2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 First Basemen

Jeffrey BrownAnalyst IJanuary 27, 2013

2013 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 10 First Basemen

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    It is arguable that first base is the deepest position in fantasy baseball headed into the 2013 regular season.

    While there may be more quality outfielders from a numerical standpoint, most leagues have three-to-five outfield slots that need to be filled in an auction or draft, whereas there is only one slot for first basemen, and another slot for corner infielders (which can be filled by either first or third basemen).

    Last year, a dozen first basemen hit 25+ home runs, seven knocked in 100+ runs and five hit .285 or better. Several others just missed these benchmarks. And there are a bevy of young players who hold great promise for the future at the position.

    There are at least fifteen players who would serve as a solid 'starter' on your fantasy team, and that does not include Buster Posey, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, all of whom hold considerably more value as a catcher than as a first basemen, and were therefore included in my fantasy catcher rankings. Nor does it include Mike Napoli, who also qualifies at catcher and was included at the back end of that same catcher list.

    For those reasons, it seems logical to approach your fantasy draft by targeting positions that are not as deep in terms of quantity of quality players, specifically middle infielders and outfielders.

    In most drafts, solid contributors like Paul Konerko are still available in the seventh round, and guys like Ike Davis can still be found in the eleventh round. It would be prudent to load up on top outfielders and middle infielders in the early rounds, and then solidify your first baseman with guys like Konerko, Ike Davis, Eric Hosmer, et al in the seventh through eleventh rounds.

    (Related articles: Top 10 Catchers)

Number 1: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels

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    Long live The Prince! And, no, I am not referring to Cecil's offspring.

    On the morning of May 6, 2012, "Prince Albert" Pujols awoke to find himself hitting a not-so-robust .196 for his new baseball team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He had accumulated 116 at-bats on the new season without hitting a single home run and he had driven in only five runs.

    Some pundits and fans alike wondered whether the pressure of his new contract was getting the best of him.

    That night, Pujols hit his first home run of the 2012 campaign. Later that same evening, an owner in one of my fantasy leagues posted an article wondering whether he might be cursed, having left his long-time St Louis Cardinals in exchange for the almighty dollar. Has Pujols sold his soul?

    Well if he did, he must have bought it back sometime thereafter—big free agent contracts might provide a guy with enough money to do so.

    He didn't hit his next home run for another 10 days, and then he hit homers in back-to-back games. He hit five more bombs between May 22nd and May 29th. When the regular season came to an end on October 3rd, he had lifted his batting average to .285 while hitting 30 home runs and driving in 105 runs.

    The rumors of his demise were greatly exaggerated. (Don't you just l-o-v-e Mark Twain?)

    While Pujols' production was not sufficient to rank him atop the list of first basemen for 2012, his post-May 6th performance was sufficient to propel him to the top of my 2013 rankings. 

    On the face of it, Pujols is in the midst of a five year slide. His batting average, OBP, OPS, OPS+ and RAR (Runs Above Replacement) have slid in each season since 2008. His slugging percentage, BPV and walk rate have declined each year since 2009. So it is fair to ask whether his production will slide even further in 2013.

    I don't believe it will.

    While I don't believe he will ever recapture the glory he enjoyed back in 2008, there are ample reasons to believe he will rebound to hit .300+, with 35+ HR and 110+ RBI in 2013:

    First, he hit .309, with 30 HR and 100 RBI after May 5th last year... add a month of replacement-level stats to those totals and you would have something in the vicinity of .300/35/110.

    Second, according to Ron Shandler's "2013 Baseball Forecaster", many of his underlying metrics are solid—with the exception of his walk rate (which fell from 17 percent in 2008 to 8 percent last year).

    His contact rate has remained at an elite level since 2009 (ranging from 87 percent to 90 percent in each season) while his hit rate has remained solid, though unspectacular, throughout the same period (ranging from 28 percent to 30 percent). His ground ball rate has increased (it was 41 percent last year) but he still hits enough fly balls to generate 35+ HR (his fly ball rate was 40 percent last year).

