Tuesday, February 10, 2009

2009 Fantasy Baseball Position Preview: First Base

Other positions: SP Closers C

Don't be fooled by first base's apparent depth this year. Sure, James Loney and Mike Jacobs will probably put up decent lines. Bet on them, though, and you'll be missing out on some of the biggest fantasy difference-makers available.

As you may have learned from my pitching reviews, I'm a big advocate of going hitters-first on draft day. That strategy should absolutely include at least one (or more depending on format) top-level first baseman on draft day. In a typical league, only 40-50% of MLB starting pitchers are on fantasy rosters, so there's lots of depth if one of your guys falters, and you can expect some surprising breakouts on waivers. For first base, 12 guys will go into the 1b slot. If your league plays CI, that's another 6-8, while the Utility spot will eat up another 5 or so. Finally, several guys who play first will be used at other fantasy positions, like Miguel Cabrera and Kevin Youkilis. All in all, you can bet on 18-25 first basemen being rostered on your league on draft day- that's 60-80% of the available pool, meaning there aren't as many breakout candidates that you can grab off the wire, unless they're minor-league callups. Don't hesitate to draft two in the first five rounds if you get a guy in a good spot.

Albert Pujols, STL ($41) .357, 100, 37, 116, 7
Albert is 29 and made it through last season without needing to quit for the surgery on his elbow many thought would cut his year short. He instead was able to have it in the offseason and will have a clean bill of health on opening day. If that's the case, he should be able to log more playing time this year (only 524 ABs in '08), meaning his RBI and run totals will be in A-Rod territory. At second overall, it's a tough decision between A-Rod and Pujols- I'm leaning towards A-Rod but that's splitting hairs. If both are healthy, Pujols could have 30-40 points of AVG on A-Rod and only 10 fewer steals, with all other categories a wash.

Miguel Cabrera, DET ($34) .292, 85, 37, 127, 1
Cabrera's ADP on mockdraftcentral is 7.32, mixed in with Braun, Sizemore and Rollins as the most common 6-9 picks. I like to think about my first-rounder in context of what's going to be available in the next coupole rounds. If you're picking sixth, you'll also have the 19th pick on the way back, which means you'll likely get one of:
Chase Utley
Johan Santana
BJ Upton
Justin Morneau
Manny Ramirez
Carlos Beltran
Alfonso Soriano
Evan Longoria
I expect Santana to be gone by this point in most leagues; Utley will be gone too if he does well in camp. That leaves you with Morneau (I'm not too big on him, more in his comment), Longoria (I'm wary of his strikeout rate this early) and four outfielders.

I really don't know who I like of this group at this point; Cabrera is a very safe bet to recover from last season's off-year. He's also eligible at third which gives you flexibility later on in the draft.

Mark Teixeira, NYY ($31) .308, 102, 33, 121, 2
Tex is going to have a great year this year if 2008 is any indication. Batting fourth in the Yankees lineup, he'll stack up big counting numbers. On sheer value, he's worth owning and you can make up the steals later.

Lance Berkman, HOU ($29) .312, 114, 29, 106, 18
Berkman faded down the stretch after an amazing first half. He's going to be 33 this year and you can't expect he'll sustain the same great play. His overall value is high, but take Teixeira first. He's a great option in the early second round.

Ryan Howard, PHI ($29) .251, 105, 48, 146, 1
As the strikeouts pile up, Howard keeps hitting the homers. It's not reasonable to expect he'll be better than he was last season, and do you really want a .250 hitter in the early 2nd round? He's not worth the price.

Justin Morneau, MIN ($26) .300, 97, 23, 129, 0
The last two years, Morneau has been a plus in just one category: RBIs. He's been that because he's had the good fortune of batting behind Joe Mauer. Otherwise, he's a pretty average 1B. He'll go in the early third round and I'd rather have the next guy...

Prince Fielder, MIL ($25) .276, 86, 34, 102, 3
He wasn't more valuable than Morneau last year, but he's a much better bet to hit 40 homers while chipping in useful numbers across the board. Even if he hits only 34 again this year, expect at least the same production. The Milwaukee lineup will again be a strong one and Prince should have plenty of RBI opportunities.

Adrian Gonzalez, SDN ($23) .278, 103, 36, 119, 0
A little less power upside than Prince but delivers serious value anyway. He's by no means glamourous but if he's there in the mid-late fourth round he's worth picking because the power threats dry up soon.

Carlos Pena, TB ($22) .247, 76, 31, 102, 1
MLB.com rates him much too highly, in my opinion. At 30, the power is still there but everything else is going. There are better alternatives available.

Joey Votto, CIN ($21) .297, 69, 24, 84, 7
Votto will bat in a 3-5 slot in a very underrated lineup in Cincinnati. He didn't have problems with Ks or left-handed pitching last year and it stands to reason that he can produce bigger counting numbers. He was hitting 6th or 7th for much of the first half but closed the year as the everyday #3 hitter once the Reds got used to life without Adam Dunn. His value could easily equal Gonzalez' while still being available in the 6th or 7th round. He's not eligible in the outfield this year, but don't hesitate to draft him even if you've already filled your 1B slot.

