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).
A look under the hood reveals a player who has the same kind of first-round ceiling we thought he did last spring. Abreu actually picked up a couple of feet on his batted-ball distance in 2015, which you might not expect given the 80-point dip in his slugging percentage or seven-percentage-point drop in his HR:FB rate. He also improved his contact rate by 3.5 percentage points, which helped offset a more aggressive approach and some correction in his BABIP. Curiously, Abreu has also yet to take full advantage of The Cell, as he’s hit more career home runs on the road and slugged higher in tough intra-division parks in Detroit and Cleveland than he has on the South Side.
I like the young stars as much as the next guy, but I’d rather pay for an Abreu power surge than Arenado repeating as RBI king, Rizzo stealing 15+ bases, Bryant hitting .275 while striking out 30 percent of the time, Arrieta approximating that second half, or Pollock approaching 20/40 again. Abreu is still on the right side of 30 and 2015 should be viewed as his floor, with an elite fantasy season still well within his grasp. —Greg Wellemeyer
Brandon Belt, Giants
It's easy to look at Belt's .363 BABIP from a year ago and write him off as a beneficiary of good luck, but I think the Belt we saw last year is close to the real deal. After an odd, injury-plagued 2014 season that saw Belt hit for power like never before but at the expense of his ability to reach base, the soon-to-be 28-year-old took a more balanced approach in 2015, recording the second-best walk-rate of his career while slightly cutting down on the Ks and still posting a respectable ISO of .197. That led to career highs in homers (18) and RBI (68) and second-best finishes in runs (73) and SLG (.478). Obviously those aren't all-world stats from a first baseman, but when you add in Belt's nine stolen bases, it's clear that he was a solid contributor across the board.
What can we expect from Belt moving forward? I think the power is real—he hit 12 bombs in just 235 PA in 2014—and I think he could easily challenge for 20 taters. In terms of average, I'd expect him to settle in around his career normal of .270, but with a decent-enough walk rate that his OBP hits the .350-.360 range. Throw in 70+ runs and RBI, and a handful of steals, and you have an excellent CI option who's an acceptable 1B if you're in a 14-team league (Belt finished as the 15th-best 1B in mixed leagues last year, per ESPN's player rater). Essentially, if you're willing to forgo crazy upside in favor of a safe, well-rounded asset, count on Belt. —Ben Carsley
Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers
Has there been a more reliable fantasy first baseman over the last 10 years than Gonzalez? In the past decade the left-handed slugger averaged 159 games a season, posting an average stat line of a .292 AVG, 28 home runs, and 103 RBI. There is something to be said for stability like this, and it should make this five-time All-Star a first baseman to target in your fantasy drafts. After a great start in April and solid first half overall, evidenced by a .283/.355/.520 triple slash and 18 long flies at the break, nagging injuries slowed him down a bit in the second half, but he played through those ailments to still put up more than $20 in earnings in standard NL-only scoring formats for the 10th consecutive season. Not only was Gonzalez’s .830 OPS last season his best since 2011, but his 34 percent line-drive rate was 10 percentage points higher than his career average, and his HR:FB percentage of 10.9 was his highest since 2010. As Gonzalez has been in the league for 12 years, some might think he is older than he is, but the veteran will only be 33 years old when the season begins. Gonzalez is as reliable a fantasy producer as there is year in and year out, so you will want to circle this first baseman’s name on your draft sheet come draft day. —Keith Cromer
Albert Pujols, Angels
Perception hardly ever matches up with reality. There might not be a more prominent example of that than Albert Pujols, who just turned 36 years old over the weekend. He’s been unfairly labeled as an aging slugger whose rapidly declining bat speed and plate discipline could erode to the point that any regression to the mean in his HR:FB rate would spell disaster for fantasy owners. Let’s not discount the validity of that narrative, which raises some legitimate concerns. Even PECOTA is down on Pujols. The firestorm of negativity and uncertainty has diminished his fantasy value to the point that he’s currently being selected as the 12th first baseman off the board in early NFBC drafts, nearly outside the top 100 picks overall (92nd). The hate has simply gone too far.
Fantasy owners appear to be overlooking the fact that Pujols finished as the ninth-best first baseman in standard mixed leagues (earning $18) and was one of just 20 hitters to reach the lofty 30-homer plateau last season. It would be naïve to suggest that he will hit 40 bombs again this upcoming season, as he rapidly approaches the twilight of his career, but prospective fantasy owners won’t have to pay for anything close to a repeat on draft day given his current ADP, making him one of the best values at the position this upcoming season.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Pujols, who PECOTA projects for a .262/.323/.470 triple-slash line, could still slug 30 homers, something he’s done in 13 of his 15 years in the majors. Over the last five years, only 15 first basemen have put up similar numbers in a single season. The raw statistics back up the claim that Pujols is still an elite fantasy slugger, yet he’s not being drafted like one in 2016. Embrace the risk. —George Bissell
Mark Trumbo – Orioles
Trumbo is something akin to the butt end of a joke, at least in terms of real-world value. Sure, he has power, but his organization's insistence on miscasting him first as an outfielder and second as a Mariner have done their damage to his reputation. Those factors have obscured a solid player, though, especially now that he's landed in the friendly confines of OPACY.
He'll absolutely kill you in OBP leagues, but for those that stick to AVG or even OPS, he's a solid low-end 1B who just isn't generating much buzz right now. There's little chance he's the next Nelson Cruz, but let's not forget what a) staying healthy and b) a full season in Baltimore did for Cruz. Trumbo lost 87 points off his SLG going from Arizona to Seattle, and it shouldn't surprise anyone to see him rebound as a .500+ slugging type in Baltimore. It might not excite but getting a .250s average with 30+ home runs where Trumbo is going right now is exceedingly good value and not at all a stretch. Throw in the contextual factors in Baltimore's lineup (which just got Chris Davis back), and he could be a major factor in RBI and a solid contributor in runs, too. —Craig Goldstein
Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
It’s a bit awkward to advocating drafting a 31-year-old first baseman who hasn’t amassed more than 400 plate appearances in each of the past two seasons, but here we are. He’s being drafted as the 18th-overall fantasy first baseman this winter—and outside the top-200 overall—which all feels too low for someone who is a career .283/.349/.475 hitter. Here’s the thing: Zimmerman posted a .217 ISO with 16 homers in limited playing time, and his .268 BABIP is almost 50 points lower than his career average. He’s surrounded by a quality lineup in Washington and had the 15th-highest batted-ball velocity of any major-league hitter who had 100-plus plate appearances. Zimmerman’s plate discipline hovered near his career norms, too, as he didn’t swing-and-miss more often than normal, swing at pitches outside the zone than normal, or swing at more pitches overall than normal. What fantasy owners are gambling on is health. And if he’s healthy, I’d argue he’s more valuable in fantasy leagues than someone like Freddie Freeman, who is going roughly 150-spots higher than him in expert drafts. Given the low investment cost, I’m probably buying a lot of stock in Zimm this offseason. – J.P. Breen
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