Fantasy baseball Draft Strategies: Grab a top-tier first baseman
Every season as I start my draft prep, I try to zero in on a few positions to prioritize, and in general, these positions are neither deep nor shallow. At deep positions like outfield and starting pitcher, you can always find value in the middle rounds. At shallow positions like second base and catcher, many of your leaguemates will have to settle for players ranked outside the overall top 100. You're not putting yourself behind the eight ball at that position if you do the same, and there's even an argument to be made that a player like Dustin Pedroia or Buster Posey carries a prohibitive opportunity cost.
Positions that offer around six-to-eight rock-solid starting options, however, cannot be ignored. If you fail to get one of those guys, you could struggle all season to find someone who you can start with confidence, while your opponents flourish. If it's a spot where fantasy owners frequently have one of their best players, the need to get one of the reliable guy is paramount. One such position qualifies in 2014 and is the focus of the first installment of our Draft Strategies series.
The dropoff after the top seven first basemen is stark. So stark, in fact, that owners must prioritize position or risk being left empty-handed at one of fantasy baseball's most crucial spots.
The top seven first basemen on my board, in order, are Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Davis, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Edwin Encarnacion and Freddie Freeman. Your exact order may differ, but you likely have those seven ranked above any other first basemen. Cabrera, Goldschmidt, Davis, Fielder and Votto are five of my top-13 overall players, and all within the top 15 according to FantasyPros. Encarnacion is my No. 20 overall player, while I have Freeman ranked 22nd. I'm admittedly bullish on Freeman, but the industry ranks him 30th, with Encarnacion checking in at No. 21. In other words, these seven players will be off the board by the middle of the third round of an average 12-team draft.
After that, things get dicey in a hurry. Again, your exact rankings may differ, but the next group of first basemen is made up of Eric Hosmer, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Allen Craig, Mark Trumbo and -- depending on league parameters -- Buster Posey. All of those players have their charms, but they all have just as many red flags.
Hosmer had a great second half last year, but he had been one of the most disappointing players for the previous year-and-a-half. He has yet to show the power profile most owners want from their first baseman.
It seems almost blasphemous to say, but there's an outside chance that Pujols' days as an above-average fantasy player are done. Even before succumbing to injury last year, he hit just .258/.330/.437 and posted a career-low 11.8-percent HR/FB ratio. At 34 years old, he is serious injury risk.
Gonzalez slugged worse than .465 for the second straight year in 2013. His isolated power was down under .170, also the second straight season in which he failed to reach that level. He hit 22 homers, just the third time in his career he failed to reach 25. Of course, last year and 2012 were two of those seasons.
Craig has the highest ceiling of this bunch, but he is a serious injury risk after various maladies limited him to 563 plate appearances last year. In addition, his HR/FB ratio plummeted to 11.2 percent, he hit fewer fly balls and more ground balls than the previous season, and much of his stat line was driven by a ridiculous .454/.500/.638 slash in 130 at-bats with runners in scoring position that is completely unsustainable.
New Diamondbacks' slugger Trumbo is pretty much a lock for 30 home runs, but he's also going to kill your batting average and OBP. And if Trumbo ends up hitting sixth, as he has in the spring and as manager Kirk Gibson has hinted might be the case in the regular season, he would not reap the benefits of great on-base guys like Paul Goldschmidt and Martin Prado in front of him.
Posey started 19 games at first last year, so he qualifies as a first baseman in most leagues. However, do you really want to start two players who are primarily catchers in your everyday fantasy lineup? Of course you don't. And remember, Posey had a terrible second half last year, hitting .244/.333/.310 with nine total extra-base hits.
This is not to say that all of these players will go bust, or that you can't field a winning fantasy team if one of these guys is your first baseman. We can safely bet that at least a few of them will perform quite well. In fact, I do like both Hosmer and Craig to match or exceed their respective draft-day values. But a lot of fantasy success derives from eliminating question marks from your team, and each of these players brings those to the table.
Meanwhile, the top-seven players at first base are just about as reliable as they come. Four of them had at least 36 homers last year. Five had at least 25. Votto had 24 and Freeman had 23 despite missing 15 games. All of them but Votto drove in at least 104 runs. Five had at least 90 runs, Freeman had 89 and Fielder had 82. Other than Fielder and Encarnacion, they all hit at least. 286, and all seven had an OBP of .362 or greater. This group isn't just the cream of the first base crop, but also they're among the best hitters in all of fantasy baseball, and all are guys around whom you can build your offense. You can win without one of them, but it significantly increases the degree of difficulty. Best to remove that possibility and prioritize getting a top-tier first baseman.
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