First base has always been the deepest position in fantasy baseball, but this year's class is exceptional, with a dozen or more players who will go in the first five rounds, even in relatively shallow leagues. That number gets even bigger if you include guys like Pablo Sandoval and Mark Reynolds, who are also eligible at first in most leagues, but who I don't include here because their primary position is third base (which is much, much shallower).
There are conflicting views on how this excess of riches should effect your draft strategy. Some believe that the prevalence of big bats at the position means you should load up on other positions in the early rounds and grab a guy like Paul Konerko or James Loney who might fall deep into the draft or be available for very little money in an auction. Others would contend that with this many studs, it's even more imperative that you get one or even two of them on your roster.
Although I think both strategies have validity, I tend more towards the latter, because I think it leaves you will slightly more room for error. If you pass on a Prince Fielder, a Mark Texeira, or an Adrian Gonzalez, you had better be damn sure that the player you pick in his place is going to put up premium stats, regardless of what position he plays. First baseman are productive, not only because the position tends to attract burly sluggers, but also because it tends to be slightly less toilsome than most of the other positions on the diamond. 23 first baseman, including every one of my top eighteen, played 130 or more games in 2009. Compare that to 16 shortstops, 18 third baseman, and 10 catchers, and you get an idea why it's not a bad idea to grab a first-bagger early on.
1. Albert Pujols (Cardinals)
Much as was the case with Bonds early last decade, for the last several years fantasy pundits have been trying to find a reason why Prince Albert shouldn't be the first player off the board. After making a serious run at the Triple Crown in 2009, I think he's finally proven the such a reason doesn't exist. It's hard to predict a duplication of his ridiculous '09 numbers (.327 AVG, 124 R, 47 HR, 135 RBI, 16 SB, 1101 OPS). But, at the same time, Pujols is still in the midst of his prime, has never had an "off" year, and, with the signing of Matt Holliday, finally has some lineup protection, so (hazard this thought if you root for another NL Central franchise) there may actually be room for improvement (gulp).
2. Miguel Cabrera (Tigers)
3. Prince Fielder (Brewers)
4. Ryan Howard (Phillies)
5. Mark Texeira (Yankees)
6. Justin Morneau (Twins)
7. Kevin Youkilis (Red Sox) [also eligible at 3B in most leagues]
8. Adrian Gonzalez (Padres)
These are the lions. In each of the mock drafts I've looked at thusfar, although the order might be altered slightly, all of these guys are off the board by the middle of the third round, sometimes earlier. When choosing your stud, you should think carefully about your leagues rules. In a standard 5X5 roto league you might bump Howard up a slot because of his propensity for massive HR and RBI totals. If you league counts OBP or OPS, you might prefer Youkilis over a couple of the guys I've listed in front of him. If you get negative points for strikeouts, that'll work against Howard and benefit Morneau and A-Gonz.
My favorite from this group is definitely Prince Fielder. It's primarily because I just love watching him play, which is nothing more than an aesthetic justification, but I'll also point out that at 25, he's the youngest of the group and there is reason to believe that he may still be maturing (same goes for Cabrera, who is 26). In '09 he dramatically improved his walk rate and the improved discipline not only translated into a better OBP, but also more hits and a higher average.
If there is a weak link, I think it's Mark Texeira. Tex's hype legitimately corresponds to his contract and the fact that he helped bring a championship to New York in his first year with the club, but those who are predicting even bigger things in 2010 need to temper their expectations. In some leagues he's getting drafted ahead of Cabrera, Fielder, and Howard. As good as he is, his numbers don't quite stack up to that company.
9. Lance Berkman (Astros)
10. Joey Votto (Reds)
11. Derrek Lee (Cubs)
12. Kendry Morales (Angels)
13. Carlos Pena (Rays)
14. Adam Dunn (Nationals) [also eligible at OF in most leagues]
Not too long ago, none of these guys would've fallen outside the top ten. If you end up with one of them, there's certainly no reason to fret, but unlike the tier above, each of these guys has a chink in his armor.
There's a good chance that although they might each hit 40 HR, Dunn and Pena might also bat well below .250, which is a category killer in a 5X5 format.
Joey Votto is only 26 and his splits last season were stupendous (.322/.414/.567), but he missed thirty games. We have yet to see what he can do when given 600+ plate appearances.
A year ago Lance Berkman was getting taken in the first round of many drafts, after an MVP caliber season in '08, but then he missed time and endured a six week slump to begin the season. At 34, could this be the beginning of his decline?
In 2009, Derrek Lee had the season Cubs fans had been waiting for since 2005, but at 34, there's reason to expect he might not be able to duplicate it.
Same goes for Kendry Morales, but for the opposite reason. Although he wasn't technically a rookie, he might as well have been, having never gotten upwards of 200 AB in his three previous seasons. The 26-year-old will have to prove he can do it - by which I mean 30 HR, 100 RBI - again before he leapfrogs into the top ten.
