Sunday, March 22, 2009

Through the Wardrobe—A Fantastic Look at the First Basemen

With the catchers out of the way, I started looking ahead at the rest of the positions from a fantasy perspective and one thing became immediately clear—there is no way in hell I can write as much analysis for every draftable player at each position as I did for the backstops.

None. I'd be writing until Major League Baseball's All-Star break.

Take, for instance, this article's focus—first basemen.

In 2008, 24 of the top 200 fantasy players (according to Yahoo) were either first basemen or will qualify at the spot in 2009. By comparison, only six players rocking the Tools of Ignorance boast the same credentials.

Kelly Shoppach is being taken, on average in Yahoo drafts, with the lowest pick of any catcher I wrote up (240th). If I extended the list out to that pick for the first sackers, it would be three times as long.

I don't want to write that and nobody wants to read it.

Instead, I'll be trying to give equal treatment to each tier from now on and the analysis will get substantially less-detailed after the first couple of tiers. That might sound lazy and, to some degree, it is.

However, it also makes a bit o' sense since tier three players and below are relatively unpredictable. Guys in those levels either were once elite and in decline or they're young and full of potential. Either set could easily be an albatross you're dropping after the first month or become a fantasy stalwart.

There's just no way to tell even with all the metrics and probabilistic analysis in the world, regardless of what some Bill-James-wannabe will tell you. There are just too many intangible variables to consider to make any predictions (that I've come across) more accurate than a 50/50 stab.

So, rather than give you a false sense of security by raving about some flier I'm fond of for some inane reason, I'll give you the quick pertinent facts as I see 'em and move on. Any fantasy player is just as qualified as I am to discover some late round gem.

After all, if you're taking someone with the 240th pick, that's the 20th round or later in most drafts. All bets are off in that twilight.

Having disposed of that little administrative matter, here's the next group...


Not much needs to be said about the approach to these guys—draft 'em early and draft 'em often.

A lot of fantasy's biggest studs can be found under this heading and, since most leagues have at least one Utility spot in addition to all the standard positions, having a couple of these big sticks is usually a pretty good way to go.

Even if your league foregoes the extra spot, some of the guys have multi-positional eligibility. You can grab a guy like, say, Miguel Cabrera early and use him for his third base flexibilities while still nabbing another high-end first basemen a little bit later.

Thusly, you can use the talent depth at first to compensate for the shallow pool at third base.

One last caveat—first base is a power spot. Don't waste your energy trying to find that perfect guy who's gonna launch 30+ big flies while peppering to the tune of .300. Obviously, if you can lock him in, go for it.

But most fantasy teams will need power from this spot. There are lots of Punch-and-Judy hitters available in the late rounds and even via the wire after the draft. That's not usually true of legit power bats.

So don't worry about Ryan Howard's low batting average—you can grab an average/on-base percentage guy down the road to compensate for it if necessary.

On with it:


1. Albert Pujols, St. Louis, Cardinals—100 runs, 37 HRs, 116 RBI, 7 SBs, .357 average

Only seven steals? What a stiff.

In case this is your first fantasy go around, Pujols actually slid down a lot of draft boards in 2008 because of an elbow injury. In other words, those numbers could actually see a jump after offseason surgery to repair some sort of nerve problem.

Not to mention the breakout season had by Ryan Ludwick. Pujols should benefit from a more confident Ludwick as well as another year of experience on Rick Ankiel, Skip Schumaker, and the possible arrival (finally) of Colby Rasmus.

I don't know if Albert is actually the 29 years of age his profile lists, but he's clearly still in the prime of his career and feeling healthy (despite a Spring Training kick to the head) entering the 2009 campaign.

This hombre is so good, there isn't much fuss made over his last name rhyming with a part of animal anatomy. Considering how juvenile most MLB fans are (myself included), that might be the most profound endorsement of the man yet.

He's your No. 1 pick unless you happen to hate the Cardinals or believe the third base position is even thinner than the general consensus. Albert Pujols really should have a tier all to himself.

2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers—85 runs, 37 HRs, 127 RBI, 1 SB, .292 average

There are several guys I'd consider taking if I had the first pick and Cabrera's one of 'em.

In Yahoo leagues, Miguel has third base eligibility as well and the hot corner was slim before Alex Rodriguez went down. Combine that with his production from 2008 and it makes him a candidate to be the first name off the board.

But Cabrera's intoxicating for another reason—he'll be 26 in April and '08 was his first year in the American League.

So he's in the window where supremely talented youngsters tend to make substantial leaps in production plus Cabrera's had a full year to get his Junior Circuit legs underneath him and his AL-eye honed.

If nothing else, you should see his average return to its more familiar .320 average. If that inevitability does come to pass, you should also get a complimentary boost in the peripherals.

Especially if Curtis Granderson has the year everyone expected him to have in '08. And Gary Sheffield returns from the dead.

3. Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees—102 runs, 33 HRs, 121 RBI, 2 SBs, .308 average

Those three words following Teixeira's name should terrify you.

