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Fantasy Baseball 2013 Draft Prep: First Base Overview

Sean KeaneCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2013

Fantasy Baseball 2013 Draft Prep: First Base Overview

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    In a recent article, I called catcher the deepest infield position this fantasy season. Traditionally first base holds that distinction, so what gives?

    Yes, there are more catchers this year than in years past, but there are also fewer elite first basemen than most fantasy owners are accustomed too.

    What was once the cornerstone of most fantasy lineups didn't boast a single hitter with more than 110 RBI in 2012 (not counting Miguel Cabrera who is no longer eligible). In fact, there was only one player who racked up exactly 110.

    Quick, you think you can guess who it was?

Not so Fat Albert

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    Hopefully you don't need me to tell you Albert Pujols is still the class of his position, so I won't waste anyone's time getting into his details.

    The man is a beast and with Miggy strictly a third basemen in fantasy this year, Pujols should be the top first baseman off the board, but he couldn't reach the 110 RBI mark, falling just short at 105 on the year.

    So if you guessed Pujols, guess again.

Not so Slim Prince

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    What about Prince Fielder?  The All-Star slugger's first season in Detroit was an unquestioned success, playing in every game and finishing with one more walk than strikeout for the second year in a row.

    While still an elite option it's worth noting his 30 home runs in 2012 were the fewest he's hit since managing 28 during his rookie season in 2006. At age 28, I feel very confident calling it a blip on the radar and expect a more robust power output this year.

    As you may have guessed given his lowly (by his standards) home run total, the 110 RBI hitter wasn't him either, although, with 108 he did come closer than Pujols.

    So if it wasn't Pujols or Fielder, who must it have been?

Votto-Matic

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    Joey Votto, right?

    Wrong.

    The Canadian Crusher missed 51 games in 2012 with a torn meniscus. He was on pace for a career high .337 batting average and his 94 walks actually lead the National League despite playing in only 111 games. But with only 56 RBI, he fell way short of that mysterious 110 player.

    There is some cause for concern with Votto considering he didn't hit a single home run and posted only 7 RBI in 30 combined regular season and postseason games after returning, but an offseason of rest should do wonders, and I still have him firmly entrenched as my third ranked first baseman.

Shippin' out of Boston

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    After being jettisoned by the Red Sox during a well publicized down year, Adrian Gonzalez still posted a .299 batting average between the Sox and Dodgers and his 47 doubles were a career high.

    My fourth ranked first baseman struggled to hit for power though, amassing just 18 home runs in 159 games. Expect that trend to continue in the not-so-friendly confines of Dodger Stadium, but in a loaded lineup he may well contend for the RBI crown with a high average and a boatload of runs.  Even at his worst, Gonzalez still ranked among the best at his position at driving in runs, as his 108 RBI ranked ahead of Pujols and tied with Fielder.

    Nevertheless, 108 isn't quite 110, so who was this mystery masher?

Edwin's Re-Encarnacion

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    If you guessed Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion, give yourself a pat on the back.

    The former Cincinnati Reds' third baseman went all Jose Bautista on the fantasy world, more than doubling his home run total from the year before while also doubling up from 55 RBI to 110.

    There must be something in the water north of the border.

    Needless to say Encarnacion wasn't on many fantasy radars at this time last year, but after his .280 average, 42 home runs and 110 RBI last season he deserves a lofty draft position heading into his age 30 season.

    Any time a player exceeds his previous career bests by such a wide margin there is obviously some regression to be expected, but Encarnacion was remarkably consistent in 2012, hitting at least five home runs in every month of the season. He also posted a career best 94-to-84 strikeout to walk ratio, which indicates he refined his approach at the plate and wasn't simply the beneficiary of a fluke season but, in fact, a more complete hitter.

    Power numbers tend to fluctuate from year-to-year, so don't expect another 40 bombs, but even if that number drops to 30, he should have no trouble driving in runs by the bunches, especially in the Blue Jays' revamped lineup (cut to the Marlins saying, "You're welcome.").

    Plan on a slight regression across the board, but draft him with confidence as a borderline top-five first baseman.

