If there's one position in fantasy baseball with the most penthouse dwellers, first base is it. Six players at the position could go in the first round, and three—Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Abreu—should be off the board within the first seven or eight picks of most drafts. Throw in Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Rizzo and Jose Bautista (whose 12 games played at first last year makes him eligible at first in most formats), and no other position, save the wildly deep outfield and starting pitcher spots, can come close to matching first base in star power.
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That is not to say that this position isn't deep, as well. Outfield and starting pitcher are always going to be the deepest positions in fantasy baseball simply by their nature. But relative to the number of players at the position and starting positions allocated, first base is, for all intents and purposes, just as deep. By average draft position, Prince Fielder ranks ninth, and Joey Votto ranks 12th. Both players were stars as recently as 2013 and could easily bounce back this season. Chris Carter, who hit 37 homers last year and 29 in '13, checks in at 13th by ADP. Players like Adam LaRoche, Matt Adams, Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce, all of whom have their virtues, fall in the 15-to-21 range. If you can't find yourself an acceptable fantasy first baseman, this whole thing might not be for you.
The fact that you can get Albert Pujols or Adrian Gonzalez or Fielder or Votto or Chris Davis in your league's middle-to-late-middle rounds might convince you that you can afford to wait on the position. While it's certainly possible—hey, half of your league isn't going to have a choice—this should be a priority position for all fantasy owners. If I had my druthers, I'd be coming out of all my drafts and auctions with at least one of the six potential first-rounders at the position.
One of the recurring themes of our fantasy baseball preview is that power is at a premium this year. Just 11 players hit 30 home runs last year; four of them are part of our six-pack listed above, and the two who didn't were Cabrera and Goldschmidt. Most people would rank them first and second, in some order, heading into the season. Moreover, Steamer projects that just 10 hitters will reach the 30-homer threshold this season. You can probably guess who six of the 10 are. For sake of full disclosure, the other four are Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout and two more first basemen, Carter and Davis. As always, this first base is a position rife with power, but the super six are as close as it gets to guaranteed 30-homer seasons.
The fun doesn't stop there. Steamer projects all of them to be in the top 12 in RBIs and top 20 in runs scored. Clearly, the model doesn't love Abreu's teammates on the South Side of Chicago, because he's an outlier, on the bad side, in both of these categories. According to Steamer, the other five will all be in the top 10 in RBIs and runs. These six players are bound to be counting-stat machines. In fact, Steamer projects the sextet to average 33 homers, 96 RBIs and 91 runs. Put another way, Steamer would project the average of these six players to finish fourth in the majors in homers and fifth in RBIs and runs.
Consider the players you'll be going after if you miss out on this group. Freddie Freeman is going to hit for a high average and take a ton of walks, but he's never going to measure up in the power department. He could also see one or two pitches to hit per game with the lineup around him in Atlanta. Pujols is 35 years old, and his power is waning. Adrian Gonzalez is a steady second-tier performer, and nothing more. Fielder was already one of the biggest busts before his injury, and remember that his negative trends started in 2013. Davis hit .196 last season. Injuries have limited Votto in two of the last three seasons, and his approach, while great for the Reds, is always going to keep his RBIs total down; his owners would be happy with even 20 homers. It's definitely possible to win with one of these guys as your starting first baseman, but why add the degree of difficulty?
The early rounds in fantasy drafts, no matter the sport, are about locking in high floors. Hitters are far more predictable than pitchers in fantasy baseball, and that's why you want to take more risks with the latter, while being safer with the former. All six of these players have very high floors, which says nothing of their ceilings, given that no one would be surprised if any of these guys added an MVP award to their mantle at the end of the season. There's a slightly higher injury risk with Bautista and Encarnacion than an average player, but not nearly enough to back off of them at their expected draft-day prices. Few players can so predictably be the foundation for a winning fantasy team and dominant offense. The top six first basemen all fit that bill.
Breakout: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
This space is typically reserved for a player in the back-half of a position's starting class who will jump up a tier or two this season. No one fits at first base, so how about a player who the fantasy community already views as a star, but looks ready to take the next step toward elite overall player.
