In fantasy baseball, 2015 saw a revitalization of sorts at first base. After a down year in 2014 where merely five first basemen earned $25 or more in mono formats, 2015 saw eight first basemen crack this barrier. The big categorical jumps at the position came in home runs and batting average. The position picked up nearly 100 home runs from 2014 (or three home runs per every 600 plate appearances) and jumped from a .252 batting average in 2014 to a .259 batting average in 2015. Where in drafts and auctions last year the temptation was to go small at the position to avoid overspending on modest production, last year’s spike in production suggests that it might be better to go big early. Where only two first basemen cracked the Top 25 overall in mixed league rankings in 2014, five first basemen turned the feat in 2015, with a sixth barely missing the cut.
The position is anchored by a stud. Paul Goldschmidt is the only hitter in fantasy who has cracked $40 in earnings in two of the last three seasons. Behind him is a healthy series of consolation prizes in a fully healthy Miguel Cabrera, a resurgent Joey Votto, and a player who has finally arrived in Anthony Rizzo. If you’re looking just for raw power and are willing to get your steals or batting average elsewhere, then Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu, and Chris Davis all offer the kind of thump that fantasy owners grew accustomed to from their first sackers during the position’s prime in the heyday of Votto, Prince Fielder, and Albert Pujols. Some won’t see him as an elite because of his lack of big time power, but Eric Hosmer finished sixth in earnings in mixed leagues at first base with his contributions across all five categories. How strong the position remains in 2016 will hinge on the performances of an aging group of players in the next tier. Albert Pujols (36), Mark Teixeira (36), and Adrian Gonzalez (34) could all provide earnings in the mid-$20s, but are reaching the age where a decline in bat speed could have a sharp impact on their production. However, with Lucas Duda, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Belt coming off of solid campaigns, there is no need to reach for an aging commodity if you’re worried about decline.
The League Breakdown
As has been the case for the last couple of seasons, there is more talent in the American League at first than there is in the National League. Byung-ho Park brings some ridiculous counting stats from Korea that certainly won’t translate to the majors but should make him respectable. Along with Park, Carlos Santana, Mark Trumbo, and Adam Lind allow fantasy managers to let the big-ticket items slip by if they go into the $30s and play in the mid-teens instead.
In the NL, you might be better off grabbing an elite based on the more precipitous talent drop once you get past Duda, Freeman, and Belt. Ben Paulsen could produce $20+ value easily, but he also could fall into a platoon with Mark Reynolds and lose some value. Will Myers could be a quiet sleeper after two down years in a row, but along with Matt Adams, Chris Carter, and Ryan Zimmerman, there is a good deal of risk in the $10-15 price range. John Jaso starts out the year as a DH-only, so keep in mind that prices could spike on the mid-tier options in some auctions.
The Strategy in Mixed Leaguesâ€¯
After you get past the top six or seven names on the board, there is a good deal of variability in early drafts in terms of where first basemen are being drafted and their potential value. In drafts, I like the idea of grabbing a stud this year, particularly given that Goldschmidt, Rizzo, and Votto all offer some steals, something you don’t always get from your first baseman. There is enough production at first that it isn’t worth getting cute and waiting.
The depth at first in mixed leagues means that you can wait a while to fill up your corner infield slot, and should probably make sure to get a quality third baseman before diving into the pool for your third corner infielder. Even in 15-team leagues, first basemen like Mitch Moreland, Adams, and Paulsen are all going late enough that you should have a pretty decent pick here even if you wait until the very late rounds. Unless there is a weird run at the position and you run the risk of Ryan Howard, it pays to wait.
The Long-Term Outlook
2015 was the year of the rookie, but while other positions benefited greatly from talent under the age of 25, first base remained a relatively “old” position. Rizzo, Hosmer, and Freeman all played 2015 in their Age 25 seasons and were the youngest regulars at first. The sweet spot in 2016 for first base is between the ages of 28-32. More than half of the projected starters at first base fall into this age bracket, so while the position isn’t as young as others on the diamond, it isn’t dominated by past their prime stars either.
After a couple of seasons that saw teams moving players off of more challenging positions to first base, 2016 isn’t expected to see nearly the same kind of movement to first base from other parts of the diamond. Besides Jaso, Hanley Ramirez is the only other non-1B eligible expected to start at first. However, there are a number of DH-only players in the AL who won’t be eligible for first and will make the position seem thinner, particularly at the beginning of the year.
First base has recently been the weakest position as far as prospects are concerned—both in fantasy and reality—and 2016 is no exception to this rule. Josh Bell was the only first baseman who cracked Baseball Prospectus’s midseason Top 50, and it is possible that he is the only prospect of any stripe who gets promoted this year. A.J. Reed is the other rookie who could possibly make an impact, particularly given that Jonathan Singleton isn’t a significant obstacle. The other big prospect name at first is Dominic Smith, but while Smith reignited his prospect fire with a strong campaign, he’s still a 20-year-old who hasn’t played in the high minors. Although their pedigree isn’t as strong, D.J. Peterson, Matt Olson, and Christian Walker all are names to keep in mind as potential 2016 call-ups.
This isn’t the place that you want to go hunting for high ceiling prospects, and in a redraft league this isn’t where you want to be spending your draft picks or money. Reed is a solid low end AL-only handcuff for Singleton and Bell could go for as much as $2-3 in NL-only, but unless you’re in a dynasty format or have deep farm systems, it is best to use your resources elsewhere.
The Closing Haiku
Goldy like Bagwell
Thumpers dominate the top
Lots of production