If you're the sort of fantasy owner who tends to search for reliable investments in the opening rounds — and, for the record, that's the sort of owner we'd like you to be — then there's a decent chance you've selected a few first basemen with early picks over the years. The upper-tier players at this position routinely deliver elite stats, particularly in the Triple Crown categories, and we rarely have much trouble identifying in advance who those players are going to be. First base is generally a low-risk roster spot that produces high-end numbers.
Here's a quick snapshot of the first basemen who've delivered top-20 value over the past four seasons, with year-end overall rank in parentheses (via Baseball Monster):
2011 – Miguel Cabrera (7), Adrian Gonzalez (8), Albert Pujols (13), Prince Fielder (15), Joey Votto (17)
2010 – Albert Pujols (2), Miguel Cabrera (3), Joey Votto (4), Paul Konerko (12)
2009 – Albert Pujols (1), Prince Fielder (6), Ryan Howard (9), Miguel Cabrera (16), Mark Teixeira (18)
2008 – Albert Pujols (1), Lance Berkman (9), Mark Teixeira (18), Ryan Howard (20)
If the name is italicized, then the player was either rated as a top-20 fantasy asset in the Yahoo! preseason consensus ranks, or they were top-five at their position (We didn't publish overall ranks in '08). In a nutshell, this is a position that consistently produces excellent fantasy numbers, and it's relatively easy to forecast at the top. You won't regret the decision to draft a first basemen in the opening rounds, even if the scarcity zealots tell you to wait. There's minimal risk of injury at this position, plus it's loaded with three and four-category stars. In the early rounds of your draft (or the $30-plus range in your auction) you're not likely to earn a substantial profit on a player, but you can certainly suffer a substantial loss. In fantasy, the top-of-draft first basemen are like blue chip stocks, consistently performing well in any market conditions, holding preseason value.
Beyond the top tier, there's still plenty of power available at this position. In 2011, ten different players with 1B-eligibility hit at least 30 home runs, and another six hit more than 25. Fourteen different first basemen reached 90 RBIs, and 13 topped 80 runs scored. Just take a look at the average fantasy stats delivered by the 20 highest-ranking first basemen over the past four seasons:
2011 – 84.3 R, 27.2 HR, 95.7 RBIs, 4.9 SB, .294 AVG
2010 – 89.6 R, 28.1 HR, 93.6 RBIs, 3.4 SB, .290 AVG
2009 – 87.6 R, 31.4 HR, 100.0 RBIs, 4.7 SB, .290 AVG
2008 – 90.3 R, 30.1 HR, 106.7 RBIs, 4.2 SB, .287 AVG
Again, those are the average stats for the ownable population of mixed league first basemen. Last year, if you filled this position with a guy who delivered a fantasy line of 84-27-96-5-.294, then you were merely treading water. The baseline expectations for this spot include power and run production. This doesn't mean you can't deploy a low-wattage player like Billy Butler or Michael Young as your primary first baseman, of course, but you'll need to make up for their HR shortcomings somewhere else.
We should note that the interleague balance of power at this position has shifted dramatically to the A.L. over the past two seasons, first with the Adrian Gonzalez trade, then with the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. If you scan the tiers below, you'll note that just five of the top 16 first basemen play in the senior circut. In all likelihood, there will be managers in almost every N.L.-only league who are forced to start low-impact hitters at a traditionally potent position. It's not quite right to suggest that this is a talent-scarce roster spot in such formats — best to wait until we hit second base before tossing around that term — but first base clearly isn't as easy to fill as it used to be. The value gap between Joey Votto and the average player at his position in the N.L. could be enormous this season.
Five first basemen under the microscope …
How quickly will Ryan Howard return?: The Phils consistently discuss a May ETA for the 32-year-old Howard, but you really need to think of that as a best-case scenario. We should assume the team will err on the side of caution as Howard returns from Achilles surgery, particularly as he enters the first season of his five-year, $125 million extension. Ty Wigginton figures to get most of the starts at first base for Philly in the early months of the season. Howard's current average draft position in Yahoo! leagues isn't too scary (82.3), so it's perfectly reasonable to address this position on the cheap. If you target him in the mid-rounds, then select a short-term placeholder late in your draft — maybe Lucas Duda (222.5) or Carlos Pena (248.9) or Mitch Moreland (251.7) — you'll probably feel OK about the aggregate production you receive from this spot.
