There are 2 schools of thought when it comes to first base:
- You have to target first base early because the position thins very quickly.
- First base is as deep as it’s ever been when 25 home run threats like CJ Cron and Justin Smoak are sitting there waiting for you toward the ends of drafts.
I’ve heard it said that there are 3 sides to every argument: your side, their side, and the truth. The truth is almost always somewhere in the middle. That’s especially the case with first base in 2019.
What we have at this position are lots of aging, proven producers, lots of potential, and very little in the way of prime-aged stars. There’s Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, and maybe if you squint, Freddie Freeman. Aside from his free agent year, Eric Hosmer has been more smoke than fire. Edwin Encarnacion, Albert Pujols, Lucas Duda, and Justin Bour aren’t getting any younger. You get the picture.
Before I tell you my first target, let’s take a blind look at some 2017-2018 numbers:
Player 1: .249/.364/.525, .889 OPS, 134 OPS+, 52 home runs, 45 doubles, 124 walks, 196 k’s
Player 2: .250/.339/.502, .841 OPS, 128 OPS+, 53 home runs, 35 doubles, 92 walks, 223 k’s
Obviously, Player 1 walks more. Aside from that, the numbers are pretty equal. Player 1 is Rhys Hoskins, with an Average Draft Position (ADP) of 44. Player 2 is Matt Olson, with an ADP of 94.
As I just demonstrated, Matt Olson has produced very similar results to Rhys Hoskins to this point in their careers. Hoskins is certainly the more exciting player, but if you can get 80 percent of Hoskins 50 picks after he goes off the board, isn’t that the better value? Drafts are all about value. 80 percent of an ace or 80 percent of Trout or Lindor isn’t cutting it. However, 80 percent of a high-powered slugger is still a high-powered slugger, just at a discount price.
Let’s put it another way. Despite only playing half a season in 2017, Matt Olson ranks 8th among all first basemen in home runs over the past 2 seasons. Which is two spots ahead of Freddie Freeman, seven ahead of Joey Votto, nine ahead of Carlos Santana . . . Olson’s power is real. First base is a power position. Go ahead and grab your star shortstop, your star outfielders, your ace, maybe a second or third baseman and trust in Olson’s power to still be waiting on you after you’ve done all that. You’ll be glad you did.
The argument for CJ Cron is even simpler than the argument for Matt Olson. Sure, he’s now in Minnesota, possibly competing for playing time with the likes of Nelson Cruz. Sure, his career high in home runs was 16 before he hit 30 last year. And sure, there’s the argument that if he was a good bet to do it again, the Rays wouldn’t have cut him.
I don’t care about any of that. I care about two things.
- CJ Cron hit 30 home runs last year.
- CJ Cron has an ADP of 244.
The same CJ Cron who just last year outhomered Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, the aforementioned Matt Olson, etc, is going over 100 picks after all of them. Sign me up for some of that late power. He doesn’t have to hit 30 again to be an excellent low-risk, high-reward gamble later in your draft. And isn’t that the perfect kind?
I’ll always begin this with a disclaimer: Avoid is not an absolute. Avoid is just me saying “Hey this guy is being drafted really high, and I don’t think the numbers/his age/his injury history support it.” If that same guy falls 20 picks, he could go from being an avoid to the steal of the draft. Again, drafting is all about value.
Easily the most controversial member of my avoid list, I’m starting off the year with a bang and telling you to avoid a guy who is generally viewed as a late 2nd or early 3rd round pick (ADP 20.42). In real life I love Freeman. I’m a Braves fan. He stuck out a rebuild, works as hard as anyone, swings a great bat, picks and scoops with the best of them at first, smiles all the time, and seems like a great teammate. Freeman even tried a move to third base to accommodate Matt Adams at one point. I will never root against him.
That said, there are a few red flags with Freeman. To begin with, first base is a power position, and Freeman hasn’t hit 30 home runs in two years. You can argue he would have in 2017 if he hadn’t gotten hurt, and you can argue the lingering wrist issue may have hampered his power even last season. None of that changes the fact that he has exactly one 30 home run season on his resume and is entering his ninth season. The big power that people expect from a first baseman just may not be in Freddie. And I don’t think you can spend a top 30 pick on a bat with fewer than 30 home runs and 8-10 steals.
The other red flag with Freeman is slumping. For an incredibly consistent hitter, when Freeman goes cold, even the Freeze gets jealous. Last year, Freeman’s power evaporated down the stretch as he homered just 5 times in August and September combined. Not only that, but over a 25 game stretch from August 20-September 15, he slashed an anemic .215/.296/.312 with 6 extra-base hits. That’s in the heart of the real-life stretch run, and the fantasy title run.
When he’s hot he can carry you, but when he’s cold he can sink your season. If he falls a bit he’s a steal, but Fantrax has him as the number 1 first baseman on the board over Goldschmidt and Rizzo, and ahead of other stars like Corey Kluber and Giancarlo Stanton. I love Freddie, but not enough to pass up guys like that.
Let’s establish the obvious. Josh Bell is the same age as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, meaning he will play next season at 26 years of age. He has improved his plate discipline every season, and his OPS+ has risen from 108 to 109 to 111 last season. This is not telling you that Josh Bell isn’t a good young player. This isn’t even saying that Josh Bell won’t put it all together and explode this season. Josh Bell is a worthy flier in any league.
However, you can’t wait and count on Bell as your primary first baseman. The lure of Josh Bell has always been that he’s a switch-hitter with 55 or 60-grade raw power. The knock on Josh Bell has always been that his raw power seldom translates into game power. He has 41 home runs in 1,178 at-bats, and he hit a mere 12 home runs last year. While he made strides in the second half, I want a full season of 30 home runs or back to back seasons of 20+ before I target him as anything more than a dream. It’s fine to dream, but to paraphrase Albus Dumbledore “It does not do to dwell on dreams and end up with lackluster production at first base.”
No one should need a spiel here. The knock on Hosmer is simple. He had his best season in his free agent year. Aside from that, he’s tap water. Nobody pays up for tap water. Hosmer has 145 home runs in 8 seasons. That’s 18 a year. Last year wasn’t a blip, it was a return to form. There’s no dream here. Look elsewhere.