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Heading into 2015 drafts, the NL first base player valuation process might very well be the most challenging of any position in NL-Only leagues. The pool of NL first basemen this year is full of more uncertainties than we have seen in recent years at the position, making for a lot of difficult decisions from a ranking perspective. Of course, Paul Goldschmidt seems to be a safe bet to put up $30 in earnings if he stays healthy, and nobody is as consistent an earner as Adrian Gonzalez (seven consecutive seasons with at least $25 earnings in both 4×4 and 5×5 standard formats), but other than those two, are there any first sackers you would feel confident in plunking $30 on? Or even $25? If so, you are a braver soul than I, as I have little idea of what to expect from the remaining eligible first basemen this year. I had similar reservations last year about projecting values for NL first basemen heading into the CBS 5×5 NL-Only auction, so I decided to put my eggs in the “steady track record” basket and drafted the reliable Gonzalez at $24 and Adam LaRoche at $12 (to fill in my CI), while others were dropping big dollars on first basemen that went way past my sheet values. The strategy certainly worked last year, as Gonzalez and LaRoche combined for $48 in earnings, causing me to lean toward that same strategy this year. One thing is certain: Based on the current NL first-base landscape, you will certainly want to grab yourself one of the top talents. The question is who should you target, and more importantly, at what price?

Some of the reservations I have in ranking the NL players at the position this season are a direct result of how last year played out. For NL first basemen, the 2014 fantasy season did not go as scripted based on the pre-season draft rankings by the experts, to say the least. If you had predicted Anthony Rizzo would be the top fantasy NL-only first baseman in terms of earnings in 2014, you deserve a gold star. I for one did not forecast that result, with Rizzo coming off a season in which he hit .233 and continued his ineptitude against left-handed pitching to the tune of a .189/.282./.342 slash line. However, the young lefty magically hit .300/.421/.507 versus southpaws in 2014, and combined with a slew of injuries to other high-profile players at the position, Rizzo emerged as the most productive fantasy NL first baseman. Injuries derailed the seasons of Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Brandon Belt, and Mark Trumbo, and players like Freddie Freeman and Allen Craig took steps back. Few expected Lucas Duda to crack 30 HR, second only to Rizzo’s 32, and Justin Morneau rediscovered his hitting stroke in Colorado, as the veteran put up his first $20 5×5 season since 2008 when he was with the Twins. Put it all together, and you have quite the unexpected year.

So how do we approach this position in 2015? What was once fertile ground for fantasy studs, has now become quite unpredictable the past few seasons, making it difficult to project in what price or draft round to target players at the position. For a point of reference let’s take a look back at the position in recent years, and begin with a season ago. Below are the 2014 values for NL first basemen whose average salary was $20 or more in the expert leagues CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars (as prepared by Mike Gianella):

Rank

Player

Price

5×5 Earnings

+/-

1

Paul Goldschmidt

$37

$24

-13

2

Joey Votto

$35

$6

-29

3

Freddie Freeman

$30

$24

-6

4t

Allen Craig

$24

$6

-18

4t

Adrian Gonzalez

$24

$26

+2

4t

Anthony Rizzo

$24

$28

+4

7t

Mark Trumbo

$23

$10

-13

7t

Buster Posey (C/1B)

$23

$26

+3

8

Brandon Belt

$22

$8

-14

10

Matt Adams

$20

$19

-1

As you can see, no first baseman cracked $30 in earnings last year, and only Rizzo, Gonzalez, and Posey (who most drafted to fill one of their catcher slots) topped $25. Just eight NL first basemen (with at least 300 ABs) turned a positive ROI, with Lucas Duda (+16), Adam LaRoche (+6) and Justin Morneau (+5) at the top of the list. The limited production and volatility for the higher-profile first basemen should not come as a surprise. Runs per game, HR%, AVG, and OPS have been in steady decline across the league, and in 2014 each of these hitting categories hit their lowest totals since the pitching-dominant season of 1992, when the NL league-average ERA was 3.50. The traditionally deep NL first base position has not been immune to this trend, as we have seen drops in fantasy production from the position, specifically over the past three seasons. For example, there were eight $30 seasons by NL first basemen in standard 5×5 NL-Only formats between 2010 and 2011. In contrast, from 2012-2014 there have only been four $30 seasons by an NL 1B qualifier (one each by Goldschmidt, Votto, Freeman, and Posey) in standard NL-Only 5×5 formats and only five additional $25 seasons (two by Gonzalez) overall. Based on these trends, it’s difficult to justify having multiple first basemen on your pre-draft sheets at $30 or more.

So, back to the dilemma of putting a value on the upper-echelon first basemen… who can we trust?

In preparing my player valuations, the most difficult player to attach a salary to was Votto, who has been a fantasy darling in the past, but is no longer the same player today as he was when he was putting up 5×5 fantasy seasons of $40 and $37 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Not only is he not that player, but his days as a $30 player could very well be over. If he can manage to stay healthy (he’s missed significant time with injuries two of the past three years), the AVG and OBP will be solid, but will the HR and RBI totals be that of a top-tier 1B option? His slugging percentage has dropped in each of the past three years, and his HR:FB clips have gone south, too. He is still a top NL-Only 1B option, and is very valuable in OBP leagues, but paying $30 for him is a tough pill to swallow. At that price, he is high risk/high reward, and you might be wise to walk away.

