Keeper Leagues and the aging First Base Position

First base is on the verge of a major climate shift. Did you know as of right now (baring any trades or retirements) that 18 of the 30 starting first basemen for 2019 will be 30 or older on opening day? The position is getting older and older, and unlike other positions there hasn’t been much in the way of support or replacements from the minors.

At the top of the class is future hall-of-famer Albert Pujols; he will be 39. With Ohtani slated for a full-season at DH, old man river will have little choice but to man first base. Hell, with that albatross of a contract the Angels gave him he’ll be wheeled out there until 2021. Pujols is followed by another future hall-of-famer, 36-year-old Miguel Cabrera. There is the potential for a bounce back, but given his age he has just a few more good years under the sun – at best.

Cabrera isn’t the only 36-year-old; he is joined by Edwin Encarnacion. EE didn’t see much time at first base this year thanks to Yonder Alonso, but he saw enough to qualify in 2019. If he’ll get enough games in 2019 to qualify going forward is the question, along with will the power decline along with his batting average.

Next up are a pair of 35 year-olds, Kendrys Morales and Joey Votto. Morales is already a hit-or-miss player when it comes to power and average, and another year older doesn’t help his cause. Joey Votto saw a decline at the same age Cabrera did. Granted Cabrera did look like he would bounce back in 2018 so all is not lost with Votto. That being said, if the power doesn’t return you’re looking at Adrian Beltre going forward. And while I’m somewhat optimistic on Votto he still has a limited shelf life.

At 34 we have Ryan Zimmerman and Yuli Gurriel. After a career year in 2017 Zimmerman was back to his old self – injured and disappointing owners for the fourth time in five years. As for Gurriel, he hits for a decent average, but with the power taking a step back and Tyler White vying for a permanent role his days as a starter are limited.

Now 32 and 33 may not seem old, and in redraft leagues that means very little. But, if you are in a keeper league and own a 32 or 33-year-old first baseman – the writing is on the wall. The Phillies thought they were smart when they acquired Carlos Santana. They would have been better off handing the reigns to Rhys Hoskins as the 33-year-old was a bust during his first season in the city of brotherly love. He could bounce back and maybe has one or two good years left in him, but don’t count on much more than that.

The most encouraging name in the 33 class is Matt Carpenter. The power bounced back in a big way in 2018, but one look at his 2016 and 2017 season remind us he can be human. Plus he is just one year away for 34 – the age both Votto and Cabrera saw things go south. Ian Desmond is another interesting name, at least as long as he is in Colorado. He posted three 20/20 seasons over the last five years so there is a lot to like here. However, the average declined and one has to wonder if/when the speed will follow suit. When that happens he becomes a 20 HR threat with a bad average – there are plenty of those guys on waivers.

We’re not done with 33 year-olds yet. Chris Davis is under contract until 2022 so Baltimore has no choice but to play him. We accepted the .220 average when he was a 40 home run threat. Now with decreased power and one of the worst batting averages in the league for two years straight he isn’t even rosterable in fantasy. Mitch Moreland is only an injury replacement for most, but he is starting for someone in an AL-only league. With one year left in Boston, though, he may not be starting for any major league team come 2020.

I mentioned Yonder Alonso bumping EE to the DH slot, but I didn’t mention he will be 32 on opening day. This may be his last year in Cleveland – there is a $9-million dollar option for 2020 that could be guaranteed with enough at bats. He puts up good enough numbers to hold down a CI slot, but there is no longevity here. The only other 32-year-old is Jose Abreu, and he is coming off a year in which a decent season was sandwiched between a slow start and an injury. He is a free agent after 2019 so depending on where he goes he’ll have a much better park and surrounding cast. Of all the 32+ year-old players he is the only one I would target, but I would not pay full price just in case that slow start in 2018 was a sign of things to come.

