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Reality Check: Looking at first base for 2013

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Once again, we break from the grind of September baseball to take a sneak peak at next year's rankings, focusing this week on the first base position.

It's a deep position made only deeper by the growing number of catchers who use it as sort of a semi-siesta, resting their legs without resting their bats.

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(Looking at you, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana.)

Would you actually play any of them at first base? Not if you could help it. But because the first base rankings would be incomplete without them, here they are, chest protectors and all, bumping out the players you might actually target at the position.

So even though you'll find 20 names here, you shouldn't expect to see recent up-and-comers Todd Frazier, Chris Carter and Brandon Belt. You shouldn't expect to see one-time mainstays Kevin Youkilis, Kendrys Morales and Mike Napoli. You shouldn't expect to see the steady but unspectacular Michael Cuddyer and Nick Swisher. You shouldn't even expect to see Mark Trumbo, who looked like a lock for the top 10 before falling flat on his face in the second half. There just isn't room.

You should expect to see serious production, though. In a 12-team league, nobody should come out of the draft bemoaning his first baseman.

Keep in mind that even though these rankings do reflect my personal preferences to a degree, they also account for perception. After all, they wouldn't do you much good if they weren't anywhere close to what you'd see on Draft Day. Any justification I have to stray from the rankings I'll mention in the text below.

Onward!

Top 10 first basemen for 2013:
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
3. Prince Fielder, 1B, Tigers
4. Buster Posey, C/1B, Giants
5. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
6. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers
7. Joe Mauer, C/1B, Twins
8. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Cardinals
9. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees
10. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks

Don't like seeing Pujols at the top? I'll admit his slow starts each of the last two years have been a bit disconcerting, especially with him entering his mid-30s, but considering both times he rebounded with the same numbers you would have expected of him in his prime (he's batting .318 with 28 homers and a 1.014 OPS in 377 at-bats since May 16), you can't really say he's on the decline. His potential to sustain that pace over a full season makes him the cream of the crop at first base still. Even if he falls a little short, as has been the case this year, he's about on par with Votto.

And it's not like Votto has been the best first baseman on a per-game basis anyway. That honor, at least for right now, goes to Encarnacion, who trails only Mike Trout, Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera in per-game production this season. He doesn't seem like an elite first baseman, but he's right on the border of that tier, separating Pujols, Votto, Fielder and (sigh) Posey from the rest of pack.

Wait, what happened to Miguel Cabrera? As things stand now, he'll be third base-only next year. Look, you can't have it all. Just embrace the eligibility at the weaker position and move on.

Gonzalez figures to be a hotly debated pick next year given how much he has disappointed this year. It's not all bad, of course. Since July 6, he's hitting .320 with 10 home runs and an .899 OPS in 222 at-bats. But even if he performed at that pace all season, he'd still be half a step back from where he used to be and a full step back from the Pujols-Fielder-Encarnacion class. In fact, I'm not sure he deserves to be as highly regarded among first basemen as Mauer is among catchers, but I give Gonzalez the nod in the rankings because of Mauer's durability concerns. And let's be honest: If Gonzalez rebounded with 35 homers next year, it wouldn't shock anybody. What's the ceiling for Mauer? Twenty?

Speaking of shocking people, if I told you Encarnacion, Votto and Pujols are averaging the most Fantasy points per game of this group, who would you guess is fourth? The answer is Craig, who I actually consider a bit undervalued here. He's been nothing but a stud since returning from offseason knee surgery in early May and nothing but a .300-hitting, .900-OPS guy since signing with the Cardinals in 2006. And with Lance Berkman talking retirement, whatever concerns remain about his playing time are about to disappear entirely. I don't know if the average Fantasy owner would select Craig over Teixeira, who has all the name value, but an assured .300 batting average vs. a .250-ish mark is an easy call for me.

One notable omission here is Billy Butler, who will likely be a few games short of retaining first base eligibility next season. Granted, he might regain it within the first few weeks, but his DH-only status to start the year could cause him to slip to his usual sixth- or seventh-round range even with his newfound power. Hypothetically speaking, he would rank ninth among first baseman, just ahead of Teixeira.

