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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 10 first basemen who could either make or break your auctions and drafts. First up: five hitters to add to your queues.
Matt Adams, Cardinals
First, a disclaimer that this “target” recommendation is geared towards deeper (16-plus team) mixed leagues and shallower formats with a CI slot. There are enough worrying signs in Adams’ profile, and the first base position is still deep enough, that recommending him as a full-on target still seems a little excessive. The most notable issue with Adams involves a platoon split that just doesn’t seem to show any signs of going anywhere. He hit just .190/.231/.298 against southpaws last season, striking out almost 28 percent of the time and pairing a gross 16 percent infield pop-up rate with a well below-average 15 percent line-drive rate. He also saw an extreme drop in his HR:FB ratio that was at least in part legitimized by a significant decrease in batted-ball distance.
And yet likely to be lost on many in the shuffle of those ugly warning signs, he made some appealing progress last year, particularly in developing into a bona fide righty masher. The vast majority of negative batted ball indicators came against southpaws, while he made steady and impressive progress in burning fewer worms and making harder contact against right-handers as the season progressed. Between an exploding line drive rate and growing fly ball tendencies against oppo pitching, he put just shy of two-thirds of his balls in play in the air, a dramatic and encouraging rise from the 56 percent mark he posted in 2013. Positive over-the-fence gains did not correspondingly come as expected, however, as his HR:FB rate against righties remained oddly stuck in the single digits. While the 20 percent rate he finagled in 2013 may be north of what we should reasonably expect, a basic regression to the norm should get Adams at least comfortably into the mid-teens next season.
If he’s able to hang onto the aerial gains he made this season, look out. Even if we bracket his struggles against lefties and build in no improvement at all, we’re talking about a guy who fantasy managers can look to for a decent batting average and 20 homers. Couple that baseline with a strong lineup context and a likely plum spot at the heart of said lineup when a righty toes the rubber, and the counting stat potential is above-average. It all adds up to a nice value play in the middle rounds as a hitter capable of returning nice value relative to his investment cost, and targeting guys with that kind of potential is the name of the game. —Wilson Karaman
Garrett Jones, Yankees
At a glance, Jones appears to be a non-entity or—at best—a weak corner option in deeper mixed leagues. Jones’s paltry 15 home runs, 53 RBI, 59 runs, and .246 batting average in 2014 were unacceptable for a first baseman, even in the diminished offensive context of 2014. He has been a virtual lock for playing time the last five years—averaging 148 games a season since 2010—but unless you owned him in an NL-only format, Jones’s durability has been more than offset by his vanilla offensive output.
This winter’s trade to the Yankees moves Jones from one of the worst power parks for a left-handed batter to one of the best. While Jones isn’t a dead-pull hitter, his spray chart shows a hitter who benefits more often than not by going to dead right or right-center field. It could be tough sledding against American League pitchers, but it is likely that Jones should see a modest bump in his home run totals even if all other things are equal.
What about that batting average? Jones’ .246 in 2014 and .233 in 2013 were unpalatable for fantasy owners, and even if you are expecting 20 bombs, that number could be hard to swallow. The answer lies in the Yankees depth, the presence of the DH, and the likelihood that Jones will seldom if ever play against a southpaw. Since 2012, Jones has a strong 260/314/475 slash line against right-handed pitchers. Alex Rodriguez (!) is Jones’s likely platoon partner at DH, but even if A-Rod is released before a regular season pitch is thrown, it is unlikely that the Yankees are going to let Jones play against any lefthanders unless a game is out of hand. You want at bats, but in standard mixed less is more in this case, and the ability to slide Jones in and out of your lineup is going to make him a sneaky weapon in any format. He is being significantly under-drafted in early ADP, but my educated guess is that Jones will be a strong play for the 2015 campaign. —Mike Gianella
Adam LaRoche, White Sox
Though it was relatively quiet, Adam LaRoche just finished up a very good 2014 campaign in which he hit .259 with 26 homers, 92 RBI, and 73 runs scored. In fact, over the last three seasons, only six first basemen have more home runs (one of whom is Adam Dunn, who just retired), while just eight have more RBI. Despite that consistent production, he’s still widely overlooked as a legitimate fantasy option in standard leagues. Obviously, he’s not going to be an early-round pick, but he’s someone you can grab later in order to focus on other positions earlier in drafts.
The move to Chicago should be huge for LaRoche’s game. Going from an average-to-below-average park to one of the better hitters park in baseball will clearly be beneficial to his home run total. And while it may seem like a downgrade leaving Washington’s potent offense, the White Sox are shaping up to have a sneaky good lineup in 2015. He’ll be hitting in the middle of a lineup headed by Adam Eaton and Melky Cabrera, two guys I’m very high on this year who should give LaRoche plenty of RBI opportunities. There will probably be a bit of a dip in runs, but hitting in front of Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie, and even Tyler Flowers should result in a surprisingly decent total.
There are clearly concerns, but nothing that would keep me from targeting him. The age will definitely give many people pause, but he showed no signs of slowing down last year, even adding more distance to his average fly balls and showing across-the-board improvement from 2013. On top of that, the presence of Jose Abreu will give him time at DH, saving his body from the mild strain of playing first. There is also the issue of playing time. Sure, he’ll probably lose some at bats to the Dayan Viciedos of the world. I wouldn’t worry too much about that, though, considering we’re talking about the Dayan Viciedos of the world.