What do we make of Freddie Freeman in 2015? Will he return to the form he showed in his breakout 2013 season, when he posted a .319/.396/.501 slash line to the delight of his owners, or the player he was last year, when he hit 18 homers with 31 fewer RBI and posted a .288/.386/.461 line? Considering his career line is .286/.366/.465 over more than 2,600 plate appearances, it’s not unrealistic to think last year’s version of Freeman is who he is. Freeman has become a line-drive hitter, sporting the highest line-drive rate in the majors (minimum 400 AB), and his HR:FB rates have been hovering around league average the past couple of seasons. He’s definitely a low-to-mid-$20s 1B option, but if he is pushed to a $30 salary as he was last year, it might be time to look for better value elsewhere at that price.

There are questions surrounding that next tier of first basemen as well. Despite a career line of .268/.344/.447 and never hitting more than 17 homers or driving in 67 runs in a season, Brandon Belt has been a regular in the $20 salary club since his quick ascent to majors. He certainly has the promise to be a steady fantasy producer, yet his injury history and inconsistency make him more of a risk. The potential will probably entice owners to push him past $20 again, but the risk/reward is high at that price. Coming off his best fantasy year in seven seasons, Morneau also has a well-documented history of injury concerns, so bidding cautiously is the best recipe here. His resurgence in Coors breeds optimism and his performance will certainly drive up his value, but it’s hard to shake the stigma of Morneau being an injury-prone player. Is he a $25 player in 2015? He might be, but I have no confidence in taking that leap of faith.

Then there is Lucas Duda, whose 30 bombs last season were double his previous career high (an ISO of .228 will do that), despite his continued struggles against left-handed pitching. His success last year will inflate his cost, possibly to the level of the upper-tier first basemen. However, a $22-$25 bid can be problematic if he reverts into the player he was in 2012 and 2013, when he cranked just 15 homers and could not crack a .240 average.

As for Rizzo, his breakout season a year ago will drive his price up dramatically, and he might be the second-ranked first baseman behind Goldschmidt by the prognosticators. That would assuredly translate into a high draft selection or $30 price tag in most leagues. If his transformation into a lefty killer a season ago was not an anomaly, and is a trend he can maintain over 2015, he would be worthy of that level of fantasy love. An aggressive bid like that based on only one year of production always stirs reservations for me, but he will be a highly targeted player who will fetch a high price.

Finally, investing a decent chunk of your hitting budget for a first baseman with .247/.298/.460 career slash line, and who has only topped $20 earnings in only 5X5 leagues once, is always dangerous. That would be the concern with Mark Trumbo.

If enough uncertainties surrounding the current pool of players at the position have not been unearthed, add into the equation that the Pirates and Nationals will move their 2014 third basemen across the diamond to handle the everyday duties at first, and neither Pedro Alvarez nor Ryan Zimmerman played in enough games there to qualify in standard leagues off the bat. For leagues that hold their drafts prior to the start of the season, that lessens the first-base draft pool even more.

There are also a few potential platoon situations in St. Louis (Matt Adams: .197/.227/.326 career vs. LHP), Milwaukee (Adam Lind : .212/.257/.331 career vs. LHP), and Pittsburgh (Alvarez: .196/.267/.321 career vs. LHP), not to mention the Phillies’ and Padres’ first-base situations, which may remain unclear until late March.

Which means that, surprisingly, one of the most targeted first basemen this spring could be Todd Frazier, whose 43 games played there qualify him at both corner positions. His $30 season last year in 5×5 makes him the highest-earning 1B and 3B heading into drafts. Considering the depth at the NL catcher position, as I wrote last week, Posey (who has qualified at 1B for each of the last five fantasy drafts) makes for a reliable option at his secondary spot as well. Nabbing either Frazier or Posey could prove to be a wise strategy at the right price.

At the end of the day, you will want to get a top first baseman in your drafts, but spending top dollar or using a high draft pick for one appears to be a risky proposition. Other than Goldschmidt, there are few safe bets in terms of getting elite fantasy production from a first baseman. This could be the year to bump up your prices a tad for the first baseman you trust, and live with some negative earnings to ensure you get a reliable source for stats. Recent history suggests you might be better off paying a little more for a more consistent option like Gonzalez, or Freeman closer to his typical earnings. Alternatively, you might consider going after a mid-level type (i.e. Lind or Michael Morse) at par and hoping to catch lighting in a bottle with one of them. Whichever approach you decide to take, the first-base position from a draft perspective should be interesting to follow.

From a 4×4 vs. 5×5 valuation perspective for the first base position, depending on your league’s scoring format, typically the current NL first basemen hold a little more value in 4×4. That said, Votto, Goldschmidt, and Freeman should come close to equal value in the two formats.

Let’s examine some deeper NL first-base plays who could make for interesting targets from a value perspective. “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4×4, and 5×5 formulas, which he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article on November 20th.