Next 10 first basemen for 2013:
11. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
12. Corey Hart, 1B/OF, Brewers
13. Carlos Santana, C/1B, Indians
14. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
15. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
16. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals
17. Ike Davis, 1B, Mets
18. Adam LaRoche, 1B, Nationals
19. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies
20. Adam Dunn, 1B, White Sox

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My decision to address this position by groups of 10 breaks up the Goldschmidt-Freeman duo, which is unfortunate since that's probably the closest call at first base next year. It's a matter of preference, really. Both are young, high-upside players who have put up similar numbers in their sophomore seasons. The difference is the way they've arrived at those numbers. While Freeman has endured the usual ups and downs, Goldschmidt had a clear turning point in mid-May and has hit .306 with 16 homers and a .926 OPS in 95 games since. If he's been able to sustain that level of production for that long, who's to say it's not the new baseline for him? At age 25, he's probably closer to his big breakout than the 23-year-old Freeman is.

Morneau ... that's all about name value, right? Actually, I'm pretty encouraged by his performance this year. Though he's hardly back to MVP form, he's a different player from last year, when he was recovering from a severe concussion and wrist, knee, foot and neck surgeries, and he's continued to progress over the course of the season, batting over .300 since the All-Star break. With another year removed from all that nonsense, I'm not so sure he can't take another step forward. Given the shortcomings of the players behind him, it seems like a worthwhile gamble.

Yes, I include Konerko among those players. Yes, I know injuries are partially to blame for his recent lack of production, but at age 37, will next year really be any different? All I know is he's been outscored by both Hosmer and Davis (and Jordan Pacheco and Chris Johnson) since May 28, and I'm not into predicting turnarounds for players his age.

Frankly, I'm more likely to gamble on Hosmer or Davis even though I expect them to go a little later in drafts. Sure, their overall numbers aren't so great, but they have upside. Davis has shown his in recent months, rebounding from an early-season bout with valley fever to put up about the numbers everyone expected from him from mid-June on. Hosmer requires more of a leap of faith, but Jason Heyward's rebound from an inexplicably bad sophomore season gives me some reason for optimism. The reason I'd go with Hosmer over Davis in the middle rounds is purely a matter of upside. Davis is a nice player in a Corey Hart sort of way, but Hosmer could someday be elite. Here's hoping he shows signs of it next year.

After him, elite is no longer an option. LaRoche, Howard and Dunn are all built to meet needs, not fulfill dreams. Howard and Dunn are both all-or-nothing sluggers, and LaRoche ... well, he's just a safe contributor if you're not in a position to gamble. I know the skeptics will suggest I'm putting too much stock into what's shaping up to be a career season (or close to it), but LaRoche is the 10th-ranked first baseman in Head-to-Head leagues right now. Dropping him to 18th seems more than fair. Besides, if you go back and calculate his per-game production from some of his past seasons, it's about on par with what Gonzalez and Konerko have done this season. The reason you don't remember it that way is because players were generally putting up bigger numbers then. While offensive production as a whole has declined in the post-steroids era, LaRoche has remained about the same. Looking at it that way, this year's performance has some legs to it.

For the record, I'm down on both Howard and Dunn. Howard will turn 33 this offseason, so I'm not sure a few months of rest is all he needs to get back to hitting 35 homers every year. And Dunn, after an encouraging first couple months when his walks and batting average were more or less back to normal, has done nothing more than hit a few balls extremely hard in the three months since. Personally, I'd rather have the unranked Trumbo, whose late-season collapse I suspect is related to the back spasms he suffered in late July.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us on Twitter @CBSFantasyBB or Scott White at @CBSScottWhite . You can also e-mail us at fantasybaseball@cbsinteractive.com .

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Player News
Giants SS Brandon Crawford agrees to $3.175M salary for 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(4:34 pm ET) The Giants and shortstop Brandon Crawford avoided arbitration Tuesday, agreeing to a $3.175 million salary for 2015, according to CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman. Crawford, who is in his first year of arbitration, made $560,000 in 2014.