His monster year got lost a bit in the shuffle between leagues last year, but good grief. And Tex did that in two lineups that didn't have the juice (on paper) that the Bombers have in 2009—some parts disappointed a bit in '08, but they're good bets to rebound nicely.

If guys like Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada do regain form, look out.

Teixeira will be 29 in April so he should be good for those 2008 numbers at a minimum. Since Mark is clearly one of MLB's most gifted splinters and he's not yet at the (supposed) peak of his career, there's a good chance his 2009 stats will be something new altogether for the Yankee first baseman.

The cherry on the sundae? He's already scorching over .400 in Spring Training.

4. Justin Morneau, Minnesota Twins—97 runs, 23 HRs, 129 RBI, 0 SBs, .300 average

How is it possible that Morneau will only be 28 in May? I had him in his early 30s.

The other question would be how in the world does he put those stats up in the Twins' lineup? Aside from Joe Mauer, there's almost nothing there.

That actually changes a bit in 2009 with the addition of Joe Crede (assuming he can stay on the field) and another year of experience on some talented newbies (Delmon Young, Carlos Gomez, Denard Span, etc.). Still, that lineup isn't gonna make anyone's hair go gray except maybe Ron Gardenhire's.

Of course, Morneau should scare the socks off any opposing pitcher.

The guy is a mashing machine. Last season saw a bit of a drop in his homer total, but he compensated by bloating both his RBI and average. And it gets better.

Morneau had offseason laser eye surgery to improve his vision. It might sound stupid, but one thing Barry Bonds always made a fuss over was how well he could see the ball. If Justin's spotting the ball out of the hurler's hand better, get some new socks.

5. Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies—105 runs, 48 HRs, 146 RBI, 1 SB, .251 average

The BIG fella is the lone exception to my general rule of reserving the top tier for guys who contribute in every category except maybe speed or power.

I'm not as enamored of the long-ball as a lot of fans, but 48 homers are 48 homers—I don't care how you slice fantasy. In real-life, two years of 199 strikeouts is a deal-breaker as is the .251 average. All the more so because Howard needed a scalding September just to raise his average to those lofty heights.

But, as I said in the introduction to this series, fantasy value is a much different animal than real value.

So Ryan squeezes his big posterior into the first tier as the preeminent power threat in baseball, who is also a good candidate for a bounce-back year in average due to his 29 years and the ridiculous lineup amongst which he sits.

Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, and even Pedro Feliz should benefit from the confidence boost they'll soon wear on their fingers. Oh, and playing in a veritable band box never hurts the ol' sluggers.


6. Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox—91 runs, 29 HRs, 115 RBI, 3 SBs, .312 average

You'll quickly see that most of the second tier guys fall under the category of "would be in the first tier, but [fill in the blank]." For Youk, it's the injury bug although he's already been cleared to go on Monday and I have it from serious people that the Greek God of Walks is better when he's leaking oil.

If that's the case, Youkilis really should be up above because he's also eligible at third base plus he's a newly minted 30-year-old, which means he's in his prime. Toss that in with a cancer-free clubhouse (has Manny responded to that?), a full year of Jason Bay, growth from Jacoby Ellsbury (25), ditto Dustin Pedroia (26 in August), and a return from the brink by either David Ortiz or Mike Lowell.

The result should make him a lock to repeat his stellar '08 performance, maybe even surpass it. Still, there is that injury...

7. Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres—103 runs, 36 HRs, 119 RBI, 0 SBs, .279 average

Those numbers are simply astounding for a man who toils in the middle of the San Diego Padres' lineup. He'd probably be first tier guy if he played for almost any other team. I say probably because there's also a nagging little issue of a slight, yet steady decline in his battering average that's accompanied his power surge.

However, Gonzalez is only 26 (27 in May) and he was brutalizing opponents' pitching in the World Baseball Classic. Some of it was off less-than-pro caliber pitching (I think I saw him homer off a 16-year-old kid from South Africa or something like that), but he also touched up several guys who you'll see in the Show.

If Adrian can get just a little help, he's up with the best of the best. Unfortunately, that means saying some Hail Marys for Chase Headley to figure it out toot sweet.

8. Prince Fielder, Milwaukee Brewers—86 runs, 34 HRs, 102 RBI, 3 SBs, .276 average

You might think it's crazy to have a dude who'll turn 25 in May and already has a 50 homer season to his credit this low. And you may very well be right. But I don't buy into this diet nonsense as the reason for his comparable lack of swat in '08. I think it's probably got something more to do with the modest incline in Ks.

The number (13) isn't huge, but I'd say about an extra whiff a week when the rate should be going in the other direction is enough to indicate something's a miss. My guess is that pitchers' have developed a book on the Prince—not necessarily to neutralize him, but to keep him in the park on more frequent occasion.

And if I'm wrong, I've just put a 40+ bomb stud who'll finish in shouting range of .300 behind a guy on the Padres. It's a thin line (ironic).

