Contributing Writer : Albert Lang
There’s very little revolutionary about first base. The position includes the steadiest power hitters in fantasy baseball. You can quibble here and there with rankings, but the top five is set: Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder. All are pretty stable four-category producers.
Outside of the top 5, things get a bit murkier.
I’m a fan of Paul Konerko. Since Konerko got healthy at the start of the 2009 season, he has averaged 33 HRs, 78 runs and 101 RBIs and a .296/.378/.530 slash line. He has been a consistent productive force, who should be good for 35 HRs, 100+ RBIs and a solid .290 average in 2012.
Now, I’m guessing most people will have Mark Teixeira over Paul Konerko. While I only have them separated by a couple of players, I obviously prefer Konerko. Over the last two years, Teixeira has out-homered Konerko by just two round trippers and out-RBI’d him by just 3 RBIs. While Tex has scored about 50 more runs during that span, his rate stats (.252/.353/.487) pale in comparison to what Konerko (.306/.391/.551) has done. For those reasons, I’ll take Konerko.
In addition to advocating for Konerko over Teixeira, I’m pretty down on Tex compared to others. I just don’t see him as being as special as some of the other first baseman. And if I’m going to use an early pick on a deep position, I want something special.
Teixeira backers will point to his career low .239 BABIP as the main reason he set a new low in batting average in 2011. However, this is the second consecutive season Tex set a career low in BABIP and AVG. What’s more, 2011 saw Teixeira continue to try and hit more HRs. Since joining the Yankees, his FB% has risen considerably. While his line drive percentage hasn’t moved a ton, he is hitting less and less of them.
In addition, Teixeira’s plate discipline continues an alarming trend. He swung at pitches outside of the strike zone 27.8% of the time in 2011 (the most of his career). His rates for the past several years: 26.5%, 21.8%, 20.1%, 20.2%. This is a two year trend of poor ball/strike recognition. Not surprisingly, pitchers are on to Teixeira’s kryptonite: last season only 39.6% of the pitches he saw were inside the strike zone. That percentage was 42.2% last year, 46.1% the year before and 46.8% the year before that. It has been on a downward trend since 2004.
I see Teixeira as a .265 hitter, with downside. He’ll add 35+ HRs, 90+ runs and 100+ RBIs, but that average will hurt the value of those. He is certainly valuable and a top 40 player or so. If you draft him in the top rounds, expecting a top flight player, you’ll be disappointed.
Having Eric Hosmer in the top 10 is a departure from my normal strategy of avoiding players with relatively low major league plate appearances. But, I think there’s a good chance I’m LOW on him. Hosmer is capable of blasting 25+ HRs, stealing 15+ bases and batting .315. He’s a special talent, worth reaching for in drafts.
First base does get a bit thin after the top 10 (assuming Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana slot in at catcher for fantasy teams). Outside of those players, Edwin Encarnacion represents the best bargain. I’m late to the Encarnacion party, but there’s no denying the power potential there. He should be the full time DH in Toronto, which is incredibly significant. As a DH, Encarnacion has hit .299/.362/.506 in 298 plate appearances. While that’s a relatively small sample, it appears Encarnacion hits better when he doesn’t have to worry about fielding a position (his numbers at first are better than at third as well). Encarnacion could very well sneak into the top 10 if he realizes his power potential.
As for deeper leagues, there are some younger players who haven’t garnered a ton of attention lately, who could pay dividends:
Justin Smoak – I was no fan of Justin Smoak last year, owing to his injury and propensity to hit ground balls. That said, he did post a nice walk rate and slugged 15 HRs in just 123 games. While his home ball park depresses his HR upside, I do expect his HR/FB rate to improve on the dismal 10.8% that it was last year (in 122 plate appearances in 2010, his HR/FB rate was 14.3% for Seattle). I don’t think his average will do you any favors, but he could be a .250 hitter with 20+ HRs, and a decent amount of RBIs. He’ll be a lot more valuable in OBP leagues, as he should continue to post a 10%+ walk rate and see an OBP in the .340s.
Mike Carp – One Seattle corner I’ve liked has been Mike Carp. Now, his .276/.326/.466 line in 2011 completely masked his 25.9% K-rate. He benefited from a .343 BABIP without hitting a ton of balls well. Still, he did have an impressive 11 HRs in 292 plate appearances and a 17.6% FB/HR rate. Now that rate will probably come down a bit, but he could put up similar numbers to Smoak. I do worry a little bit about playing time. However, if Carp gets 550+ plate appearances, 20 HRs is a lock with a .260 average. That’s darn good cheap power.
John Mayberry – Every time I look at my ranks, I think I have Mayberry too low (251st hitter, 42nd 1B). Mayberry is kind of old (28) to have only 369 plate appearances to his name. But he finally has an opportunity, slotting into a good line-up and ball park. He was also impressive last season in 296 plate appearances (.273/.341/.513). With Ryan Howard’s health up in the air and the Phillies not trusting Domonic Brown, at bats are there for Mayberry if he succeeds. I see Mayberry as a sneaky 15 HR/10 SB guy. His average (.260) won’t be great, but that kind of power/speed combination is nice to have late in the draft. I do worry that he doesn’t walk at all and strikes out a decent amount, so there could be many streaks and slumps. If he hits a slump at the wrong time, he could find himself out of the rotation in Philly.
Mat Gamel – This is more a stab in the dark than anything. Gamel was once a highly touted third base prospect. Of course, he couldn’t field the position a lick, but did manage to do severe damage with the bat in the minors. He’s had no success in the majors (.222/.309/.374 in 194 plate appearances), but with Fielder seemingly gone in Milwaukee, the Brewers are going to hand him the first base job. Bill James is astoundingly high on Gamel’s chances in 2012. He pegs him for a .282/.342/.476 line with 19 HRs. The power could definitely be there, but I’d take the under on that batting average. That said, there’s a darn good chance Gamel emerges as a post-hype type of player. I’d love to add him in NL-only and deeper leagues at the end of drafts.
This year I’m targeting a top 10 first baseman. I want that protection with the power numbers. While guys like Gaby Sanchez, Freddy Freeman, Mitch Moreland and Edwin Encarnacion are nice, I’d like to ensure myself of solid consistent power. I imagine I’ll end up with Konerko in a ton of places, but would be generally happy with any of my top 10.
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