Taking the long view on this position, from current major-leaguers to future contributors in the lower minors.
We, at Baseball Prospectus, have been talking about first basemen for a while now (three days and change to be exact, depending on when you are reading this) and the party continues to rage on. Yet before we rage, we shall calibrate—since rankings aren’t useful without knowing what you’re reading. The list you are about to read here presupposes a 16-team standard (read: 5x5 roto) dynasty format, in which there are no contracts/salaries, players can be kept forever, and owners have minor-league farm systems in which to hoard prospects. So feel free to adjust this as necessary for your individual league, whether it’s moving non-elite prospects without 2016 ETAs down if you don’t have separate farm teams or moving lower-risk, lower-reward players up in deeper mixed or -only formats.
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The staff recommends circling these players on your draft sheets at the 1B and/or CI positions.
Last week, we kicked off our Players to Target/Avoid series with a look at fantasy backstops. This week, we march on by taking a deep dive on first basemen who could either make or break your auctions and drafts. First up: six hitters who members of our staff think could be undervalued this year, based on where they will be selected in drafts later this spring.
Jose Abreu, White Sox
Make no mistake, Abreu is still going to cost you a pretty penny on draft day; he’s being taken 22nd overall in early NFBC drafts following a season that saw him fail to meet preseason top-10 expectations. Abreu tallied six fewer home runs than he did in 2014 and his batting average declined by nearly 30 points, regression that 2016 drafters are reacting to by dropping him a round or two. What remained was still a .290 hitter and one of only three players to hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 in each of the past two seasons (Jose Bautista and David Ortiz were the others).
As our positional Scoresheet keeper coverage heads to first base, it's worth keeping in mind that this is a much more fluid ranking than you'll find in Roto. Not only are players such as Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Zimmerman soon to qualify, but a true first base protection list can include pretty much every player in baseball. We generally tend towards building up the middle where you can, which means that we assign lower value to this position as a whole than most.
As a refresher, our rankings reflect the rules of a traditional public league: 10 teams, 13 keepers, of which two may be crossovers from another league. Also, these rankings are being created for a hypothetical continuing league, so age matters.
Risky options at the top muddy the waters at this position.
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 4x4 and 5x5 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 5x5 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 5x5 season since 2008 when he was with the Twins. Put it all together, and you have quite the unexpected year.
Taking the long view on this position for fantasy purposes.
Because dynasty league rankings are relatively league-dependent, I set up parameters for ranking the players below (and the ones who will follow at other positions). The list here presupposes a 16-team standard dynasty format, where there are no contracts/salaries, players can be kept forever and owners have minor league farm systems in which to hoard prospects. So feel free to adjust this as necessary for your individual league, whether it’s moving non-elite prospects without 2014 ETAs down if you don’t have separate farm teams or moving lower-risk, lower-reward players up in deeper mixed or only formats.
First base is a position that keeps trending downwards in dynasty formats, and makes for an interesting reboot of our conceived notions about the sluggers that are supposed to reside here. It seems like every time we make gains at the position, i.e. Paul Goldschmidt’s breakout and Jose Abreu’s appearance, we take steps back with the decline of Albert Pujols, and injury issues of Joey Votto and Prince Fielder. It was only two years ago that those three were the no brainer top three of the group—and this year, none slot into the top five.
Five of the top eight at this position reside in the junior circuit, but things get dicey after they're off the board.
Last week, I examined the American League catcher landscape, and it became apparent that the position lacked depth. First base, a much less demanding defensive position, on the other hand, is able to offer owners a buffet of options. When preparing for your draft, adjusting for depth or lack thereof at certain positions can be crucial. Are the elite players at the position worth the risk? Is it better to wait out the top players at the position in hopes of getting an undervalued player later? When should you fill your corner-infield position? How these questions are handled will go a long way in deciding the makeup of your roster.
While the AL catcher landscape lacked both elite options and depth compared to the National League, first base is a decidedly different story. The first-base position is deeper in the AL—and five of the top eight first basemen in the tiered rankings reside in the junior circuit—but your draft truly gets interesting once Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez, and Albert Pujols are all off the board. It’s at that moment that AL-only owners will shuffle draft sheets, skim magazines, and browse draft software looking for the next first basemen to target before lamenting the loss of former stalwarts Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Giambi, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Mike Sweeney, Aubrey Huff, and Richie Sexson. The first-base position isn’t what it was in the latter part of the previous decade, and this will leave owners scrambling to find certainty after the top-shelf options are gone. What this means for your draft weekend is that you’ll need to wade through the middle tier like it’s a minefield.
Examining first sackers who move up or down the rankings in points and/or OBP formats.
First base requires perhaps the closest attention when you play in a non-standard league, as the relative importance of production from the position along with some of the most extreme value swings among any of the positional groupings can team up to cause rankings chaos. There’s a preponderance of “three true outcome” hitters in the ranks of first basemen, and they also unsurprisingly tend to be among the slower and less athletic baserunners. So you’ll see a few names in this article multiple times: guys who get on base a whole bunch but also tend to strike out at higher rates and also have a bit more trouble legging out doubles and triples.
First basemen unsurprisingly led all of the positional groupings again last year in OBP-AVG differential with 74 points of separation, and they posted a collective slugging percentage a full 20 points higher than the second-best outfielders. Power and patience is the name of the game, and in OBP leagues, the importance of securing that combination from your first baseman becomes even greater. Fortunately the reserves are deep and there is a long list of guys that outperform their standard league rankings. On the flipside, the guys who lose relative standing in OBP formats are that much poorer of an investment.
A few notations before diving right into the rankings. These are not BP consensus three-year ranks. These are Craig Goldstein’s three-year ranks and you’ll soon see why that distinction is important. I think it’s fair to say that my rankings are considerably different than those of the BP fantasy staff at large.
Can the Red Sox first baseman rebound from an injury-hindered 2014 campaign?
You all know Mike; you know him well enough to be completely unsurprised and even pleased to find out that his middle name is Anthony. You also know that ever since he broke into the league as a catcher with the Angels—playing Off-Broadway Roy Hobbs to Mike Scoscia’s Pop and Jeff Mathis’s Bump—Napoli has been leaving jersey buttons unbuttoned and three true outcome-ing a high percentage of his at bats. While his average and counting stats have had significant year-to-year variance due to his injury proneness and large BABIP variance, the power, patience, and strikeouts have always remained constant. That is until 2014.
Breaking down the position into fantasy-value-based bins.
The positional tier rankings continue to roll out, and today we have the first basemen. For the third year in a row, we’ve made this a collaborative effort.
Players at each position will be divided into five tiers, represented by a “star” rating. Five-star players are the studs at their position. In general, they are the players who will be nabbed in the first couple of rounds of the draft, and they will fetch auction bids in excess of $30. Four-star players are a cut below the studs at the position. They will also be early-round selections, and they are projected to be worth more than $20 in most cases. Three-star players are the last tier in which players are projected to provide double-digit dollar value in auctions, and two-star players are projected to earn single digits in dollar value in auctions. One-star players are late-round sleepers and roster placeholders. The positional tiers aren't simply a regurgitation of last year’s values but rather try to offer some insights into what we expect will happen in 2015.
First base is a very different animal from the rest of the positions, fantasy-wise. There are some heavy hitters who can carry your team as illustrated by the five tier guys. The middle class still has value fantasy wise and it’s not until you hit the dregs of the position that you start to run into guys who can actively hurt you in spite of their strengths.