(Photo by Quinn Harris/Icon Sportswire)
With apologies to Christmas, now is truly the most wonderful time of the year – pitchers and catchers are finally reporting this week. Our positional rankings continue today with a look at first base. It’s crazy deep, so let’s get down to business.
Tier 1: Mount Crushmore
1. Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona Diamondbacks) – Goldy has been a perennial first-round pick in recent years, and it’s easy to see why. Over the past five seasons, the Diamondbacks’ slugger ranks first in runs scored and stolen bases, second in RBI, third in batting average, and fourth in home runs among all first basemen. He’s also been durable, logging 155 or more games in all but one of those years. Whether or not the Chase Field humidor is operational at any point in 2018, Goldschmidt should remain the cream of the crop at the position.
2. Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds) – Here’s where Votto ranks in the standard categories among first baseman since 2015: first in batting average, second in runs, fourth in homers and steals, and seventh in RBI. During that time, he’s missed only eight games total. Votto hasn’t hit below .300 since 2008 (the only time he did so, checking in at a totally awful .297), and last season he cut his strikeout rate down to a cool 11.7%. He’s the best pure hitter in baseball right now.
3. Freddie Freeman (Atlanta Braves) – Freeman finished in the top 10 at the position according to ESPN’s player rater despite missing seven weeks with a broken wrist. That same injury might be to blame for the steep drop in production he experienced in the season’s second half, although there’s really nowhere to go but down from the absurd .348/.456/.745 line he posted before the break. Only Votto was a better 1B by wOBA or wRC+, so a full season of plate appearances should result in production that stands shoulder to shoulder with the other elites.
4. Anthony Rizzo (Chicago Cubs) – Rizzo hit 30 home runs for the fourth consecutive season in 2017. He also scored 90 runs and drove in 100 for the third year in a row and stole at least 10 bases for the second time in three seasons. Despite a career-best 13.0% strikeout rate, he hit a merely adequate .273 after checking at .292 the prior year. Since becoming a full-time player, he’s never failed to clear 600 plate appearances.
Tier 2: The (Slightly Less) Fantastic Four
5. Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox) – Last season was an emphatic repudiation of anyone who looked askance at Abreu’s falling ISO rates. He’s never failed to hit at least .290 or drive in at least 100 runs, and has averaged 31 homers and 36 doubles per year in his four MLB seasons. Abreu’s strikeout rate has declined every year, and 2017 brought career highs in flyball rate and hard-hit rate as well. He’ll come at least a full round cheaper than the quartet above him, and you’re likely to be happy with the results.
6. Cody Bellinger (Los Angeles Dodgers) – The reigning NL Rookie of the Year slowed down in the second half and had a notably difficult World Series, but still finished the season with 39 homers, 10 steals, and 184 R+RBI in just 132 games. Contact issues could make it tough for him to maintain the .267 average he managed last year, but when he does connect, it’s typically of the high-quality variety.
7. Rhys Hoskins (Philadelphia Phillies) – Small sample be damned, Hoskins displayed fantastic plate discipline (17.5 BB%, 21.5 K%) as a rookie and is projected for close to 40 home runs. He’ll also be hitting the middle of a Phillies lineup that A) showed pronounced improvement in the second half last season and B) now includes OBP machine Carlos Santana. There may also be more batting average upside here than most expect; Hoskins’ profile supports a better BABIP than the .241 he posted last year.
8. Edwin Encarnacion (Cleveland Indians) – It’s a testament to the talent at first base that Encarnacion is ranked this low. Seeing as how he’s averaged a .269-91-38-110-6 season line since his late-bloomer breakout in 2012, there’s an argument to be made that we’re underselling him a tad by ranking him below two players with barely more than a full season of plate appearances between them. On the other hand, he did just turn 35, and his strikeout and fly ball rates are trending in the wrong directions.
Tier 3: Figure Eight
9. Miguel Cabrera (Detroit Tigers) – Miggy struggled through an injury-plagued 2017 and will turn 35 in April, but for the preceding decade-plus there was no better combo of durability and elite production. It’s entirely possible that in a few months, we’ll look foolish for doubting him. Having said that, time makes fools of us all. Cabrera has now failed to clear 20 homers, 65 runs, and 76 RBI in two of the last three seasons, and there’s a lot of mileage on his not exactly chiseled body. He’s no longer the safe choice.
10. Wil Myers (San Diego Padres) – Myers was the only first baseman to produce a 30 HR/20 SB season last year, and still barely cracks the top 10. Why? In addition to the sheer quality and depth at the position, Myers’ numbers dipped across the board in four of the five standard categories. Meanwhile, his strikeout rate climbed for the third straight season. There’s nothing wrong with his production, or with rostering him as your starting first baseman – he just doesn’t reach the lofty heights of those ranked above him.