    Third, Albert experienced a large dose of bad luck last year—his home run rate (hr/f) declined from a norm of 19 percent to a pedestrian 14 percent. Even if his rate recovers to just 18 percent (which was his rate in both 2010 and 2011), it would likely add at least a half-dozen home runs to his total.

    Prediction: .305, 37 HR, 116 RBI, 102 R and 6 SB.

Number 2: Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers

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    Free agent 1B Prince Fielder spent much of the last off-season wondering which uniform he would wear during the 2012 season.

    Agent Scott Boras had set his sights extremely high in terms of his contract demands and the baseball world had seemingly yawned. Pundits questioned the strategy, considering the myriad doubts that existed with respect to Fielder's body type, and whether "Fielder The Younger" would be able to play the field (defensively) as the contract entered its later years.

    So Prince waited, and waited, and waited.

    Then Detroit 1B/C/DH Victor Martinez injured an ACL during his off-season workouts. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch determined the need to act quickly. Fielder was soon signed to a nine-year, $214 million contract. Boras was vindicated. Fielder became an exceedingly wealthy man.

    He enjoyed an outstanding campaign in his first year in a Tigers uniform. In spite of the fact Comerica Park was a little less forgiving last season than Miller Park was in 2011, he compiled a .313 batting average (a career high).

    He also managed to swat 30 home runs in a new league and playing at what was essentially the league-average park for home runs—this, in spite of leaving Milwaukee's Miller Park which yielded the highest ballpark effect for home runs in all of baseball.

    It appears likely he'll struggle to equal last year's production in 2013; the question is how precipitous the drop off will be. It seems likely his batting average will regress considerably—back to the .290s. Otherwise, I expect his home runs to remain similar and his RBI production to regress somewhat.

    In light of the questions surrounding Joey Votto's recovery from his knee injury, Fielder should still achieve production levels that allow him to remain one of the top-two fantasy first basemen for the upcoming season.

    His batting average in 2012 was powered by a contact rate of 86 percent, which was nine points higher than his career norm and five points higher than his previous career high. Additionally, with the singular exception of 2009, Fielder has regularly produced hit rates between 29 and 31 percent, yet last year it was 33 percent. Furthermore, his BABIP last season was .321, compared to a career figure of .300.

    Taken together, these peripherals help to explain how he managed to post a career high in batting average. Assuming that he will experience a regression to his prior career highs (81 percent contact rate and 32 percent hit rate), his batting average should slide back into the mid- to high-.290s. (see 2013 Baseball Forecaster)

    His home run total dipped last year. I expect it will likely plateau at 28-32 home runs and remain there for the foreseeable future. I do not expect him to threaten the 40-HR plateau again.

    While Comerica Park won't hurt him from the perspective of home runs, it will not help him (as Miller Park would have done). Over the course of the last three years he has hit an increasing number of line drives (up from 18 percent to 25 percent) at the expense of fly balls (from 40 percent to 33 percent). While some of those line drives will grab the first few rows of the bleachers, this development does not bode well for the accumulation of home runs.

    Additionally, Prince has posted an odd-numbered / even-numbered split with respect to his home run rate, compiling rates of 22-23 percent in odd-numbered years and precisely 18 percent in each of the last three even-numbered years. So it is possible he will hit in the order of 32 home runs in 2013 and 2015, and 28 home runs in 2014 and 2016.

    As far as run production is concerned, it's logical to infer that he will lose a dozen runs batted in to a couple of factors: fewer RBI opportunities (with Miguel Cabrera unlikely to equal his 2012 productivity) and putting fewer balls in play when runners are in scoring position (assuming the aforementioned dip in BA). Thus, it's quite likely he will end up with somewhere between 95-98 RBI.

    Projection: .295 BA, 32 HR, 98 RBI, 80 R and 1 SB

Number 3: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Joey Votto signed a big-money contract extension (10-years, $225 million) last spring.

