The point of arranging players into tiers is to offer a simple visual representation of their relative value. You can't really get this from rankings, no matter how accurate the rankings prove to be.
During a draft, you have to care primarily about the magnitude of the difference between any two players. Sometimes, the No. 5 player at a position will be substantially better than whoever ranks sixth. In such cases it's worth paying for No. 5. But at another position, the projected difference between No. 5 and No. 15 might not be terribly significant.
Tiers help identify things like this. They don't say anything about how a specific player is trending, though. In fact, there's a lot that position tiers won't give you. They can suggest what a player's overall value might be, but they don't tell you how each of the 5X5 categories contributes to his value.
And that's a pretty big deal. When you're building a fantasy roster, you need to think about category needs at all times. It would not be difficult to assemble a losing team that's loaded with first- and second-tier hitters.
First base happens to be a position where you're just not going to find many five-category players. Derrek Lee and Carlos Guillen might contribute everywhere, and someday Alex Gordon and Joey Votto will, too. But typically, fantasy owners expect first basemen to carry them in the power categories.
If you look at the top-tier at first base, you'll notice that it's basically the 50 home run club. Three of those players have recently hit 50 in a single season, and Pujols hit 49 in 143 games in 2006. There's a decent chance that they'll all finish the 2008 season among the top 10 in HR, two or three standard deviations better than the average owned player in your fantasy league.
That's also a big deal, and it's certainly worth paying for. In a typical draft, Pujols, Fielder, Howard and Ortiz will all be gone by the middle of Round 2.
It should be noted that Pujols would have occupied a tier of his own if it weren't for disturbing recent reports about his right elbow. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Pujols strained a ligament in the elbow in 2003 and considered reconstructive surgery. Instead, he played through the discomfort.
"I was in pain," he told reporters. "If that same problem is happening this year, I don't think I'm going to play the whole year the same way."
Last season was the worst of Pujols' career, and it was still sensational by the standards of a normal human: 99 R, 32 HR, 103 RBI, .327/.429/.568.
Busch Stadium was brutally unfriendly to power hitters in 2007, and to Pujols in particular. He hit 20 of his 32 home runs on the road; he also posted an .886 OPS at home, and a 1.097 OPS elsewhere.
Still, were it not for the injury concerns, Albert would be alone in the top-tier at his position. You'd draft him second or third overall, and never have to worry about reading to the end of this primer.
|2007 First Basemen: On the Rise|
|Outlook: Pena hit 46 home runs last year. That's only one fewer than Hank Aaron ever hit in a single season. So, yeah, Pena is on the rise. He finished remarkably well last year, belting 21 HR in the season's final two months, but he actually posted an OPS over .960 in every month from May to September. As someone who suffered through the .240 years with Pena before giving up, I'd love to tell you why he can't possibly repeat his 2007 performance. But it's not easy to find a reason. His BABIP was sustainable (.305), and his line drive and fly ball rates were completely in-line with prior years. Pena became much more selective last year, increasing his BB/K ratio to 0.73 and drawing a career-best 103 walks. The 29-year-old might not hit 46 HR in a season again, but he's going to hit plenty.|
|Outlook: Few players will benefit more from an offseason move than Swisher. The 27-year-old leaves a pitcher-friendly park for the most homer-friendly environment in the American League. US Cellular is an excellent place to take a 45.5 career fly ball percentage. Two years ago, Swisher scored 106 runs, hit 35 homers, drove in 95, and hit .254/.372/.493 for Oakland. It's not unreasonable to hope for a fantasy line like that in 2008. Swisher was among the AL leaders in pitches-per-plate-appearance last season (4.25), which tends to result in lots of walks, strikeouts, and a terrific OBP. He's basically Adam Dunn Light.
Or judging by his Yahoo! headshot, maybe he's more like Baked Adam Dunn. But you get the idea.
|Outlook: Many of you probably saw Loney for the first time in this game, when he went 3-for-4 with three RBI in the '06 NLDS. Future batting titles really seemed inevitable. Loney hit over .400 in Spring Training in each of the past two seasons, he hit .380 at Triple-A in 2006, and he hit .331 in 344 AB with the Dodgers last season. Last year's power (15 HR) might not be entirely real, considering that he hit only 36 HR in 2,203 minor league at bats. Still, Loney has the potential to be useful in two categories (R, HR), very good in another (RBI) and exceptional in a fourth (AVG).|
|Outlook: While I'm not quite endorsing Brad Evans' claim that Garko will out-produce Loney, the Cleveland first baseman is really an excellent value pick. He's definitely a starting corner infielder in a 12-team league. Last year's power (21 HR) and average (.289) are perfectly consistent with the 27-year-old's minor league production, so there's no obvious reason to expect a collapse. Hitting fifth behind Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez won't hurt.|
|Outlook: This might seem like cheating, since Gordon will actually play third for the Royals. He qualifies at first base, though, and there's no shortage of "On the Rise" players for the 3B primer. (Gordon's inclusion here is also intended as a slap in the face to Conor Jackson, who apparently considers "On the Rise" status to be his birthright). In a season that was considered a disappointment by most observers and an epic tragedy by fantasy owners, Gordon still hit 15 HR and stole 14 bases. His OPS was nearly 100 points better after the All-Star break and he became more aggressive, walking half as often while producing more extra-base hits. Gordon was Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year in 2006 after a 29 HR, 22 SB season at Double-A Wichita. He turns just 24 on February 10. His breakout season might not happen in 2008, but it's coming. A 20-20 season is certainly within reach this year.|