11. Eric Hosmer (Free Agent) – There’s not much separating Hosmer from Myers – their power numbers and run production have been fairly similar over the last couple of years, and their 2018 ADPs are virtually identical in the early going. You just need to decide whether you prefer the additional stolen bases of Myers or Hosmer’s superior batting average. Hosmer still doesn’t have a team, but he played in a pitchers’ park for a bad offensive team previously and did fine.
12. Justin Smoak (Toronto Blue Jays) – The latest successful reclamation project for the Jays – following in the footsteps of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion – Smoak’s 38 home runs were good for third among first basemen. He also finished in the top 10 at the position in runs and RBI, while hitting a respectable .270. Oddly enough, Smoak’s emergence had nothing to do with the so-called fly ball revolution; counterintuitively, he attributed his success to the fact that he was not trying to hit homers every time up. The result was a refined two-strike approach and greater success against breaking pitches.
13. Matt Olson (Oakland Athletics) – Olson may not have been trying to hit bombs in every at-bat, but you wouldn’t know it to look at his performance. The rookie hit a whopping 24 homers in just 59 games (against only two doubles, which might be my favorite weird stat of 2017). The 41.4 HR/FB% is clearly due for some negative regression, but that doesn’t mean Olson can’t pop 35+ over the fence this year. He managed to hit .259 despite a .238 BABIP, but it’s hard to see much upside beyond that given his propensity for whiffs and pop-ups and extreme pull tendencies. Projections actually have him dipping below .240.
14. Greg Bird (New York Yankees) – The good: Bird has obvious plus power, draws a good amount of walks, and enjoys some of the most favorable team and park contexts in baseball. The bad: Bird has played 69 games total over the last two seasons (including the minors) and has never played more than 130 games in any season of his pro career thanks a variety of injuries. Also, he hit .190 last season. Sure, it’s almost impossible that he’ll carry a sub-.200 BABIP again, but he’s a pull hitter who runs poorly and hits a ton of balls in the air. .260 might be a best-case scenario.
15. Ryan Zimmerman (Washington Nationals) – Zimmerman was a four-category beast in 2017, hitting .303 with 36 HR, 90 R, and 108 RBI. So why is he ranked so low? Well, for starters, those 36 bombs were equal to the amount he’d hit in the previous three seasons combined. That’s because the veteran managed to suit up for only 262 contests across those three years, and wasn’t terribly effective when he did make it onto the field. And even during last year’s renaissance, Zimmerman benefited from some good fortune, carrying a .366 or higher BABIP in three of six months (career .311). In the months where his BABIP wasn’t inflated, his best OPS was .791.
16. Joey Gallo (Texas Rangers) – Gallo is nothing if not a case study of the modern MLB player. Nearly 60 percent of his plate appearances ended in one of three true outcomes (walk, strikeout, or home run). He hit more homers (41) than singles (32). Only three players who qualified for the batting title finished with a lower average than Gallo’s .209, but he was a positive contributor in all other standard categories. Strikeouts have always been an issue for Gallo; however, he’s shown the ability to adjust before. I’d have him a bit higher on this list, personally.
Tier 4: Best of the Rest
17. Trey Mancini (Baltimore Orioles) – In a normal season, Mancini would have been a strong contender for top rookie honors. Instead, he finished a distant third in AL ROY voting despite hitting .293 with 24 homers, 65 runs, and 78 RBI. There’s a strong argument to be made that there isn’t much more upside to Mancini, however. His profile doesn’t support a high batting average, as he lacks foot speed and ranked among the league leaders in swinging strike rate last season. He also hits the ball on the ground quite often, which caps his power potential. While he’s still only 25, right now he looks more like a solid CI option than a viable 1B in mixed leagues.
19. Ian Desmond (Colorado Rockies) – Suffice it to say that Desmond’s first season in Colorado was a disappointment. Injuries limited him to just 95 games, and he managed only seven home runs and middling run production, though he did swipe 15 bags. Desmond averaged 22 homers and 20 steals in the five seasons prior, and last season was the first time he’d missed significant time due to injury. It’s not difficult to imagine him outperforming this ranking.
20. Carlos Santana (Philadelphia Phillies) – Santana has been quite consistent and durable since becoming a full-time player in 2011. Over those seven seasons, he’s averaged 153 games played, 24 HR, 79 R, 80 RBI, and 5 SB. While his career .249 batting average is mediocre, he’s bested that mark by at least 10 points in three of the last five seasons. Moving to Citizens Bank Park should also provide a slight boost to the switch-hitter’s production, as it’s friendlier to hitting from the right side than Progressive Field.