Crawford just finished his fourth season in the majors and third full season in 2014. He had career highs in triples (10), home runs (10), runs (54), RBI (69), walks (59) and games played (153).


Mariners' McClendon toying with idea of using Wilhelmsen as starter
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(4:28 pm ET) The acquisition of J.A. Happ means Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon doesn't have to head into spring training with long reliever Tom Wilhelmsen competing for a spot in the rotation.

However, McClendon hasn't totally given up on the idea of Wilhelmsen potentially transitioning to a starting role down the road, per MLB.com.

"I don't think it's totally dead," McClendon said. "I would say it's probably a long shot. My plan, as we speak right now, is to maybe stretch him out in spring and just play with it a little bit and see what happens, but I think it's a long shot. He was just so good in the role he was in, it'd be hard to take him out of that role."

Wilhelmsen pitched multiple innings in 24 of his 57 appearances last year. The former closer went 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings.

"I really tried not to change anything at all, [other than] try to simplify a little bit," Wilhelmsen said. "If I was going in in the fourth inning, I knew I'd have to throw two or three innings and I just really attacked the zone. But it's not like you don't attack the zone any other time. It's the same thing. You have to get outs."


Tigers' Castellanos works to be 'more comfortable' at 3B in 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(4:17 pm ET) Tigers third baseman Nick Castellanos struggled in his first full year playing third base at the major-league level in 2014, so he is hard at work this offseason improving his defense

"Last year was [about] the actual ground-ball catching," Castellanos said, per MLB.com. "This year is a lot more [about] quickness, working on my range, lateral movement."

On top of committing 15 errors, Castellanos' Ultimate Zone Rating of negative-18.4 was nearly twice as bad as the next-lowest rating among third-base regulars. He also had a Defensive Runs Saved of minus-30 and a plus/minus rating of minus-39, which was lowest in the majors last year.

"I'm going to be more comfortable this year," Castellanos said. "Last year, I knew nobody [in terms of hitting tendencies]. Also I was getting used to the tempo of the game. It wasn't like I was in the big leagues for a while at another position and then had to go to third base. It was pretty much me making my first year in the big leagues at pretty much a new position, or trying to relearn an old position."


Santana, Escobar to compete to be Twins' starting shortstop
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(3:56 pm ET) While Danny Santana is considered the front-runner to be the Twins' starting shortstop, first-year manager Paul Molitor said nothing has been decided yet. Santana will compete with Eduardo Escobar for the starting job this spring.

"It's probably been one of the more awkward things for me this winter in dealing with that situation," Molitor said, per MLB.com. "Obviously, I have to go in there open-minded about how it will play out. I can't say Santana will be the shortstop because things can change. Escobar deserves an opportunity to play and whether it's spotting around the organization or he has to go back to shortstop, I can't tell you it all will work out."

Escobar started a team-high 86 games at shortstop in 2014 for Minnesota. He made it clear he wants to play every day, but is willing to play where Molitor needs him.

"This season is important for me," Escobar said. "I'm coming in ready to play. I don't know if I'm going to be the starting shortstop or not, but I've been working hard to be ready for spring training. If Molitor wants me to play shortstop, or wherever, I'm ready for it."

Santana said he is excited he is moving back to shortstop after making a team-high 62 starts in center field last year. He's been fielding 200 grounders per day in the Dominican Republic to get ready for the season.

"I'm very happy about playing shortstop. I was waiting for that moment," Santana said. "Shortstop is my natural position. I just need to keep working and I can do the same thing as last year."


Rockies' Bridich: 'Highly unlikely' Tulo, CarGo traded before opener
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(3:17 pm ET) Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich told FOX Sports on Tuesday that it is "highly, highly unlikely" shortstop Troy Tulowitzki or outfielder Carlos Gonzalez will be traded before opening day.

Tulowitzki, who has been linked to trade rumors involving the Mets this offseason, is under contract through 2020 on a six-year, $118 million deal. He is also recovering from August hip surgery.

Gonzalez is under contract through the 2017 season on a seven-year, $80 million contract. He is also recovering from surgery in August to repair the patellar tendon in his left knee.