Looking up I don’t see a lot of success stories. That doesn’t give much hope to the next handful of players who have just entered their 30s. Justin Bour needs to be traded out of Philly. He showed he could be a solid fantasy player in Miami, but he also showed us he needs some type of support around him as he collapsed this year when challenged. Even with a trade he is a CI option, not someone to depend on as a starter. A new team and new start at age 30… stranger things have happened, but not often.

Jose Martinez will also be 30. Yup, his first full season in the league and he already joins the geriatric club. OK, that was rude, but I’m trying to make a point as there are a good number of Martinez supporters out there. Not that many players debut at age 28 and go on to have a strong fantasy career so temper your expectations. He does hit for a strong average and has 20 HR pop which makes him safer than Bour and better than 31-year-old Brandon Belt. Belt is like Moreland, and injury replacement and NL-only option. He also has Buster Posey looking over his shoulder, and if Posey has one more injury we could see a move to first sooner rather than later, pushing Belt to the outfield or out of town.

The final, at least final fantasy relevant, first baseman over 30 is Paul Goldschmidt – he’ll be 31. This is where you put your money. Goldy is in the final year of his contract. He could be traded this winter, and since it is doubtful the Diamondbacks will be contenders he will be moved by the summer time to a contender. Using Votto and Cabrera as a benchmark for stud first basemen, you’ll get at least three more years of round 1-2 production out of Goldschmidt.

So who is left under the age of 30 that fantasy owners can target?

The obvious names are Freddie Freeman (28) and Anthony Rizzo (29). Both are close to being 30 but still a number of years away from the magic age of 32 – the age a player typically shows signs of a decline. We didn’t expect Freeman to continue hitting for the power we saw in 2016-2017, but 20 plus homers with strong counting stats and an average hovering around .300 is a virtual lock. Rizzo is very similar to Freeman except with less average and more power. Of all the under 30 players, these are the only two with an extensive enough track record to forecast their production – which is top-tier.

Eric Hosmer (29) could have earned an honorable mention had it not be for a disastrous 2018 season. Hosmer used to be the reliable fallback option once the top 8-10 players were gone. If his numbers in San Diego are an indication of future production, the future doesn’t look too bright. C.J. Cron is also 29 and has been in the league for a number of years so we can count him as a veteran. He finally stayed healthy and rewarded his new team with a 30 home run season. He makes an interesting CI target, but with limited upside and health issues I can’t see him moving into the starter tier.

That about covers the veterans, leaving a dozen or so hopefuls with a limited track record – some of which are older which leaves a smaller window for success.

Cody Bellinger has the best chance of becoming one of the elite top-tier first basemen. He is only 23 which also gives him the longest shelf life of all the players mentioned (and not mentioned). His numbers in 2018 represent his floor, but if he learns a little more patience we could see a bump in both power and average. The only obstacle is the Dodgers somewhat split him between first base and the outfield. If that move become permanent, like the next player, it would be a huge blow to fantasy owners.

Rhys Hoskins (26) was supposed to be the answer in Philadelphia, but those hopes were dashed when the Phillies acquired Carlos Santana. Yahoo owners rejoiced toward the end of the season when Santana shifted to third for just enough games to give Hoskins first base eligibility in 2019. There is 30+ home run potential here, but he needs to improve the contact some and trim off a few strikeouts. I don’t see Hoskins remaining in the outfield for long. Expect him to see more time there in 2019 and to push Santana out of town in 2020.

In 2017 we clamored for the Mets to promote soon to be 23-year-old Dominic Smith. In 2018 those same fans were demanding Peter Alonso (24) to be promoted. One of these men has a future at first base – maybe both if the Mets trade one. Either way, the odds of both becoming a top talent at first base is low. Considering how many first basemen we’ve seen crash and burn over the past three or four years, maybe neither will amount to anything more than a decent CI option.

