Predicting future first basemen of relevance can be a tricky endeavor, as the position tends to be a landing strip for failed defensive efforts elsewhere, and true-to-form first basemen face exceedingly high natural barriers to success. After we muddle through the veteran re-treads theoretically capable of making mixed-league runs and generating some modicum of 2017 value, we’ll moved on to some longer (and longer still) term discussion. There’s enough power among the veteran prospects who fell short of Bret’s Top 50 list to warrant some turned heads, with a couple of A-ball guys sitting under Shaw who I like for watch lists in even medium-depth leagues this year. Unfortunately, last year’s draft class was especially brutal for first-base talent, with all of two guys drafted as cold cornermen garnering so much as a $200,000 bonus. But then there are some intriguing names on down the 2017-and-beyond line, and organizational purview will of course add depth to this list as the season wears on and hope for more polished leather wears out.
Here is my look from last week at catchers, which includes an introduction to the series. And now, on to the depths of the first-base position for 2017.
Back-Up Types, But In (Or Close Enough To) Their Primes!
Billy Butler, Free Agent – When the Oakland A’s are eating eight figures to have you not play for them, you know you’ve run into some hard times. Butler’s rolled up a net-negative VORP over the past four years, though if there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, he raked during a last-ditch dozen games with the Yankees after latching on with them in September. It’s just not likely the soon-to-be-31-year-old finds his way into an everyday lineup at this point, though the name and past deeds probably keeps him towards the top of the for-hire pile of injury insurance veterans.
Richie Shaffer, Cincinnati Reds – Schaffer never really got a chance to prove he’s not a Quad-A slugger in Tampa, and his performance ran into a wall at Triple A last season, leading to his non-tender and subsequent Reds contract. I’ve always kinda liked Richie Schaffer: he takes walks, and while his minor-league whiff rate has never been exemplary, it’s never been an untenable black mark, either. There’s some pop here, and potentially some opportunity in the shadows of the Roebling Suspension Bridge.
Tyler White, Houston Astros – The Tyler White Experience went on a little long in Houston last season, but this is a bat I’ve always had a soft spot for, and the talent he flashed in April before the storm is legitimate. Last year’s power spike carried over to Triple-A after he was finally, mercifully relieved of big-league duties, and he’s a good enough hitter with big enough strength that signs of manifesting game power at 26 should be taken seriously. It’s just a really, really tough real-life profile to carry, especially for a team like Houston that is bursting at the seams with young infield talent and depth. If he finds himself an opportunity for at-bats somewhere else, however, there’s potential deep league value to be gleaned.
Jonathan Singleton, Houston Astros…still…somehow… – It actually wasn’t at all surprising Singleton cleared waivers when the Astros outrighted him off their 40-man roster in November, as he’s still owed $4.5 million on the rookie buyout deal he signed back when he was a top prospect in June of 2014. Singleton has hit .171/.290/.331 in 420 big-league plate appearances, and he hit .202 at Triple A last year, albeit with quality on-base skills and power. He’s still 25, and the pedigree wasn’t there for a no reason, but the contract is a real albatross limiting his opportunity over the next couple seasons. If it does ever come again, he’s eminently capable of doing some Chris Shelton stuff for a little while at the least. And he’s still, somehow, probably the highest-upside name in this section.
Logan Morrison, Free Agent – Morrison snuck onto the back of last year’s Top 50 after a sneaky-interesting little 2014 when he hit 17 homers amid victimization by a terrible BABIP that was well out of line with his contact quality. Well, sure enough the BABIP rebounded last year (hooray predictive markers), and he held his strong exit velocities…but his whiff rate spiked significantly and he still hit all of .238. The 29-year-old’s imminent value is still hostage to ongoing free agency, but he’s a wily ol’ veteran hitter with some pop at this point, so it’s possible he works his way back into steady utility in the right situation.
Yonder Alonso, Oakland Athletics – Hoo boy, can we not with any more in this section? Alonso finally got another full-season chance last year, and he hit seven homeruns in 532 plate appearances amid unplayability against left-handed pitching. The former seventh overall pick has never hit 10 homeruns in any big-league season despite logging more than 2,300 career plate appearances in the majors, and last year he started expanding the zone more frequently to diminished contact frequency and quality returns. Maybe in your 14-team AL-only or something, but…mmph.
