There are a number of different paths that fantasy owners can pursue during the draft, but I’m a firm believer that you have to win at certain positions, no matter the names each season. More specifically, you cannot win your league if you fall behind in these positions. Allow me to present the first of those in our first base primer.
This position has everything fantasy owners look for—other than speed. Seven of the 20 players who hit at least 30 homers last season play first base, tied with outfield for the most of any position. Of course, there are three times as many starting outfielders as there are first basemen. Last year, 13 players drove in 100 runs, and five of them were first basemen. The top-10 in batting average featured three regular first basemen (Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto) and one sometime first baseman (Buster Posey). The position also had five of the top 10 in OBP, and three of the top 10 in slugging. Again, you need to win at first base.
But not everyone can win at first base, which is why you need a plan for this position. Do you spend up for someone like Goldschimidt or Anthony Rizzo, two first-round talents? Do you dive in on the steady-as-ever Cabrera, who remains—for my money—the best pure hitter in the game, even if his power stroke isn’t what it used to be? Do you wait another round or so and target a masher like Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Davis or Jose Abreu? Or do you sit back even longer and strike when the moment is right on Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Eric Hosmer, Prince Fielder or Freddie Freeman? This is a question you should be able to answer before you sit down on draft day.
A few things to think about: First, out of the names in the preceding paragraph, seven of those guys are going to be off the board by the end of the third round of a typical 12-team draft, with four or five likely to go in the top 20. And second, quite often in the first few rounds, the answer to the question, “Who is the best player available,” will be a first baseman. In other words, someone could very easily, and smartly, take Goldschmidt at No. 3 and Encarnacion at No. 21. Someone else could take Cabrera at No. 14 and Votto at No. 35. Those all fit the average draft position parameters, and there’s no fantasy baseball league in the world that doesn’t have a utility position, corner infield position, or both. Do not assume that the first base resources will be divided evenly in your league.
So, what’s the best way to attack this position? Well, draft constraints might make this tough for some (you should be auctioning anyway), but typically, I’m doing everything in my power to get one of the first seven players listed above (Goldschmidt through Votto). The position is simply too important, and I don’t want to be counting on the likes of Hosmer or Fielder, not to mention Albert Pujols, Lucas Duda or Brandon Belt. I’m going to win at first base, and I’m going to do it with a perennial 35-homer, 100-RBI threat.
Park signed with the Twins over the offseason after being one of the best sluggers in Korea during the last four years. His worst season during that timeframe was 2012 when he hit .290/.393/.561 with 31 homers. He posted consecutive 50-homer seasons in ’14 and ’15, his age-27 and 28 seasons. Now, we know that Korean numbers don’t always directly translate to the majors, but Park’s power is undeniable. PECOTA projects him for 19 homers in 517 plate appearances. ZiPS has him at 27 bombs in 613 trips to the plate. No matter which you prefer, you have to acknowledge that he’ll, at the very least, push the 20-homer plateau.
The one question might be positional eligibility. If Park doesn’t enter the season with first base eligibility in your league, he might not get it. He’s expected to mostly DH for the Twins this season, with Joe Mauer holding down first base. Even in that capacity, it’s worth taking a roll of the dice on his potential. If the power makes the trip across the Pacific with him, he could be the most affordable 30-homer player in the league.
Just like we can’t say there’s a breakout among the most desirable targets at first base, finding a sleeper is a bit of a stretch. Sure, we could say they’re undervalued (hello, Chris Davis), but you can’t be a sleeper when your ADP is inside the top 25. So how about Santana, an underappreciated talent in an underappreciated offense?
A back injury plagued him all last year, but he still managed to hit 19 homers and post a .357 OBP. Santana has always been willing to take a walk, and he could end up as Cleveland’s leadoff man this season. If the back injury was truly responsible for his HR/FB ratio dipping to 11.9%, we could be looking at a player outside the top 150 in ADP who gets back into the upper 20s in home runs, and does so with a .360 or better OBP. Remember, Santana has a couple of 27-homer seasons recently, and he has never had an OBP south of .350. He’s a great target in OBP leagues, and can open the season as a starting utility or corner infielder, with the ceiling to turn into a regular first baseman.
Deep sleeper: Matt Adams, St. Louis Cardinals
Three seasons ago, Adams hit .284/.335/.503 and belted 17 homers in 319 plate appearances. His home-run rate dipped the in 2014, but he still slashed .288/.321/.457 and left the yard 15 times in basically a full season of play. Last year, injuries limited him to just 60 games, and rendered him largely ineffective when he was on the field. That has sent his stock tumbling to an area that basically makes him free on draft day. Despite his 2015 struggles, Adams is going expected to be the Cardinals’ Opening Day first baseman, and will likely slot fifth in the order behind Matt Carpenter, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta. If he stays healthy and finds his power again, fantasy owners could be in for the cheapest 20-homer, 90-RBI season on the market.
Fielder enjoyed a bounceback season in 2015, hitting .305/.378/.463 with 23 homers and 98 RBI. While it was nice to see him get back into the 20s in home runs after an injury-riddled 2014 season, it was his rates that made him so valuable last year. He posted a career-low (for a full season) 12.2% HR/FB ratio and .158 isolated slugging percentages. Those are numbers that put you behind at first base.
The only way Fielder can make up that deficit is by being a huge plus in batting average and OBP, and there’s reason to believe both of those will come down this season. He posted a .323 BABIP despite a 18.3% line-drive rate, and his walk rate was less than 10% for the first time in his career. If the BABIP dips, so too will the cosmetic rates. They don’t have far too go before Fielder owners are no longer turning a profit.
If the Astros had to finalize their 25-man Opening Day roster in early March, Reed might not be on it. He’s going to push Jon Singleton for the starting first base job in spring training, and even if it’s Singleton who heads to Houston as the starter, keep your eye on Reed. In 237 plate appearances with Double-A Corpus Christi last year, the 22-year-old hit .332/.405/.571 with 11 homers, 14 doubles and 46 RBI. This was after he raked at High-A Lancaster to the tune of .346/.449/.638 with 23 homers in 82 games.
Before you worry about him starting last year at High-A despite his age, recall that Kris Bryant spent half of his age-22 season in Double-A. That’s not to say Reed is at the same stage in his development that Bryant was, or that he has the Cubs’ star’s natural talent, but he, too, spent three years in college, and should be major league ready the moment the Astros promote him. Be ready to pounce when that happens.