How 'bout the other rehabbing ex-MVP?: If Justin Morneau's multiple-concussion history isn't enough to scare you off, then perhaps the rest of his medical chart will do it. Morneau's home run total last season (4) matched his surgery total. That's never a good sign. Even if he manages to enter the season free of concussion symptoms, we'll still have to worry about the feet, wrist, knee and neck. He reportedly still has numbness in his left index finger that may take years to go away. The draft-day price tag on Morneau reflects his complicated health history (ADP 229.9), but he obviously won't be a bargain if he can't play. Don't draft him as a starter and you won't be disappointed.
Any chance that Adam Dunn will bounce back?: Few players have ever experienced the sort of non-injury collapse that Dunn endured in 2011. He was so bad, in fact, that even a significant bounce-back in 2012 wouldn't necessarily make him a useful fantasy commodity. For example: Let's just say, hypothetically, that Dunn's K-rate last season would have matched his career norm (27.6 percent), instead of reaching a career-worst 35.7. That would've reduced his strikeout total by 40. And then let's say that all 40 of those non-strikeouts became base-hits, with 10 of them clearing the fence — this is a silly hypothetical, sure, but please play along. Even with those ridiculous enhancements to his 2011 stat-line, Dunn would have still finished the season with only 21 homers and a batting average of .255. Those numbers are well below the mixed league position average at first base.
Bottom line: Draft Adam Dunn at your own risk. There's a non-trivial chance that at age 32, he's completely cooked. His numbers last season were so inexcusably poor (36-11-42-0-.159) that even a massive improvement would still result in a miserable fantasy season.
Is this the breakout year for Brandon Belt?: The Giants actually still have a logjam on the depth chart at first and in the outfield. Belt still has minor league options, so even an impressive spring wouldn't guarantee him a starting spot in the bigs. This is a messy situation, no doubt. Aubrey Huff remains in the mix at first base, as does longtime farmhand Brett Pill. "It's going to be competitive — more so than in earlier years," says Bruce Bochy. Belt enters spring training coming off a successful run in the Dominican Winter League (.300/.395/.470 over 28 games), so he's presumably ready to hit.
As with the three players mentioned above, it seems unwise to select Belt as an opening day fantasy starter. But in his case, at least we can confidently say that his best baseball is still ahead of him.
Any sleepers who might earn first base-eligibility early in the year?: Milwaukee's Mat Gamel and Chicago's Bryan LaHair both fit that description. They'll get the first shot at the regular first base gig for their respective clubs. Gamel is 26 and LaHair is 29, and both delivered terrific numbers at Triple-A in 2011. (Gamel: 28 HR, .310/.372/.540. LaHair: 38 HR, .331/.405/.664). They might have the Quad-A label for now, but that can change in a hurry. If you're an N.L.-only owner, keep these two in your plans.
|First Base – Tiers|
|Miguel Cabrera; Albert Pujols
|Joey Votto; Adrian Gonzalez; Prince Fielder; Mark Teixeira
|Pablo Sandoval; Paul Konerko; Carlos Santana; Kevin Youkilis; Eric Hosmer; Michael Morse; Michael Young; Mike Napoli; Michael Cuddyer; Lance Berkman
|Howard Kendrick; Ike Davis; Joe Mauer; Ryan Howard; Paul Goldschmidt; Billy Butler; Freddie Freeman; Mark Reynolds; Nick Swisher; Adam Lind; Kendrys Morales
|Carlos Pena; Lucas Duda; Mark Trumbo; Gaby Sanchez; Carlos Lee; Brandon Belt; Mitch Moreland ; Justin Morneau; James Loney; Justin Smoak; Daniel Murphy; Chris Davis; Ty Wigginton; Luke Scott
|Todd Helton; Anthony Rizzo; Adam LaRoche; Derrek Lee; Mike Carp; Edwin Encarnacion; Adam Dunn; Aubrey Huff; Jesus Guzman; Brandon Allen; Matt LaPorta; Brett Wallace; Casey Kotchman; Juan Rivera; John Mayberry; Casey Blake|
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- Albert Pujols
- Ryan Howard
- Prince Fielder
- Miguel Cabrera
- Joey Votto