This year, I’m going to change the format of the fantasy rankings a bit. Instead of lumping positions into sections such as infield or outfield and putting then together in a few large articles, I’m going to go position by position. This may take longer, but we are starting earlier this year, and we’re also running two Fantasy Beat pieces per week. This will allow me to fulfill an oft-repeated request from readers of last year’s rankings, which was to provide longer lists in order to give a better idea of what I thought about more players, as well as making things easier on those who choose to play in AL- or NL-only leagues.

Today, we’ll start with first base. This position is in a transition phase, as many of the up-and-coming sluggers of years past are entrenched within the top ten, while many of the former standouts for the position have fallen towards the back of the list. There’s not much of an injection of new blood though, as many of these players have been around for a few years. You’re going to see names that you recognize, but the generational shift in power is in full force.

In order to make these rankings, I used the 2009 weighted-mean PECOTA projections as a base, and then tweaked things as I saw them. This isn’t a descending list of projected 2009 VORP by any means. Remember to check out the players’ 75th– and 25th-percentile forecasts on their PECOTA cards once they’re released as well, as those will help you make decisions between players you may be debating over.

Rank Player          Team        PA  R  HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
 1.  Albert Pujols   Cardinals  663 126 35 124  7  .339/.443/.609  0.78
 2.  Lance Berkman   Astros     620 104 28  97 11  .299/.402/.534  0.84
 3.  Mark Teixeira   Yankees    647  94 28 102  2  .287/.379/.506  0.89
 4.  Ryan Howard     Phillies   631  96 40 110  0  .270/.374/.547  1.10
 5.  Miguel Cabrera  Tigers     651  94 32 111  3  .294/.369/.527  0.95
 6.  Prince Fielder  Brewers    661  99 33 105  3  .286/.380/.527  0.95
 7.  Joey Votto      Reds       574  88 26  86 11  .289/.370/.514  0.99
 8.  Adrian Gonzalez Padres     649  83 27  99  1  .277/.356/.480  0.93
 9.  Carlos Pena     Rays       600  80 30  91  1  .239/.359/.476  0.92
10.  Chris Davis     Rangers    574  70 29  93  4  .259/.312/.490  0.97

I don’t think it’s a surprise that my first-base fantasy rankings would lead off with the best player in all of baseball. He’s a force of nature whether he’s playing hurt or healthy, and according to his Beta he’s also one of the safest picks to meet that forecast. If you play in a league where defense counts, he’s somehow even more valuable thanks to his excellent play with the glove. His offensive numbers across the board are basically a lock to all be top-five worthy or better, and the seven steals, a solid output from this position, are an added bonus.

Lance Berkman and Mark Teixeira are both switch-hitters who are consistently among the most valuable at the position, and they’d receive more recognition if the best player on the planet wasn’t looking down on them year in and year out. I put Berkman first because of the projected difference in stolen bases. I think PECOTA may be a bit low on Teixeira. If nothing else, he’s a player whose 75th-percentile forecast is worthy of significant interest once it’s released.

Howard’s forecast looks a lot like last year’s campaign; maybe this time, for the sake of head-to-head leagues, he’ll try to spread the production out over more than six weeks. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are both capable of hitting some homers, and they should score and drive in plenty of runs. They aren’t quite elite-level players at the position, but they do rate as at least A- types.

Joey Votto gets some extra love from me because of his home park, and because I feel like he’s a safe bet to hit at least .275/.355/.490 or so. There’s some upside there as seen in his forecast, and there’s the fact that he plays his home games in the Great American (Batting Practice) Ballpark.

Adrian Gonzalez has the opposite problem; if he weren’t in Petco for half of his games, I’d have him much closer to the top five, because he’s one of the better hitters in the game. He hit .308/.368/.578 last year on the road, and .304/.367/.560 away in 2006-2008 combined. As it is, I like him better than his forecast, and potentially better than Votto’s, even with Petco in the way.

PECOTA doesn’t trust Chris Davis. The strikeouts are a problem that could become worse before they get better; that would explain the low batting average. His walk rate isn’t anything special, so if he does hit for low average, his OBP will go in the tank as forecasted. That being said, he has massive power potential, and he is playing half of his games in the American League’s version of Coors Field in the middle of what should be one of the most powerful lineups in the game. There’s too much to love here to not give him a shot if you’re a gambling lad or lady, and he’s conveniently ranked in an area where all of the stars are already gone; you have to choose between upside and safety at the position from here on out.

