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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fantastic Thoughts: "First base is deep, but not that deep." (Fantasy Baseball First Base Rankings)

I've discussed the "three threes" strategy before, most recently in my 2010 BLOGZKRIEG! Auction Diary, but heres a quick refresher.

My theory is that first-baseman, besides consistently filling up the stat sheet, are less frequently injured than players who play more strenuous positions.  So, I aim to get as many 1B/DH types on my roster as possible, three at minimum: at first, corner infield, and utility.  If you have an instance, as we did in 2010, where a former third-baseman or outfielder is being moved to first (i.e. Adam Dunn, Troy Glaus, etc.), but still has eligibility at their old position, than that opens up the possibility of getting even more.

Here are the numbers, by position, of players who got at least 600 plate appearances in 2010:

C: 0
1B: 21
2B: 9
3B: 11
SS: 10
LF: 10
CF: 14
RF: 11
DH: 4

This was actually an even more pronounced distribution than I've seen in years past, but 1B is almost always the runaway leader.  Keeping your players on the field is one of the most important and least predictable aspects of playing fantasy baseball and this is one way I seek to exert a little bit of control.

This season, however, the class of first baseman is not as deep as it has been in the recent past.  There are a few reasons for this.  No fewer than ten teams are currently planning to go with young first-baseman, either rookies or sophomores.  Some of them are quite promising, but there is always risk involved with young players.  Furthermore, we have a couple of premier hitters - Justin Morneau and Kendry Morales - who are coming back from injuries and whose production, especially in the early months of the season, could be effected.  Several players who were formerly considered safe producers - Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, etc. - are coming off bad years.  It's hard to feel comfortable predicting a rebound.  And, on the other side, guys like Paul Konerko and Aubrey Huff just posted career highs.  What can we expect from them?

It's a tough crop to gauge, which is one reason why the elite first-baggers, always among the most expensive players on the board, may be even more sought-after.

1. Albert Pujols, STL
2. Miguel Cabrera, DET

Not only are they the clear leaders at the position, they are, in my mind at least, the two most valuable players in fantasy baseball.  If it weren't for Pujols, we'd probably hear a lot more about the historical precedence of Miggy's seven-year stretching of averaging .317 - 100 - 34 - 117 - 4.  But, of course, Prince Albert's stretch runs to ten years at .331 - 119 - 41 - 123 - 8.  Sick.  Just sick.

3. Prince Fielder, MIL
4. Joey Votto, CIN
5. Adrian Gonzalez, BOS
6. Ryan Howard, PHI

Many would scoff at putting Fielder ahead of the 2010 NL MVP, but remember we're not paying for last year's stats.  History has suggested, that short of legends like Pujols and Bonds, it's really hard to maintain MVP-type numbers from one year to the next.  I'm not saying Votto won't continue to be productive, but I expect a modest decline from a player who, to be honest, set career highs is basically everything in 2010.  Fielder is the same age as Votto, but with a much longer and more impressive overall track record and, coming off a slightly down season (.261-94-32-83-1), in a contract year, and playing for a serious contender, he's got everything to prove.

7. Mark Teixeira, NYY
8. Justin Morneau, MIN
10. Kendry Morales, LAA
11. Adam Dunn, CWS

Note that, absent from this group is Kevin Youkilis.  If he were here, I would probably rank him ahead of Teixeira, but as he will be spending most of the season at the hot corner, following the Adrian Gonzalez trade, that's where I'm going to rank him.  Again, it has to do with wanting to focus on the guys that have the luxury of playing baseball's least taxing position.  This is a class of players who are all clearly superb hitters and could very well end up out-producing several players in the tier above them, but all give us reason for pause.  Morales is coming off a broken leg that cost him almost all of 2010.  Morneau looked like he was heading for his second MVP award, but concussions cut he season short at the halfway point.  Teixeira dealt with minor injuries and still produced at a high level, except in terms of batting average, which fell to a career low (.256, is probably just a fluke, based on his .268 BABIP).  Batting average is also the concern for Dunn, who actually was above his career norms in his two years in Washington.  The move to Chicago could be good for his power totals, but changing leagues might cause him to backtrack in terms of average and strikeouts.  Again, it's possible any one of these guys could give you a top-five caliber performance, but there's some minor uncertainties.

