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Last year’s AL first basemen were one of the most predictable groups at the position in years. The good news for AL-only fantasy owners is that of the eight first basemen who earned $24-29 at the position, six of them will be back in 2016, with Prince Fielder and Kendrys Morales moving to DH-only (assuming a 20-game positional eligibility requirement). This stability makes it relatively easy to sink $25-30 on any of the top five players, and you might even be willing to go into the low $30s to lock in 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI for a premium option. In my early (unpublished) AL-only bid limits, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Edwin Encarnacion all have a bid limit of $30 or higher, with Eric Hosmer sitting in the $25-29 range. None of these players are quite the studs that their National League counterparts are, primarily because none of them offer a significant base stealing component in their respective games. The danger last year came not with the elite first basemen but with the next tier down. Seven first basemen cost between $16-25 in the expert leagues and Hosmer was the only one to turn a profit. Four of these players not only lost their fantasy managers money, but lost $10 or more on their average salary. While Abreu and Cabrera also lost their fantasy owners money, getting $27 worth of stats back on a $37 investment is much better than getting back seven dollars on a $17 investment.

While the temptation is to simply pay the big dogs, first base is dominated by a number of past-their-prime performers who are entering into or firmly entrenched in their decline phase. Ten of the 15 projected starters at the position will be 30 years of age or older in 2016, with only three projected starters younger than 29. On the surface, the age curve at first base seems to lend itself to stability but there is a false sense of security baked into this assumption. While PECOTA can and does predict gradual decline, it fails to account for players simply falling off of the map. Victor Martinez (now DH only for 2016) and Adam LaRoche were the graybeards who died on the vine last year, but it is entirely possible that Mark Teixeira (age 36), Albert Pujols (36), Mike Napoli (34), or even Edwin Encarnacion (33) will be this year’s victims. One thing that helps a great deal in the American League is the glut of DHs who are also eligible at first base. In addition to the 15 starters at first, there are seven players who are projected to DH but will also have their first base eligibility carryover from 2015. We often look at the position with a glass is half empty mentality and lament players like Fielder and Morales who aren’t first base eligible, but the reality is that there are over 20 first-base-eligible players in the AL who will have the opportunity to produce a full season of fantasy value.

Not only were the best first basemen in the AL better than they were in 2014, but they also provided the strongest value going all the way back to when I started tracking these values back in 2008. As noted above, they also did it without the benefit of a $30 player. This also hasn’t happened since I began tracking fantasy dollar values.