After a spectacular 2017 Eric Thames crashed and burned in Milwaukee, and 28-year-old Jesus Aguilar took full advantage. He is one of this year’s fence players as his career could go either way. I would not want to bet on a 28-year-old breakout, at least in a keeper league, but he was solid for the entire season. Speaking of 28, solid and on the fence, the Astros may have finally found a first base solution in Tyler White. Take what I said about Aguilar and apply it here. At best I can see White or Aguilar taking on the Eric Hosmer role, meaning one of the next best options once the top tiers are gone.

There are two in the 28 club, Minnesota’s Tyler Austin and Luke Voit from the Yankees. Austin is not a fantasy option, but he is an improvement over Joe Mauer – so there is that. Voit could actually be the surprise breakout, making former fantasy favorite Greg Bird (26) an afterthought. Unlike almost all the players mentioned, though, Voit is one of the few without a guaranteed job heading into 2019. That probably makes him the cheapest target with a CI floor for numbers.

Two players that were labeled late round sleepers heading into 2018 were Ryon Healy (27) and Josh Bell (26). Healy showed the same power as in Oakland, but his average was like a YoYo. Bell saw his power decline (as expected), but he did draw more walks. I think it’s too early to label either one a bust, but it is obvious that neither looks like a starting first base option or a player to target.

Joey Gallo (25) basically repeated his 2017 season, posting another 40 home run season with a batting average below he weight. The promotion of 24-year-old Ronald Guzman should mean the end of Gallo’s first base career. Some really like Guzman, but he also has strikeout issue (though not as severe) and it is yet to be seen if he can hit for average in the majors. There is some keeper intrigue with Guzman, but he is a work in progress so patience will be needed.

Speaking of patience, 24-year-old Ryan McMahon has been waiting for an opportunity in Colorado, and this year flashed his versatility by playing first, second, and third base. Desmond and Arenado are not going anywhere (yet), but LeMahieu is a free agent so second base is open. Than again, Brendan Rodgers will now need a place to play with the emergence of Trevor Story so there is competition there. While there is 20+ home run potential here along with a strong average, we haven’t seen that in the majors. It’s hard to pull for a player without a place to play.

The final player on my list is Matt Olson (25). Olson was featured earlier this week by Jake Blodgett. He discussed the improved discipline at the plate, but also noted the struggles against fastballs. Strikeouts were also touched on, and while he made some improvements in 2018, his K% is still high, there were struggles with this in the minors, and where this number goes in the future will determine if he goes the route of teammate Khris Davis or Rangers first baseman Joey Gallo (worst case scenario).

*****

First base has a few young options so there is some hope for the future. However, over the years we have labeled a number of first basemen as players who could be part of that next generation – similar to what we have seen at third base and shortstop. Unfortunately the number of hitters who have actually stepped up to do this are few and far between.

2019 will be just another year for those in redraft leagues, but those in keeper leagues are at a crossroads. Players like Freeman, Rizzo, Bellinger and Hoskins should be a priority. If some of those under 30 players fail to step up in 2019 it will be that much harder to pry them away from their current owners later as opposed to now. Yes, they will cost you an arm and a leg now, but how many more appendages will you have to throw in come 2020 if help does not arrive.

If the above players are too rich for your blood, check in on the asking price for Olson, maybe try to get Voit as a throw-in on a bigger trade, or take a gamble on Agular since there is a 50/50 chance his owner has little faith he can repeat.

If you own one of those over 30 players… the clock is ticking. Don’t be the last dog to the bowl because you know what happens to the runt of the litter.

 

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Jim Finch

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The self proclaimed Grand High Exhausted Mystic Ruler of Fantasy Baseball. While I am not related to Jennie or Sidd Finch, I will attempt to uphold the integrity of the Finch family name as it relates to baseball. You can also find me at FanRagSports.com

2 thoughts on “Keeper Leagues and the aging First Base Position”

  1. Nate Lowe is another guy to keep an eye on. Went from A+ to AAA in one season, and dominated the competition until AAA gave him a challenge.

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