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Ranking first baseman is a difficult task, because like
second baseman (whom I’ll rank next week), players usually don’t start as first
basemen, then end up there. To begin your career on the bottom end of the
defensive spectrum means one thing–you better really hit. A quick
look at our league positional stats shows that the average first baseman in the
big leagues has an OPS near .850, and some quick math shows that to be a star
first baseman requires elite hitting ability, as the top 10 first baseman (measured
by VORP) have an average batting line of .307/.405/.584. There’s not a single
player on this list who projects to that kind of performance without a little
bit of dreaming, but that brings me back to my first point. The next star
first basemen do exist, but many of them are just not first basemen yet.
Of that top 10 list with the monster performances, only three of them (Nick
Johnson
, Ryan Howard and Todd Helton) started their careers
at the position.

1. Daric Barton, Athletics

Age: 20.9 Hitting: .259/.389/.395 in 43 G (AAA)

Barton got off to a great start at Sacramento, batting .338
in April and reaching base by hit or walk 45 times in 22 games. He was batting
just .171 in May however, before suffering an elbow injury that will keep him
out until August. It was a freak injury on his glove arm when an opposing runner
slid into it, causing what is called an avulsion, and I’ll leave it to Will Carroll to actually define that. While his overall numbers may be below
expectations, this is still a 20-year-old player with a near .400 on-base
percentage at Triple-A. I’m not convinced that he’ll ever hit for power, but I
am convinced that he’ll be enough of an on-base machine that it won’t matter.
If he does start launching more balls over the fence, that’s just gravy. He’ll
likely end up somewhere between John Olerud and Will Clark when
it comes to peak value.

2. James Loney, Dodgers

Age: 22.2 Hitting: .378/.420/.562 in 66 G (AAA)

Don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years. Loney
was the team’s first-round pick in 2002, and drew some national attention when
he hit .371 in the Pioneer League for a pro debut and then had some big games
in ESPN’s spring training broadcasts the following year. That was followed by
three disappointing seasons with OPSes of .737, .641 and .776. At the same time,
Loney was dealing with continuous wrist problems, which hampered his
performance and tempered expectations. Scouts remained high on him–with
his performance this year finally catching up to what evaluators thought he could
do. Loney’s ability to hit for average is not in doubt, but his ability to hit
for power is. Despite being 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Loney’s swing is designed
for spraying line drives all over the field and going with the pitch, as
opposed to getting a lot of leverage. Like Barton, the difference between
Loney becoming a good player or a great player will depend on if the power ever
comes. For what it’s worth, Loney is the best defensive first baseman on this
list.

3. Joey Votto, Reds

Age: 22.8 Hitting: .322/.396/.579 in 84 G (AA)

What a difference a year makes. Votto put himself on the
map in 2004 when he hit .302/.419/.486 for Low Class A Dayton and then put up a
.945 OPS in 24 Carolina games. Last year, he almost took himself off the map
with a rough year in the Florida State League, where he got off to a bad start
and then tinkered with his mechanics, losing both timing and fluidity in his
stroke. The Reds worked with him in the offseason on shortening his swing and
improving his approach against lefthanders. The results have been
phenomenal, as Votto leads the Southern League in batting and home runs (17),
while sitting just two behind Jacksonville’s Craig Brazell for the RBI
lead. Drafted as a catcher, Votto has good hands at first base but isn’t
especially athletic. If the offensive outburst continues, Votto could be in
line for a look in 2007–while Scott Hatteberg is having a nice
season, he doesn’t represent any kind of major roadblock.

4. Chris Carter, Diamondbacks

Age: 23.8 Hitting: .298/.393/.510 in 81 G (AAA)

There’s so much to not like about Chris Carter from a
scouting perspective. He’s got a bad body, both his set-up and his swing are
awkward and mechanical, he’s a well below average athlete who is slow on the
bases, and to call him below-average defensively is being far too kind. One
scout sums Carter up in only three words: “He’s just weird.” So now
with that out of the way, let’s admit that all Carter has done since getting
drafted in the 17th round of the 2004 draft is hit for average, hit
a ton of home runs, and draw walks in bunches at every level. Nothing has
changed in Tucson, as Carter now has 60 home runs and 157 walks in his 290 game
career. With Conor Jackson seemingly locked in a first base in Arizona for the
fairly distant future, Carter is going to need a trade to get his chance, as
attempts to teach him to play left field were nothing short of a disaster.
While Carter may sound like the second coming of Jack Cust to some, he’s
a much better natural hitter, with more walks than strikeouts this year. He’s
far more valuable to an American League team who can pick their spots with him
defensively and use him primarily as a DH.

5. Travis Ishikawa, Giants

Age: 22.8 Hitting: .245/.313/.449 in 55 G (AA)

While Ishikawa’s numbers have failed to impress, his season
has been one of starts and stops, and he’s been called up for three brief stays
with the big league club, where he’s gone 7-for-24 (.292) with three doubles
and a triple. While he doesn’t have the quickest bat, his swing from the left
side is nearly picture-perfect mechanically, and he’s a patient hitter with
rapidly developing power. In many ways, he is similar to Justin Huber in that
he doesn’t have many weaknesses, but lacks that one skill that allows him to
project as a star. With the slow start, he’s developing a reputation as a
player who takes a long time to adjust to new levels, as he struggled initially
in both the Sally League and California League as he’s moved up the ladder.

