If 2013 looked like the dawn of a grand new era at first base, in 2014 reality came crashing down on this supposed new paradigm. Ten first basemen earned $25 or more in mono formats in 2013; in 2014, only five first basemen managed to reach this vaunted plateau. It could be argued that first base has been impacted more by the limited offensive climate than any other position. The days of the 25-30 home run hitter aren’t dead and forgotten, but with fewer top shelf big boppers to go around, fantasy owners have to decide if they want to invest a high draft pick on a major power play or if they want to try and opt for cheaper production that is attached to more of an all-around player. James Loney’s 2014 line looks excruciatingly boring, but he was the 13th-best first baseman in fantasy in 2014. Unless your league is super shallow, what were once pedestrian-looking numbers are now a staple in some team’s lineup.
Despite the lack of top tier production in 2014, the top of the player pool still looks strong. Paul Goldschmidt and Miguel Cabrera both look to bounce back from injuries and take their rightful place at the top of the heap in mono leagues. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Abreu offer strong power production and could easily fill the void if Cabrera’s injury recovery winds up being on the longer side. Immediately beneath this quartet of $30-plus potential earners is a trio of grizzled veterans—Adrian Gonzalez, Victor Martinez, and Albert Pujols—accompanied by last year’s big breakout player, Anthony Rizzo. Martinez produced at an elite level last year, but the fickle nature of V-Mart’s high batting average makes Rizzo the most likely to crack the top five this year assuming further growth.
The names that will make or break the position in 2015 rest in the next group. If Joey Votto, Chris Davis, and Prince Fielder can all bounce back to elite levels of production, first base will once again take center stage as a thick fantasy position. Even if these players don’t reclaim past glory, Lucas Duda, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Belt are all capable mixed league performers if you don’t have the stomach for the high draft or auction prices of the big names above.
The League Breakdown
Just as it was last year, the American League is significantly deeper at first base than the National League. Imports Adam LaRoche and Garrett Jones join a group of players who have both first base and outfield eligibility or split their time at first base and DH to make for a long list of decent options in an -only format. Overpaying for a mid-tier option like Mike Napoli or Eric Hosmer makes little sense, and in some leagues the best thing to do is simply play musical chairs and wait for the bargains in the mid-range to fall.
The National League is a different story. There are actually more $20-plus players in NL-only, but the talent level drops off quickly after the first few big names fall off the board. This is due in part to some teams shifting players to first base this year for the first time. While both will gain eligibility soon enough, Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Zimmerman won’t be eligible at first base to start the year. These position shifts combined with uncertainty for teams like the Padres and the Phillies at first base make grabbing a top shelf first baseman more imperative in 2015 in NL-only.
The Strategy in Mixed Leagues
A year ago, I would have emphatically agreed with my colleague Craig Goldstein and suggested waiting on first base if you didn’t grab one of the top four or five names out there at the position. This year, there is definitely more of a gap between the top 8-10 first basemen and the next group. This isn’t to say that you will wind up with absolute garbage at the position if you wait, but the days of picking up a 15-20 home run option in the endgame are long gone.
First base is still a good place to fill in your corner infield slot, as the position remains deep even if it isn’t strong at the top. You are better off trying to grab Matt Adams or Justin Morneau as your corner infielder than you are waiting for a third baseman who will provide enough offense to be relevant in a mixer. Most major-league first basemen are on the roster for their offense, unlike a few denizens of the hot corner who provide mostly defense and not much else.
The Long-Term Outlook
Every year, first base seems to lose some key performers—either due to decline or retirement—and every year the position somehow manages to remain as thick as ever. However, the paradigm shift on offense has had an impact on first base, and it will be interesting to see if this is merely a one-year blip on the radar or a sign of things to come. The power that was once obvious at first base is no longer a sure thing.
First base is the position on the diamond most likely to add players from another position when a major team wants to save a player’s health or keep him fresher and maximize his bat. Last year’s biggest “import” was Cabrera—who moved back to first after a brief stay at third base—but on the whole there was not a significant amount of positional shifting. Joe Mauer won’t be catcher eligible this year, but unless his bat bounces back significantly, he will rank toward the bottom of the mixed league options.
The prospect landscape at first base is typically a mixed bag. Dan Vogelbach comes with enough defensive limitations that it dampens his fantasy value, particularly in the short term. Last year’s best breakthrough prospect was C.J. Cron, and while Cron was certainly a solid citizen, he barely made enough impact for inclusion on a standard mixed roster. Jonathan Singleton’s arrival was met with much hype, but it turned out to be overhype, as the young slugger looked overmatched in his first trip around the bigs. Christian Walker is a good example of a hitter who broke through in the minors but could struggle to provide big league value right away. If you are in a league with farm systems, Dominic Smith, Greg Bird, and Casey Gillaspie are some of the names to know.
Keep in mind that last year’s caveat about first base prospects apply. Unless you are in an only league, you are generally better off waiting a year or two on the prospects…at least. While the position is a little thinner than it has been in the past, there is still enough value in the middle that it doesn’t make as much sense to roll with a rookie in a standard mixed as it does at a skill position like shortstop.
The Closing Haiku
Not as strong this year
Yet the promise still remains
Be healthy Miggy
Thank you for reading
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