Losses of Pujols, Fielder leaves first base position bereft of talent in NL
Has there ever been a more disparate position in terms of talent between the leagues than first base is shaping up to be in 2012? The megabucks defections of Albert Pujols to the Angels and Prince Fielder to the Tigers shifted the balance of power at the position so far to the junior circuit's side that the scale may topple over, leaving those in AL-only fantasy leagues in position for an exciting season watching their All-Star teams take the field every day, while those playing with NL-only squads scramble for talent at what's supposed to be a power position like never before.
Pujols and Fielder join an already impressive list of AL first basemen that rivals the days of Gehrig, Foxx and Greenberg. Included are perennial MVP candidates Miguel Cabrera (who also will supplant Alex Rodriguez as the AL's top offensive option at third base in light of Detroit's new addition), Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Konerko and Mark Teixeira -- all of whom coincidentally played in the NL at some point. Then there's Carlos Peña, Tampa Bay's all-time home run leader who re-upped in St. Pete following a 28-home run campaign for the Cubs; Toronto's Adam Lind, who, despite a low average (.251), managed a solid 26 home runs and 87 runs knocked in; and 2006 MVP (and '08 runner up) Justin Morneau, expected to be back at full strength following two injury-plagued seasons. Adding to the depth are superstar-in-waiting Eric Hosmer and his .799 rookie year OPS in Kansas City, and Mark Trumbo, who hit 29 home runs as a rookie in '11 and will be used in the outfield, as a DH and possibly at third this year with the arrival of Pujols. Even Michael Young, eighth in the AL MVP voting as a utilityman extraordinaire last year, played 36 games at first and retains first base eligibility in most leagues.
The senior circuit's prospects are nearly the complete opposite. Right now there's only one slam-dunk-caliber first baseman, and for that reason, Cincinnati's Joey Votto may be the most valuable fantasy player in NL-only leagues. Votto, 28, hit 29 home runs last season, the fourth straight season with 24 or more, with batting/OBP/slugging numbers of over .300/.400/.500 for the third, third and fourth straight full seasons. He followed up a 2010 MVP campaign by placing sixth in '11 with a .354 batting average on balls in play and fourth at first base, behind Gonzalez (.384), Young (.373) and Cabrera (.369).
After Votto there's a group headlined by Pujols' replacement, Lance Berkman, who moves back to the infield after excelling in his first season with the Cardinals. However, the switch-hitting, longtime Astro turns 36 next week and his .301/.412/.547 with 31 home runs will be hard to replicate without the presence of King Albert in the lineup. Then there's Ryan Howard, who's expected to miss at least the first month of the season following surgery for a torn Achilles suffered at home plate on the final out of the NLDS loss to the Cardinals. Injuries such as this are a major concern for someone of Howard's size (6-feet-4, 255 lbs.) and age (32), and there's no telling if he'll be able to bounce back at full speed upon his return to the lineup, if at all this season. His temporary replacements are Ty Wigginton, a quality utility-caliber fantasy player, and long-in-the-tooth Jim Thome, who at best is a sentimental last-round selection.
Down one notch from there is Washington's Michael Morse, who will be the starting left fielder for manager Davey Johnson, but has eligibility remaining from '11. The late bloomer was the NL's biggest surprise at the plate last season, slugging 31 home runs with 95 RBIs despite entering the season with just 28 and 88, respectively, in his previous six seasons. So the jury's out on whether he turned the corner or simply enjoyed a magical season that will be impossible to repeat.
Recognizable names like the rapidly-declining Carlos Lee in Houston, the equally old Aubrey Huff in San Francisco, and the even older Todd Helton in Colorado won't provide first base-quality punch. Neither will uninspiring placeholders Adam LaRoche, who lost most of '11 to a shoulder injury that still bothers him and could be more trouble than the Nationals are letting on, the perennial fantasy flop James Loney of the Dodgers or Pittsburgh's Garrett Jones, who'll give you a .250 average and 20 home runs.
That leaves us with a young group who in two to five years may be in the same class as their current AL counterparts, but for now all remain somewhat of a risk.
• In Atlanta, Freddie Freeman will try to avoid a sophomore slump after a good rookie season (21 HR, 76 RBI, .282/.346/.448).
• Miami's Gaby Sanchez couldn't have been more consistent in his first two big league seasons if he tried, racking up 572 at bats and 72 runs and 19 home runs in each, while collecting 156 and 152 hits plus 85 and 78 RBIs and OPS of .788 and .779 respectively. The addition of Jose Reyes and further maturation of Mike Stanton plus a new ballpark should help those numbers rise.
• The fences were brought in at Citi Field, which will help Mets third-year man Ike Davis, who has yet to enjoy any sort of home field advantage in his young career. Clouding his season is how well he can bounce back from an ankle injury that sidelined him from May on.
• Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt tore up the minors in parts of three seasons, slugging over .600 in each while blasting a home run every 16.7 at bats. After his recall he fit right into the middle of the pack of first basemen, matching Cabrera in home runs, while trailing Gonzalez by one RBI, and Konerko by three. How will that translate over the course of a full major league season is still in question.
• In a lineup desperate for some pop, Brandon Belt struggled as a rookie when given an opportunity to take control of a full-time job for the Giants. The good news is he began to figure things out in September, when he batted .237 with a personal monthly best four home runs and six RBIs. He should improve with some added help in the lineup (Buster Posey, Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan) and, excuse the expression, experience under his belt.
• One of the big acquisitions of the offseason was Yonder Alonso, a former first round pick acquired by the Padres from the Reds for starter Mat Latos. He has yet to develop big power and playing a majority of his games in Petco Park, Dodger Stadium and AT&T Park will help reduce his power numbers even further early in his career.
• Deemed expendable when Alonso was obtained, the Padres dealt Anthony Rizzo to new Cubs boss Theo Epstein, who drafted the strapping (6-3, 220 lbs.) youngster for Boston in 2007. He showed he needs more seasoning by batting just .141 in 153 big league plate appearances last year, so the Cubs job will likely fall to minor league journeyman Bryan LaHair, who mashed 63 home runs with 190 RBIs for the Cubs Triple A affiliate Iowa in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
• And finally, there's another PCL wonder, Mat Gamel, who will be asked to fill the large space vacated by Fielder. A career .304/.376/.498 hitter in the minors, he's shown virtually nothing in limited action at the big league level, bottoming out last year with an ugly .115/.148/.154 line. He'll try to hold off ex-Giant Travis Ishikawa, who didn't make a major league appearance in 2011.
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