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Reality Check: Initial look at first base

Senior Fantasy Writer
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As a general rule, going 20 deep at an infield position will provide a long enough list of names to last an entire mixed-league draft.

But first base has a way of breaking the rules.

Once again, it's shaping up to be Fantasy Baseball's deepest position in 2014, and the depth extends to every tier. Considering one-third of my projected first round for 2014 (the subject of last week's Reality Check ) is first basemen, you'd think little would remain for the rounds that follow. But the position is so abundant from start to finish that I couldn't even fit probable mixed-leaguers like Adam Dunn, Nick Swisher, Kendrys Morales and Ryan Howard into my top 20.

And that's even with Matt Carpenter, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer, Victor Martinez, Jonathan Lucroy, Daniel Murphy and Michael Morse expected to lose eligibility at the position.

So who made the cut? Some you may have forgotten about. Some you may not see coming. But all are capable of the kind of production that would make them mainstays at just about any other position.

Top 10 first basemen for 2014:
1. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks
4. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles
5. Prince Fielder, 1B, Tigers
6. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
7. Buster Posey, C/1B, Giants
8. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals
9. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
10. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Cardinals

The top five I had already established in my projected first two rounds for 2014. Not everyone will agree on the order of the top four, with the biggest point of contention being my choice of Encarnacion at No. 1, but over the last two years, he's been the most productive hitter after Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in Head-to-Head points leagues. He's like a hybrid of Davis and Cabrera, offering the power potential and batting average limitations of the former, but with the plate discipline of the latter, making him a safer bet than Davis to keep it up from year to year, especially now that he's done it two years in a row. He hasn't gotten much pub with the Blue Jays out of contention during that time, but ultimately, it's the numbers that count.

Everyone wants to write off Fielder just because he hasn't lived up to expectations this year, but even in his diminished state, he's been too productive to consider sitting in Fantasy. How many players can you say that about on your mixed-league team? And keep in mind that's the downside for him. At age 29, I'm thinking he's a better bet than not to bounce back to his previous six years' production, which would make him first-round material.

After him is where the position starts to get interesting, with any of the next five capable of filling that sixth spot. OK, so Posey is kind of a throwaway -- the obligatory catcher hybrid amid a sea of pure mashers. Sure, he's a good hitter in his own right, but his eligibility at the weaker position inflates his ranking at the stronger one. If you want him (as your catcher, I should hope), you'll have to use your third-round pick to get him, and that's all I have to say about him here.

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Pujols, on the other hand, deserves a column unto himself. He probably stands out as the riskiest of this group considering he hasn't played in a game since July, but for a player who was noticeably hobbled for the four months he was active, limping around the bases on every home run as he settled into an unfamiliar DH role, he was surprisingly productive, averaging nearly as many Head-to-Head points per game as Fielder and more than either Hosmer or Craig. Just imagine if he was able to move like a normal person. Clearly, the Angels are committed to getting him right, so I wouldn't rule him out for a rebound of sorts at age 34. That may not be the most likely scenario, but again, he doesn't even need a rebound to justify the ranking.

The one player ranked behind him whose upside could propel him ahead, in my estimation, is Hosmer, who has been much more productive this season than his overall numbers let on. Yes, I'm willing to double down on my "mistake" from two years ago, when I declared him the sophomore first baseman to own over Freeman, but his performance since May 30 has me thinking I'll have the last laugh. That was the day the Royals changed hitting coaches from Jack Maloof, whose misguided approach to Kauffman Stadium was to turn his young sluggers into singles hitters. Since then, Hosmer has averaged 3.53 Head-to-Head points per game. Over the full season, Encarnacion, Davis and Goldschmidt are the only first basemen to average more.

At this stage of their careers, Freeman and Craig strike me as more or less the same player: likely .300 hitters with questionable plate discipline and moderate power. Craig was more of a home run hitter in 2012, and if he reverts to that form in 2014, Freeman will be a step behind him. Then again, as a 24-year-old in 2014, Freeman may end up taking two steps forward. Typically, I'm one to gamble on the upside, but I'd feel better about it in this case if Craig wasn't also eligible in the outfield, giving his owner more flexibility over the course of the season than the Freeman owner. Maybe when I see how the outfield stacks up, I'll have a change of heart.