If you don't want to pay for guys like Paul Goldschmidt or Edwin Encarnacion, LaRoche is the guy to target at a cheap price. Rather than take a chance on comebacks from Chris Davis or Prince Fielder, or hope for good health from Justin Morneau, wait a little longer and grab LaRoche. You’ll enjoy his fit in a new park, league and team that all fit his needs. —Matt Collins
Mark Trumbo, Diamondbacks
An April foot stress fracture undercut most of Mark Trumbo’s first season in the desert as he missed 71 games and looked absolutely brutal at the plate when he returned from the injury. Trumbo posted a high-average/low-power August (out of his norm) before returning to the low-average/high-power ways toward the end of the season.
Historically we can expect much more of the latter from Trumbo and his total season line of .235/.293/.415 isn’t crazy out of proportion with what I would expect moving forward. His batted-ball profile did not stray too far to the negative, and his strikeout and walk percentages (24.6 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively) were in line with his career 25 percent strikeout rate and 7.4 percent walk rate. Trumbo has the added benefit of having outfield eligibility, which certainly helps his case.
First base is a premium offensive position; it’s where you shore up your power numbers, and Trumbo certainly provides those. His warts are pretty easily visible: He will not hit for a high average, and if you’re in an OBP league, he moves safely into the “avoid” portion of this series. But in your standard 5×5, he’s a solid option for big power potential. He functions simultaneously as one of my top bounce-back candidates as well as a solid target to return value in standard formats. —Mauricio Rubio
Kennys Vargas, Twins
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about regression with Vargas, especially in batting average, when you look at his BABIP, walk and strikeout rates. That said, if you look beyond the major league sample, Vargas showed exemplary walk rates in the minor leagues dating back to 2012, and even his strikeout rates weren’t out of hand given the type of power he boasts. For a big guy (6-foot-5, 275 pounds), Vargas’ swing isn’t overly long. Don’t take that to mean he doesn’t have big-time power though; it’s more that it’s easy power.
I was down on Vargas before he made the majors because I was concerned he had a quad-A profile. While he’s always had power, it hasn’t always come to the fore in-game, but with nine home runs in only 234 plate appearances, it seems the power has the ability to translate to the major league level. He’s not going to get lucky to the tune of a .340 BABIP next year, but he shouldn’t have to. He’s a switch hitter, so he’s never at a disadvantage platoon-wise, and he’s shown in the past that he can be something of a contact hitter for the amount of power he has. With some regression in his strikeout rate, he should put the ball in play more, giving him a shot at retaining an average in the .270s.
With a full season of at-bats from the middle of the order, Vargas has a chance to give you a .270 average, 20-plus home runs, and solid contextual stats. The Twins’ lineup isn’t a powerhouse, but hitting behind Torii Hunter, Brian Dozier, and Joe Mauer isn’t the worst situation in the league either. —Craig Goldstein
Joey Votto, Reds
For the second-consecutive year, the Reds will have a potential top-tier fantasy option plummet down draft boards due to the Injury Forgottenness Factor. That is to say, fantasy owners forgot about Johnny Cueto a year ago—he went 168th in average drafts—because he missed a chunk of time with an injury in 2013. It wasn’t a structural issue, though, and Cueto returned fully healthy last year, dominating the National League and ranking as the second-best fantasy starter in all of baseball.
We may have a repeat performance with Joey Votto, who is expected to have no limitations whatsoever in spring training. The Reds project the former MVP to be fully healthy in camp, and considering it was not a major structural injury, there doesn’t seem to be a reason to suspect his quad issue should affect his performance in 2015.
What’s the ranking drop for the upcoming season? ESPN currently has him ranked as the 97th-ranked overall player and the 16th-overall first baseman. Sixteenth!
He was comfortably a top-10 fantasy first baseman in 2013 and is poised to return to that level of value next season. Of course, some have a concern about Votto’s power decline in recent years. His ISO has dropped from .230 in 2012 to .186 and .155 in the past two years, respectively. That’s certainly something to monitor; however, it’s unclear whether the power decline is indicative of anything permanent. Even in 2013, he hit 24 homers and was the 7th-ranked first baseman. One reasonably can conclude that his quad injury hampered his power production a year ago—but even if we suggest he’s not a .200-plus ISO guy anymore, it seems difficult to believe he’s suddenly James Loney.
Votto controls the strike zone like the elite players in the league. Even last year, when he was injured, his 21.8 percent swing rate at pitches out of the zone would have ranked third in all of baseball (if he had qualified). His K:BB remains stellar. He doesn’t swing and miss often. He still has a career-average BABIP of .355 and one should expect his BABIP of .299 to pick up from last year; even his line-drive rate remained sky high, despite the quad.
It doesn’t appear that his skills at the plate are declining. And even if we’re going to suggest his power is declining to merely 20-homer power rather than 25-35 homers, that’s still a top-10 first baseman given his likely batting average and run totals. If you’re playing in OBP leagues, his value only increases. If healthy, Votto is almost a sure bet for a top-10 first baseman, and he’s currently being ranked behind Joe Mauer by ESPN. How Mauer (talk about power outages) is a better option than Votto makes no sense to me whatsoever.
And if the power returns to 2012 levels, fantasy owners who invested on draft day will be singing all through the night. He doesn’t deserve to be ranked behind guys like Pujols, Mauer, or Chris Davis. That makes no sense. Capitalize on the Injury Forgotten-ness Factor. —J.P. Breen
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