|2008 First Basemen: On the Decline|
|Outlook: The 35-year-old Delgado was a wreck last season, physically and statistically. It was neck pain in Spring Training, then a knee, then a hip, then a broken hand. By the end of the season he'd given you only 24 home runs and a .258 average. Over the past three seasons his OBP has fallen from .399 to .361 to .333; his slugging percentage has gone from .582 to .548 to .448. There seems to be a trend at work here, and it's not good. Delgado spent much of the offseason with his left arm in a splint, too. The Mets lineup is stacked, so a useful fantasy season is possible. But think 70-25-80-.265, and that's if things go very well.|
|Outlook: In a 5X5 mixed league, Helton is dangerously close to being a one-category player. The batting average is still spectacular – he's hit .320 in two of the past three seasons – but in 2007 he scored only 86 runs, hit 17 HR, and drove in 91. Those numbers aren't much better than what the average owned player will produce in a public league. In fact, the HR are slightly below league-average, and they're nowhere near what Helton delivered at his peak. There's no doubt that at age 34, he's still an ownable first baseman. Just realize that nearly all of his value is in AVG. In custom leagues – particularly those that use OBP, OPS, doubles, BB or K for hitters – he's much better.|
|Outlook: Last year, following an 82-22-92-.312 season in 2006, we all had nice things to say about Overbay. Then he hit only 10 home runs and gave you a .240 average in 425 at bats. At 31, Overbay's ceiling is just too low. He shouldn't be drafted in public mixed leagues. He's really only worth owning in AL-only formats, or leagues that use an abundance of CI and UTIL spots. Overbay was uncharacteristically bad against right-handers last season (.224/.313/.363 in 317 AB); you can expect some improvement there.|
|Outlook: As with Helton, I don't want to leave you with the impression that Paul Konerko isn't worth owning. He is. But don't overpay for the brand name player. There's a very good chance that Konerko, who'll be 32 when the season begins, is on the wrong side of his peak seasons. You should not expect the numbers that he put up from 2004-06, when he averaged 93 R, 39 HR, 110 RBI and hit .291. Konerko dropped to 71-31-90-.259 last year, and his line drive percentage fell from 24.6 to 17.4. The White Sox offense should be better in 2008, but that doesn't necessarily mean Konerko will be.|
|Outlook: The 33-year-old Sexson has hit 45 HR twice in his career and driven in more than 120 runs three times. His best years were fantastic fantasy seasons. And in 2007 he basically fell off a cliff, value-wise. Sexson managed only 21 HR while batting .205. He could improve substantially in 2008 and still not be an ownable first baseman. His line drive and fly ball rates declined in 2006, then declined again in 2007. Like the rest of that bottom-tier at first base, Sexson should not be drafted in public leagues.|
|2007 First Baseman: Top Prospects|
|Outlook: Over the past two seasons, Votto has combined to hit 44 HR and stolen 40 bases in the high minors. He's drawn 178 walks and hit .307. In 84 at bats for the Reds last September, Votto hit .321 with four home runs. He's undeniably ready. The big question is whether Dusty Baker is prepared to play a 24-year-old when he has an unspectacular veteran – in this case, Scott Hatteberg – at his disposal. If Baker isn't willing to make Votto an everyday player, the fantasy community has to hope that the Reds will send him elsewhere. The Cincinnati Enquirer recently reported that Votto could be part of a package for Joe Blanton, a right-hander with a career 3.55 ERA and 1.20 WHIP at home and a 4.66 ERA and 1.43 WHIP on the road.|
|Outlook: OK, so after 329 Major League at bats last season, maybe Butler isn't a prospect in the strictest sense. But he's just 21 and he's certainly worth discussing. In four minor league seasons, Butler hit .336/.416/.561. He'll likely DH for the Royals in 2008, and probably hit in the bottom half of the batting order alongside Gordon. Butler has exhibited respectable power, hitting 23 doubles and eight HR for the Royals last season, and 13 HR in 203 at bats at Triple-A. His evident upside makes him worth reaching for in the final rounds of public league drafts. He's not especially mobile, so DH or 1B is where he'll likely stay.|
|Outlook: That Mark Mulder trade just doesn't get ripped often enough. What an utter disaster. In December of 2004, the A's dealt Mulder to the Cardinals for Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton. At the time, it was clear that Haren had a chance to immediately outperform Mulder, and of course he did. (If you need me to provide links to very old columns that predict exactly that, I will. Don't challenge me on this). Barton was a 19-year-old catcher back then, and he'd just hit .313/.445/.511 at Single-A Peoria. He played a little over his head last season in 18 games for Oakland, belting four HR and batting .347. He'd hit only nine HR in 516 Triple-A at bats. You can't expect much power in 2008, but Barton will battle Dan Johnson for the first base job. If he gets it, he's going to hit for average.|
|Outlook: I don't pretend to know what the Pirates will do or why they'll do it (see "Morris, Matt"). But if the 24-year-old Pearce gets a chance to play, either in the outfield or at first, he just might produce. Pearce hit .320 or better at three different minor league levels last season and swatted 31 HR. He also stole 14 bases. Then in 68 at bats for Pittsburgh in September, he hit .294. He's less draftable than Barton, and should really only be of interest in NL dynasty leagues.|
|Outlook: The 19-year-old Marrero isn't likely to arrive this season, though we might see him in 2009. He's a 6-foot-3 power-hitting prospect who slugged 23 HR in 477 Single-A at bats last year. He sits atop most lists of Washington prospects, and he's pretty clearly their first baseman of the future. Boston's Lars Anderson – another guy you aren't going to see in 2008 – would have been a reasonable choice at No. 5 on the "Top Prospects" list, but Marrero's path to the Major Leagues is less cluttered.|
- Alex Gordon
- Joey Votto