Table 1: Top 10 AL First Basemen by Season, 2013-2015

Rank

2015

$

2014

$

2013

$

1

Chris Davis

$29

Jose Abreu

$34

Chris Davis

$36

2

Edwin Encarnacion

$29

Albert Pujols

$27

Edwin Encarnacion

$29

3

Eric Hosmer

$28

Edwin Encarnacion

$25

Eric Hosmer

$26

4

Jose Abreu

$27

Chris Carter

$21

Prince Fielder

$23

5

Prince Fielder

$26

James Loney

$19

Mark Trumbo

$20

6

Kendrys Morales

$24

Carlos Santana

$18

Brandon Moss

$20

7

Miguel Cabrera

$24

Brandon Moss

$17

Kendrys Morales

$19

8

Albert Pujols

$24

Eric Hosmer

$14

Mike Napoli

$19

9

Mitch Moreland

$19

Mike Napoli

$13

Adam Lind

$19

10

Mark Teixeira

$18

Adam Lind

$13

James Loney

$19

Average

$25

$20

$23

There was a time where the play at first base was to try and hit on elite value. This didn’t serve fantasy owners well last year. Nine AL first basemen (minimum 300 at bats) returned a profit for their fantasy owners, with Morales (+15), Moreland (+15), and Stephen Vogt (+9) at the top of the heap. Morales and Moreland not only were the most profitable first basemen, they were among the top 10 bargains among all AL hitters, coming in seventh and eighth overall. The $5 bump at first base per player among the Top 10 came with a 63 home run, 146 run, 175 RBI, and .016 jump in batting average (in 367 additional at bats), and despite an 11 steal drop. However, the bump in offense throughout all of MLB doesn’t entirely explain the boost at first base. As a group, the 10 best players weren’t necessarily that much healthier. Thirty-seven at bats per player is next to nothing, and the 10 best first basemen in 2015 had even fewer at bats than their counterparts did in 2013. No, these guys were good. Despite the age caveat noted above, you are going to want to strike a balance between putting a good chunk of your auction money at first base along with not going too far past $30 on any one player.

That was the high level overview of the AL at first base. But how will it shake out player by player?

Of all of the American League first basemen, without a doubt the biggest wild card is Byung-ho Park. Signed by the Twins to a four-year, $12 million deal this past winter, Park is penciled in as Minnesota’s designated hitter, but should have first base eligibility in most formats. Park’s power in the Korean Baseball Organization was ridiculous. He slugged .714 with 53 home runs, 146 RBI, and a gaudy .343 batting average. Those numbers obviously won’t hold in the majors, but a 20-25 home runs season isn’t an unrealistic expectation. Pirates import Jung-ho Kang went from 40 home runs in 501 plate appearances in his last season in Korea to 15 home runs in 467 plate appearances last year for the Pirates. The key for Park will be his batting average, as he has a much higher swing and miss profile than Kang. If Park can keep his average up around .260, he will outdo his current NFBC ADP of 195th overall.

Coming into 2014, expectations surrounding Jose Abreu were high, leading to an average salary of $24 in the expert leagues. He delivered in a big way, putting up a monstrous 36 home run, 80 run, 107 RBI, and .317 batting average campaign, good for $34 in AL-only earnings. Last year, Abreu slipped a little bit, “only” posting a 30/88/101/.290 line and dropping down to $27. The bet on Abreu in 2016 will likely be somewhere in the middle of his 2014 and 2015. After a power dip in the second half of 2014 that had some wondering if Abreu’s home runs would drop precipitously last year, he still managed to swat 30 home runs despite a HR/FB rate that dropped from 26.9 percent in 2014 to 19.7 percent in 2015. Abreu’s 2015 TAv of .291 is fairly realistic and can still bring back $30 or so of fantasy value.

If spending $30 or more on a first baseman makes you squirm, you can always wade into the next tier of first basemen. There is no doubt relative to his massive contract that Albert Pujols has been a disappointment for the Angels in real life but in fantasy he has managed to earn $24 or more in three of his four seasons with Los Angeles. He recently had his walking boot removed after surgery on his big toe but could still miss the start of the season. Carlos Santana was once viewed as a potential fantasy stud but has settled in instead as a consistent second-tier player, earning $18 for three years running. Santana’s value mostly comes thanks to his ability to stay on the field and provide a “safe” source of 20 home runs, 70-75 RBI, and 75-80 runs. The batting average is always going to be a bit of a drag, but now that Santana’s catching days are done, he might continue to provide a little value on the base paths, as he did in 2015 with 11 steals.

From a raw-power perspective, Mark Trumbo has an opportunity to provide a good amount of counting stats in home runs and RBI without costing an arm and a leg like Chris Davis or Edwin Encarnacion. With a move out of Safeco and back to a hitter friendly park in Camden Yards, Trumbo could find his way back to another 30 home run season assuming full health. As with Santana, the batting average could be a drag.

It’s easy to overlook Eric Hosmer because he isn’t a big bopper like some of his counterparts, but he has put up $25 or more in earnings two of the last three seasons. Unlike many AL first basemen, Hosmer provides a strong batting average along with a decent amount of steals. The 15-20 home runs that Hosmer is capable enough shouldn’t be dismissed either. In redraft leagues, Hosmer offers a buying opportunity if your league is the kind of league that chases power at first above all else. At 26 years old, Hosmer also offers some upside and perhaps there is a slight power bump coming.

