A considerable amount of depth at first base from even this time last year has fizzled out. That doesn’t mean the position is any weaker, though. Familiar names have leveled up or at least held steady, new ones with strong skills have emerged, and few fishy choices appear to be lurking. In short, the position is in the midst of a renaissance, dotting the draft board with diverse options who can help you plan what kind of roster you want to create.
Bryce Harper made his absurd return from Tommy John surgery in early May. By early August, he’d become eligible at first base in most every format. In just over 150 plate appearances as a first baseman, he slugged .569 and got on base a smidge more than he did as a DH. There isn’t much to add when it comes to describing Harper at this point. He truly is built different, and becoming a first baseman now is at least as much to help accommodate the Phillies’ roster construction as it is for any skill or health concern, if not more.
More than becoming another top-tier option at the cold corner, Harper helps make the position the deepest it’s been since 2017, when six first basemen were going off the board within the first two rounds. This year, it’s Freddie Freeman, Matt Olson, Pete Alonso, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. going in that range with Harper. The differences in their earliest and latest picks sees a range between 9 and 29. The range for earliest and latest picks of the next 13 eligible hitters at the position is between 40 and 76 picks. We are so back.
Speaking of which, it would be hard to write a section titled “What’s New?” and not mention Cody Bellinger, who has respawned his major league career more times than most video games allow. After being well below replacement level in his final two years with the Dodgers despite playing in 239 games, he rebounded to slash .307/.356/.525 on the back of the lowest strikeout rate of his career. He’s been through more swings than the members-only club you pass on your way to work, with the most recent one involving filling a hole in his plate coverage at the top of the zone. He found a way to make more contact than he ever had. The catch, of course, is that the additional contact has driven down the rate at which he puts a charge into the ball, which puts him in a precarious spot when it comes to whether he’ll be able to replicate the outstanding results he managed in 2023.
As it stands, Bellinger is the clear go-to for drafters after the position’s top players have been snatched up. Sure, he made more contact than he ever did last year, but it was also more contact than he ever had to make because of the way his game was shaped before that. His renewed health adds a layer to a sensitive question when it comes to whether or not you want to buy, like when Paul Hollywood wonders if a contestant on The Great British Baking Show made enough folds in their pastry to get a lamination worth believing in. PECOTA projects him (and Spencer Steer) to be the biggest early round disappointments at the position, though multi positional eligibility and the likelihood of providing steals could help ease such a blow.
When it comes to Christian Walker, his game isn’t exactly new, but the way drafters are responding to it is. After rounding into a force in 2022, he yielded even better results in 2023 by enjoying some positive variance from the same process: Control the zone and smash the pitches that dare come in your nitro zone. Even though he’ll be 33, he’s a consistent and key cog for a team on the upswing. This is why he’s the first guy at the position going off the board who hasn’t scooped a bunch of MVP votes in the past.
MIXED-LEAGUE DRAFT APPROACH
With there being so many top options relative to past years, you will have plenty of opportunities to scoop an impact first baseman early on. The question you’re going to have to ask yourself is if you want to miss out on some of the top tier outfielders, who make up about a third of the top 30 players being taken.
This looks different depending on where you go, and whether you can trust your draft room to go chalk or not. You could end up pairing a Corbin Carroll with a Pete Alonso or a Juan Soto or Aaron Judge with a Matt Olson, but taking Freddie Freeman in the middle of the first means you might whiff on those kinds of names and have to pull the trigger early on a Luis Robert or Michael Harris II. These constitute a lot of hypotheticals, but really, the start of a draft is when things are most predictable. Think about treating it the way a lot of NFL teams script the first few offensive plays of the game: Know what you’re doing early, so you can spend more time becoming aware of how you might need to pivot later.
And, should you find yourself pivoting to other first base options, know that there are numerous directions you could go, and that you don’t have to go chalk. As you’ll see here, and especially in Mike Gianella’s analysis later this week, there could be value in not following what ADP data suggests.
Maybe you’re worried about Paul Goldschmidt continuing a graceful, slightly less impactful decline. I mean, he’s going to be 36. That’s nearly dead when it comes to being a pro athlete. He lost 130 points in slugging last year, topping out at .447. There have only been nine seasons in the last 30 years in which a first baseman has slugged .500 or better, and only six players achieved it (Fred McGriff did it twice, while Andres Galarraga did it three times). However, four of those six slugged under .500 in the previous season, so there’s strong historical precedent for a bounce-back, and Goldschmidt is no stranger to such performances throughout his career.
