In this draft plan series I will take a deep look at each position, cover the top players available, the drop-off in production and talent, the risk and or reward in reaching early vs waiting to fill a position, and most importantly, how I think you should attack the position come draft day.
Today I will take a look at first base. This position was once a staple for power and stability. Just a few years ago the first two rounds would have had at least six first basemen, and by the end of round five at least a dozen first basemen would be taken – some as CI options. This year… well, let’s just say the landscape has significantly changed. Last year only seven first basemen hit more than 25 home runs – that’s less than half the number from 2017 and well short of the double-digit player lists from the previous few years. And just four players had 90 or more RBI – again, double digits players in the three previous seasons. Houston, we have a problem.
The top two players are interchangeable – opinions vary on who is better between Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman. Both are five category contributors, although with the decline in speed from Goldy you can’t expect more than 10 steals from either man. The difference between this year and last is that Goldy has slipped (on average) to the middle of round two, however, both players have been reached for in round one. Some may see this as a mistake, but as you’ll see as we make our way through the player pool, reaching might be the prudent thing to do this year.
Like Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo has also slipped in the overall rankings, from a late round two selection to round three/four. This probably has to do with a slight drop in power, but a return to 30 home runs is more than possible, and Rizzo is also a five-category contributor. Rhys Hoskins is not a five category guy, but he will deliver strong numbers in three categories. You may have to settle when it comes to batting average, but something in the neighborhood of .250 puts him a notch below Oakland power hitter Khris Davis – so good company.
Unfortunately this is where the safety net gets lowered, and we now start to inherit some risk. Thankfully, with the exception of one player, you will not need to pay a premium – that is unless your league mates reach or draft based on name recognition and or upside potential.
Cody Bellinger is the man you will have to reach for. Many are doing so with the assumption he will take a step forward and show the type of power we saw in 2017. Can he do it? Absolutely! Is it worth a third/fourth round pick to find out? I’m not so sure. His underlying metrics were strong, but if he repeats his 2018 season you are slightly overpaying.
Matt Carpenter is back in the spotlight after launching 36 home runs. However, unlike his 28 home run campaign in 2015, drafters are less willing to pay up hoping he repeats. Add in the fact that Carpenter turned 33 in November and you’ve got the potential for age regression. Speaking of age regression, the bottom fell out for Joey Votto last year, at the same age the wheels fell off fellow future hall of famer Miguel Cabrera. Coincidence? At 35 years of age what can we expect from Votto in 2019? Like Carpenter he has an average ADP in the low 70s so the cost is significantly lower. And even with the lower price, do you really want to anchor the first base position with either man? A year ago I might have said yes. Now I’m not too confident.
Despite having a lower ADP than some of the men below I’m going to bump Matt Olson up for this exercise. He improved his power and is on the verge of a 30 home runs season. However, like Hoskins, Olson comes with a batting average risk with little hopes of much improvement. If, like Hoskins, he can hit in that .250 range you’ll get solid production in three categories with an average that will not help or hurt you.
We’re now 8 players in, and unlike past years that confidence level has already taken a hit. A few years ago players like Eric Hosmer were the fallback options to the top tiers – time is a fickle thing.
Based strictly on ADP the next two players can be lumped together. Jose Abreu was a late second/early third round pick last year but has slipped to an average ADP of 86 – a few spots below Jesus Aguilar. He had a fine season after a slow start and prior to a season ending injury. A bounce back is possible, but what if he is like some past players that started to show their age once entering their 30s (he’s 32). And, what if that slow start was actually a sign of things to come? Aguilar had a breakout season, but it happened at age 27 after multiple failed attempts to catch on in the majors. We gave Eric Thames the benefit of the doubt last year and look how that turned out, and Aguilar did slump in the second half.
That’s your top-10. How many of these players would you be happy to head into the season with as your starting first baseman? If you can cross off 2-4 players then you’ll understand my initial warning. First base may be deep, and you can still find 25 HR pop, but there is risk of regression once you get past a certain point. And guess what… it doesn’t get much better.
Again, based on current ADP the next man up is Joey Gallo. I was one of those last year that thought there is no way his average could get any lower so there’s nowhere to go but up. Well, it didn’t go up, but it didn’t go down either. Instead he repeated his 40 home run campaign from 2017 with solid counting stats. Maybe this is who he is and can be for the foreseeable future, but if that power drop or bottoms out – remember Chris Davis? Davis isn’t even a consideration among the top-50 first basement this year.
