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  • Can you win your fantasy league without a star first baseman? Sure, but it's a whole lot harder.
By Michael Beller
February 13, 2018

First base is one of the strongest positions in fantasy baseball, befitting a spot where MLB teams bank on having a run-producer. Year after year, the best first basemen are worthy of first- and second-round fantasy picks, and it’s a position where few, if any, owners struggle to find a worthy starter. Just one person can have Paul Goldschmidt, but if you can’t find a first baseman you’re comfortable starting, you might want to look for a new hobby.

The position isn’t likely to be a problem for any owner, but that doesn’t mean you should just kick back and settle for whoever while prioritizing other positions. In fact, first base may be deep, but in a draft or auction from scratch, it is always going to be one of my highest priorities because of the advantages the players at the top of the position provide. What does making first base a priority look like in 2018? If I have my way, I’ll leave every draft or auction with one of seven first basemen.

Goldschmidt is a superstar, a sure thing, and the No. 3 player on my board. Draft him, and you’re locking in floors of .295/.400/.530, 30 homers, 90 runs, 100 RBI and 18 steals. There’s a good chance no other player in the majors will hit all those thresholds. Next up is Joey Votto, seemingly a robot designed for the purposes of getting on base and driving Chris Russo insane. Votto has reached base in 43% of his career plate appearances, while also hitting 29 homers per 162 games. The man’s a menace to pitchers.

Anthony Rizzo doesn’t have Goldschmidt’s or Votto’s ceiling, but his floor is fringe MVP candidate. Over the last four seasons, he has slashed .282/.387/.522, never falling below a .273 batting average, .385 OBP or .507 slugging percentage. He has hit 32, 31, 32 and 32 homers in those four years, and has at least 101 RBI in each of the last three. Freddie Freeman was like Rizzo with a better hit tool and not quite as much power before exploding for 28 homers in just 514 plate appearances last year. If the power surge was for real, he could be closer to Goldschmidt than he is to Rizzo.

Cody Bellinger rightly won the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year in unanimous fashion after hitting .267/.352/.581 with 39 homers and 97 RBI. It may have been just one season, but Bellinger was Baseball America’s No. 7 prospect before last year, and he cruised through the minors mashing all the way, totaling a .525 slugging percentage. He started out as a 17-year-old, by the way.

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Finally, we come to a couple of underappreciated veterans. The first is Jose Abreu, who, in four MLB seasons, has career lows of .290/.347/.468, 25 homers and 100 RBI. Yes, those are career lows. He’s the most boring .290/.350/.500, 27-homer, 100-RBI expectation you can find. Head on over to the favorite in Abreu’s division, and you’ll find Edwin Encarnacion circling the bases with an invisible parrot on his shoulder, oh, likely at least 35 times this season. Encarnacion is a better bet in OBP leagues (which should be the standard) than batting average leagues, and it’s easy to forget the last time he didn’t slug at least .504 in a season was during Barack Obama’s first term as president. It has been awhile.

That’s it. The seven first basemen I will be chasing in all my leagues. That’s not to say you can’t win with Rhys Hoskins or Wil Myers or Eric Hosmer as your first baseman, but why add the degree of difficulty? The first five are all realistic MVP candidates, while Abreu and Encarnacion have near-zero bust risk. There are potential winning options behind them, but the position takes its first significant drop once those seven are off the board.

Five Big Questions

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1. Can Freddie Freeman do it again?

Yes, I already included Freeman in the intro about first base targets, because his floor is that of a top-five first baseman. By “do it again,” however, I’m asking whether Freeman can find the power stroke he displayed before an errant fastball broke his wrist last May. Before that unfortunate offering from Aaron Loup, Freeman was hitting .341/.461/.748 with 14 homers, on pace to leave the yard 61 times. He returned on the 4th of July, and slashed .292/.375/.515 with 14 more home runs the rest of the way. That’s certainly not bad, but nowhere near the heights he enjoyed before the injury.

Wrist injuries have a way of sapping a hitter’s power, and Freeman was just the latest example of that. What’s more, a Google search of “Freddie Freeman wrist” turns up the sort of stories you don’t want to see, even though they’re six months old. “Freddie Freeman’s wrist weak, but says ‘I’ll take a day off Oct. 2,’” or “Freddie Freeman has ‘got nothing left’ when it comes to power due to ailing wrist.” Freeman needs that wrist to be 100% if he’s going to pick up the power trajectory he was on through the first two months of last season, and we may not know for sure where it is until the regular season begins and he’s taking meaningful at-bats every day.