Feasting on Some Country Breakfast

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    Before diving into clusters of players with more or less equal value, I want to touch on one more player who represents a clear upgrade over the rest of the field; Kansas City's Billy Butler.

    The man they call "Country Breakfast" has been in the major leagues for six years, so it's easy to forget he'll turn the magical age of 27 this April.

    Coming off a .313 average, 29 home run and 107 RBI season, with a .882 OPS (on base + slugging), the career .300 hitter finally showed the power many scouts had been predicting for years.

    As primarily a designated hitter, Butler's career to this point has closely mirrored that of the great Edgar Martinez, and baseballreference.com lists John Olerud as Butler's best comparison at his current age.

    Those are lofty standards, but as Butler enters his prime years, I see no reason he wouldn't be up to the challenge. With an improving young lineup around him, expect more of the same from "Country Breakfast" this season with room to grow even more.

    It's hard to call him a true "sleeper" since he's already one of the better hitters in the league, but playing in Kansas City has kept the buzz surrounding him to a minimum and I wouldn't be surprised to see him mash 30-plus home runs with a batting average anywhere between .300 and .330.

    As a doubles machine, his value is even higher in head-to-head formats, and while he doesn't have the name value of Adrian Gonzalez or the recent production of Encarnacion, he's probably a safer option than both of them, especially considering he's likely to go at least a full round later.

Land of the Freeman and Home of the Braves

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    Freddie Freeman may not have the pure power of Prince Fielder or the advanced batting eye of Joey Votto, but he's still just 23 years old and is developing nicely as a hitter.

    In 2012, he cut down on his strikeouts, improved his walks, hit more home runs, had more RBI and scored more runs than in 2011, and he did so in 10 fewer games played.

    At 6'5" 225 lbs., Freeman profiles as a complete middle of the order hitter in his prime, and while there is a lot to be excited about, try to remember he still hasn't hit any bumps in the road, so projecting him to reach his potential so quickly comes with definite risk.

    Still, even with incremental improvement in his third year, Freeman should challenge for 25-plus home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs and a decent batting average.

    With all the new faces in Atlanta, he has plenty of lineup protection and should feast on some tasty pitches. I can't bring myself to rank him any lower than seventh at his position and I personally prefer him over Mark Teixeira.

Little Tex?

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    Teixeira is conspicuously absent in the player breakdowns already listed, as his production has waned in recent years. He now belongs in the middle rounds with players like Freeman and Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt.

    Tex presents an interesting dilemma.

    On the one hand, his batting average has hovered around .250 for the past three years. On the other, he put more balls in play last season than ever before, and his line drive percentage was right in line with his career norms. So if he's making better contact, why wasn't his batting average closer to his career .279 mark?

    For starters he hit fewer fly balls than in years past, and when he did hit the ball in the air, it didn't travel as far, as evidenced by his 12.1 HR/FB rate, which is his lowest since his rookie season in 2003.

    Simply put, he's losing his power.

    Given his steady line drive rates and mind numbingly low .245 batting average on balls in play (BABIP ) over the past two seasons, it's fair to expect his batting average to recover somewhat, but owners should probably start expecting more doubles and fewer home runs from Big Tex. Heading into his age 33 season, he isn't the 40-homer threat he was two years ago.

    He should still post quality numbers in a talented Yankees lineup, and while a Paul Konerko-esque resurgence circa 2010 is possible, owners banking on that will likely end up disappointed.

I Love Goooooold...Schmidt!

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    Goldschmidt, and the aforementioned Freeman, are trending in the opposite direction. The 25-year-old Goldschmidt has serious pop and surprising prowess on the base paths with 18 steals in 2012.

    Unlike former Diamondbacks dual-threat Mark Reynolds, Goldschmidt is more than an all-or-nothing slugger, as his .317 minor league batting average suggests. He also owns a respectable, albeit unspectacular, strikeout to walk ratio of roughly 2-to-1 in both the minor and major leagues.