12. Billy Butler, KC
13. Paul Konerko, CWS
14. Aubrey Huff, SFG
15. Adam Lind, TOR

This is where the first substantial dropoff happens.  All of these guys have certainly proved themselves capable of putting up big numbers, but their ability to do it consistently in the question.  After mediocre showings in '08 and '09 it looked like Konerko was entering his decline.  Then, just before his contract expired, he posted the best season of his career, at age 34.  Though a year younger, Huff's situation is similar.  2010 was, in many respects, his best showing since 2003 (although he also had a very respectable year in 2008).  Lind was an MVP candidate in '09, but fell apart last year.  In 2011 he'll be 27-years-old and playing a new position.  Could it spark a comeback?  With all these players, the issue is not whether you want them so much as what you have to pay for them.  In the early middle rounds of your draft or for around $20-$25, they're reasonable investment, but don't reach.  On the other hands, if one of them slips or can be had for under $20, get after him.

16. Matt LaPorta, CLE
17. Kila Ka'aihue, KCR
18. Justin Smoak, SEA
19. Daric Barton, OAK
20. James Loney, LAD

These players are defined by what I'd call "unrealized potential."  Matt LaPorta was the cornerstone in the C. C. Sabathia trade a few years back.  At the time he was presumed a future All-Star, but his performance thusfar has been frankly pathetic (596 OPS in 162 games).  He's still young.  Ka'aihue has hit at every minor-league level, but for some reason the Royals were reluctant to promote him.  Now, at age 27, he'll finally get a shot to prove himself, but the Eric Hosmer era is just on the horizon, so there's little room for error.  A year ago, everybody thought Smoak was "a sure thing," then he hit .218 in half a season with Texas and Seattle.  Still, he's a tailor-made post-hype sleeper.  Barton finally got a firm hold on the A's first base job last year, as many had long been expecting, but he still hasn't shown much power, and much of his "real" value comes from his OBP and his defense, neither of which shows up on most fantasy stat sheets.  Many predicted Loney to be a future batting champion after he hit .321 with a 915 OPS in his first two seasons (446 AB).  In the past three he's hit .279 with a 751 OPS (1759 AB) and patience is wearing thin in L.A.

As you can tell, this is why I have some skepticism about the depth of this year's first-base class.  There's plenty of talent in this tier and those that follow, but it is very, very unproven.

21. Brandon Allen, ARZ
22. Gaby Sanchez, FLA
23. Freddie Freeman, ATL
24. Ike Davis, NYM

Some will go a little gaga over Sanchez and Davis because they were considered Rookie of the Year candidates in 2010.  But, let's be honest, as far as fantasy first baseman go, their numbers sucked.

Sanchez: .273 AVG, 72 R, 19 HR, 85 RBI, 5 SB
Davis: .264 AVG, 73 R, 19 HR, 71 RBI, 3 SB

Base on their minor-league records, I'm not convinced either is going to rapidly improve.  If you're paying only a dollar or two, as you probably were last year, that's fine.  But for the $15+ you might need to pay this season, I'd rather wait and take a cheap flyer on one of this year's rookies.  Allen and Freeman are probably the best of the 2011 class.

26. Derrek Lee, BAL
27. Carlos Pena, CHC
28. Adam LaRoche, WAS
29. Lyle Overbay, TOR
30. Todd Helton, COL

Boring, boring, and more boring.  That said, each of these guys will end up outperforming several of the young players I've listed ahead of them.  They're basically 75 R, 20 HR, and 75 RBI in the bank (presuming health), but with potentially low averages.  That ain't great for a starting first-baseman, but then again, only 11 players did substantially better in 2010.  In a year light on "sure things," it might not be a bad idea to go boring with one of your low-end selections.

29. Mitch Moreland, TEX
30. Brett Wallace, HOU
31. Leslie Anderson, TBR
32. Brandon Belt, SFG
33. Chris Carter, OAK
34. Chris Davis, TEX
35. Yonder Alonso, CIN

The young player grab bag.  You know the deal.  Lots of upside.  No certainty.  No guaranteed playing time.  Moreland and Wallace get the upper hand only because they appear destined make Opening Day lineups.  Will they survive April?  That's harder to tell.

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