6. Justin Huber, Royals

Age: 24.0 Hitting: .258/.340/.465 in 62 G (AA)

After a breakout season in 2005, Huber has struggled in a
return engagement to Omaha, with just four home runs and a .243 average in his
last 40 games. Huber does many things well, but nothing exceptionally so. He
should hit for a decent average in the majors with 15-20 home runs a year and a
good walk rate, but he’ll never be more than just an average first baseman who
doesn’t hurt a team, but also isn’t the guy you want playing every day on a
first-level team either. That said, he certainly is a better option in Kansas City–especially after considering the salary–than Doug Mientkiewicz.

7. Eric Duncan, Yankees

Age: 21.6 Hitting: .240/.323/.380 in 56 G (31 AAA/25 AA)

Duncan began the year at Triple-A Columbus and had what
amounted to a five-week nightmare, batting .209 in 110 at-bats without a home
run. He was dealing with back pain all along, and after a month on the
disabled list, he’s picked things up at Double-A, with five home runs in 95
at-bats to go with a .274 average. While he’s rarely produced in a full-season
league, Duncan has youth and tools on his side. He has plenty of power
potential from the left side, makes good contact and has a much-improved
approach. His statistics have rarely impressed, but he has always been young
for his level until this year, and the Yankees believe that moving him off of
third base, where he struggled with throws, could be the key to bringing his
bat to life. How he fits into the Yankees’ plan is anybody’s guess, but he
could become their top trade chip at the end of the month if the bat stays hot.

8. Kyle Blanks, Padres

Age: 19.8 Hitting: .281/.374/.451 in 71 G (Lo A)

How can you not get excited about a guy who is 6-foot-6 and
pushing 300 pounds? Blanks is much more than the next Calvin Pickering
or Walter Young–he’s an impressive athlete who is a solid defender and
doesn’t embarrass himself on the base paths. While he’s extremely raw, Blanks
has a good idea of the strike zone, and draws his share of walks. He has just
nine home runs in 257 at-bats, but Blanks’ raw power rivals that of nearly any
minor leaguer, and the Padres believe that power will begin to show up more
often in games as he learns to identify pitches better and curb a tendency to
overswing, as he has more than enough pop to get the ball out of the park with
his natural stroke. Blanks is still a big project (in more ways than one) who
is going to require patience, but so far, so good.

9. Mark Hamilton, Cardinals

Age: 21.9 Hitting: .360/.439/.680 in 14 G (SS)

The Cardinals got one of the steals in the 2006 draft with Hamilton in the supplemental second round, as the Tulane star’s draft stock seemed to
never recover from a slow start at the plate despite the fact that he finished
among college baseball’s leaders in both home runs and walks. Anything but
fleet of foot and a below average defender, Hamilton’s bat will have to carry
him to the big leagues, but it’s plenty good, as evidenced by five home runs in
his first 14 pro games. In a system desperate for power hitters, Hamilton is already the best in the St. Louis system.

10. Joe Koshansky, Rockies

Age: 24.1 Hitting: .294/.379/.553 in 80 G (AA)

Well, maybe it was for real after all. Koshansky was a 6th-round
pick in 2004 as a senior out of Virginia, so while he hit 36 home runs last
year at Asheville in just 120 games, the fact that he was 23 years old and
playing in the Low Class A South Atlantic League’s launching pad left scouts
cautious. Jumped two levels to Double-A this year, Koshansky continues to
mash, with 20 home runs in 287 at-bats. His swing is designed only to punish
balls so he strikes out a lot (83), and he’s a clogger on the base paths, but
his kind of power in Coors Field could create some scary results.
Unfortunately, the Rockies already have Todd Helton signed through 2011, which
could make Koshansky 2007’s version of Ryan Shealy–sitting around at Triple-A
and waiting for a trade.

Honorable Mention:

  • Chris Carter, White Sox: This is the other
    Chris Carter. The one who struggled in the Sally League at the start of
    the season, but is only 19 and has made up for it so far with a monstrous
    performance in the Pioneer League. This Chris Carter has a higher ceiling
    than the other Chris Carter, but this Chris Carter is much further
    away from the big leagues than the other Chris Carter. Confused yet?
  • Ryan Garko, Indians: Garko is having his
    first tough season (.255/.359/.433) in a return performance at Triple-A
    Buffalo, and as a 25-year-old player whose bat is his only tool, the
    timing couldn’t be worse.
  • Steven Pearce, Pirates: A 2005 eighth-round
    pick out of South Carolina, Pearce is already 23 years old and only in
    A-ball, but he has 19 home runs and 70 RBI in 78 games split between Hi-
    and Lo- Class A.
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