Next 10 first basemen for 2014:
11. Carlos Santana, C/1B, Indians
12. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers
13. Billy Butler, 1B, Royals
14. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
15. Mark Trumbo, 1B/OF, Angels
16. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankee
17. Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants
18. Mike Napoli, 1B, Red Sox
19. Corey Hart, 1B, Brewers
20. Matt Adams, 1B, Cardinals

If a drop-off exists at first base, it's with these 10. While you could make a case for selecting any of Pujols, Posey, Hosmer, Freeman and Craig as early as Round 3, Gonzalez or Butler would feel like a reach in Round 4, where I anticipate a run on starting pitchers and second-tier outfielders like Jay Bruce and Carlos Gomez.

(Notice I completely skipped over Santana. Darn catcher hybrids mucking up my rankings.)

I wouldn't say I'm especially down on either Gonzalez or Butler, but at the point you'd consider drafting them, most everyone will have selected a starting first baseman already. And even if someone makes a play for a second, which is especially likely in leagues that require an extra corner infielder, you'll have an abundance of fallback options. Gonzalez has only furthered his decline from a year ago, and Butler, though still a great source of batting average, has returned to being the 15-homer guy he was for most of his career before exploding for 29 homers last year. If this year's numbers serve as new baselines for both -- which isn't so unreasonble, given their histories -- I say they rank closer to the players behind them than the ones ahead of them.

In fact, part of me is tempted to rank Rizzo over them because of his upside, but I'll go the more cautious route after getting burned by Ike Davis each of the last two years. The Mike Trouts of the world have spoiled us, but over the course of baseball history, a .230ish batting average for a 24-year-old in his first full season is hardly cause for concern. Rizzo will continue to make strides as he approaches his prime, and his high walk rate will keep him relevant throughout the ups and downs.

Trumbo represents the safe, if not uninspired, fallback option before the onslaught of imaginative picks to close out the top 20, when banged-up veterans like Teixeira, Hart and Howard and untested up-and-comers like Adams, Darin Ruf, Kyle Blanks and Justin Smoak enter the discussion.

And then you have your tried-and-trues like Napoli, Dunn, Swisher and Morales, who some people might be inclined to rank higher for projection's sake, but at a deep position like first base, I'm aiming for better than just a capable bat. I want a game-changer, and if Adams claims everyday at-bats in St. Louis with Carlos Beltran on his way out the door and Hart's surgically repaired knees allow him to earn a full-time role somewhere, that's exactly what they'll be.

Of course, if neither appears to be case in March, I'll adjust. But based on what I expect to happen in the offseason, Adams and Hart will be prime sleepers on Draft Day -- Adams as the latest in the Cardinals' assembly line of homegrown mashers, having compiled a .318 batting average and .927 OPS over his minor-league career, and Hart as the steady home run hitter who averaged as many Head-to-Head points per game in 2012 (3.01) as Craig has this year.

I did sneak one tried-and-true into my bottom five in Napoli, but that's partially in response to perception. Fantasy owners will have a soft spot for him because of his past eligibility at catcher. That said, he's a safer bet for homers than Swisher or Morales and a safer bet for batting average than Dunn, so I don't mind giving him a slight bump, particularly if he re-signs with the Red Sox.

In Rotisserie leagues, it could be more than just a slight bump for him, Dunn, Howard and even Ruf because of what they can offer in home runs, but personally, I prefer a well-rounded hitter like Belt, who could be on the verge of a Hosmer-like breakout in 2014 after taking another step forward this year.

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
Redmond: Jose Fernandez to throw off mound 'within the next few days'
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:26 am ET) Marlins manager Mike Redmond said Friday starting pitcher Jose Fernandez could throw off a mound "within the next few days," per The Miami Herald. It will be the first time he throws off a mound since undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.

MLB.com reported last week Fernandez could throw off a mound as early as March 1, which is Sunday.


Blue Jays not counting on Johan Santana being ready by opening day
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(11:22 am ET) Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said Friday pitcher Johan Santana will eventually vie for a spot in the rotation, but it doesn't appear he will be ready by the season opener

Santana, who suffered a torn Achilles in June, was shut down in January after having some shoulder discomfort while pitching in the Venezuelan winter league.

