Below are my pre-season top 16 first baseman rankings:
- Joey Votto, CIN
- Prince Fielder, MIL
- Albert Pujols, LAA
- Edwin Encarnacion, TOR
- Adrian Gonzalez, LAD
- Allen Craig, STL
- Billy Butler, KC
- Eric Hosmer, KC
- Ike Davis, NYM
- Paul Goldschmidt, ARI
- Freddie Freeman, ATL
- Adam LaRoche, WSH
- Nick Swisher, CLE
- Mark Trumbo, LAA
- Anthony Rizzo, CHC
- Paul Konerko, CHW
- There’s been a lot of concern from fantasy owners about Joey Votto's lack of power after missing nearly two months of the 2012 season with two knee surgeries. However, even though he missed two months of the season he still had a career high in doubles, which tells me he has more power than the 14 home runs he ended the year with. Also, he’s almost a shoe-in for a .310+ batting average, which allows more freedom with roster construction.
- I have one number for you: 160; that’s the average number of games Prince Fielder has averaged over his entire career. His power may no longer be elite; you may be surprised that he only hit 30 home runs last year; he’s never hurt and is one of the safest players in fantasy. Also, Victor Martinez replaces the free swinging Delmon Young in the fifth spot in the batting order, so Fielder could score 100+ runs.
- The slow start of Albert Pujols' 2012 season was well documented, but his return to being Albert Pujols in big capital letters went under the radar. It’s possible the cause of his slow start was due to pressing to impress his new team, but that doesn’t erase the fact his offensive numbers have been in decline the past three seasons. He had all-time lows in walk percentage, home runs, slugging and OPS in 2012 as well as striking more than ever did. Also, his AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS have dropped year over year for the past four seasons.
- Two years removed from wrist surgery and finally healthy, Edwin Encarnacion had a career year posting 42 home runs and 110 RBIs. Instead of hitting behind Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus, he’ll be hitting behind of Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera in 2013. He had a career high in his HR/FB rate (24.5%) so it’s more likely he regresses to 32-35 home runs. Fantasy owners should expect 6 stolen bases; anything more is gravy.
- In an extremely small sample size (36 games) Adrian Gonzalez hit.297/.344/.441 for the Dodgers showing the MVP skill set was still there. It’s possible the discomfort in his surgically-repaired shoulder was the culprit for the lack of power last year; he posted a career low HR/FB rate of 12.2%. If he slips to the end of the fourth round of drafts I will gladly take the upside.
- The biggest question about Allen Craig has never been about his skill set, but about his ability to play a full season. In the last two seasons he’s only totaled 773 plate appearances. With those appearances he’s been extremely productive; his .532 SLG the past two years ranks him 14th among hitters with 700+ plate appearances. Craig enters the year as the full time first baseman, which should give him a better opportunity to stay healthy.
- Like Prince Fielder, Billy Butler has been very healthy his entire career, averaging 159 games played the past four years. It should be noted that he only played 20 games at first last season, as he is primarily a DH. His HR/FB rate of 20.6% is probably unsustainable, but during the second half of the 2011 season Butler began swinging at more pitches and becoming more aggressive at the plate. The trend continued in 2012 as he set career highs in home runs and RBI. He’s entering his prime and could be in line for breakout in 2013.
- Prior to his rookie debut in 2010, every scout and publication hailed Eric Hosmer as the next super star. After a solid rookie year, the hype around him before 2012 drafts were immense, so large that he was the 53rd player taken off the board in ESPN leagues. In 2013, he should reach his level. Draft him as a first baseman whose floor is a .280 batting average, 20 home runs, 80+/80+ (RBI/runs) with double digit steals.
- Ike Davis' low batting average was the result of an extremely low .246 BABIP and his inability to hit left handed pitching. For his career, his slash line against lefties is .217/.281/.361. What’s more discouraging is his walk rate has decreased for the third year in a row. However, what’s encouraging is his ground ball rate has decreased during the past three years as well. Since he strikes out 20% of the time, the batting average will be BABIP dependent; I believe he turns into a great fantasy sleeper; hitting .255, 29-35 home runs with 90+/90+ (RBI/runs).
- Most of Paul Goldschmidt's fantasy value came from (surprisingly) his 18 SBs. He’s a well below average runner (30-35 on the 20-80 scouting scale) and I can’t see him coming close to the 18 again. If he doesn’t steal 18 bases, he’s more a top 20 than a top 10 first baseman. Power is necessary when drafting a first baseman; I’ll be surprised if he hits more than 25 home runs, which puts him at a disadvantage amongst his colleagues. Goldschmidt’s value is team dependent; he’s a great fit for teams already with a lot of power, but he’s a poor fit if he’s on a team devoid of power.
- In 2012, despite a lower batting average, Freddie Freeman’s slugging and walk percentages increased, which tells me he’s making the necessary adjustments to become a better hitter. His plate coverage and bat speed points to a .300 batting average. Fantasy owners expecting 28+ home runs will be disappointed, but 25 is certainly reasonable.
- Prior to the 2011 season Adam LaRoche was the fantasy version of an old Toyota; not sexy, consistent and predictable. However, a shoulder injury put him out for 75% of the season. In 2012, he rewarded fantasy owners with career highs in home runs. His 21.8% HR/FB rate should come back down to his career average of 18%, but that will only take away couple of home runs. He’s expected to bat cleanup so another year of 25 home runs, 95+ RBI with a .265+ batting average is almost as good as money in the bank.
- Nick Swisher is a very consistent and underrated hitter who has avoided major injuries. A slight decline in power is expected as he’s leaving one of the best ballparks for power to an average ballpark in Cleveland. In the past three seasons 80% of his power came while batting left-handed. Cleveland’s ballpark is seventh best ballpark for left-handed hitters, compared to Yankee Stadium ranking second. He’s not a sexy player, but he can definitely help your fantasy team.
- After the Angels traded Kendrys Morales for Jason Vargas, Mark Trumbo became the full time DH and will bat fifth behind Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Trumbo’s season was a tale of two halves. The first half his slash line was .302/.358/.608 and his second half slash line was .227/.271/.359. He has the raw power, but a poor approach (striking out 26% of the time) will limit the potential for batting average. On the bright side his walk percentage increased two percentage points, showing he’s making some adjustments to his approach. He would be the perfect complement to a Eric Hosmer or a Paul Goldschmidt.
- During his first partial season in the majors (with the San Diego Padres) Anthony Rizzo clearly looked overmatched and it showed, striking out 30% of the time. He was acquired by the Cubs in January 2012 and started the season in Triple-A. He made a number of adjustments, specifically reducing the length in his swing, reducing his strike out rate 44% and increased contact his contact rate 17.5%. His fantasy potential is immense, but he has a long way to go before reaching that potential.
- For the first time in three seasons Paul Konerko posted an OPS less than .900. His low ranking is not a function of declining skill set, but more of a concern of the player who bats in front of him in the order: Adam Dunn. Dunn is a three-outcome player; he either walks, strikes out or hits a home run. A player like Dunn limits Konerko’s ability to drive in runs. Among all players with at least 300 at-bats, Konerko ranked 60th in plate appearances with runners on base, one spot ahead of Jeff Francouer. I’ve had Konerko every year for the past three seasons, but this year he won’t be on any of my teams because the upside is no longer there.
Overall Draft Strategy
For the first time in a long time the gap between the top three and the 10th first baseman is not that wide. With home runs becoming even more of a premium, first base is a position where fantasy owners must get that power. Other than Fielder, every player in the top 5 has huge question marks; that is why I recommend waiting until the middle rounds to get your first baseman.