Draft This, Not That: First Basemen

As mentioned last week, Draft This, Not That will be featured weekly for the time being while the Fantasy Assembly crew goes one week at a time to focus on a specific position. Last week the focus was on catchers. You can find the Top 20 Catchers for 2015 there and the Draft This, Not That Catchers piece there. This week we have moved onto first basemen.

Last year I did some similar Draft This, Not That write ups for hitters and pitchers. I will let you know how the pitching predictions worked out once we get around to them in a future week. On the hitting end of things I had some victories, some ugly defeats, and some near hits. One call that went particularly well was my suggestion to draft Michael Brantley, not Alejandro De Aza. Then again I also told people to draft Adam Lind, not Jose Abreu. Oops! A near hit for me was my preference to draft AJ Pollock, not Desmond Jennings. Had Pollock stayed healthy that’s one I believe would have landed in the victory column for me. What this is really about though are predictions like my draft Alcides Escobar, not Alexei Ramirez call from a season ago. Both players performed well, finishing fifth and fourth on the ESPN Player Rater respectively but it was Alcides Escobar who could have been had over 100 picks later in 2014 drafts.

Draft Adrian Gonzalez, Not Freddie Freeman

I will concede that the Adrian Gonzalez being discussed here is not the one who defied the odds of Petco Park in his San Diego days. Forget that guy, he does not exist anymore. Even forgetting the first Boston year, this more recent well-aged AGonz has put up the following slash lines including plate appearances in the past three seasons:

GONZALEZ PA R HR RBI SB AVG
2012 684 75 18 108 2 .299
2013 641 69 22 100 1 .293
2014 660 83 27 116 1 .276
Total 1,985 227 67 324 4 .290

Okay, not bad for the LAD first baseman. Surely with Freddie Freeman slated to go upwards of two rounds earlier than AGonz he must offer more. Let’s have a look. Here are Freddie Freeman’s slash lines including plate appearances for the past three seasons:

FREEMAN PA R HR RBI SB AVG
2012 620 91 23 94 2 .259
2013 629 89 23 109 1 .319
2014 708 93 18 78 3 .288
Total 1,957 273 64 281 6 .289

For the past three years, Adrian Gonzalez has been a better RBI producer but Freddie Freeman gets the nod in the runs scored category. Taking R + RBI into account, AGonz has averaged a total of 183.67 R + RBI the past three seasons to Freeman’s 184.67 R + RBI over that same time frame. Their home runs, stolen bases, and batting average the past three years are virtually the same.

Seeking upside, people will continue to draft Freddie Freeman earlier because of his age (25). Adrian Gonzalez turns 33 in May. Freeman’s batted ball profile which included a 32.5% fly ball rate along with an 11.9% HR/FB rate in 2014 does not suggest a player who is suddenly going to begin eclipsing the 30 home run mark. He has a solid bat for producing line drives (31% in 2014) and the occasional ball that leaves the yard. This should lead to a slightly better batting average than can be expected from Adrian Gonzalez. In comparison to Freeman, Gonzalez’s batted ball profile features a slightly elevated FB% of 37.8% with a 14.6% HR/FB rate. While there is a chance for a slightly lower batting average with Gonzalez, he should be counted on to put up a slightly higher total of home runs than Freeman.

For people in fear of Gonzalez’s age, I will point to the fact he has distanced himself nicely from his 2010 shoulder surgery, an injury often linked to a decline in power upon return in the early going. Seeing Gonzalez’s home run total climb from 18 to 22 to 27 in the past three seasons is an encouraging sign that his swing is fully healthy and without limitations. One more tidbit for the age conscious drafter is that since his first full season in 2006, Adrian Gonzalez has played no less than 156 games each season. Freddie Freeman is a relatively reliable player health-wise as well but even he dipped to 147 games in both 2012 and 2013.

If age and the possible chance at upside are the reasons why drafters want to support their desire to select Freeman up to two rounds earlier than Gonzalez I will nullify that by pointing to the surrounding lineups the two will play with in 2015. Honestly, which lineup would you rather have your primary first baseman featured in? Have a look at the lineup I project for each team based on current rosters:

Dodgers Projected 2015 Lineup   Braves Projected 2015 Lineup
Jimmy Rollins   Andrelton Simmons
Carl Crawford   Nick Markakis
Yasiel Puig   Freddie Freeman
Adrian Gonzalez   Evan Gattis
Howie Kendrick   Chris Johnson
Joc Pederson   BJ Upton
Juan Uribe   Alberto Callaspo
Yasmani Grandal   Christian Bethancourt
Pitcher   Pitcher

Freddie Freeman’s one clear area where he has demonstrated an advantage over Adrian Gonzalez has been his ability to score runs. With the better Upton sent packing to San Diego, the strong OBP presence of Jason Heyward now displayed in the Cardinals’ lineup, and Evan Gattis often rumored to be the next power bat heading out-of-town, who is going to drive in Freeman in 2015? B.J. Upton? Pshhhh. This Braves lineup could wind up featuring Andrelton Simmons coming off his .286 OBP from 2014, Nick Markakis coming off neck surgery, and a host of underperformers in Chris Johnson, B.J. Upton, and Alberto Callaspo, not to mention the young catcher Christian Bethancourt who will have his hands full with the rotation being pieced together by the Braves. For fantasy purposes I want no part of this rebuilding process the Braves are stuck in.