Rank Player         Team        PA  R  HR RBI SB   AVG/ OBP/ SLG  Beta
11.  Justin Morneau Twins      655 84  24 101  1  .281/.354/.475  0.96
12.  Kevin Youkilis Red Sox    597 81  21  84  3  .275/.366/.475  0.93
13.  Derrek Lee     Cubs       612 84  19  85  8  .289/.369/.464  1.05
14.  Conor Jackson  D'backs    602 85  16  76  8  .295/.373/.461  1.00
15.  Carlos Delgado Mets       583 77  26  96  2  .277/.355/.486  0.96
16.  Adam LaRoche   Pirates    551 71  24  82  1  .270/.353/.487  0.88
17.  James Loney    Dodgers    595 74  15  78  6  .286/.347/.445  0.95
18.  Nick Johnson   Nationals  430 66  15  58  4  .266/.410/.472  1.09
19.  Casey Kotchman Braves     538 64  11  66  1  .288/.353/.423  0.88
20.  Todd Helton    Rockies    444 62  11  55  1  .291/.405/.449  1.02

You may have noticed that almost all of these projections, save for those of Nick Johnson and Ryan Howard, are considered to be on the safe side via Beta. That lowers the potential upside and downside for all of these guys, but at least it makes it easier to translate the rankings into draft picks.

Being ranked 11th is not a knock against Justin Morneau; first base is just loaded with talent, and PECOTA and I agree that he was a bit higher than he should have been in 2008. Those of you who know that I watch the Red Sox may be surprised to see that Kevin Youkilis has fallen all the way to 12th, but he was ranked third in the American League in home runs that were classified as Just Enough, with 12. “Just Enough,” according to Hit Tracker, is when “…the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, or that it landed less than one fence-height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence.” You can’t expect Youkilis to get all 12 of those home runs again this year, which significantly reduces his power value.

Derrek Lee’s stock has fallen, but he started out at such a high place that we can still pretend he’s likely to recover and not be too upset when he doesn’t. Conor Jackson is solid, but he’s kind of like the poor man’s Youkilis. PECOTA thinks that Carlos Delgado still has something left in the tank; I’m a bit skeptical, but PECOTA is usually pretty good about sounding the death knell on players who are losing their skills, and it clearly doesn’t think that Delgado’s there. If you believe he’s going to keep it up at least one more year, then he and Adam LaRoche are pretty fungible, with LaRoche’s upside about the same, despite being significantly younger.

What is it about potential sluggers turning into mid-range first basemen for Los Angeles teams? Loney is starting to look like a better version of Casey Kotchman, but that’s not enough in fantasy leagues that use both AL and NL rosters. Speaking of Kotchman, he makes it on to the list by virtue of having the starting job in Atlanta; you will probably only want to pay attention to him if you’re in a deep NL-only league.

Nick Johnson would get more love if you could promise me he wasn’t going to shatter into a million little pieces because he swung too hard at a fastball. As it is, I think ranking him at all is being generous, so feel free to strike his name from the list and replace him with your favorite of my “Just Missed” candidates. Last, we have Todd Helton. The same deal that applies to Johnson applies to Helton; if you could guarantee his back was healthy, I would have an easier time believing PECOTA. Until then though, only deep NL-only leagues need apply, and that’s only if you get hosed out of your other options.

Just missing the top 20: Jason Giambi, who may lose a little more power due to age and the switch to pitcher-friendly Oakland; Nick Swisher, who should be considered as a rebound candidate that can play multiple positions (problem is, I’m not sold on just how much he’ll rebound yet); and Paul Konerko, who apparently didn’t hear that the White Sox were finished with spring training until August last year. PECOTA thinks he’s capable of .256/.345/.458, but if you’ve got more faith in his big finish than his lackluster start, swap him on the list with one of my guys who you don’t approve of and go from there, as a productive Konerko grabbed late in the draft is a good way to boost your own team’s chances of victory.