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October 31, 2013

Fantasy Freestyle

Scary Shifts in First Base Positional Eligibility

by Ben Carsley

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For fantasy owners, nothing is quite so scary as the prospect of a good player taking a huge hit to his value thanks to a loss of positional eligibility. It happens every year, but it’s always tough to see a productive catcher move off the position, a great shortstop transition to third base or a floundering middle infielder make a shift to the outfield.

We tend to think of first base, in particular, as a position meant for mashers and as a fantasy gold mine. This is true, of course, but it’s also true because first base is the “back up” position for so many good players. If your catcher is a key cog in your offense, you try to sneak him PA at first. If your third baseman or corner outfielder is aging, you might try to get him some rest on the right side of the infield.

When teams use first base in such a way it gives fantasy players plenty of options, but causes lots of offseason changes, too.

Below are six first basemen who just lost additional eligibility, or former first basemen who will no longer qualify at the position, using the standard 20-game threshold. As you start composing your offseason rankings—and, really, what else do you have to do now?—keep these changes in mind.

Billy Butler, UT, Royals (Lost Eligibility: 1B)
Flexibility and Country Breakfast have never quite gone hand-in-hand. However, Butler had managed to play first base in at least 20 games in four of his six seasons heading into 2013, giving fantasy owners the option to play him at their first base, corner infield or utility slots.

That option won’t be there in most leagues in 2013, as Butler played just seven games in the field this year, in part due to the emergence of Eric Hosmer and in part due to Butler’s poor defensive abilities. That, coupled with a down offensive year for the Royals’ slugger, led him to produce just 1.3 WARP, down from his career high mark of 3.1 in 2012.

Overall, Butler hit .289/15/82 with 62 runs this season, making him the 22nd-most valuable first baseman and 34th-most valuable CI in standard 5x5 leagues. But, if we take away his positional eligibility, Butler was just the 92nd-most valuable offensive player by ESPN’s standard rankings. He’ll certainly still be worth drafting in all leagues next season, but there’s no question his value has taken a hit.

Michael Cuddyer, OF, Rockies (Lost Eligibility: 1B)
Cuddyer has spent plenty of time at first base, third base, in the outfield and even second base during his career. Since signing with the Rockies before the 2012 season, Cuddyer has seen his playing time limited to right field and first base.

However, thanks to Todd Helton’s final season and Jordan Pacheco, Cuddyer played just 15 games at first this season, meaning he’ll enter 2014 with eligibility at just one position for the first time in quite a while. Cuddyer’s line of .331/20/84 with 74 runs and 10 steals made him fantasy’s fifth-most-valuable 1B this season, as well as its seventh-best CI. He ranked as the 11th-best outfielder, buoyed largely by his high average.

Cuddyer’s positional loss—plus the slight chance that Cuddyer might not hit for a .382 BABIP again—means that Cuddyer is primed to be one of the more overrated fantasy players in next year’s drafts. However, the Rockies’ current roster construction suggests that Cuddyer could see more time at first base next season, unless Colorado is planning on making Pacheco a full-time starter, so he could regain his lost eligibility at some point.

Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (Lost Eligibility: OF)
When you hit .283/.370/.634 with 53 homers, and 138 RBI, you’re assured of being a first-round pick no matter where you play on the field. So if you don’t want to knock Davis down very far for losing outfield eligibility, that’s certainly understandable.

After playing exclusively at first base this season, however, Davis will no longer be a member of the largest pool of non-position fantasy players. Considering he was the second-best fantasy outfielder this season, behind only Mike Trout, that’s a considerable loss for OF as a position.

Again, this is hardly the end of the world: Davis was the most valuable fantasy first baseman, the second most valuable CI and the third best offensive fantasy asset. But, if you were banking on Davis manning one of your outfield slots, start preparing a Plan B.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays (Lost Eligibility: 3B)
It’s easy to lose track of individual performances in what was an abysmal year in Toronto, yet Encarnacion put up his second consecutive phenomenal campaign in 2013. The Jays’ corner infielder hit .272/.370/.534 with 36 homers, 90 runs, and 104 RBI, and even managed to swipe seven bases as well.

Encarnacion entered 2013 without 3B eligibility in most leagues, but having played 10 games there in 2013, he gained midseason eligibility in most formats. That gave Encarnacion an additional boost in value as he was the third-best fantasy 3B this season, trailing only Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.

Yet my advanced math degree tells me that 10 games is not 20 games, and that Encarnacion will lose his 3B eligibility once again this offseason. Much like with Davis, his production will make him a fantasy stud no matter where he plays, but “E5” faces tougher competition across the diamond.

Victor Martinez, UT, Tigers (Lost Eligibility: C, 1B)
It seems like forever ago that Martinez actually logged meaningful time behind home plate. VMart missed the entire 2012 season, but had started 26 games at catcher in 2011, meaning he retained backstop eligibility headed into 2013 despite the widespread knowledge that he’d spend little if any time there in the future.

Savvy fantasy owners were rewarded with Martinez’ performance as the third most valuable catcher, trailing only Yadier Molina and Wilin Rosario. Martinez hit .301 with 14 homers, 83 RBI and 68 runs, but made just three appearances at catcher, meaning fantasy’s most shallow position will lose one of its better performers in 2014. Martinez also made just 11 starts at first base, meaning he’ll be left without a “real” position next season.

Martinez will still bat in the middle of a great offense and can still hit, so he’ll be worth drafting in all formats next year. But while he was third among catchers and 14th among first basemen, Martinez was just 66th among offensive players, so temper your expectations accordingly.

Mike Napoli, 1B, Red Sox (Lost Eligibility: C)
Fantasy owners need to hope that the likes of Mike Zunino, Travis D’Arnaud and others in the next wave of good fantasy backstops start producing soon, because in Martinez and Napoli, fantasy is losing two of its five best performing catchers from 2013.

Thanks in part to a degenerative hip issue and in part to poor defensive reputation, Napoli didn’t see a single game at catcher this year. That’s a staggering change even just from a season ago, where he made 72 appearances behind he plate as a member of the Rangers.

Napoli’s line of .259 with 23 homers, 92 RBI, and 79 runs looks great from behind the plate, but certainly loses some of its luster at first base. While Napoli was the fifth-best fantasy backstop, he was just the 17th-best 1B and the 27th-best CI. Napoli is set to be a free agent again, so perhaps he’ll go to a club that believes he can still fulfill at least backup catcher duties. For at least the start of 2014, however, Napoli won’t have arguably his greatest fantasy asset.

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

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