Rizzo had a monster 2014, hitting .286/.386/.527 with 32 homers in 616 plate appearances. All his numbers trended in the right direction, with his HR/FB ratio landing at 18.8 percent, his isolated slugging at .240, and his BABIP at an easily sustainable .311. Perhaps most importantly, after struggling against lefties early on in his career, he slashed .300/.421/.507 against them last season. At 25 years old, Rizzo is an elder statesman on the Cubs, but he's still a few years away from his theoretical prime. In other words, there's a strong chance he's only getting better. This will be the last year you can get him outside the first round of a typical draft.
Sleeper: Brandon Moss, Cleveland Indians
From 2012 through 2014, Moss hit 76 home runs in 376 games. That comes out to just shy of 33 homers for every 162 games. Recall, too, that he did this in one of the league's worst parks for lefthanded power hitters. According to Fangraphs' park factors, the O.co Coliseum suppressed lefthanded homers by 12%, making it the third-hardest park for a lefty to clear the fences. Moss' new home, Progressive Field, boosted lefthanded homers by 9%, tied for the sixth-highest bump. Moss projects as Cleveland's starting rightfielder, and between that, first base and DH, he should get a starter's complement of plate appearances. A return to the 30-homer plateau is well within his reach.
Deep sleeper: Adam Lind, Milwaukee Brewers
Lind joined the Brewers this offseason after spending his entire professional career to this point with the Blue Jays, and it's possible he could not have found a better home for his talents. He'll be the team's starting first baseman on Opening Day, likely slotting sixth in the lineup behind Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez. Each of those players as a career OBP of at least .343, so Lind should have more than his fair share of RBI opportunities. Miller Park boosted left-handed homers by 11 percent last year, the fifth-highest rate in the majors. Lind, who has always hit for power and has a career HR/FB ratio of 14.9 percent, should be right at home in Milwaukee.
Bust: Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels
Pujols rebounded from a terrible 2013 season last year, hitting .272/.324/.466 with 28 homers and 105 RBIs and, most importantly of all, staying healthy all season. Still, it's clear Father Time is catching up with him. His HR/FB ratio has been 14 percent or worse in all three of his seasons with the Angels; it was lower than 18 percent just once in his 11 prior seasons. His average fly ball distance fell all the way to 273.97 feet, and his average true home run distance continued to hover in the low-400s.
There's a significant risk that Pujols doesn't perform up to his 52.1 average draft position, and almost no chance he turns a profit on that ADP. If I weren't already set at first base at that point of a draft or auction, I'd rather get Prince Fielder, Chris Davis or Joey Votto at their cheaper prices.
Prospect: Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates
Bell probably won't make it to the majors this year, but the pickings are slim and he is the best first base prospect currently in the minors. The Pirates drafted him as an outfielder, but there aren't going to be any vacancies in their outfield for, oh, let's say, 10 years or so. With Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco ensconced in the outfield, the Pirates moved Bell to first base at High A Bradenton and Double A Altoona last year. He hit a combined .325/.375/.459 with 465 plate appearances.
Bell is expected to be at Triple A Indianapolis this season and, if all goes well, will be the Pirates' starting first baseman on Opening Day in 2016. Those of you with minor league taxi rosters would be wise to have his name on your cheat sheet on draft day.
Early first baseman rankings
- Paul Goldschmidt
- Jose Abreu
- Miguel Cabrera
- Anthony Rizzo
- Edwin Encarnacion
- Jose Bautista
- Freddie Freeman
- Adrian Gonzalez
- Victor Martinez
- Buster Posey
- Prince Fielder
- Joey Votto
- David Ortiz
- Chris Davis
- Todd Frazier
- Albert Pujols
- Jonathan Lucroy
- Brandon Moss
- Chris Carter
- Mark Trumbo
- Carlos Santana
- Adam LaRoche
- Lucas Duda
- Matt Adams
- Mike Napoli
- Eric Hosmer
- Justin Morneau
- Joe Mauer
- Adam Lind
- Steve Pearce
- Michael Cuddyer
- Brandon Belt
- Brian McCann
- Billy Butler
- Michael Morse
- Lonnie Chisenhall
- Mark Teixeira
- Yasmani Grandal
- Pedro Alvarez
- Allen Craig