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.
The ways in which players like Prince Fielder and Chris Davis, who has third base eligibility, can bomb are obvious, but overpaying for Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli, Eric Hosmer, or Mark Teixeira could be just as detrimental. James Loney made for the perfect alternative last year as a good average hitter (.290) who makes up for his lack of power and run totals. Unfortunately for this season, he won’t be quite as available because his value is more commonly known. When looking at Napoli and Teixeira, though, owners must decide if the home run power is worth risking their batting average (and it’s generally not for my strategy). With Mauer and Hosmer, name value seems to be driving the cost. Could Hosmer breakout with the bat and get back to stealing bases? Sure, but I’m not betting on it.
While I’m not a big fan of the middle tier here, the AL added Adam LaRoche and Garrett Jones this offseason, which certainly helps. Both are also going to ballparks that should help their left-handed swings, though for Jones the benefit will depend on how much playing time he’s able to carve out for himself in New York. The impact of the new additions is mitigated somewhat for our purposes at Baseball Prospectus as both Carlos Santana and Chris Davis are third-base eligible and won’t be included in the first-base coverage this year.
While the first base position isn’t what it used to be when 30 home run seasons seemingly grew on trees, it’s not nearly as shallow as AL catcher was last week.
I’ll examine a few interesting AL-Only first base targets for deep formats. “Earnings” are based on Mike Gianella’s Rotisserie-style, 4×4 and 5×5 formulas he provided in his Retrospective Player Valuation article from November 20th.
Billy Butler – Athletics
4×4 earnings: $14 5×5 earnings: $14
Butler is a total bounce-back candidate after he posted career worsts in average (.271), ISO (.107), and walk rate (six percent) last year, so don’t forget that he picked up first-base eligibility again by playing 37 games there (earnings from last year were as a DH). Butler is in a similar way to James Loney as both are average hitters who lack outstanding power. Early and unofficial PECOTA projections have Butler for 13 home runs and a .277 average. Unlike the many injury cases at this position, Butler has played at least 150 games in each of the last six seasons. With the presence of Ike Davis in Oakland, Butler will likely only have to play first base against left-handed starters, which should continue to keep him healthy.
Kendrys Morales – Royals
4×4 earnings: $4 5×5 earnings: $4
Morales can’t be as bad as he was at the plate last year, right? An awful .218/.274/.338 line and career worst.120 ISO last year were troubling, but another career low in BABIP (.244) suggests he can get his average back above .270 relatively easily (career .297 BABIP). While another season like his 2009 before he broke his leg is probably off the table, there’s no reason to think Morales is done being a productive player.
Jonathan Singleton – Astros
4×4 earnings: $3 5×5 earnings: $4
While Singleton’s .168 average in 362 plate appearances in the majors last year is sure to give some perspective owners pause, his .238 BABIP certainly played a part and any advocacy of his fantasy value starts with improvement there and in his strikeout rate (37 percent). Even with all the strikeouts and a low average, Singleton’s power and walk rate are enough to make him a worthwhile target in AL leagues, though he’s perhaps better used as a corner infielder or utility player.
Nick Swisher – Indians
4×4 earnings: $3 5×5 earnings: $4
A knee injury ruined Swisher’s nine-year run of durability and seasons with at least 20 home run. His play last year (.208/.278/.331 in 401 plate appearances) is sure to drive down his draft price, and his expected playing time is a bit murky with the addition of Brandon Moss. Still, it’s difficult to dismiss what Swisher has done in his career, though it’s unlikely that he’ll ever produce a .270 average again. If healthy, he’ll be worth a modest bid because of his power and walk rate.
These next three are still interesting deep targets, but this group is better suited for the corner infield spot or as part of a dirt cheap approach to the position.
C.J. Cron – Angels
4×4 earnings: $9 5×5 earnings: $8
The Matt Joyce trade ostensibly puts the kibosh on Cron seeing regular at-bats as a designated hitter against right-handed pitching this season. While that’s true so long as everyone stays healthy, this is a situation where an injury to Josh Hamilton, Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols, or Joyce could open up playing time for Cron. He won’t provide a great average, but the power is there, as he hit 11 home runs in just 253 plate appearances last year.
Allen Craig – Red Sox
Craig is another hitter on a team with a good lineup without a defined role to see regular playing time. It was a horror show of a second half for Craig last year, as he posted a .428 OPS in just 37 games. There are plenty of hurdles in front of Craig now. He has to be to be healthy, someone in the lineup has to either get hurt or traded to open up playing time, and then he has to hit a lot better than he did last year. It’s much easier said than done, but Craig was a valuable player as recently as 2013 and only needed 119 games in 2012 to hit 22 home runs and drive in 92 runs. His health concerns me more than anything because he could be traded if healthy, but if he’s somehow able to threaten 500 plate appearances, he’ll likely turn a profit considering that he isn’t going to cost much.
Justin Smoak – Blue Jays
4×4 earnings: $2 5×5 earnings: $3
Smoak has disappointed owners for years, but now with minimal expectations and cost, he’s worth an end-of-the-auction flier just in case he falls into regular playing time with the Jays. He has power and he’ll hit 20 home runs should he fall into playing time, but don’t expect much else from a career .224 hitter.
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