“If he’s healthy, he’s gonna be good," Anthopoulos said, per the National Post. "(He is) just getting into his throwing program right now, so highly unlikely he’s ready for opening day.”

Anthopoulos said Santana's deal will pay him $2.5 million, if he makes the club. His contract also includes incentives for active days and number of starts. Santana can also opt out of his contract by April 28.


Nationals taking a cautious approach with Nate McLouth
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:39 am ET) Nationals manager Matt Williams said Thursday the team will take a cautious approach with outfielder Nate McLouth, who has started a throwing program coming off shoulder surgery in August.

"If we were to say at the end of this week that we're going to play a game and Nate was going to go two innings, we probably wouldn't do that at this point because he has got to go through that progression," Williams said, per MASNsports.com. "What that timeframe depends on is how he feels. You can look at the big picture and say well, you need X amount of rehab for this particular surgery. Everybody is different, of course. But we want to make sure that when he's ready to play, he's ready, because we don't want a setback.

"That being said, he's going through the progression of all of his throwing, he's hitting right now. He doesn't have an issue with that. It's going to get sore, we know it. So there's going to be days where he's going to have to just shut it down for that particular day. Which is frustrating because you want to play. We'll get through spring training with him and kind of monitor him on an everyday basis to see where he is at and act accordingly."


Red Sox's Betts focused on preparing for season, not OF competition
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:32 am ET) Mookie Betts knows he will have to put his best foot forward this spring in order to land a starting spot in the Red Sox's outfield. Betts, however, is not trying to think as much about the competition and rather focus on what he needs to do to prepare for the 2015 season.

“I feel as if I’m just getting ready for the season,” Betts told WEEI.com. “Whether it’s in the big leagues, Triple-A, Double-A, wherever it is, I’m just getting ready for the season and not really focusing so much on making the big-league team, just really just getting ready."

If Betts doesn't win a starting job in the outfield, then he could be a bench option for Boston instead of heading back to the minors.

“Whatever [manager John] Farrell and [general manager Ben] Cherington, whatever they do is what’s going to be best for the Red Sox,” Betts said. “And if that’s me sitting and watching, that’s perfectly fine and I’ll just fill into my role.”


Red Sox's Mujica reveals neck injury played part in 2014 struggles
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:21 am ET) Red Sox reliever Edward Mujica got off to a rocky start in 2014, posting a 6.41 ERA through the first two months of the season. He eventually settled down, posting a 2.68 ERA and seven saves over the final four months.

On Friday, Mujica revealed a neck injury played a part in his early season struggles. Mujica was diagnosed with his C1 vertebrae being out of place when he signed with the Red Sox and added the issue didn't clear up until midway through the 2014 season.

“My neck was bothering me when I got here, I got treatment and in spring training I felt good because of the weather,” Mujica said, per WEEI.com. “But then I felt sore in the neck because of the cold weather. I was also adjusting to the American League, all the teams have pretty good hitters 1-9. I just kept working every single day, watching videos, got that [physical] adjustment and got going in the second half.

“The C1 was a little moved out of place, but they put it in the right place in spring training to get through the season. With treatment every single day it helped me a lot after the first two months.”


Cardinals' Adam Wainwright targeting 2-3 weeks for spring debut
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(10:12 am ET) Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright is targeting 2-3 weeks before he is able to pitch in a spring game, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Wainwright was diagnosed with an abdominal strain Thursday after heading back to St. Louis for further evaluation.

Wainwright will have 4-5 days of light activity before he can gradually increase his workouts. He will be re-evaluated Monday before the Cardinals decide if he can rejoin the starters’ throwing program.

“The good thing is it doesn’t hurt so I can continue to throw off the mound and face hitters,” Wainwright said. “I can throw live BP and just won’t field my position.”

With his current timetable and barring setback, Wainwright could make four starts during spring training. 

“Everybody was saying that you need to scale back your innings in spring training,” Wainwright said. “God just naturally found a way to make that happen without ticking me off. ‘OK, Adam, you don’t want to have time off? I’ll make you take time off.’”


Report: Bartolo Colon in the running to start opening day for Mets
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:55 am ET) The Mets are strongly considering veteran starting pitcher Bartolo Colon for the opening day start April 6 at Washington, multiple sources told ESPN. The sources added the Mets have narrowed the choices to Colon and one other pitcher, who was not named.