Derrek Lee, CHC ($21) .291, 93, 20, 90, 8
At age 33, he's not a guy to target. He hasn't gone over 22 HR in three years since his career 2005 season. If he falls to the 7th round, by all means give him a long look. Just keep in mind that he's not the same hitter that was drafted in the second round of many leagues last year.

Kevin Youkilis, BOS ($21) .312, 91, 29, 115, 3
He's going in the third round in many drafts and that's too early. A guy who won't hit 30 homers this year (trust me, he wont; and he won't hit .312 again either) has little hope of outproducing Adrian Gonzalez, who will be a much safer pick. Pass on him.

Chris Davis, TEX ($21) .285, 51, 17, 55, 1
This is a real risk-reward proposition. No one denies the fact that Davis has the power to hit 40 homers right now. But can he do it with a functional batting average? He posted an ugly 88:20 K/BB in just 295 at-bats last year and will easily strike out 150 times if he plays a full year this year.

If we accept Davis for what he is--Adam Dunn without the walks but probably with a better average--he's still a valuable fantasy property. He'll go in the sixth round in most drafts, interestingly, right near Adam Dunn, which is a bit early for my taste when there are several good #2 OFs likely to be available. If you need homers, take him; just make sure you've got yourself covered for batting average elsewhere in your lineup.

Aubrey Huff, BAL ($19) .304, 96, 32, 108, 4
Last year saw the return of an Aubrey Huff that we hadn't seen in several years. Because we've already seen this as an established level of talent from Huff, bet on him to keep it going for another year. His season was so complete that it just doesn't look like a fluke - he added a career-high 48 doubles, struck out only 89 times and picked up four steals. Yes, he's 32, but he's a very safe pick and he'll be eligible at first and third. Expect 25 homers and 90+ runs and rbi, as well as a .280-.295 average. You'll be able to get him in the eighth or ninth round.

Carlos Delgado, NYM ($19) .271, 96, 38, 115, 1
Carlos' 2008 put him back in contention for the MVP and the Hall of Fame. He's 36, but superb talents like this can decline a little more gracefully than your typical slugger. Delgado's excellent batting eye will still be there even if the muscle fades a little bit. The Mets are hoping he's ready to play every day which is good news for you. He's going as late as the 14th round in some leagues, so keep an eye on him late in the draft. At that point, even if he slumps to 25 HR and 90 RBI, he's still good value.

Adam Dunn ($18) .236, 79, 40, 100, 2
Like Chris Davis, he does only one thing, and he does it well. He's 29 so expect more of the same. He'll probably go in the sixth or seventh, which is earlier than I want him this year.

Garrett Atkins ($18) .286, 86, 21, 99, 1
No, he's not elite anymore. No worry; he is what he is, which is a useful hitter batting in the middle of the Colorado lineup. Trade talk has died down so he's a good investment in the seventh round, if still available.

Paul Konerko, CHW ($16) .240, 59, 22, 62, 2
This guy can only get worse. Don't touch him.

Adam LaRoche, PIT ($16) .270, 66, 25, 85, 1
Why does he take so long to get started every year? I don't know. I never touch him on draft day. Instead, wait until some other owner gets fed up with him and cuts him June 1. That's about when you want to grab him.

Hank Blalock, TEX ($15) .287, 37, 12, 38, 1
He's penciled in as the DH because Texas doesn't know how much he'll be able to play. That sort of issue takes him off your draft list completely.

James Loney, LAD ($14) .289, 66, 13, 90, 7
Those numbers are for a full season. Fantasy GMs like to predict power boosts for young hitters and Loney is a popular target. I have a rule for expecting power from young players- I'll believe it when I see it. Loney looks more and more like a crappy Lyle Overbay than like a Justin Morneau. Don't pay the premium for a guy who may never top 20 homers.

Mike Jacobs, KC ($10) .247, 67, 32, 93, 1
What was that I just said about young players and power? Jacobs can now be counted on to hit for 30+ HR power. He sat a lot against lefties in the last few years. He'll be available very late so if you need some last-ditch power, grab him. He'll hurt you in AVG, though.

Conor Jackson, ARI ($10) .300, 87, 12, 75, 10
Hey, you could do a lot worse than this guy! Jackson is a talented hitter who controls the strike zone well. More power won't come unless he changes his approach for some reason. So long as you've got power at other positions, Jackson is a strong CI or UT hitter because he'll give you a boost in average and steals. He's only 26 so don't expect a decline; don't count on him to hit over 20 HRs though-he's not that guy.

Others- there are other 1Bs, of course. None of them can be expected to be huge contributors on draft day- you have to wait and see how playing time shakes out. You MUST fill the 1B position early - Ideally in the first 5 rounds. While there are power hitters available in the late rounds (like, say, Mike Jacobs), you won't find players who can combine 30+ homer power with a .285 average and 100 RBIs after the fifth round.

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