Yonder Alonso – Padres
4×4 earnings: $7 / 5×5 earnings: $7

Alonso has simply not been able to stay healthy, missing significant time in each of the past two seasons. His latest injury required surgery in August, ending his season. Reports are he is progressing well in his rehab and should be good to go for spring training. While the former top prospect has not lived up to his potential when he has played, he had been productive prior to last year (when he saw a 50-point drop in his career BABIP). He is never going to wow you with power in that park, but did put up $13 in earnings in 2012, his first full season, and $12 in 2013 in only 97 games. The Padres have totally revamped their lineup, which could lead to more opportunities in the RBI and runs scored departments with his career OBP numbers. There is talk of the Padres going with a combination of Alonso, Tommy Medica, and Will Middlebrooks at first, so Alonso will need to step up to get the bulk of the at-bats at first base. I believe Alonso will emerge as the primary guy at 1B for San Diego, and while he’s not a player you want to count on as a primary source of offense, he should be available relatively cheaply and would make a decent pick to plug into your CI spot.

Mark Reynolds – Cardinals
4×4 earnings: $9 / 5×5 earnings: $9

Sure, he strikes out a bunch and his average makes even the hardened fantasy baseball veteran cringe, but when you hit 20 or more homers in seven consecutive seasons, you will have some value in our world. Heading to his fifth team in four years, Reynolds stays in the NL Central and will bring his career 31.9 percent strikeout rate and 17.4 percent HR:FB rate to St. Louis this season. He has additional value because he qualifies at both CI spots, and should get the starts at 1B against LHP while possibly seeing some time at 3B and at a corner OF spot. His average salary was $5 a season ago, and that was when he was the starting first baseman for the Brewers. He’ll be available at a much cheaper price this year in his platoon role and should hit his share of home runs, making him a decent, cheap option for your CI spot.

Darin Ruf – Phillies
4×4 earnings: $1 / 5×5 earnings: $2

With Ryan Howard’s future in Philadelphia up in the air, Ruf could emerge as the Phillies’ primary first baseman in 2015. Ruf has shown he can handle the bat in parts of three seasons in Philadelphia, posting a .805 OPS and 20 homers in 386 AB. His power is legit, considering he launched 38 bombs in Double-A back in 2012. With the trade of Marlon Byrd to the Reds, he should also see time in the OF this year to help accumulate at-bats if the Phillies are have trouble finding a taker for Howard. Ruf’s potential playing time and power make for a nice end-game play with upside.

Corey Hart – Pirates
4×4 earnings: $2 / 5×5 earnings: $2

Signed by the Pirates to a one-year contract this offseason to platoon with Alvarez at 1B and provide some right-handed pop off the bench, Hart’s 20 HR/20 SB days are long gone, as two knee surgeries in the past three seasons will limit his ability to run. After missing all of 2013, he battled hamstring and knee injuries last season while with Seattle and was limited to just 68 games, over which he put up a miserable .203/.271/.319 slash line. He has always possessed a nice power stroke, so if he can stay healthy in his role with the Pirates, he could be a cheap source of power if you are still in search of a CI late in your draft.

Here are some additional deeper 1B plays to target very late if you are nearing the end of your drafts and still need a CI fill out your roster, or if your league allows for reserves:

Tommy Medica – Padres
Called upon to play first base and some outfield by the Padres due to injuries, Medica was inconsistent, but he did flash some of the plate skills that made him a .289/.382/.529 hitter over five minor-league seasons. Medica is slated to share time at first base with Alonso and capture more playing time if Alonso continues his struggles from last year. If Medica can manage 250-300 at-bats, he could provide some value from a HR perspective. Don’t get excited about the six steals from last season, though; that looks like an anomaly, as he was 5-for-12 in SB opportunities in his minor-league career. Medica is an end-game play, and a solid reserve pick for leagues that have them.

Tyler Moore – Nationals
A prolific minor-league résumé has not translated into major-league success for Moore. Time is running out for the soon to be 28-year-old first baseman, and he is out of options. Moore is scheduled to be the backup to Ryan Zimmerman at first, but the injury to Jayson Werth could mean some time for Moore in the OF, where he has played 73 games in LF over the past three seasons. Moore played winter ball in the Dominican Republic and put up some solid numbers in 22 games, hitting .299 with a .429 OBP, six home runs, and 17 RBI. The Nationals expect production from Moore this year, and he is worth a reserve pick in hopes that he can provide some power in his limited time like he did in 2012 with Washington (10 HR in 156 AB).

Jason Rogers/Luis Jimenez – Brewers
Lind cannot hit LHP (.061/.162/.061 line last year in 37 PA), so one of these two players should be on the other side of the first-base platoon in Milwaukee this year. Both Rogers and Jimenez have hit lefties well (.295/.367/.439 and .282/.312/.519, respectively, in 2014 between the minors and majors) and have solid minor-league numbers overall. There is a chance they both make the Brewers, as Jimenez is primarily a third baseman and Rogers can also play the OF, but this should be monitored during the spring in case the Brewers decide to keep one bench corner infielder. Both players are worthy of a reserve pick if you are looking for some depth at CI.