    Unlike Albert Pujols, he did not struggle to live up to his new deal from the outset of the season. While it is true his power was slow to arrive (he hit only two homers through May 16), he compiled a .289 average and drove home 15 runs in the season's first month. It was just a matter of time before the power arrived.

    And it did.

    The big first baseman hit a dozen home runs between May 13 and June 24 before a left knee injury (torn meniscus) sapped him of his power. He underwent knee surgery in mid-July and did not play for seven weeks. When he returned, he didn't hit another homer. In spite of his injury, he still managed to finish the season hitting .337, with 44 doubles (both career highs).

    With one month remaining until pitchers and catchers report, Reds' strength and conditioning coach Matt Krause reports that Votto "looks very good" as he works to return from injury. According to the team, the next step is to begin swinging a bat. As we look toward 2013, doubts linger but all systems are go.

    (NOTE: He would have ranked second on this list if it weren't for his injury and the fact he is behind in his off-season workout regimen. His health and performance bear watching throughout spring training.)

    It's likely his batting average will show regression in the upcoming season.

    While he has routinely posted contact rates in the vicinity of 77-78 percent, last year's mark resulted from an astounding 41 percent hit rate—compared to his career rate of 35 percent (from Baseball Forecaster). It's reasonable to expect his rate to regress towards his career norm, and should he post a similar contact rate he can be expected to hit around .310.

    As for his home run production, he isn't the guy who hit 37 home runs in 2010, as that total resulted from a home run rate (hr/fb) of 25 percent—well above his career rate of 17 percent (if you discount his 2010 rate as an outlier). And according to Baseball Forecaster, his fly ball rate has dropped over the last few years while his line drive rate has increased over the same period (by a factor of 50 percent).

    While it may be true that some of those line drives will result in home runs, they will not do so to the same degree as fly balls would. So it seems likely fantasy owners can depend on 28-30 home runs, but anything more than that would be wishful thinking.

    Prediction: .310, 28 HR, 100 RBI, 100 R and 4 SB

Number 4: Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The Boston Red Sox acquired Adrian Gonzalez via trade in December, 2010.

    Although he enjoyed a very solid first half during the 2011 season, it soon became obvious that something was not 'working' for him in the Boston spotlight. He struggled in the second half of 2011 and more so through the first half of 2012. He struggled with his batting average and his power all but disappeared.

    There was talk that he was not comfortable in the Boston clubhouse. His struggles coincided with the Red Sox' epic collapse in September, 2011, and Gonzalez was frequently lampooned in the media for lacking heart and leadership skills. Questions abounded whether he was a good "fit" in Beantown—creating an ever-increasing level of discomfort for the young San Diegan. 

    So when the Red Sox traded him to the Dodgers last summer, the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders.  Freed from the expectations and pressures of playing in Boston, A-Gon rediscovered himself in the laid back environment of Los Angeles. 

    According to the 2013 Baseball Forecaster, he hit .323, with 12 HR and 65 RBI in the second half of last year (322 AB). But it should be noted that his average benefited from a five point spike in his contact rate and was hurt by playing half of his games at Dodger Stadium (which impacts batting average negatively).

    His home run total suffered from a season-long dip in his home run rate (which was only 10 percent last year, compared to 16 percent in each of the previous two seasons) while simultaneously benefiting from the 12 percent boost attributed to home runs at Dodger Stadium.

    What does all of this mean for 2013?

    Well, Gonzalez isn't likely to produce another .338 average (which resulted from an extremely high 38 percent hit rate in 2011, compared to a normalized career rate of 33 percent). Assuming he returns to an 82 percent contact rate and his hit rate slides to 32 percent (owing to the effects of Chavez Ravine), he will likely post an average of .290 +/-.

    As for his home run production, assuming his HR-rate rebounds to 16 percent and that Dodgers Stadium will continue to exert a similar impact on fly balls, then it seems likely he'll reach the 30-HR plateau.

    The combination of a few lost points in batting average along with a significant increase in home runs indicates he'll drive in quite a few more runs.