15. Billy Butler (Royals)
16. James Loney (Dodgers)
17. Nick Johnson (Yankees)
18. Paul Konerko (White Sox)
19. Todd Helton (Rockies)
Rumors of Todd Helton's demise have been greatly exaggerated. Sure, he's not the first-rounder he was during his twenties and he hasn't driven in 100 runs since 2003, but even though his power has declined, he still has a lot to offer to fantasy owners. In his last five full seasons (he missed half of 2008, which is the only season he's ever played less than 145 games) Helton has averaged 93 R, 20 HR, and 87 RBI. Not exactly premium numbers for a first baseman, but a solid contribution from your corner-infielder or utilityman, especially when you factor in his spectacular rate splits: .317 AVG, .429 OBP, and .509 SLG.
I expect Billy Butler will be a popular sleeper this season, and justifiably so after the second half he had in '09 (.314 AVG, 13 HR, 55 RBI, 925 OPS), but if you're looking for a high upside youngster who may still be available in the later rounds, I offer you James Loney. Loney's only 26, but already has two straight 90 RBI seasons under his belt. He hasn't displayed the kind of power you expect from the position (averaging 14 HR per season over the last three years), but at his age, that could still develop, and I expect his average and RBI numbers will continue to improve. He walked more than he struck out in '09 (70 BB/68 K), which is a serious feat, and finished strong, hitting .317 with 4 HR in September. He's definitely worth a flyer.
Same goes for Nick Johnson. He seems to always have trouble staying in the lineup, but the move to DH may help his health. And, he couldn't have a better situation. Johnson's never hit more than 23 HR in a season, but as a left-handed hitter at Yankee Stadium, he could have a legitimate shot at 30+. More importantly, Johnson consistently gets on base at an excellent rate (.402 career OBP, .426 OBP in '09). If he hits second, as Girardi has suggested he will, that means he'll be immediately followed by the murderer's row of Texeira, A-Rod, Granderson, Cano, etc. If he gets 140 games, I think he's a lock for 100+ R.
20. Matt LaPorta (Indians) [also eligible at OF in most leagues]
21. Daniel Murphy (Mets) [OF]
22. Chris Davis (Rangers)
23. Gaby Sanchez (Marlins)
24. Garrett Jones (Pirates) [OF]
25. Daric Barton (Athletics)
Of these guys, only Sanchez is a true rookie, but all are quite young and slated to be full-time starters for the first time in their careers. Jones and Murphy had great second halves in '09, especially in terms of power. Jones hit 21 HR in half a season, but beware, he was a 28-year-old rookie who spent four and a half seasons at AAA. Hopefully, he's just a late bloomer, but his "breakout" in '09 is suspiciously flukey.
LaPorta is definitely my favorite of this group. The Indians slowed his progress in '09 so they could fully transition him to 1B, but after he was promoted for good on August 20, he hit .273 with 6 HR, 17 RBI, and a solid 805 OPS, good enough to solidify himself as the starter going into next season. LaPorta had an OPS well above 900 at every minor league level, so I expect him to be a decent hitter from the get-go.
26. Aubrey Huff (Giants) [also eligible at 3B in some leagues]
27. Troy Glaus (Braves) [3B]
28. Garrett Atkins (Orioles) [3B]
I wouldn't want any one of these guys as a first-stringer (at any position), but they are great late-round flyers, as every one of them is only a year removed from 25 HR and 100 RBI, and each is getting a fresh start. You're basically rolling the dice with any one of them, but my preference is for Huff, merely because he has been slightly more consistent over the course of his career and hasn't had the kind of injury problems that have plagued Glaus. At his best, Huff has proven he can go .290-90-25-100. On the other hand, if you really need power, Glaus might be a better call, because if healthy, he's always got a realistic shot at 35 HR.
Whereas their production has consistently bounced up and down of the course of their careers, Atkins seems to be trending in a bad direction. That doesn't mean, at 29, he can't snap out of it, but if he has his usual six-week slump out of the gates (he tended to do this even in his good seasons), he may not have a full-time job by the summer months.
28. Adam LaRoche (D-Backs)
29. Lyle Overbay (Blue Jays)
30. Casey Kotchman (Mariners)
Boring. Boring. Boring. But, boring with regular at-bats.
31. Brandon Allen (D-Backs)
32. Justin Smoak (Rangers)
33. Steve Pearce (Pirates)
34. Logan Morrison (Marlins)
35. Kila Ka'aihue (Royals)
36. Michael Aubrey (Orioles)
37. Chris Carter (Athletics)
I'd be surprised if any of these guys began the season on a major-league roster, but all belong to organizations that don't have established players at 1B and/or DH, so an early to midseason call-up isn't out of the realm of possibility, so it's worth having them on your radar, especially in deep leagues.