    Arizona has overhauled their roster this offseason and not for the better, so don't expect elite RBI or runs scored, but he is now the franchise cornerstone and could very well lead the entire position in home runs playing in hitter-friendly Chase Field.

    After less than two full major league seasons his 162-game averages of .278, 28 home runs, 108 RBI, 110 runs scored and 22 stolen bases would place him firmly among the league's elite and that's not even accounting for his 35-plus-homer raw power. So don't let him slip past you once the big names are off the board.

    If you're the type who likes to chase upside for the next big thing, you might want to consider him even ahead of Teixeira.

Disclaimer

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    This is probably a good time to mention I'm not including dual-eligible catchers like Mauer, Posey, Santana and Napoli on this list because, quite frankly, starting them anywhere besides catcher drastically diminishes their value.

    It's a desperation move and isn't something you should plan on doing while you draft.

Fall Back Options

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    The next group of first basemen likely to come off the draft board in any order is Paul Konerko, Eric Hosmer, Anthony Rizzo, Ike Davis, Mark Trumbo and Allen Craig. These also represent the very last of the first basemen I would feel comfortable drafting as my starter.

    Konerko is going to be 38 in March, so while he's been a fairly safe pick in years past, I'm staying far away this year due to his non-existent upside and the legitimate chance he goes the way of Todd Helton.

    If you're the type who prefers known commodities, however, I wouldn't blame you for rolling the dice on the old fella.

    Trumbo is pretty much a one trick pony, offering plus power and not much else. He strikes out a ton, doesn’t walk much and has never hit higher than .268, so he'll have a hard time scoring runs, even in a loaded lineup.

    He's coming into his prime, though, so 35 bombs isn't out of the question, especially since he should get plenty of pitches to hit with all the talent around him. I think 100 RBI is well within reach as well.

    Give him a look in roto leagues if you need help in the power categories.

    Thanks to his horrendous strikeout to walk ratio, his value in head-to-head leagues resembles BP stock after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Owners in those formats should consider him a last resort.

Fall Back Options, Continued

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    Craig is interesting, partly because you actually can trust this man with two first names, and partly because his rise to the majors came with little-to-no fanfare.

    Craig was never a highly touted prospect, but he set Triple-A on fire and hasn't stopped hitting since he made it to St. Louis. In parts of three seasons, he owns a .300 batting average and his 162-game averages of 25 home runs and 102 RBI are nothing to sneeze at.

    He doesn't offer anywhere near the upside of Hosmer or Rizzo—who all figure to come off the draft board at similar spots—but he figures to be a reliable hitter all season. Considering Hosmer hit just .232 with 14 homers in 152 games last year, and Rizzo has a grand total of 465 major league at bats, Craig might be the safest bet of this entire group. 

    Consider him an excellent fallback option and one of the better sleepers at his position this season. If you consider he's also eligible at outfield, his added flexibility makes him even more valuable.

Italian Stallion and the Hos

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    Which brings us to the three biggest enigmas at first base for 2013: Hosmer, Rizzo and Davis.

    To be clear, all three have shown immense promise at various points in their brief careers, but all three have also struggled mightily at other points. Any of them could erupt and be worth starting—even in shallow leagues—but counting on them to start for you is risky to say the least.

    I tend to lump Hosmer and Rizzo together.

    Both are former top prospects, enter the 2013 season at the ripe ol' age of 23 and have shown glimpses of the talent that made them so highly touted in the minor leagues.

    Both figure to be franchise players for their respective organizations and, quite honestly, I have a hard time choosing one over the other right now.  If they were my best options left I would let somebody else take one of them and then snatch up whichever was still available.

    Hosmer possesses excellent plate discipline, and in his prime, could annually contend for batting titles; not to mention on base skills that could routinely push his OBP over .400, something like a poor man's Votto.

    Rizzo profiles more like a young Teixeira with outstanding power that could win him a fair share of Silver Slugger awards. He doesn't quite have the strike zone judgment of Hosmer, but his minor league 2-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio isn't terrible either.

    Since Hosmer plays in a better lineup in Kansas City than Rizzo with the Chicago Cubs, I would count on him more to get better pitches to hit and help owners in batting average, runs and RBI.