    Projection: .295, 34 HR, 120 RBI, 80 R and 2 SB

Number 5: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Toronto 1B Edwin Encarnacion has presented the appearance of an impending breakout campaign in each of the last three off-seasons.

    According to the 2013 Baseball Forecaster, he has routinely posted low- to mid-80s contact rates, shown good plate discipline (league-average walk rates combined with a batter-than-average strikeout rate) and the ability to lift the batted ball into the air (fly ball rates that are routinely in the high-40s and low-50s).

    In 2009 and 2010, he was held back by an exceptionally low hit rate (25 percent), and in 2011 his home run total was hurt by a horrible (9 percent) home run rate. It seemed very likely he would eventually put everything together for an entire season—but we wondered when that would be.

    We now know it was last year. The question is whether he will be able to sustain that level of excellence in 2013 and beyond, or whether last year was an outlier.

    It seems likely his batting average will regress to the .268-.270 range and his power, and production will slide in the order of 20 percent. His contact rate has remained at a consistent level (83-84 percent) over the years while his hit rate has settled in the vicinity of 27 percent.

    So a superficial assessment of these metrics suggest, he should be able to maintain an average of about .280; however, last year he posted a home run rate of 19 percent, which is much higher than his career average of 14 percent (ironically, his last two (outlier) seasons produced a cumulative average of 14 percent). Based on 500 AB, the loss of 5 percent in HR-rate should cost him 20 points in batting average and 10 home runs.

    But as we are projecting a consistent hit rate, I believe it is safe to assume some of those home runs will result in additional doubles, which will minimize the loss in batting average to 10 or 12 points.

    Projection: .268, 30 HR, 90 RBI, 75 R and 10 SB.

Number 6: Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals

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    Some of Butler's peripheral stats suggest last year's breakout season isn't sustainable, which means he would revert to being a highly-productive fantasy asset as opposed to an impact fantasy contributor. And while I don't believe he will be able to hold onto all of the growth he showed last season, it seems logical that he will be able to retain a considerable amount of it.

    It's critical to understand Butler went into the 2012 season consciously seeking to generate additional power.

    Kauffman Stadium has historically been one of the worst parks in the league in terms of home run generation, so he worked hard to improve his conditioning and add strength. He also had LASIK surgery last winter, which dramatically improved his eyesight. Lastly, he adopted a more aggressive approach at the plate in an effort to generate more home runs (as is illustrated by an increase in his strikeout rate and decrease in both his contact rate and walk rate).

    The results were significant.

    Though his contact rate dropped to 82 percent (down from his career rate of 85 percent), he continued to maintain a rate that is well above the norm without sacrificing anything in terms of his hit rate (which was actually one point higher than his career mark, at 34 percent).

    The increase likely resulted from the spike in his home run rate (20 percent, up from his career average of 10 percent), as fly balls which previously landed in outfielder's mitts now fell into the outfield grandstands. But the question is whether that home run rate can be sustained in light of a simultaneous and dramatic decrease in his fly ball rate (which fell six points to a lowly 29 percent).

    It seems probable that he'll experience some correction in his home run rate, though the added power and improved eyesight should allow him to retain most of last year's improvement (let us estimate his 2013 rate at 16 percent). Assuming he will maintain a similarly aggressive approach at the plate, it is likely he will accumulate similar strikeout and walk rates; but, it seems probable that he will see an improvement in his fly ball rate—if he regains half of what he lost last year he would produce a rate of 32 percent.

    In consideration of the above, I predict he'll maintain a contact rate of 82 percent while compiling a hit rate of 33 percent, rendering a batting average in the neighborhood of .300 +/-. The projected increase in his fly ball rate should substantially offset the regression in his home run rate, though not entirely. The lower batting average and decline in home runs will result in fewer runs batted in.

    Projection: .298, 25 HR, 95 RBI, 75 R and 2 SB

Number 7: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

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    My next tier of first basemen consists of six players for whom I have just four slots.