If Colon, who went 15-13 with a 4.09 ERA in 2014, gets the nod, then he would become the oldest pitcher (41 years, 317 days old) to start on opening day in the majors since Jamie Moyer (43 years, 136 days) and Randy Johnson (42 years, 205 days) in 2006. He also would become the oldest Mets' opening day starter, surpassing Tom Glavine in 2007 (41 years, 7 days). 

Colon has started six times on opening day. Dillon Gee started on opening day for the Mets last season.


Rays' Archer changes offseason program, already seeing benefits
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:45 am ET) Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer has spent the early days of spring training picking the brain of manager Kevin Cash about how Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber transformed into the 2014 AL Cy Young winner, according to The Tampa Tribune. Before taking the job with the Rays, Cash was the Indians bullpen coach (2013-14).

“Kluber has always had stuff, he just hasn’t had the success on that level,” Archer said. “And I’m trying to apply those things, because he saw it firsthand.”

Thus far, Cash has raved about Archer's bullpen sessions and said Archer appears to be game-ready. Archer believes the change in his offseason program is contributing to his promising start to spring training.

“In September, I had success but the body was tired, so I paced myself better in the offseason and I feel really good now,” Archer said. “I would just cycle it a little better to pace myself, because I’m thinking those (less intense) weeks in the offseason are going to help me feel better on the back end (of this season).

“I got to pump the brakes a little bit, because I don’t want to overdo it right now. Because what good is February and March? I’m trying to be good April through October.”


Ernesto Frieri hoping Rays pitching coach can revive career
by Michael Hurcomb | CBSSports.com
(9:32 am ET) Rays reliever Ernesto Frieri said one of the reasons he signed with Tampa Bay was for the opportunity to work with pitching coach Jim Hickey, per The Tampa Tribune.

“That’s why I’m here,” Frieri said. “I’ve seen Hickey, he’s the man. He knows what he’s doing. He fixed a couple of guys before, and I hope I’m not the exception. I’m pretty sure he’s going to give me the right information and I’m going to take advantage.”

The 29-year-old Frieri had a good run as the Angels closer in 2012 and 2013 before the wheels came off in 2014. He lost the closer's job with Los Angeles and was eventually traded to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, he was only there a few months before more struggles led to his release.

Frieri said his 2014 struggles were because he developed bad habits. Instead of getting quicker to the plate, he was taller in his delivery, which robbed him of the deception, and caused his fastball to flatten out. The results were a 6.39 ERA with the Angels and a 10.13 ERA with the Pirates.

"(Fernando Rodney was) decent before he got here, but when he got here, wow, he got amazing,” Frieri said. “Hickey said something to him that really worked for him. Hopefully he says something to me that really works for me.”

Thus far, Frieri appears to be the ideal student.

“He seems to be extremely eager to hear what we have to say,” Hickey said. “You never know (how it will turn out), but at least it demonstrated his willingness to be open and try things.”


Report: Angels' Hamilton likely to receive suspension
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
(2:05 am ET) Angels outfielder Josh Hamilton will likely be suspended for at least 25 games, according to FoxSports.com.

Hamilton met with Major League Baseball on Wednesday for a disciplinary hearing. CBSSports.com Baseball Insider Jon Heyman reported that Hamilton experienced a drug relapse a few months ago, and confessed that relapse to MLB. 

This is technically Hamilton's second violation as a major-leaguer. Hamilton was on the Rays 40-man roster during his first suspension, making him a major-league player. Typically, players who violate their drug treatment program for the first time are subject to a 15-25 game suspension. Given that this is Hamilton's second violation of his drug treatment program, it's unclear how severe the punishment will be.

With that said, commissioner Rob Manfred is reportedly trying to be lenient with any punishment. The league has a "favorable view of Hamilton's efforts to remain sober." Since his return to the majors, Hamilton has spoken honestly about his struggles with addition.

On top of that, Manfred is concerned about making the punishment too harsh. Hamilton's past relaspes have come when he's been away from the game. Manfred reportedly is not close to making a final decision on Hamilton's punishment at this time. 

Hamilton was already expected to miss the beginning of the season due to a shoulder surgery. It's unclear how much longer he'll be out due to a suspension.


 
 
 
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