What we do know is that Freeman fundamentally changed himself as a hitter in 2016. Through 2015, Freeman was one of the most patient hitters in the league. His swing rate in the previous two seasons was less than 50%. His z-swing rate, which measures the frequency with which a hitter swings at pitches in the strike zone, was 79.6% in 2014 and 77.7% the next year. Freeman got strong results with that profile, but the possibility that he was letting too many good pitches go by lingered.

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In 2016, Freeman’s swing rate jumped to 52.6%, on the back of an 80.7% z-swing rate. That year, he set what were then career highs in fly-ball rate (40.5%) and isolated slugging percentage (.267). The trend continued last year, when Freeman swung at 52.9% of the pitches he saw, including 84.2% of those in the strike zone. Freeman’s fly-ball rate ticked up to 40.6%, while his ISO increased to .280. In both seasons, one-fifth of his fly balls sailed over the fences. His previous career high in HR/FB ratio was 15.8%.

Freeman changed himself at the plate to get more out of his natural power, with excellent results. If his wrist is healthy, he’ll be one of the truly elite hitters in the league this season.

2. Can Miguel Cabrera still roar?

Cabrera’s 2017 demise was equal parts shocking and sad, a brutal reminder that time remains undefeated. He spent his entire career in the league as one of the best pure hitters of his generation, mounting an unbroken 14-year streak of terrorizing pitchers. You don’t have to reach far back in the memory bank to find an MVP-caliber season from Cabrera. In 2016, he hit .316/.393/.563 with 38 homers and 108 RBI. He seemed to be aging as gracefully as any superstar could hope to do, which made last season so hard to understand.

Cabrera set career lows across the board in 2017, slashing .249/.329/.399 with 16 homers and 60 RBI. The only other time he even approached such poor counting stats was in 2015 when he hit 18 homers and drove in 76 runs, but that was in just 119 games. Oh yeah, he also hit .338/.440/.538 that season. It’s impossible to overstate just how sharp Cabrera’s decline was last season. The year before, he looked like an MVP. He won the AL batting title in four of the previous six seasons, had an OBP north of .390 in seven of the previous eight seasons, and belted at least 30 homers in all but two of the previous 11 seasons. The last time we saw a superstar fall this far this fast in any sport was in Peyton Manning’s final season in the NFL.

So, what do we make of Cabrera the year after the fall? The good news is that his peripherals from previous seasons were largely intact. He had a 42.5% hard-hit rate, higher than it was the previous two seasons, and better than his career mark of 39.4%. His fly-ball rate was down, but not because he hit more ground balls. His ground-ball rate was in line with career norms, but his line-drive rate spiked to 27.3%, a career high. None of that jibes with a .292 BABIP, by far a career low. Cabrera’s previous career-worst BABIP was .310, set back in 2008, and his career BABIP is .344. There was plenty of bad luck in Cabrera’s slash line last season. His injury history is always a factor, but Cabrera did not, in actuality, fall off a cliff in 2017.

Cabrera may no longer be a 30-homer threat, and the Tigers are going through a rebuild that looted the lineup of J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler. In other words, the RBI opportunities that once existed are gone. Still, Cabrera has the look of a backend starter at first base, and the All-Star ceiling remains. For the first time in his career, no one will fight you for him. If you miss out on the top seven, make sure his name is starred on your cheat sheet. There’s still some roar left in Detroit.

3. What should we expect from Rhys Hoskins in year two?

Hoskins mashed his way through a 50-game rookie season, drilling 18 homers in 212 plate appearances. Extrapolate that over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, about 600, and you get 51 roundtrippers. That’s not bad for a 24-year-old who hadn’t played above Double-A ball before 2017.

Hoskins is going to be a hot commodity around draft tables this season. He’s the No. 8 first baseman by consensus ranking on FantasyPros, behind the seven highlighted in the intro, though his average draft position is slightly higher than Edwin Encarnacion’s. The first real ADP dip happens right after him and Encarnacion, with the No. 9 first baseman, Wil Myers, coming off the board about 25 picks later in a typical draft.

