Fantasy baseball position primer: Can you get value out of first base's middle tier?

1:28 | MLB
Fantasy Baseball: Top picks for the 2017 season
Thursday March 9th, 2017

First base, long a bedrock of production in the fantasy game, is undergoing a bit of an existential crisis. There is still plenty of star power at the position in the form of Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto and Edwin Encarnacion. Freddie Freeman is coming off the best year of his career, and most fantasy owners can opt for Kris Bryant at first. If you invest an early pick or significant resources in the position, you will not be disappointed.

After those seven players, however, there are more questions than answers. Jose Abreu had a big second half last year, but his tepid first half brings into question his ability to be a consistent top-tier player. Chris Davis has obvious charms and just-as-obvious drawbacks. Wil Myers exploded back onto the scene last season, but now he must prove he can do it again. Eric Hosmer is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none fantasy option. Then there are the ersatz first basemen, like Daniel Murphy, Matt Carpenter and Buster Posey; they qualify at the position, but using them there seems like a losing proposition.

In other words, if you miss out on the top seven players at the position, you might feel like you’re chasing at a spot where most owners count on getting All-Star production. That makes addressing it, no matter when you do, a key part of your draft-day strategy.

Before you get too concerned, there is still a lot of value to go around at this position. You don't have to talk yourself into a player like Abreu, who slashed .293/.353/.468 with 25 homers and 100 RBIs last year. Davis will strike out a ton, but he’s a good bet to approach or surpass 40 homers and 100 RBIs, and he’s not even a rate drag in OBP leagues. Hosmer may be boring, but his 162-game average over his six-year career translates to .277/.335/.428 with 19 homers, 86 RBIs, 82 runs and 10 steals. The middle of the position isn't a wasteland; it just is significantly worse—and far more risky—than the top two tiers.

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In my perfect world, I’d end up with one of the players I view as a traditional masher at first base. There’s a reason why the top seven all have top-27 ADPs and the next first baseman, Myers, doesn’t come off the board until late in the fifth round of a 12-team league on average. The same goes for FantasyPros consensus rankings, where Bryant (fourth), Goldschmidt (sixth), Rizzo (11th), Cabrera (12th), Votto (18th), Encarnacion (24th) and Freeman (27th) are all viewed as top-30 picks. The next players at the position, Abreu and Myers, have higher rankings than their ADPs, but even those translate to the end of the fourth round. There’s a clear dropoff, and I want to be at the position’s summit.

It’s entirely possible for that not to work out and to feel good about your team through three rounds. For example, let’s say you have the seventh pick in your draft. Bryant and Goldschmidt are gone, and you’d rather have Nolan Arenado than Rizzo or Cabrera. By time your second pick comes around, Rizzo and Cabrera are off the board, so you opt for Carlos Correa over Votto. When the draft gets back to you in the third round, Votto, Encarnacion and Freeman have all been snatched up, leaving you to go for someone like A.J. Pollock. There is nothing wrong with missing out on the stars at first base, but you will need a bulletproof plan in place for attacking the middle of the position. Passing on that group is when fantasy owners get into trouble.

POSITION PRIMERS: C | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP

Five Big Questions

1. Who’s the real Jose Abreu?

Abreu entered last season with something to prove. After running away with the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finishing fourth in MVP voting in 2014, he took a slight step back in his second season, hitting .290/.347/.502 with 30 homers and 101 RBIs in 2015, then fell apart in last year's first half, hitting just .272/.326/.430 with 11 homers. Luckily for the White Sox, he turned it around in the second half, slashing .319/.384/.514 with 14 jacks and 48 RBIs in 315 plate appearances. Extrapolated over a full season, that translates to a 31-homer and 106-RBI pace.

Don't put too much weight into that sluggish first half: Abreu is one of the biggest bargains in fantasy baseball this season. His second-half numbers—what we’ve already discussed as well as his strikeout rate, line-drive rate, hard-hit rate and home-run-to-fly-ball ratio—were either right in line with or better than what he did his first two years in the league. That’s the real Abreu, and yet the fantasy community is treating him like he’s a mix of the two players we saw last season. He’s a second- or third-round first baseman at a fifth-round price.

2. Can Wil Myers give the fantasy community a worthy encore?

Last year, three players cleared thresholds of 25 homers, 25 steals, 90 runs and 90 RBIs. The first two were Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who will be the first two picks in most fantasy drafts this season. The third was Myers. The post-hype prodigal son hit 28 homers, swiped the same number of bags, scored 99 runs and drove in 94 more. After being written off by most of the league, Myers was an All-Star and the 41st-ranked player in standard 5x5 leagues. Entering his age-26 season, the former top prospect and 2013 AL Rookie of the Year will be expected to maintain that status for the next four or five years.

But while the optimism is justified, a few red flags jump out when examining Myers’s breakout season. First, he went in the tank in the second half, slashing .223/.316/.381 with nine homers. After playing a combined 147 games in 2014 and '15 and never playing more than 88 games in a season, Myers played 157 and racked up 676 plate appearances last season. It’s entirely possible that he just ran out of steam after the All-Star break, but his ability to remain productive for six months is still up for debate.

The other issue has nothing to do with Myers the player and everything to do with draft-day value. Myers may be realizing the potential he always had, and the obvious changes he has made to his swing and approach support that. Still, we’ve seen just one strong, full season for him, and he did most of his damage over a half-season sample. We have little track record to go on, and that’s concerning when you likely have to pass on Abreu—as well as players like Christian Yelich, Gregory Polanco and Carlos Carrasco—to secure Myers’s services. This is not a call to avoid Myers, but rather one to understand the risks associated with him.