Ben Paulsen, Minnesota Twins – Paulsen had his moment in the sun in 2015, when he hit .277/.326/.462 in part-time Coors-inflated duty. He was alright at Triple A last year, limited in major-league opportunity, and promptly released by the club. The Twins snapped him up on a minor-league deal, where he’ll be about fifth on the first-base depth chart. Lightning, bottles, and so forth.
Ryan Howard, Free Agent – Remember that time Ryan Howard went .313/58/149/104 as a 26-year-old in his first full season? That was 11 years ago.
Chris Shaw, San Francisco Giants – Shaw is an easy guy to get lost in the shuffle of prospectdom, because as I noted last season he’s the quintessential type of player where it’s easier to get caught up in his limitations at the expense of recognizing his strengths. And his strengths just so happen to align neatly with our interests here in fantasyland: he’s a solid hitter with a whole bunch of raw power that he does a decent job of getting to in games. He struggled with his first taste of Double-A pitching after a mid-season promotion last year, but he’s shown able to make adjustments thus far in his career. He can put a charge into a fastball with anybody, and he hangs in well against left-handed pitching to boot, with a profile befitting a second-division everyday guy.
Brian Mundell, Colorado Rockies – Now, let’s start with a gentle reminder that Mundell’s home park last season in Asheville is one of the better ballparks in professional baseball in which to build up a counting-stat resume. But his 59 doubles last year amid a .313/.383/.505 line set an all-time minor league record, and marked an encouraging sign that his plus raw power has at least a puncher’s chance of translating into games. Scouting reports are tepid, at least insofar as average hit and game power tools aren’t particularly noteworthy at first base. But as long as he’s producing, and doing so in the Rockies’ system, he’s a name to watch as he progresses. And with an impending assignment to Lancaster on tap, he doesn’t exactly stand to face environmental regression next year, either.
Corey Zangari, Chicago White Sox – Did Zangari hit .166 with a 43-percent whiff rate in nearly 250 Low-A plate appearances last year? Yes! He did! But there’s a “but”! Zangari is an enormous human being, listed as he is at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds at the tender age of 19. That last number is perhaps the most important one, as he has been pushed extremely aggressively by the White Sox (as is their wont) since signing as a sixth-round prep pick in 2015. Here’s another important number: 70-plus. That’s Zangari’s raw power, and despite the ugly topline numbers he did show an impressive ability to make adjustments in the second half last summer, slashing his whiff rate to 31 percent in July and down to 21 percent in August. He doesn’t walk much, and the profile on a good day is probably something in the C.J. Cron range, but that can still amount to pleasant standard-league utility if it comes together.
Sam Travis, Boston Red Sox – As titillating as Zangari’s power looks in dreamland, Travis may be the most boring name on this list given his own very-limited power and first base-only profile. But he has the chance to develop into a very good hitter, and he held his own (albeit with little pop) in 47 games at Triple A before blowing out his knee and losing the rest of the season. His barrel is on plane forever, and he just flat-out hits. The bad news is that he’s never shown an ability to drive the ball with any consistency, and Ben Carsley’s prediction of a future in the Bay Area seems like a pretty spot-on best-case scenario for Travis.
Ryan O’Hearn, Kansas City Royals – O’Hearn’s game is built on the back of a strength swing that yields plus raw power, and he’s brought enough of it in games as a pro to eclipse 20 homers in each of the last two seasons. After laying waste to the Carolina League in a return engagement last April, he bumped up to Double A for most of the season and hit reasonably well. It’s the kind of profile that yearns for a Quad-A tag, though with Eric Hosmer’s free agency impending after 2017, O’Hearn could stand to garner a trial run in 2018 if the club feels comfortable with his progress in the high minors this season.
Chris Pieters, Chicago Cubs – Pieters is a 2011 J2 guy from Curacao who converted successfully from the mound in 2015, then caught some eyes in the Northwest League last summer despite pedestrian production. He showed some advanced hitting traits for a kid so recently converted, and there’s some projectable thump to be developed, too. This is a serious long-term project, but there are some raw materials of note.
Class of 2016!
