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You guys know the drill at this point. On Monday, we took a look at fantasy first baseman you should target. Today, we take a look at fantasy first baseman you should avoid. Ying and yang, etc.
Billy Butler, Athletics
Butler’s 2012 season was pretty swell. In 679 plate appearances, the right-handed batter hit .313/.373/.510, mashing 29 homers and driving in 107 runs in what was his age-26 season. We’d seen Butler post high averages before, and we’d routinely see him post between 15-20 homers. But we’d yet to see him put it all together and become a true fantasy force at a very demanding position. Add in the “Country Breakfast” moniker, and it was hard not to fall in love.
There were warning signs that 2012 would be Butler’s career year—a .341 BABIP, a dramatic jump in HR:FB ratio despite an overall drop in fly-ball rate, etc—but many ignored them. That was ok in 2013, when Butler still produced, hitting .298/.374/.412 with 15 bombs and 82 RBI. He underperformed his draft slot, but he didn’t sink anyone’s team. But while 2013 represented a return to normalcy for Butler, with him serving as the sort of decent CI/UT option we had come to expect, 2014 was a turn for the worse. Butler posted a .271/.323/.379 line, setting a career-low with just nine homers and knocking in only 66 RBI. He swung more often, made contact less often, saw a dramatic decline in walk rate and failed to drive the ball when he hit it in the air.
Had Butler gone to a neutral or hitter-friendly park, I think he’d actually be something of a buy-low candidate for 2015. I don’t ever expect him to repeat his 2012 performance, but in a vacuum, I think his skill set suggests a 2013 campaign is more likely than a 2014 repeat next season. However, Butler went to Oakland, where O.co Coliseum is just as harsh, if not harsher, on right-handed power as is Kauffman Stadium. Butler doesn’t look to have a terribly exciting supporting cast around him, and while he’s not too old to rebound in his age-29 season, we may have already seen his prime. Overall, Butler finished as fantasy’s 29th-best first baseman a year ago. A return to the 20-or-so range is within his reach, but it’s tough to see him approaching top-15 territory again. —Ben Carsley
Freddie Freeman, Braves
There was some discussion of Freeman on this week's episode of Flags Fly Forever, and I previewed that he was going to be my avoid player for this week. Well, here we are. It's true that I've never been particularly high on Freeman in the past, and although he's been a good, consistent performer, he's not the fantasy star that he's made out to be. He's a top-40 pick via early ADP data, which seems OK if you only knew that Anthony Rizzo is in the top-20, but these young players are not where the values are this year.
Let's start by taking a look at Freeman's 2014 season. He played every game of the season and still finished outside of the top-10 players at his position. In fact, even if you're not keen on paying the price for Victor Martinez that his incredible prior year dictates, two of the elder statesmen of the position both finished just barely behind Freeman as top-15 options last year. Those two players: Adam LaRoche and Justin Morneau. Sure, they both have risk of their own, but they're also going at least 120 picks later. By taking Freeman that early, you're banking on the fact that he can hit more than 23 homers for the first time in his career–and while that's not unreasonable, it's an awful large premium to pay.
And this is before we get to the situation in Atlanta–which is at the heart of why I'll be avoiding Freeman in drafts this year. Last year, the Braves scored the second fewest runs in baseball with 573, leaving Freeman to only rack up 78 RBI, despite hitting third the entire season. He also scored 93 runs, and while that's a very strong number, it's a weak contextual outcome given his on-base percentage, batting order position and plate appearances. Now replace Justin Upton with an unnamed free agent, Jason Heyward with a maybe-healthy Nick Markakis and El Oso Blanco with El O Por Cuatro (h/t to J.J. Jansons). That means even fewer of what were fewer than expected contextual stats. This isn't a Giancarlo Stanton situation here either—Freeman doesn't have that carrying tool for fantasy, which means he's more reliant on the counters than most hitters ranked where he is.
Freddie Freeman is a very strong young hitter. Freddie Freeman is not a high-end option at first base. Freddie Freeman is not a top-50 pick in drafts this year. These sentences can all exist in harmony if you just let them. —Bret Sayre
Eric Hosmer, Royals
Hosmer isn’t quite a player you should avoid like the plague, but he’s decidedly not a target this year. He’s had his struggles in the three seasons since his arrival in 2011, when he was called up in May and went on to hit .293 with 16 home runs and 11 steals in 128 games. Hosmer appeared to be a good average hitter with enough power and speed to be a top five fantasy first basemen, but he hit .232 in 2012. His .302 average in 2013 was fueled by a .335 BABIP (career .305 BABIP) and his .270 average from last year seems closer to his true baseline. Early and unofficial PECOTA projections have Hosmer at .279 for this year.
