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The Big Question: What does a replacement-level fantasy first baseman look like?

Major-league hitters produced the second-most home runs in baseball history this past season. The unprecedented home run surge, which began with a statistically significant uptick during the second half of the 2015 campaign, has dramatically reshaped the fantasy landscape in a moments notice. Despite our best efforts, we remain unable to pinpoint and confirm a specific underlying cause for the sudden change, making it nearly impossible to forecast if the trend will continue with any degree of certainty. However, a total reversal seems highly unlikely.

What we do know for certain is that no position group has been more adversely impacted by the recent trends than first basemen. Especially traditional power-only sluggers like Chris Davis, arguably the most prominent bust in fantasy baseball last year. Despite blasting 38 home runs, he finished as the 17th most valuable option at the position, earning just $11 in 15-team standard mixed leagues. With 111 hitters eclipsing the 20-home run plateau, the fantasy value of a single home run has plummeted, making it imperative in the current landscape to target a first baseman that can do more than just hit home runs.

Eight first basemen earned $20 or more in 2016. Of that nucleus, Wil Myers and Hanley Ramirez were the only ones selected outside of the top 40 picks in NFBC average draft position. With so little turnover at the true apex of the position, drafting an elite first baseman requires the hefty investment of an early round selection in a snake drafts, or a sizeable bid in an auction. Electing to pass on those superstar level talents requires fantasy owners to embrace a substantial amount of risk, and also lock themselves into the high-floor, low-upside pool of veteran options.

Nine first basemen earned between $11 and $19 last season, establishing a relatively high replacement-level threshold. Yet, a quick glance at some of the names in the lower tiers entering 2017 reveals a startling lack of upside. Dinosaurs like Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez are no longer appetizing. Davis is the ultimate Jekyll and Hyde fantasy option. Squarely in the primes of their respective careers, Eric Hosmer and Brandon Belt don’t appear on the precipice of taking another step forward. Let’s not forget about the bastion of mediocrity that is C.J. Cron. After that, it gets really ugly. There’s simply no way to sugarcoat it. With all due respect to Cron, if he’s the quintessential embodiment of replacement-level, I’ll gladly pay up for a stud and take chances at a middle infield spot instead.

Mixed League Strategy

Position scarcity is largely a myth. However, as we’ve discussed already, the gap in production between the elite tiers and the remainder of the first base crop is quite staggering. It’s enough of a factor that fantasy owners should be taking into serious consideration as they prepare for snake drafts and auctions this spring. There’s certainly no shortage of power-only profiles like Chris Carter among the lower tier options, but that home run production is often attached to serious batting average, health, or playing time risks in addition to offering nothing in the stolen base department.

In 15-team standard mixed leagues, the strategic approach is relatively straightforward. While the replacement-level options at the position offer high floors, they don’t offer much in terms of upside to exceed that level of production. My Baseball Prospectus colleague Mike Gianella will cover this territory in greater detail in his “First Base: Tiered Rankings” article later this week, but I think it’s critical to discuss the consensus top options at the position in this space. With March Madness right around the corner, I’ve decided to frame the discussion as a breakdown of the “elite eight.”

#1 Seed: Paul Goldschmidt

After posting a 35 percent fly-ball rate over the first six years of his career, Goldschmidt saw that number sink to just 29 percent in 2016. The pronounced change in his batted-ball profile resulted in fewer home runs, but he more than made up for it by stealing a career-high 32 bases, finishing as the top first baseman in fantasy baseball ($33 in 15-team standard mixed leagues). He’s one of the safest five-category investments in the game and the speed (even baking in some modest regression) puts him a cut above the other elite options at the position.

#2 Seed: Joey Votto

#3 Seed: Miguel Cabrera

#4 Seed: Anthony Rizzo

#5 Seed: Edwin Encarnacion

Votto turned in a monster second-half performance en route to a .319 average, 101 runs scored, 97 RBI and eight stolen bases in 677 plate appearances, earning $29 in 15-team standard mixed leagues. Why his immense talent isn’t fully appreciated in Cincinnati remains a total mystery. A lifetime .321/.399/.562 hitter, Cabrera has recorded a .300-plus batting average in 11 of the last 12 seasons. His ability to buoy a fantasy teams batting average remains unparalleled. After hitting 43 home runs in two years combined (2014-2015), the soon-to-be 34-year-old bounced back with 38 dingers in 2016. He’s still Miggy.

At just 27 years old, Rizzo is coming off an impressive campaign in which he hit .292/.385/.544 with 32 home runs, 94 runs scored, 108 RBI, and three steals in 676 plate appearances. Only Chris Davis has hit more home runs than Encarnacion (193) over the last five years. The 34-year-old joins an outstanding supporting cast in Cleveland, and should give AL Central pitchers nightmares for years to come. All four veterans are currently going within the first or second round in NFBC average draft position. These are the relatively low-risk franchise cornerstones you want to start building around.

#6 Seed: Freddie Freeman

The prevailing narrative that dragged down Freeman’s fantasy value entering last season was that the Braves poor supporting cast would prevent him from racking up the necessary counting stats to be an elite option. The 27-year-old responded by hitting .302/.400/.569 while scoring 102 runs, racking up 91 RBI and establishing career-highs in both home runs (34) and stolen bases (six). Hitting behind a healthy Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Matt Kemp, and with a shorter distance down the right field line in brand-new SunTrust Park, the future is suddenly much brighter in Atlanta.