Preston Palmeiro, Baltimore Orioles – The big-league bloodlines are one reason to pay attention to Rafael’s oldest. But the O’s have also had some success developing this profile – or at least getting guys who share it to the cusp of the majors – to where last summer’s seventh-rounder warrants a mention despite his inauspicious debut in the NYPL. He’s a more athletic version of his pops, with quality all-fields contact ability and some power to grow into. He’s on the small side for a first baseman, so it’s possible he gets some reps in the outfield next year to see what’s there. Regardless, he’s more of a wait-and-see regardless of league depth, and that’s a gnarly indictment of the class given he boasts the second-best draft pedigree of the lot.
Ulysses Cantu, Cleveland Indians – Cleveland signed Cantu away from a Texas Tech commitment with slot value in the sixth round last summer, and though he struggled mightily in his professional debut there are some things to like in the swing. He’s a recent convert to first after playing third and catching in high school, and yes, his name is awesome.
Bradley Jones, Toronto Blue Jays – One of the top prospects to come out of the illustrious Colonial Athletic Conference, Jones went to Toronto in the 18th round out of the College of Charleston and promptly hit 16 home runs and 18 doubles after signing to pace the Appalachian League in slugging percentage. He stole 16 bases to boot, and there’s more athleticism here than your typical 18th-round first baseman. He moved around the diamond quite a bit in college, including time at short, third, and in the outfield.
Gabriel Garcia, Milwaukee Brewers – Garcia was drafted as a catcher out of high school by Baltimore in 2015, but instead opted for a year at Broward Community College and signed with Milwaukee for six figures in the 14th round last June. He jumped into professional ball with both feet, hitting .300/.393/.500 in 150 Arizona League plate appearances. He’s got some bat speed and leverage to the swing, with hard contact capacity and a projectable frame capable of developing significant strength.
Class of 2017 and Beyond!
Brendan McKay, University of Louisville – McKay will enter the spring as one of the top college prospects in the draft class after spending the last couple seasons as one of the best two-way players in the country. He was drafted out of high school as a pitcher, but after a stellar effort on both sides of the ball at Louisville it remains entirely unclear where his future lies. The scales probably still tilt towards the mound at this point, but if the future does involve a bat in his hand, he’ll be standing on the dirt around first base when he isn’t wielding it. He hit .333/.414/.513 last season, adding almost 60 points of ISO in his second collegiate season, and another step forward with the slugging may just force the issue.
Pavin Smith, University of Virginia – Smith showed an advanced approach and neatly leveraged swing from the left side last summer on the Cape, and that came on the heels of a sophomore campaign at Virginia in which he hit .329/.410/.513 with a whole bunch more walks than strikeouts. As that latter nugget suggests, Smith profiles as a patient hitter with advanced contact skills for someone with his above-average power potential. The fantasy profile is more solid than superstar – think Brandon Belt v. 2016 if it all comes together.
Alex Toral, Archbishop McCarthy High School (Southwest Ranches, FL) – Toral burst onto the scene a sophomore in high school when he launched a ball into the upper deck at Marlins Park, and he repeated the feat last spring as a junior. The University of Miami commit enters the spring as one of the most advanced prep hitters in the class, with visions of an above-average hit tool one day allowing for plus game power at maturity. His real-life prospect stock will be held down by his lot as a high school first baseman, and it’ll be interesting to see if the bat takes enough of a step forward to where a team will draft him high enough to buy him out of that college commitment. If someone does, however, he has a chance to emerge as one of the best dynasty prospects in the class.
Nick Pratto, Huntington Beach High School (Huntington Beach, CA) – I wasn’t familiar with Pratto until a scouting video alert happened to pop up on my phone as I was settling in to write this column. Any high schooler than can flow deep into an at-bat and then do this to a two-strike hanger deserves your attention. I like his swing. The USC commit will be watched closesly on the mound this spring as well, and there’s elevated signability and positional risk here beyond the risk that is already endemic to any player a half-dozen years away in a best-case scenario.
Luken Baker, Texas Christian University – Baker won’t be draft eligible until next year in the class of 2018, but his freshman year performance at TCU (.379/.483/.577 with 11 homers and more walks than whiffs) is the kind of thing you stuff into the “for future reference” section of your Trapper Keeper. He pitches too, and did so pretty damn well last season, so the dreaded two-way tag may threaten to derail his offensive potential via full-time mound conversion if his eventual drafting team invests accordingly. But for our purposes here and now, make note of the name.