21. Marwin Gonzalez (Houston Astros) – After several years of uninspiring work as a utility player, Gonzalez enjoyed a breakout season in 2017, hitting .303 with 23 homers, 90 RBI, and eight stolen bases. Whether or not you completely buy that improvement (we’re a bit skeptical), Gonzalez is probably a better play for one of the other infield slots – he’s eligible everywhere except catcher.
22. Ryon Healy (Seattle Mariners) – I’m not sure I see a pronounced difference between Healy and Mancini. The latter enjoys a more favorable park context, but look at their numbers from last season and it’s striking how similar they are (with the exception of average, but I’ve already expressed my skepticism over Mancini’s mark there). You can get Healy about 35 picks later, though obviously neither should be your primary option at first base.
23. Josh Bell (Pittsburgh Pirates) – Bell went deep only three times in 45 games as a rookie in 2016 before launching 26 home runs last year. His run production was solid as he spent the bulk of the year hitting cleanup, but a .255 average doesn’t move the needle much. Bell hit for much higher averages in the minors, though, and his profile supports upside in that department. Projections are pegging him for around .270. Unfortunately, his groundball tendencies and pitcher-friendly home park will make it tough for him to improve elsewhere.
24. Matt Carpenter (St. Louis Cardinals) – Carpenter has now been battling shoulder problems for the better part of two years, which casts a shadow over his potential production moving forward. He’s also lost eligibility at second and third base on most platforms, though he’ll likely regain at least one of those positions at some point during the season. Carpenter should be good for 20 homers and plenty of runs if he can stay on the field, but he’ll need to get his average back up to merit a higher ranking at such a deep position.
25. Jose Martinez (St. Louis Cardinals) – Our fearless leader is much more bullish on Martinez than yours truly. While there’s certainly some intrigue here, particularly with his Statcast numbers, he’s also 29 years old and never really set the world on fire in the minor leagues. I also have concerns about role and playing time. Even after dealing Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, the Cardinals have more starting-caliber players than starting positions, so Martinez may not have a long leash if he struggles early. That said, his draft cost is virtually nil.
26. Eric Thames (Milwaukee Brewers) – We compiled these rankings before the Brewers decided to acquire every outfielder in the majors, which might push Ryan Braun to first base when a lefty is pitching. Thames’ fantasy value could actually benefit from that given his difficulties with southpaws, but any prolonged slump could really put a damper on his playing time if the current roster crunch isn’t alleviated via trade.
27. Justin Bour (Miami Marlins) – Bour probably would’ve ranked a bit higher if the Marlins weren’t hellbent on trading every other good player on their roster. As it is, there’s probably no reason for opponents to give him much of anything to hit in 2018.
28. Yulieski Gurriel (Houston Astros) – Gurriel hit .299, but the fact that he put up only 18 homers and tepid run production makes him a fantasy afterthought. It’s hard to see him improving much – he’s not known as being a power hitter, and the Astros’ top-level talent ensures he’ll be relegated to the bottom half of the order.
29. Logan Morrison (Free Agent) – 38 home runs last year and there appears to be basically no market for him. What a world. Of course, he was a below-average and oft-injured hitter the prior four seasons, so perhaps the lack of interest shouldn’t be all that surprising.
30. Yonder Alonso (Cleveland Indians) – 20 of his 28 homers came before the break and he’d never cracked double-digits before last season. He did add a bunch of loft to his swing and he’ll ply his trade in a better park and lineup this year, though.
31. Chris Davis (Baltimore Orioles) – No doubt a precipitous fall for a guy who hit 85 homers combined in 2015-16, but Davis was straight trash last season. He hit below .225 for the third time in the last four years, struck out on 37 percent of his trips to the plate, and only managed 26 homers. You can easily snag him at the end of your draft, if you’re inclined to bet on a rebound.
32. Ryan McMahon (Colorado Rockies) – McMahon’s brief September cameo in the majors was, uh, not great. He raked across two levels of the minors, though, and only just turned 23. If he weren’t blocked by Desmond, he’d be more interesting given the track record and Coors factor. Alas.
33. Brandon Belt (San Francisco Giants) – Fantasy owners appear to have mercifully given up on the idea that Belt will finally break out one of these years. He’s entering his eighth season and will turn 30 in April. He is what he is – a better real-life player than fantasy asset who’s limited by his awful home park.