9. Lance Berkman, Houston Astros—114 runs, 29 HRs, 106 RBI, 18 SBs, .312 average

I'm guessing this one and No. 11 are gonna draw the most heat—rightfully so. Berkman finished 2008 as the seventh ranked fantasy player according to Yahoo. And I've listed eight first basemen before him heading into 2009. Hey, I never said I was that smart.

But, seriously, how can a 33-year-old duplicate that season? Lance isn't old, but that swipes total more than doubled anything he'd put up more than eight previous seasons. Furthermore, he cooled considerably after a white-hot start and chances are he isn't hitting .382 on June 5th again. Plus, the lineup is getting wobbly although the addition of Ivan Rodriguez should help.

Astro fans will say Berkman's numbers actually would've been higher except he lost Carlos Lee's protection. They have a point, but there are just too many reasons to be skeptical and too many other rosy options.

10. Derek Lee, Chicago Cubs—93 runs, 20 HRs, 90 RBI, 8 SBs, .291 average

D-Lee would be in the top tier if this were 2006 because he would be coming off his best year and he wouldn't have suffered the wrist injury that seems to have sapped some of his power. The other problem is that Lee, like Berkman, is 33. That's getting towards the end o' the line for a good percentage of Major Leaguers.

On the positive side, that '08 line is still pretty nifty and he's been remarkably consistent to those marks for almost this entire century. Even if Lee's entered his decline, it shouldn't be anything drastic and there's at least an equal chance that he's got a couple more years like this last one left in the tank.

11. Aubrey Huff, Baltimore Orioles—96 runs, 32 HRs, 108 RBI, 4 SBs, .304 average

Like I said, I expect to take some heat for this. Those numbers are right up there with most of the guys in the first tier. The problem is they came out of nowhere—that's not precisely true, they came out of 2003. Since then, Huff had been in steady decline and he's 32 so an enduring resurgence just doesn't seem likely.

The flip to that coin would be that Baltimore had some nice young hitters who should be developing quite nicely. If those bats arrive to take some of the focus from Aubrey's dome and he can keep that '08 stroke going, his number could get even better.

Again, there are just safer options with basically the same upside.


12. Adam Dunn, Washington Nationals—79 runs, 40 HRs, 100 RBI, 2 SBs, .236 average

If your league uses on-base-percentage instead of average, Dunn is probably a top tier guy since he comes with 40 taters. Most leagues don't so his average isn't saved by his high walk total.

To muddy the picture further, Adam now plays for the Nats. Washington's lineup is probably more volatile off the field than on it.

13. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds—69 runs, 24 HRs, 84 RBI, 7 SBs, .297 average

These are essentially the same numbers the 25-year-old Votto has tallied at every level for the past five years. His age suggests an increase in numbers is likely for the hitting machine.

As does a full year of Jay Bruce hitting in front of him and the intimate confines of most parks in the National League Central.

14. Victor Martinez, Cleveland Indians—30 runs, 2 HRs, 35 RBI, 0 SBs, .278 average

We've already seen and covered Victor with the catchers. He's this high on the list for the same reasons—he can be used as a catcher without actually playing there and his resume earns him the benefit of injury-doubt.

That and he's hitting for good power in Spring Training.

15. Carlos Delgado, New York Mets—96 runs, 38 HRs, 115 RBI, 1 SB, .271 average

I have no idea what to make of the guy—he'll turn 37 in June, but the 38 ding-dongs from '08 make it 11 times in 12 seasons that Delgado has hit 30+ homers. His 2007 campaign and start to '08 were so bad, the Mets were scrambling to find a band-aid.

But it all came together before NY could find one and, judging from the WBC, Carlos hasn't looked back. But the guy will be able to spit to 40 before the All-Star break.

16. Chris Davis, Texas Rangers—51 runs, 17 HRs, 55 RBI, 1 SB, .286 average

There are three huge qualifiers to Davis: (A) he's 23; (B) he's eligible at the hot corner; and (C) he only registered 295 at-bats in 2008. Roughly double that stat line and you'd have one hell of a first year.

Not to mention the kid hits in a potent Ranger lineup and in a home yard where the ball flies out. If Davis can maintain that production for a full year, this could be your steal of the draft.

Fliers—Carlos Guillen (Tigers), Garrett Atkins (Colorado Rockies), Jorge Cantu (Florida Marlins), Carlos Pena (Tampa Bay Rays), James Loney (Los Angeles Dodgers), Billy Butler (Kansas City Royals), Nick Swisher (Yankees), Paul Konerko (Chicago White Sox), Mike Jacobs (Royals), Jason Giambi (Oakland Athletics)

The fliers are a cluttered and motley bunch.

You've got guys like Atkins and Swisher, who were once fantasy studs and may be again. However, their most recent seasons have left foul tastes in owners' mouthes.

You've got youngsters like Loney and Butler who have upside, but less so than the someone like Votto or Fielder.

And you've got former top tier guys who are breaking down like Giambi and Konerko.

The message here is to avoid being forced to take one of these guys. If you want to use a late round pick to see if Jacobs can hang another 32 home runs on the wall despite the chane in leagues, go for it.

Just don't make that Plan A.

Next up...second base.

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