Based on early ADP there haven’t been that many reaches at the position, but it is somewhat perplexing that Greg Bird is being drafted ahead of more than a few starters. Bird’s long term future is bright, but at the moment he is locked out of a job.

Hanley Ramirez is the only projected starting first baseman in the AL who won’t be eligible at first base in leagues that auction prior to Opening Day, unless your league limits Park to DH (see above). This is much less of an issue in the AL because of the fact that so many DHs in real life are usually first base eligible in fantasy. Additionally, players like Morales and David Ortiz often gain eligibility in season, depending upon your league rules.

If you’re looking at potential platoons, Jon Singleton could sit against lefties in favor of Matt Duffy, despite the fact that Singleton has a much better slash line against southpaws in his career to date. Adam Lind (213/259/327 lifetime versus LHP) will likely sit in favor of Jesus Montero against lefties, while Yonder Alonso could see the bench in favor of Mark Canha for Oakland.

If you’re looking for players with position eligibility at multiple positions, there isn’t much to see here. Todd Frazier had third base and first base eligibility in 2015, but with Joey Votto healthy the Reds had no need to stick Frazier at first. Chris Davis also has outfield eligibility, but as is the case with Frazier the third base eligibility Davis had in 2015 is gone. The few players at first who do have multi-position eligibility also qualify in the outfield. Stephen Vogt is catcher eligible and Logan Forsythe is second-base-eligible, but you don’t want to use either one of these players at first if you can avoid it.

The heady broth at the position means that you shouldn’t have to worry much if at all at pushing prices up at first base. Depending on your auction, you might actually be able to knock your prices down a little bit. This means that you should be less inclined to give first basemen the raises that they got in 2015. Abreu (earned $34 in 2014, cost $37 in 2015), Cabrera ($32, $37), and Encarnacion ($25, $33) all got raises, despite the fact that it is very difficult for a player without any speed in his profile to get too far past $30 in earnings. Three of the nine hitters who cost $30 or more in AL-only last year were first basemen. I’m OK paying par for the best of the best, but paying more than that in a year when so many quality options are available seems aggressive. There are going to be some bargains at the end with so many 1B/DH types and it is worth leaving a CO or DH slot open to try and grab one.

If you play in an OBP format, the most significant value boosts in 2015 came from Carlos Santana (earned $9 more in OBP leagues), Chris Davis ($5), Miguel Cabrera ($5), and Edwin Encarnacion ($4). The biggest losers were C.J. Cron (-$2), James Loney (-$2), and Chris Colabello (-$2).

Below are some first basemen who will primarily be owned in AL-only and an examination of whether or not they will be worth owning in 2016. The 5×5 AL-only dollar valuations presented in this article can be found here.

Joe Mauer – Twins ($15)
Mauer is the kind of player who is as boring as dried toast in mixed leagues but is also the kind of player who has to be owned in AL-only formats. The move to first base definitely succeeded in its primary goal of keeping Mauer on the field, as his 158 games and 666 plate appearances were both career highs. A 10 home run, 69 run, 66 RBI, two stolen base, and .265 batting average season don’t seem like they add up to a $15 season but the numbers don’t lie. Mauer was the 15th best first baseman in AL-only last year and would have been a very solid choice at a team’s corner infield slot. Since Mauer isn’t a big time source of power or speed, much of his value is going to be predicated what the lineup does around him. A successful rookie campaign by Byron Buxton and a strong first full year season by Miguel Sano would go a long way toward cementing Mauer’s value by adding additional run scoring and RBI opportunities. One thing Mauer has going in his favor is his contract with the Twins. With $69 million due to Mauer through 2018, the Twins aren’t going to take playing time away from him if he can perform even at this modest level. An $8-10 investment should suffice and lock in a tidy profit.