If there’s one thing we know for sure about Hoskins, it’s that the power is legit. He hit 29 homers in 475 plate appearances at Triple-A Lehigh Valley last season before getting the call, and 38 bombs with Double-A Reading in 2016. Hoskins is going to circle the bases plenty of times this season. That, alone, gives him the foundation to be an easy starter at first base. Just like real teams, fantasy teams want power from the first baseman, and Hoskins will provide.

The fantasy baseball community has to expect some significant rate decline, however. Hoskins posted a .396 OBP, thanks largely to a 17.5% walk rate. Four players—Joey Votto, Aaron Judge, Mike Trout and Matt Carpenter—put up a 17.5% or better walk rate last season. Votto and Carpenter were first and second in o-swing rate, the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone a hitter swings at, while Trout was fourth. Hoskins would have been 19th if he had enough plate appearances to qualify, and, chances are, as pitchers see more of him, they’ll find more ways to attack him.

In short, Hoskins is a worthy No. 9 or 10 first baseman, but his overall ADP of 46.36 is way too high. He’s coming off the board ahead of Marcell Ozuna, Encarnacion, Justin Upton and Nelson Cruz. That’s ridiculous, even while granting him a floor of 30 to 35 homers. This, too, reinforces why you want to go after one of those top-seven first basemen, if you can. If you miss out, you might talk yourself into one of this season’s high-risk, high-reward players at a spot where a risk gone wrong can really cost you.

Rich Schultz / Getty Images

4. Are you buying Matt Olson?

Hoskins got all the attention, but in the other league and on the opposite coast, Olson had a nearly identical season. He played 59 games with the A’s last year, hitting .259/.352/.651 with 24 homers in 216 plate appearances. Olson didn’t walk as frequently as Hoksins, though his 10.2% walk rate was solid and, just as importantly, sustainable. He struck out in nearly 28% of his plate appearances, but still managed a .411 wOBA. In other words, Olson looks like the affordable Hoskins.

Olson doesn’t have quite the minor league track record of Hoskins. Olson spent 79 games at Triple-A Nashville last season, hitting .272/.367/.568 with 23 homers in 343 plate appearances. He was with Nashville for all of 2016, as well, slashing .235/.335/.422 with 17 homers. That growth is something on which he can hang his hat. So, too, is the fact that this is just his age-23 season, and he has the pedigree of a high pick, going in the sandwich round as the 47th overall selection back in 2012. Olson should give A’s fans something to be excited about heading into the season.

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If I had to bet on one of these two taking another step this year, my money is on Olson. The fact that I can get him in the 10th round of a 12-team draft or late in the ninth round of a 14-team league makes the decision even easier. If my plans to nab one of the top seven players at first base do not come to fruition, Olson will have a big circle around his name on my cheat sheet.

5. Who should I target if I’m one of the last people in my league to grab a first baseman?

You mean other than Olson? Well, if you’re going to go cheap, than you should go as cheap as possible without totally sacrificing the position. With that in mind, one guy jumps right out at me.

Justin Bour has to feel like the only one of his friends not invited to the party. Giancarlo Stanton is in New York. Christian Yelich is in Milwaukee. Marcell Ozuna is in St. Louis. Dee Gordon is in Seattle. Meanwhile, Bour is left behind in Miami to fend for himself on what looks like a guaranteed 100-loss team. Don’t let that cloud the fact that Bour was a big part of why the Marlins had such a sneaky fun offense last season.

Bour was a quietly effective fantasy player all season, until an oblique injury suffered at the end of July cost him more than two months. He finished the season with a .289/.366/.536 slash line, 25 homers and 83 RBI. All those RBI opportunities left town with Stanton, Yelich, Ozuna and Gordon, but Bour’s underlying skill set is still there. He’s a career .273/.346/.489 hitter, with a 21.2% strikeout rate and 10% walk rate. That’s something we can work with, especially with an ADP of 189.83.

Even if Bour regresses to career norms in batting average and OBP, he’ll give you, at worst, average numbers for a fantasy starter at first base. He also feels like one of the cheapest sources of 30 homers in all fantasy leagues this season. There’s a reason he’s the 20th first basemen off the board in a typical draft. He’s not perfect, and the lineup around him could really hurt his value. Still, if you find yourself in this position, Bour can be your salvation.

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