3. Is there another gear for Anthony Rizzo?

Over the last three seasons, few players have been as steadily great as Rizzo. He has made three straight All-Star teams, hitting .285/.386/.527 with an average of 32 homers, 96 RBIs and 92 runs per season. His year-over-year consistency is something to behold.

2014: .286/.386/.527, 32 HR, 78 RBIs, 89 R
2015: .278/.387/.512, 31 HR, 101 RBIs, 94 R
2016: .292/.385/.544, 32 HR, 109 RBIs, 94 R

Save for 2014’s RBI totals, when the Cubs were still a year away from being competitive and finished 26th in the league in runs, it’s nearly impossible to tell those three seasons apart. Rizzo’s freakish consistency goes one step further. Let’s take a look at his pertinent advanced stats.

2014: 18.8 K%, 11.9 BB%, .240 ISO, .311 BABIP, .397 wOBA, 18.8% HR/FB
2015: 15.0 K%, 11.1 BB%, .234 ISO, .289 BABIP, .384 wOBA, 14.6% HR/FB
2016: 16.0 K%, 10.9 BB%, .252 ISO, .309 BABIP, .391 wOBA, 16.2% HR/FB

Those metrics, by their nature, are harder than typical counting stats to repeat exactly, and Rizzo came realistically close to doing so over a three-year sample in which he played 455 games and totaled nearly 2,000 plate appearances. His elite production coupled with his high-level consistency has turned him into one of the best fantasy and real-life players in the league. But would fantasy owners be greedy if they wondered whether Rizzo had another level in him?

Rizzo is entering his age-27 season, which is generally viewed as the start of a baseball player’s physical prime. He is in the middle of arguably the best lineup in baseball, and he has always shown a deftness for making necessary adjustments, a demonstrated skill that has served him well during his career. If Rizzo is still getting better, it’s not a stretch to think that he could squeeze more statistical goodness out of the 2017 season. It’s also more than a little ambitious.

Rizzo is 15th in the majors in plate appearances over the last three seasons. He’s fifth in weighted on-base average (wOBA), trailing only Trout, Votto, Goldschmidt and Cabrera. It’s safe to say he has maxed out not only what he can do, but also what any mortal playing baseball can do. To expect him to hit .320 or belt 40 homers is foolish, especially given that he has such a tailored, cerebral approach, similar to what we’ve seen from Votto for his entire career. Rizzo is who he is, and that’s a perennial MVP candidate. His owners will be just fine if 2017 falls right in line with his previous three seasons.

4. Is Carlos Santana a consistent 30-homer player?

In an incredible season for the Indians, Santana had the best year of his career, hitting .259/.366/.498 with a career-high 34 homers, 87 RBIs and 89 runs scored. With Michael Brantley on the shelf all year, Santana stepped up alongside Francisco Lindor as one of the team’s two best hitters from start to finish.

I fully believe that we are set for a Cubs-Indians World Series rematch in 2017, and if that happens, we know Santana will be a big factor in getting the Indians back. But for a player who will turn 31 the first week of the season, is his best behind him, or can he follow up the first 30-homer season of his career with his second?

Santana didn't just set a new career mark in the home run department. He also cleared his previous personal bests in home-run-to-fly-ball rate (16.9%), hard-hit rate (36.3%) and isolated slugging percentage (.239). Whenever a player makes gains like that, you want to see if he has changed anything at the plate. Compare one at-bat from 2016 to one from '15, and it’s clear Santana did.

Here’s 2016:

And here’s 2015:

Santana’s previous timing mechanism for his lower half was a medium-sized leg kick. Last year, he changed that to a toe tap. Can we say with absolute certainty it was responsible for his career year? No, but whenever you can point to a substantive change, you have more to go on than just the vagaries of the game smiling on a player in a given year. I’m not betting on Santana to hit 30 homers again this season, but I have reason to believe he’s better equipped to do it than he was before the change to his lower half. Couple that with a lineup around him that includes Lindor, Encarnacion, Jason Kipnis and Jose Ramirez, and Santana looks like another one of this position’s greatest bargains.

5. Does Hanley Ramirez’s career have one last act?

Lost in the shuffle of David Ortiz’s retirement tour and Betts’s run at the AL MVP award was the resurgence of Ramirez. The former star hit .286/.361/.505 with 30 homers and 111 RBIs, his best season since he was 26 years old and with the Marlins. Now 33, can Ramirez replace Ortiz as the fearsome bat in the middle of Boston’s order, or was last year also his last hurrah?

Even if Ramirez can’t live all the way up to his 2016 numbers, I think he’s a good bet to be a top-10 fantasy first baseman and push what he accomplished last year. Ramirez was a monster in the second half, slashing .286/.382/.558 in July, .306/.362/.600 in August and .307/.391/.653 in September. Remember, too, that he was ripping the cover off the ball early in 2015, hitting .283/.340/.609 with 10 homers in 103 plate appearances from Opening Day through a game in which he hurt his left shoulder running into a wall at Fenway Park. Not only is the left arm the power arm for a righthanded hitter, but Ramirez also previously had two surgeries on the same shoulder. It’s no wonder he wasn’t the same for the rest of the season.

In four of his last seven healthy months, Ramirez has posted an OPS of .940 or better. The fantasy community has taken notice, evidenced by a FantasyPros consensus ranking of 65 and an NFBC ADP of 82.21. That doesn’t leave much room for profit. Still, we kicked off this primer talking about needing a plan for the middle of the position if you miss out on the top two tiers. Ramirez as a pick late in the seventh round would satisfy successful execution of a winning plan.

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