    There are four first- and second-year players in this tier along with two veterans. As I previously stated in my article on the top ten fantasy catchers, I often prefer a young guy with upside over a veteran on the decline, but I am hesitant to blindly pick a guy with a single year of experience when there are veterans with established track records available.

    What's a fella to do?

    The current tier includes Ike Davis, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Paul Konerko, Anthony Rizzo and Mark Teixeira. As much as I like Ike, his low contact rate creates a great measure of concern, as he doesn't have anything to fall back on when his hit rate plummets (as it did last year, to an abysmal 25 percent).

    So Davis gets slotted at No. 12.

    Among the other five first basemen listed, Goldschmidt and Rizzo both appear to have a higher ceiling than Freeman but neither has established a track record that can be relied upon. Konerko and Tex are more well-established but appear to be in the midst of a decline.

    For those reasons, Freeman gets the nod here.

    Freeman struggled with an early-season hand injury and vision problem that hurt his numbers across the board. After his physical problems were resolved, he suffered from a prolonged stretch of bad luck, as is evidenced by the 29 percent hit rate he endured during the second half of the season (this, in spite of the fact his contact rate spiked to a healthy 78 percent after the All-Star Game).

    As the season progressed he also showed improved plate discipline, lowering his K-rate to league average and increasing his walk rate to 14 percent in the second half.

    As we look forward to 2013, it seems more than likely that his contact rate will remain at 76 percent and that his hit rate will recover to 32-33 percent, which would result in an increased batting average.

    Assuming he will maintain the improvement he achieved in his fly ball rate once he became healthy, while keeping his home run rate at 15 percent, he should also be able to add modestly to his home run and RBI totals.

    Projection: .272, 26 HR, 100 RBI, 95 R and 3 SB

Number 8: Paul Konerko, Chicago White sox

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    The reason for selecting Freeman over Konerko at Number Seven had less to do with the players and more to do with the players on their respective MLB teams.

    While the Atlanta lineup should produce an ample supply of RBI opportunities and runs scored, the White Sox lineup should be less generous. So Konerko gets slotted in the eighth spot.

    The soon-to-be 37-year-old has seen his skill set diminish over the last few years, but he remains an excellent option at first base (at least in terms of batting average and homers). It remains to be seen whether the players around him will produce an adequate number of RBI opportunities or drive him home with sufficient frequency to warrant ranking him any higher than this.

    He has posted remarkably consistent metrics over the last four seasons. In three of those campaigns he has accumulated an excellent contact rate of 84 percent (in the other year it was 80 percent), and over those four years he has averaged a hit rate of 31 percent.

    There are a couple sources of concern as he enters his 17th major league campaign: 1) his health, and 2) the consistent decline he has seen in his fly ball rate over the last four years.

    Konerko had a bone chip in his wrist last season that sapped some of his power. It was removed at the end of the season and reports indicate he'll be ready to go for spring training—but at 37 years of age, is it a harbinger of things to come?

    Equally worrisome is the regression in his fly ball rate, which has declined from 46 percent in 2009 to 37 percent last year. It is certainly within the realm of possibility the rate will recover to 40+ percent in 2013.

    It says here he'll post the same kind of peripherals baseball fans have grown accustomed to seeing from him: a contact rate of around 84 percent, a hit rate in the vicinity of 31 percent, and an improved fly ball rate in the neighborhood of 41 percent.

    Those numbers should make for a final season that is worthy of a potential Hall of Famer.

    Projection: .300 BA, 29 HR, 85 RBI, 70 R and 0 SB

Number 9: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Kansas City 1B Eric Hosmer gave all of the appearances of being a perennial fantasy stud during his rookie season in 2011, combining excellent contact and hit rates to produce stellar statistics.

    As the baseball world looked forward to the 2012 season, the big question (other than whether he would be susceptible to the dreaded sophomore slump) was whether he would hit more fly balls and increase his home run total (as he posted a 32 percent fly ball rate as a rookie).

    Baseball fans are keenly aware of what Hosmer went through last year.

    As 2013 approaches, fantasy aficionados are wondering whether Goldschmidt will be able to avoid the same slump that afflicted Hosmer. And there are plenty of reasons to fear he will suffer Hosmer's fate.