    Rizzo figures to hit for more power albeit with a good amount of strikeouts and almost no lineup protection. Both players figure to take small steps forward in 2013 and both make for low-end starters and luxurious utility or bench options with the off-chance they figure things out and tap into their vast potential.

I Like Ike

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    Of the three enigmas Davis is probably the safest of the bunch, although, he also has the lowest ceiling.

    Last year, the 25-year-old fought a bout of the dreaded Valley Fever during spring training and his season appeared lost as he entered June hitting .170 with five home runs, 21 RBI and a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, causing many owners, including myself, to drop him.

    He went on to mash 27 home runs over 360 at bats the rest of the way, which would put him on a 41 homer pace over a full season. Despite his horrific first two months he still finished with 32 home runs and 90 RBI. If you discount those first two months when the Valley Fever was obviously affecting him, his career batting average is .265.

    If he can level out over the course of a full year, and produce 30-35 home runs with a batting closer to that .265 mark with decent plate discipline, he should present excellent value on draft day, especially since he stands to last until the later rounds in most standard mixed leagues.

Last Resorts

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    If everyone already mentioned is off the board and you still need your starter, well, you're pretty much done for. But there are still some players worth drafting as spot starters or utility players and if things break right for these guys you could be looking at low end starter value.

    Players like Adam Dunn, Kevin Youkilis, Adam LaRoche, Michael Cuddyer, Brandon Belt, Ryan Howard, Yonder Alonso, Michael Young and Justin Morneau should all be available in the later rounds on draft day, unless somebody reaches for them based on name value.

    I actually like Young to a degree, but he's eligible all over the infield and holds more value as a second baseman.

    Dunn bounced back in a major way last year with 41 home runs, but his batting average isn't likely to surpass .220. Still, the Big Donkey hits bombs and walks a ton, so if you need power and play in a format where all his strikeouts won't hurt you then he's worth scooping up.

    Cuddyer, Howard and Morneau have all seen better days, and I don't see any of them being much more than low-end utility players.  If they get hot for a stretch they could make for decent short-term options, just don't get too attached unless you're in a deep league.

    Youkilis could actually end up as the Yankees full time third baseman with A-Rod's season reportedly in jeopardy and the team also looking to void his Titanic contract. He has injury concerns of his own and has declined steeply in the last two years, but he's worth taking a mid-to-late round flier on in case he has one last productive season in him.

    LaRoche garnered a lot of attention this offseason as a free agent, but at age 33 his upside has gone the way of the dodo.  His 33 home runs and 100 RBI in 2012 were both career highs, which he's unlikely to repeat as he enters his mid 30's.

    Look for another campaign of roughly 25 home runs and 90 RBI, with a batting average in the neighborhood of .275, making him an affordable utility option, but not somebody I'd want at first base outside of ultra-deep leagues.

Young Guns in the Bay Area

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    Belt, aka the Baby Giraffe, actually has some intriguing upside, but he hasn't done much at the major league level.

    In deeper leagues, give him a look in the later rounds and stash him for potential rewards as the season goes on. He does own a .343 minor league average over two seasons, so there's definite talent there; he just needs to figure things out against better competition.

    This could finally be his year as the Giants are committed to him as an everyday player.

    Alonso could also be a surprise with the Padres moving the fences in as the key player in the Matt Latos trade has a good batting eye, excellent plate discipline and decent pop.

    His upside has probably been overstated in years past, but a .280 batting average with 15-20 home runs would at least be worth drafting, even if only in the last few rounds.

Fishing in Miami

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    One last player to keep an eye on in spring training is the Marlins' Logan Morrison. He's had knee problems, which have limited him in the past, and hasn't always been reliable even when playing.

    His batting average has declined in each of his three seasons, falling from .283 in 2010 to .230 last year, so Morrison is strictly a late round shot in the dark, but if the former top prospect looks healthy in spring training. He's worth a look in the event he rediscovers the patience and contact skills that made him so highly regarded in the first place.

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