Where Freddie Freeman might find himself in a lineup where no regular player finishes the 2015 season with better than a .320 OBP, Gonzalez might be surrounded by a lineup where everyone has a .320 OBP or better.

For 2015, if I miss out on the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Jose Abreu, or Anthony Rizzo early on I will gladly wait a round or two after Freddie Freeman is off the board and grab Adrian Gonzalez as my primary first baseman instead knowing I am getting a hitter with a similar makeup to Freddie Freeman yet in a better surrounding lineup.  For my liking it is Adrian Gonzalez who should remain steady and Freddie Freeman who faces an uphill battle just to come close to his 2014 stat line.

If you have read this and find yourself thinking, “This isn’t that big a deal, it’s only a two round difference,” then I encourage you to consider the player pairings that would be available around the time Freeman and Gonzalez are coming off the board in early 2015 drafts.

Take your pick:

1B/3B Combo: Freddie Freeman/Evan Longoria or Todd Frazier/Adrian Gonzalez
1B/OF Combo: Freddie Freeman/Charlie Blackmon or Matt Kemp/Adrian Gonzalez
1B/SP Combo: Freddie Freeman/Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto/Adrian Gonzalez

At first glance this may not seem like a big difference. Take a look again; each of the players paired with Adrian Gonzalez offers a similar floor and far greater upside than the players paired with Freddie Freeman. Todd Frazier has 30/20 capability from the 3B position, Matt Kemp has performed at an MVP level before, and Johnny Cueto has 240 K upside in his walk year.

Draft Justin Morneau, Not Matt Adams

At this time you can have Morneau about three rounds later than when Matt Adams comes off the board on average. This player pairing somewhat mirrors the first pairing featured between Adrian Gonzalez and Freddie Freeman above. Morneau, 34 in May takes on the role of Gonzalez, while Adams, 27 in August takes on the role of Freddie Freeman. People want youth; they want upside, they want Matt Adams. I want Justin Morneau who plays his home games in Colorado’s thin air, had the better second half last year, has less drastic lefty/righty split issues and is in a contract year.

The 2014 season stat lines put up for Morneau and Adams was not all that different:

  PAs R HR RBI SB AVG
Morneau 550 62 17 82 0  .319
Adams 563 55 15 68 3 .288

Two things stand out for me here. One, how in the world did Matt Adams steal three bases in 2014? And two, Morneau produced better in four of the five slash line categories than Adams while hitting in a lineup often void of both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. The one category Morneau fell short in (stolen bases) really is not a calling card for either of these two first basemen.

Morneau seems to get a bad rap for his previous injury issues largely related to a concussion sustained years ago that he clearly no longer has issues with. His games played totals the past three seasons are 134, 151, and 135. Adams is not always the pillar of extreme health himself, often coming up with nagging injury issues. At this point, neither seems like a better health bet than the other.

If anyone can potentially pull off something close to what Victor Martinez did a year ago, I could see Morneau being the guy. It is encouraging to see that there was only one month where Morneau hit below .300 in 2014 and that he managed to hit over .300 both at home and on the road. His .330 BABIP was higher than it has been in recent years, but far from his career high of .385 back in 2010. Counting all of his full seasons, Morneau posted his lowest FB% in 2014, coming in at 32.9%. That number is out of character for his bat that usually produced fly balls at a clip greater than 37%. Morneau seemed to exchange fly balls for more line drives as he posted his highest LD% in nine seasons, coming in at 23.1%.

There remains the possibility that both Morneau and Adams could lose at bats when a lefty is on the hill. The Rockies may look to utilize Wilin Rosario some at first base if they do not trade him before the season starts and Adams may be replaced by the recently signed Mark Reynolds at times. I will also caution you that Morneau is shaping up like a July trade candidate if the Rockies fall out of contention early, which has a strong possibility of happening.

For 2015, Morneau could maintain that same batted ball profile, push to take the field a little more often in a contract year and hit near a .310 batting average with 20 home runs. Another outcome has him reverting back to more of a fly ball hitter, giving up some of the gains in his LD% and posting a .290 batting average with closer to 25 home runs. It would be a stretch for Matt Adams to reach either of these potential Morneau outcomes and for that reason I will let someone else take the hefty Cardinals’ 1B while I wait a few rounds and snag the guy playing in Coors.

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