Logan Morrison – Rays ($11)
The road to ninth place in fantasy leagues is paved with faulty, BABIP-driven analysis, but Morrison’s lousy BABIP in 2015 stands out. His .238 BABIP last year was a good .035 below his career mark, and while his line drive percentage did drop noticeably the amount of soft hit balls only spiked slightly for Morrison. Despite the bad batting average (.225), Morrison still managed to put up $11 in AL-only value thanks to 17 home runs and eight steals. The steals in particular give Morrison some sneaky value if he can sustain it going forward; not many first basemen run, and getting any steals out of this position is a nice perk. One problem with Morrison in an AL-only is since he can’t hit lefties you can’t mix and match with him like you could in a standard mixed league with daily moves. You will take a bit of a hit with your batting average, but even a bounce up to the .240-.250 range could bump Morrison up $3-4 in earnings.

Adam LaRoche – White Sox ($4)
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. Adam LaRoche’s 2015 was very, very bad. He posted the second worst ISO, K rate, and BABIP of his career. LaRoche will certainly get another opportunity to bounce back in Chicago given that he is due $13 million this year and the White Sox don’t have much in the way of palatable alternatives. That being said, his margin for error is small and it won’t take much for the White Sox to simply cut their losses, move Abreu to first base full time, and try someone else at DH. This is a high-risk/reward pick, and I would be wary of bidding too far past what LaRoche earned in 2015.

Mike Napoli – Indians ($9)
Signed by Cleveland to a one-year pact this winter, Napoli is expected to start at first base. The days of Nap slugging .450 or better are likely behind him forever, but he should still be able to provide 15-20 home run power for Cleveland. How much value Napoli returns is predicated on how much time he misses this year; he has never played more than 140 games and has played fewer than 120 in three of the last five seasons. If Nap has any kind of bounce back at all, his value in OBP leagues could be significant, as he put up a .360 OBP or better in 2013 and 2014. Napoli is at an age (34) where I’m a little wary of the downside but he shouldn’t fall of the cliff completely.

Yonder Alonso – Athletics ($10)
It is fair to wonder if Alonso had been a 20th-round pick—and not the seventh pick overall in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft—if he would still be getting opportunities in the major leagues. Alonso put up another pedestrian year for the Padres in 2015 that didn’t translate to much in fantasy, despite the $10 earnings. He has never reached double digits in home runs in the majors, and in fact has never hit more than 17 as a professional in a single season. Even in AL-only, Alonso is a low end play when you’re trying to fill out your roster in the hopes that this is the year that he finally bucks the odds and puts up $15+ in value, full well knowing that he almost definitely won’t.

Justin Smoak – Blue Jays ($10)
It wouldn’t be an AL-only article without a profile of at least one part-time player who is capable of providing double-digit value. Smoak did exactly that last year, putting up $10 in earnings despite having the low, low average salary of four dollars. Smoak is a similarly good sneaky play this year as he is blocked by Chris Colabello, who had a spectacular season last year but isn’t exactly a lock to repeat in 2016 after seeing his batting average jump almost 100 points. Smoak hit 18 home runs in a mere 328 plate appearances, and while the batting average is always going to be a fantasy liability, plunking down $3-5 for an outside shot at 20 home runs is ok with me. Smoak could kill your batting average if he does play regularly, which is the only downside.

Jonathan Singleton – Astros
Singleton’s earnings are omitted because it isn’t particularly fair to show what he did in 58 meager major league plate appearances. However, despite the fact that he is only 24 years old, 2016 could very well be the last hurrah for Singleton. A.J. Reed is one of the better prospects at the position and is on track for a mid-season promotion if he does well at Triple-A. Singleton has swatted 50 home runs between the minors and the majors since 2014, but this has come with an awful batting average and numbers that aren’t particularly impressive given the favorable hitters’ venue in the minors. Even though he will begin the season as a starter, be very wary of going past $4-5 for Singleton.