#7 Seed: Hanley Ramirez

#8 Seed: Wil Myers

A permanent transition to first base appears to have erased the long-standing injury issues that have kept Ramirez and Myers back from reaching their full potential in previous years. Ramirez flourished in his first full-season at the position in Boston, hitting .286/..361/.505 with 81 runs scored, 30 home runs, 111 RBI and nine steals. More importantly, he played 147 games, his most in a single campaign since 2010. There were never any doubts regarding Ramirez’ talent, and finally his health cooperated in 2016.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Myers became one of just four players in the last five years to hit 28 home runs and steal 28 bases in a single season. Mike Trout has done it twice (2016 & 2012) during that span. The only other recent examples, Ryan Braun and Melvin Upton, both accomplished the feat in 2012. Even if he doesn’t come close to replicating the steals, the power and speed combination all but cement his spot in the top 10 at the position moving forward.

The Play In Game: Carlos Santana vs. Jose Abreu

On the heels of a stellar campaign, that included career-high’s in plate appearances (688), runs scored (89), home runs (34) ,and RBI (87), Santana’s 2017 fantasy value is contingent upon his place in the Cleveland lineup. If he ends up leading off in front of a loaded Indians heart of the order, he becomes one of the most likely candidates to outperform his current NFBC average draft position (12th at first base, 120th overall). Conversely, Abreu’s power has backslid in each of the last two seasons, falling to a rather pedestrian 25 home runs last year. At just 30 years old, he could easily reverse that trend, but there is more downside in his profile than anyone could’ve possibly envisioned after his unbelievable 2014 debut.

The Breakout Candidate: Tommy Joseph, Phillies

The 25-year-old smoked 21 home runs in just 347 plate appearances during his impressive major-league debut last season. With Ryan Howard out of Philadelphia (finally), he will be handed the everyday job at first base entering 2017. Even if he’s only a .260 hitter, the power alone is enough to propel him into the conversation in deeper mixed leagues. It’s not a stretch to assume he could reasonably hit 30 home runs in 600 plate appearances. There are certainly more enticing prospects to gamble on, but none of them has the clear path to everyday at-bats like Joseph. Currently going in the 14th round (220 overall) of early NFBC drafts, he’s one of the most attractive options in the later rounds at the position.

Long-Term Forecast

While the upper echelon remains fully loaded with premier veteran sluggers, the total tonnage of question marks swirling around the lower tiers and prospects at the position could stun a team of oxen in it’s tracks. If Colorado follows through on its widely reported plan to transition Ian Desmond to first base, he adds an influx of speed and power to the position. However, he’s far more valuable from a fantasy context if he retains outfield eligibility or somehow finds his way back to shortstop.

Joey Gallo and A.J. Reed are no longer prospect-eligible, but they remain Texas-sized projects for their respective franchises. Gallo made tremendous strides in the first month of last season at Triple-A, slashing his strikeout rate to 26 percent, while hitting seven home runs in 70 at-bats. Unfortunately, he struck out in 37 percent of his 344 plate appearances, and belted just 18 home runs over the remainder of the season. He’s still only 23-years-old, which gives him plenty of time to solve his contact problems, but it’s fair to wonder if he ever will.

At this time last winter, Reed appeared to be predestined for fantasy greatness after leading the minor leagues in home runs (34), slugging percentage (.612) and OPS (1.044) in 2015. He floundered in his major-league debut, hitting just .164 while striking out in 34 percent of his 141 plate appearance before being demoted to Triple-A. One of the most polarizing hitting prospects in the game, Reed will be featured prominently in my “Dynasty Tale of the Tape” article on Friday. Don’t miss it.

Prospect Pulse – A Five-Part Questionnaire –

Do you believe in Dan Vogelbach?

What are realistic expectations for Josh Bell in Pittsburgh?

How high is the ceiling with Cody Bellinger?

Is Rowdy Tellez the long-term answer in Toronto?

Is Rhys Hoskins the most overrated fantasy prospect in the game?

To hear the answers, tune in to this week’s “First Base Preview” edition of Flags Fly Forever. Yes, that’s absolutely a podcast plug.

Prospect Lineouts…

I have to mention Dominic Smith or Bret promised to fire me…Bobby Bradley spent the entire 2016 campaign as a 20-year-old in the Carolina League, hitting .235/.344/.466 with 29 home runs and three steals in 131 games at High-A Lynchburg. While he struck out in nearly 30 percent (170) of his 572 plate appearances, the power is very real and keeps him on the fantasy radar…Trey Mancini made his Orioles debut in September, blasting three home runs in his first five games. Barring a last minute splash on the free agent market, something Dan Duquette has done frequently in recent years, he should factor into the mix at DH this season…Sam Travis was hitting .272 with six home runs in Triple-A Pawtucket as a 22-year-old, before he tore his ACL in late May…Following a promising 102-game stint in which he hit .288 with 15 home runs at Double-A, Ronald Guzman was added to the Rangers 40-man roster this offseason. The Rays possess an intriguing tandem of potential cold corner options in Jake Bauers and Casey Gillaspie. Acquired in the now infamous Trea Turner/Wil Myers swap that netted the Rays Steven Souza two years ago, Bauers hit .270/.370/.420 with 14 home runs and 10 steals in 581 plate appearances at Double-A. Tampa Bay’s first-round selection in 2014, Gillaspie hit .284/.388/.479 with 54 extra-base hits (18 home runs) and 11 steals in 132 games between Double-A and Triple-A…

The Final Stat

Over the last 10 years, Paul Goldschmidt and Wil Myers are the only first basemen to record 20-plus stolen bases in a single season.