Some of what I said to Gallo and Aguilar could be applied to Max Muncy. Yes, he did hit 35 home runs, but with a HR/FB close to 30% and a K% over 30 in the second half, I can’t see myself trusting him with sole possession of first base. Plus I am having flashbacks of Chris Taylor; remember how we all moved him up draft boards? He failed to live up to his inflated ADP this year, and I can see the same happening with Muncy.
Speaking of potential flukes – I love what Jurickson Profar did last year and like that he offers some speed as well. The downside is we have been waiting for this since 2012. He is only 26 so it’s possible it just took some time to figure things out. I’d much more prefer him at one of the middle infield spots, especially with the chance for regression. Being multi-eligible helps boost his overall value, but that doesn’t make him a solid first base option.
The next four off the board (on average) are all risk reward, and not too long ago they were all considered top-10 options.
- Edwin Encarnacion will be 36, which doesn’t mean much sometimes. The reason it’s relevant here is the average and power slipped yet again, and now he finds himself in Seattle playing half his games in Safeco.
- Miguel Cabrera looked primed for a bounce back last year before an injury sidelined those plans. Like Encarnacion, Cabrera is 36 and coming off two lost years. Don’t rule him out, but don’t rely on him either.
- Ian Desmond produced a 20/20 season for the fifth time in his career. The difference last year was his batting average was south of .250, and 2015 demonstrates this was not an isolated incident. Age is also a factor; how much will he run at age 33. The positive is a relatively solid track record for numbers and games played, and playing half his games at Coors.
- I mentioned Eric Hosmer earlier, but the man we saw last year was not the same one we saw in Kansas City. His name recognition and track record kept him in the top-20, and I’m sure the recent addition of Manny Machado has helped improve the potential of a rise in the counting stats. Those things have merit, but some players are incapable of producing in Petco which makes all those things moot.
That’s 16 players, and in past years teams would easily fill their first base slot and then come back for seconds to fill their CI slot. This year there isn’t enough talent, or I should say reliable talent, to even cover first base let along your corner slot.
So what about those players ranked outside what would be round 15 in a 12-team league?
- Luke Voit isn’t guaranteed a starting gig and there are questions on what he can do if he wins a starting job this spring.
- Carlos Martinez has been supplanted at first base and faces competition in the outfield. The club extended him through 2020, but they also found reasons to bench him in 2017 when he was producing.
- Yuli Gurriel can hit for average, but his power is below what we’d expect from a catcher, he will be 35, and Tyler White is now a serious threat to his job.
- C.J. Cron went from having a breakout to being release, and based on current rumblings he could lose some playing time with Minnesota.
- Carlos Santana crashed and burned in Philly. He’s now back home in Cleveland so this could be a sleeper, but with inconsistencies in the batting average he will run hot and cold.
- Josh Bell is in a make or break year, showing power in the past but not displaying that elite minor league batting average which got him promoted.
- At this stage of his career Justin Smoak is what he is. Outside of a career year you can expect somewhere around 20 home runs with lower than average run and RBI totals. Good enough to snatch up off waivers as an injury fill-in, but not someone I want to draft as a corner let along a starting first baseman.
Do I really need to go on? Considering every name not mentioned is being taken (again, on average) outside the top-250 – I don’t think so.
First base, for all its players, is incredibly thin as far as players you can point to and say “I’m going to get X numbers from this guy”. You have a handful of guys that you want and I highly recommend you target. After that you are rolling the dice, so be smart and do not gamble at first base.
My advice would be to fight all your instincts of targeting those big shortstops (the position is deep as you’ll soon find out) and third basemen (not as deep as SS, but you can wait a few rounds) early. Depending on where you draft you could still target and elite outfielder and get one of the big three listed above, or even a pitcher and outfielder and still have time to grab a Hoskins. Me, I’m reaching to lock up first base and I want one of those top-4.
You could go for a big infielder at another position and settle for the fallback options like Bellinger or Olson. Just don’t wait too long and do not underestimate the other owners in your league. I’m sure a few others have notices how depleted things are, and then there are the one or two guys who will draft names so Freeman, Goldy, and even Rizzo could go well before their ADP – this could cause a run on Hoskins, Bellinger and Olson earlier than expected.
They say it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. When it comes to first base this year I’ll take good and leave the luck to someone else. Hopefully I have some better news for you with my second base draft plan which will be dropping soon.