While the projected average doesn’t seem that problematic for Hosmer’s value, he’s still a bit of a risky pick because he lacks a catalytic tool. He tied his career low in ISO last year with .127, watched his line drive rate fall from 22.6 percent in 2013 to 16.9 percent last year, and saw his fly ball rate jump from 24.9 percent to 31.9 percent. He also missed a month down the stretch with a stress fracture in his hand—the first time he was placed on the disabled list in his career—and stole just four bases last year. Even if we’re assuming he plays a full season and manages to tally double digit steals this year, Hosmer would still have to hit the ball a lot harder than he did for most of last year to be worth the investment. At this point, he simply hasn’t shown that he’s a good enough hitter to believe that will be the case and if he somehow drops even further it’ll be a disaster.
Hosmer earned just $8 in 12-team mixed leagues last year and as Mike Gianella said in an email recently, “He was James Loney Midwest last year.” There’s always the chance Hosmer, a former first-round pick and still just 25, breaks out with the bat, but there’s no reason to gamble on it actually happening. He’ll likely still be available after the first 150 players, which is when you can start to think about the Kansas City first basemen for your corner-infield spot. Just don’t get caught overbidding for him. — Nick Shlain
Joe Mauer, Twins
I really did not want it to come to this. I love guys that spray line drives all over the field and while I will still enjoy watching Joe Mauer at-bats in 2015, I will probably not be doing so as an owner of him in my fantasy leagues. This is unfortunately the case because Mauer’s realistic ceiling has fallen considerably, while the baseline his value is derived from has increased now that he is first baseman. Yes, a first baseman who bats .320 with 11 home runs and solid counting stats is valuable, but that outcome is far from a guarantee for Mauer; in fact, this is probably his realistic ceiling. Why? An answer follows:
Pitchers have been attacking Mauer differently the last couple of years and the results have not been good for the former catcher. The recipe for success has been to throw a first-pitch strike (which Mauer rarely swings at) and then get him to chase out of the zone. This seems to be working as Mauer has swung at a higher percentage of pitches outside the zone in 2013 and 2014 than at any other time of his career. This has resulted in Mauer producing the two highest strikeout rates of his career by a significant margin. While it has not shown up in the statistics yet, making contact with more pitches outside the strike zone figures to be a negative indicator for his future slugging percentages and BABIPs.
Furthermore, Mauer has seen his whiff percentage increase on fastballs each year from 2.62 percent in 2010 to 4.99 percent in 2014. When taking all these factors into account, I think Mauer has just as good a chance to post a batting average below .300 as he does one above it. When we then factor in the injury concerns, which dampen the upside on his counting stats, Mauer’s risk and limited ceiling make him a player I will be avoiding. —Jeff Quinton
Mark Teixeira, Yankees
Since his 2009 season—when Teixeira led the AL in HR, RBI, and total bases—we have seen a steady decline in his offensive production. His OPS has dropped every year since that year (even throwing out his 2013 season where he played just 15 games), bottoming out to his career-worst season last year, posting an abysmal .216/.313/.398 slash line. Teixeira’s days of being a solid four-category contributor are long gone, and in addition to injuries that have sapped his power, we have also seen a prodigious drop in his average the last five seasons.
Over his first seven big-league seasons through 2009, his career AVG stood at .290 in more than 4,000 AB; since then he has not topped .256 in any year, and holds a .242 BA in 2,134 at-bats during this time. Among first basemen with at least 400 at-bats last year, he tied new teammate Garrett Jones for the lowest earnings in mixed leagues based on Mike Gianella’s player valuations.
Teixeira attributes his struggles last year to not being fully recovered from his wrist surgery and his inability to lift weights during his offseason training program, which he claims dimmed his power. There could be something to that, but it does not explain his overall drop in production the past few years, especially against right-handed pitchers. Teixeira’s batting averages against right-handers in the last five seasons are as follows: .247, .223, .239, .086 (15 games), and .215. Of course, that’s partly because Teixeira has never met a shift he didn’t love to hit into, and that trend continued with his .137 average on groundballs in 2014. The stats show opposing pitchers are throwing a heavy dose of fastballs to Teixeira, and he posted the worst strikeout rate of his career last year. Pairing that with a career-high ground-ball rate was a recipe for disappointing power production and overall offense.
While the wrist injury certainly played some role in his anemic numbers, the regression in his offense was set in motion well before it. Many fantasy owners drafted Teixeira last spring hoping for a bounce-back after surgery and paid for a return to some semblance of a solid fantasy producer. The numbers suggest such a rebound is not in the cards in 2015, either, so I would refrain from that approach and stay away in your drafts. —Keith Cromer
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