Pitcher Johan Santana shut down in Venezuelan Winter League
by Sean d'Oliveira | CBSSports.com
(2:46 pm ET) Free-agent pitcher Johan Santana has been scratched from pitching in any of the remaining Venezuelan Winter League championship series games, reports FOXSports.

Santana has been experiencing discomfort in his shoulder. Teams that have indicated interest in Santana include the Yankees, Blue Jays, Padres. Santana's agent said Santana may still throw for major-league scouts, but wasn't sure.

He last pitched in the major leagues in 2012 and produced a 4.85 ERA in 21 starts.


Royals OF Jarrod Dyson agrees to $1.225M salary for 2015
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(1:54 pm ET) Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson avoided arbitration Tuesday by agreeing to a $1.225 million salary for 2015, according to CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman. He will also receive a $25,000 bonus for 350 plate appearances.

Dyson is in his first year of arbitration. He hit .269 with one home run, 24 RBI and 36 stolen bases in 120 games in 2014.


Angels invite reliever Frank Herrmann to spring training
by Larry Hartstein | CBSSports.com
(1:22 pm ET) The Angels announced they've invited reliever Frank Herrmann to spring training as a non-roster invitee. Herrmann, 30, spent the previous five years in the Indians' organization, last pitching in the majors in 2012.

Padres' Bud Black: Jedd Gyorko 'learned a lot' from 2014 struggles
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(12:07 pm ET) Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko definitely went through a sophomore slump in 2014 after belting 23 home runs as a rookie in 2013. Although, dealing with plantar fasciitis in his left foot certainly didn't help his cause.

Still, Gyorko seems to indicate the injury wasn't the main reason he struggled offensively last season. He hit .210 with 10 home runs in 111 games.

"I think I maybe put a little too much pressure on myself," Gyorko said, per MLB.com. "We were struggling as a team. And I think all of us, not just myself, felt like we needed to come up with that big hit to get us going. It's hard to hit when you put that kind of pressure on yourself."

Gyorko missed nearly two months of games last season due to the foot injury, but once he returned, his numbers began to improve. He hit .260 with a .347 on-base percentage over his final 55 games. 

"He was better. I think he started making some adjustments, some mechanical, some at-bat to at-bat in terms of pitch selection," manager Bud Black said. "Before, you saw him chasing pitches up in the strike zone and also sliders away. I think that a lot of that was him wanting to be aggressive and wanting to help the team."

The Padres are expecting better results from Gyorko in 2015, especially with a revamped lineup that includes Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks.

"We saw in 2013 what Jedd can be, and I think there's more to Jedd based on 2013," Black said. "I think last year there were a lot of factors that went into his season that he expected or adjusted to, but that is something he's hopefully learned from. It's a tough game. You've got to work and stay on top of it. In that regard, I think he learned a lot."


Infield shifts have become an issue for players like Reds' Bruce
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:46 am ET) Reds outfielder Jay Bruce is not going to use infield shifts as an excuse for his low batting average, but he admits it does play a factor, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

"That's definitely taken some hits away from me," Bruce said. "I don't use it as an excuse. But the bottom line is it takes hits away. You smoke a ball up the middle and you think it's a hit. But the shortstop is playing right behind second base.

"It's definitely cut down on average. You look at a player like Mark Teixiera. He was a .300, .280 hitter. You put the shift on him. He's a guy who drives the ball, pull hitter. He uses the other side of the field some. But guys like that are hitting in the .250s."

Bruce added that beating the shift is difficult. 

"Everyone's like, 'Hit a ground ball to shortstop or hit one down the line.' Like you can do whatever you want." he said. "A lot of times, pitchers pitch to the shift. And shifts are getting more sophisticated. In New York, (shortstop Derek) Jeter was playing third, in on the grass. So you can't bunt. Ideally, you want to get a hit. It's hard to do."

Reds hitting coach Don Long said eventually hitters will be taught in the minors to beat the shift.

"Not everybody's going to be the perfect hitter and be able to do everything," he said. "But I think you're going to find guys who want to have the ability to hit to both sides of the field."


 
 
 
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