In a fascinating (read: weird) twist, drafters have been steady in preferring Christian Encarnacion-Strand to Jeimer Candelario. It was the case before the Reds signed Candelario, when his ADP was around 220 and Encarnacion-Strand’s was around 125. It’s been the case even after the Reds made the signing, too. Encarnacion-Strand’s ADP has slipped to about 150 since then, while Candelario’s has only moved to around 210. The free agent acquired by a team with a reputation for not spending is going to see the field more than the rookie with a dubious plate approach. As it stands, Encarnacion-Strand is set to be in the 2024 version of the Cincinnati lineup shuffle, which generally produced good results across the board last year. However, the cost in this case makes it a tough pill to swallow, and highlights how drafters are willing to prioritize upside that isn’t always set up to bear fruit.
Generally speaking, the bottom of the list of viable starters at a given position aren’t ones who generate a lot of excitement. With Triston Casas and Spencer Torkelson, it’s different. Casas is in unique territory for a first baseman. His .477 slugging mark through his first 597 plate appearances includes the 95 sporadic, untrusted ones the Red Sox gave him in 2022. That gives him the seventh-best debut by a first baseman by slugging since 1993. The list of guys ahead of him is a strong one: Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Mike Jacobs, Todd Helton, Jose Abreu, and Pete Alonso. Natham Grimm has spoken the virtues of Torkelson, emphasizing how important it is to be patient with young hitters who have big pedigree and have flashed their skills. Given their age and that they’ve already demonstrated an ability to make adjustments while weathering difficult stretches, they could be great values after pick 100, or even slightly before if you feel so compelled.
In another year with a thinner talent pool—think cookie batter with too much butter that causes it to spread rather than rise—the likes of Josh Naylor might be getting a heavier push up draft boards. A couple of weeks ago, I went in depth on him as the potential heir to Michael Brantley’s elite contact/above average power throne, if ever there could be one. He should have a dedicated lineup spot for the first full season of his career, which is great for this season but could speak to a skill that pushes him up draft boards while providing sneaky reliability in coming years.
It wouldn’t be right to talk about Naylor without also talking about Kyle Manzardo, another guy in the hit-over-power mold that Cleveland loves so dearly. Manzardo hit well in the Arizona Fall League in his return from a shoulder injury. He’s a non-roster invitee to training camp and is unlikely to start the year with the big league club, making him a late-round dart who could see an early call-up.
Looking forward means different things for Vinnie Pasquantino, who is currently the 17th first base-eligible player off the board around pick 180. Italian Breakfast had fantasy managers geeking out when he was first called up in 2022 but 61 disappointing games and a torn labrum in 2023 pooped on that party. He compared favorably to Freddie Freeman after his debut, creating an air of intrigue that continues to linger delicately.
Matt Mervis mashed a ton in the minors and created a fair amount of legitimate buzz at the time of his call-up, but he couldn’t manage to do it once he was in the majors. His tool chest of above average skills seemed to be empty, as he struck out too much (31%) and failed to impact the ball (.289 slugging) in 99 scattered plate appearances. He’ll need to capitalize on the mechanical adjustments he was trying to make once he was sent back down to the minors in order to be relevant. If he can do that, he’ll be a top waiver wire add.
There is also Nolan Schanuel, who will be a major leaguer, but whose whacky, low-octane contact profile is going to keep him from being relevant outside of the deepest sicko formats. Beyond him, there are only three other first basemen on the recently released top 101. The only one who could be relevant is Keston Hjerstad, but that would require the Orioles cease their acting like a dragon, sitting on a treasure trove of hitting prospects in order to consolidate them and make a move for an impact major leaguer. The Top 101 from the prospect team isn’t a fantasy list, but it speaks to the relative youth of the position and potential for additional growth there at the major league level.
MARY OLIVER POEM OF THE POSITION
Oliver’s “After I Fall Down The Stairs At The Golden Temple,” from her collection A Thousand Mornings, is sweet and to the point:
For a while I could not remember some word
I was in need of,
and I was bereaved and said: where are you,
Friends, the word is back, and the word is good, and the word is: beef. We’ve been in a space to forget how good things can be when first base is deep, when the elite options are many and the palatable options after them are plentiful. It’s been a few long years of unimpressive crops but now we’re able to reap dingers by the bunch and even, in some cases, sprinkle in some steals—eight first basemen copped at least 10 bags last year—that allow us to forge strong foundations for our fake teams.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now