    While Hosmer posted an 84 percent contact rate and 34 percent hit rate as a rookie, Goldschmidt compiled a lowly 75 percent contact rate as a rookie (to go along with a healthy 35 percent hit rate). Hosmer largely maintained his contact rate last year (82 percent) but saw his hit rate plummet (26 percent), taking his batting average with it (.232).

    So fantasy owners have to wonder what will happen to Goldschmidt's batting average if his hit rate regresses when paired with his marginal contact rate. 

    To a certain extent, Hosmer's implosion was outside of the norm for an upper-echelon prospect, so it is difficult to foresee that highly-rated prospects could experience similar sophomore slumps in back-to-back seasons. But that doesn't mean it won't happen.

    I looked for reasons to either include or exclude Goldschmidt from this list.

    In analyzing his metrics I noted that he demonstrated quite a bit of growth during the second half of the 2012 season. While his hit rate and home run rate declined, his contact rate, line drive rate and walk rate all increased (with his ground ball rate correspondingly falling). So he was included—barely.

    There are no assurances Goldschmidt won't struggle in 2013, but his metrics suggest that he should be able to avoid Hosmer's fate and approximate the stats he posted last year (with the exception of his stolen base total, which was likely an outlier).

    That's good enough for me, and reason enough to include him at the back end of my list.

    Projection: .270 BA, 18 HR, 75 RBI, 75 R and 12 SB

Number 10: Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

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    I have stated repeatedly that I will often opt for a younger player with tremendous upside over an aging veteran who appears to be holding on as his career wanes. When I began this article, I fully expected I would slot Rizzo in my top ten, with Teixeira on the outside.

    For the sake of full disclosure, I have to confess I wanted to leave Teixeira off my list, and not because I possess an ingrained preference for younger players.

    I'm a Red Sox fan, and not only did Tex jilt the Sox several years ago on the eve of signing with them, but he did so in order to sign with the hated Yankees. And then there is the fact that I've met Rizzo on a couple of occasions (I interviewed him at great length when he was in the BoSox farm system) and really liked him.

    And then came the task of actually investigating who should be on the list.

    While statistical analysis cannot tell us everything, it does enable us to make informed decisions. Rizzo put up some impressive numbers after his promotion on June 26, but the underlying metrics cause me to question the sustainability of any of them.

    His peripherals far exceeded anything he had done previously, with his contact rate (80 percent), hit rate (32 percent) and home run rate (18 percent) all surpassing his major league equivalents (MLEs) to a great degree. My analysis suggests his performance was as much about "smoke and mirrors" as it was about legitimate skills.

    So until I see more from him, I prefer to stick with the known quantity: Teixeira.

    Tex suffered with a variety of maladies last year, from nerve damage in his vocal chords to wrist and calf injuries that hampered his productivity for most of the year. As with Konerko, I am left to wonder whether these issues are a harbinger of things to come. But Teixeira is much younger than Konerko, so I am comfortable believing that he will be able to regain his form in 2013.

    And let's be honest, even Tex's worst season was something Rizzo should aspire to: .251, 24 HR, 84 RBI, 66 R and 2 SB. Over the previous four seasons, he had averaged 36 HR and 116 RBI. 

    In analyzing Tex's 2012 metrics, virtually every one of them were in line with what he had done in the past, except his ground ball and fly ball rates, which shifted dramatically—largely due to the physical issues he dealt with (his ground ball rate increased six points while his fly ball rate dropped by eight points).

    Otherwise, his peripherals were all very good.

    His contact rate remained excellent (81 percent) and his hit rate was consistent with where it had settled over the course of the prior two years in spite of those nagging injuries (26 percent). His strikeout and walk rates both remained quite a bit better than league average. So last year's performance should be viewed as a "floor," with the more likely scenario being somewhere in between his 2010 and 2012 numbers.

    Projection: .255 BA, 30 HR, 96 RBI, 92 R and 2 SB