a nice profit for his owners at this spot. That said, be wary of selecting him earlier without accounting for his injury risk in the price that you pay.
     
  9. Although his career is only two years old, Freeman almost seems like a boring vet already. It’s important to remember he’s still only 23, and still has abundant room to improve. His average should rebound without last year’s BABIP misfortune, and one has to like the run and RBI potential that comes with batting between the two Uptons in the Braves lineup.
     
  10. Last year was a sobering one for Teixeira believers, as he showed once again that he is a .250-average hitter, and saw his seemingly unassailable durability get shattered by a calf strain. Nonetheless, Teixeira proved capable of hitting 30 homers, and with a little more luck on balls in play, he can easily recoup his price tag as the 10th-ranked first baseman.
     
  11. An Achilles injury caused Ortiz to miss the entire second half of the 2012 season, and it’s a shame that it did because Big Papi was on pace to have one of the best seasons of his career. Now 37, we can only expect his production to decline, though he could prove age-defiant for another year. A .285 average with around 25 home runs are my expectations for Ortiz, and remember—as I noted earlier—this ranking assumes first-base eligibility in your league.
     
  12. Rizzo was a tough player to rank. On the one hand, his .285 average and 15 homers in half a season comprised an impressive debut. On the other, his futility against lefties (.208/.243/.256) dampens his potential ceiling. Overall, though, his plate discipline was impressive and the power seemed legitimate. I agree with PECOTA’s projection of a .255 average with 28 home runs, which makes Rizzo an exciting young player, but not one with the star-level upside to warrant a significant reach
     
  13. Amazingly, the Mets stuck with Davis throughout the beginning of the season, even while he was defining ineffectiveness by batting .170 through the first two months. Their patience paid off, though, as he was able to turn it up in the second half, batting .255 with 20 home runs. His .246 BABIP looks anomalous compared to past years, and if that number ticks upward, a .260/30 season seems attainable. Similar to Rizzo, Davis’ continued struggles versus lefties limits his potential.
     
  14. The BABIP gods were brutal toward first basemen last year, with Hosmer representing another casualty. In Hosmer’s case, however, this wasn’t all misfortune—he brought the sour luck upon himself by rolling over a troubling volume of balls into the shift on the right side. A likely explanation is that Hosmer was downplaying the effects of an injury that, after the season, was diagnosed as a small tear in his rotator cuff. Given his pedigree, it’s easy to believe in a rebound in 2013, with a .280 average, 20 homers, and 10 steals within reach.
     
  15. Even at an advanced age, Konerko continues to show few signs of decline and remains a consistent producer. If he continues to defy Father Time, he’ll provide a nice profit here, but like all nice things, his ability to deliver will one day come to an end. 
Related Content:  Year Of The Injury

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