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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
Angels pitcher Mike Morin tagged for three-run homer Saturday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(1:14 am ET) Angels pitcher Mike Morin lasted just 1/3 of an inning Saturday in Los Angeles' 4-0 loss to the Astros. Morin served up a three-run home run to Robbie Grossman on a 1-0 pitch in the seventh, leading to the Angels' loss.

"We know the dimensions of the ballpark," Morin said. "I didn't execute the pitch -- bottom line."

Morin has posted a 4.91 ERA in 3 2/3 innings this season and may be fighting for a role with his struggles.

"I trust Sosh completely," said Morin. "It has nothing to do with that. I'll be ready day in and day out, whether it's the second inning or the 10th or the seventh. It's not weighing on my mind at all."


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by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
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LeMahieu, a hot hitter on a hot-hitting team, provided most of the offense in a loss to the Dodgers with a two-run homer in the seventh inning off standout right-hander Zack Greinke. The RBI give him eight on the year and the performance improved his slash line to an impressive .463/.476/.585.


Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis thriving early this season
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(12:43 am ET) Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis has ripped through the first two weeks of the season with a bang, hitting .333 in 45 at-bats. Manager John Gibbons loves the way the rookie is playing this season.

"He's got the complete game, he really does," Gibbons said. "He was such a good hitter in spring training I thought to myself: 'This kid will hit some home runs in his career.' But he's shown a lot more power than I expected."

Gibbons is handling things at the plate like an old veteran, according to Gibbons.

"One thing he's got that's advanced for a young guy is he's got a great approach at the plate, he doesn't chase out of the zone much. He's got the ability to foul off tough pitches to stay alive and a lot of guys can't do that. And he handles breaking balls, at least fouls them off, and that's a big part of it. He stays alive and if they make a mistake he doesn't miss it. He's been very productive."


Blue Jays manager just fine with Kevin Pillar's aggressive style of play
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(12:38 am ET) Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has no issue with how outfielder Kevin Pillar attacks the game head on, reports the Toronto Sun. He will deal with the slight issues that comes with his aggressiveness.

"I love the fact that he's aggressive, he can pull off some catches that a lot of guys don't make," Gibbons said. "It depends on the situation, some balls you can't get to, them back off. But he's always had that mindset (to go get it) and that's what allows him to be so good and make those plays. A lot of guys don't. But he's smart enough too to know there's certain times he's got to back off too."

Pillar doesn't think he's overly aggressive.

"He believes he's going to make it, that's why he makes a lot of them," Gibbons added. "There's no hesitation with him at all. He's got a ton of confidence when he's playing that outfield, really in his whole game. When he's on the bases he's a confident kid too."


Adrian Gonzalez drives in three more for Dodgers on Saturday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:37 am ET) The 2015 RBI Machine, otherwise known as Adrian Gonzalez, was at it again Saturday night.

The Dodgers slugger not only boasts a ridiculous batting average of .523, which actually went down in the game but he added three RBI to his total, giving him 14 in 11 games. He brought home a run with a fielder's choice in the third and singled in two in the fifth. Gonzalez owns an eye-popping slugging percentage of 1.045.

He has struck out just three times in 44 at-bats on the year.


Dodgers closer Peralta overcomes pain in neck to be pain in neck to Rockies
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:30 am ET) For a guy considered questionable to pitch with a neck issue, Dodgers closer Joel Peralta was certainly impressive Saturday night.

Peralta was a pain in the neck to the Rockies. He closed them down with a shutout inning, yielding only a walk along the way to notch his third save.

The right-hander has yet to surrender a run in six outings as he holds down the role for the injured Kenley Jansen.


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by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:24 am ET) Opposing pitchers must be sharp when matched up against Dodgers stud Zack Greinke. Rockies right-hander Jordan Lyles was not sharp Saturday night. The result was his first loss of the season.

Lyles walked five in six innings. He also gave up five hits and four earned runs. He was hanging in there until a two-run single by Adrian Gonazalez in the fifth stretched the Los Angeles lead to 4-1.

His ERA jumped more than a point to 3.50, but he will have a chance to lower it Thursday against San Diego.


Mariners catcher Mike Zunino rips first home run of the year
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(12:17 am ET) Mariners catcher Mike Zunino went 1 for 3 at the plate in Seattle's 3-1 win over the Rangers Saturday. Zunino did his damage in the fifth when he smacked the first pitch he saw from Colby Lewis over the left center field wall for a solo home run, his first of the year.

Zunino, who also struck out twice, boosted his average to .139 in 36 at-bats this season.


Dodgers RHP Greinke good enough for second win Saturday
by Marty Gitlin | CBSSports.com
(12:16 am ET) Good was good enough Saturday night for Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke.

Greinke was dominant in his first two starts this season. He was merely good against the hot-hitting Rockies and that earned him his second win.

Only a two-run homer by DJ LeMahieu in the seventh inning really marred his performance. He finished having yielded three earned runs on five hits in 6 2/3 inning with one walk and three strikeouts. His ERA nearly doubled to a still-wonderful 1.83.

Greinke has now allowed just 12 hits and two walks in 19 2/3 innings. He will try to continue his fine start Thursday in San Francisco.


Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis knocked around for 10 hits in loss
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(12:14 am ET) Rangers pitcher Colby Lewis allowed three runs on 10 hits in Texas' 3-1 loss to the Mariners Saturday. 

Lewis worked efficiently through the first three innings before running into issues in the fourth. Lewis allowed a sacrifice fly to Seth Smith, allowing Robinson Cano to score. Then in the fifth, Lewis surrendered a leadoff home run to Mike Zunino.

"I thought he settled in nicely and pitched a heckuva game," Rangers manager Jeff Banister said to MLB.com. "He made pitches and he mixed pitches. I felt good with the way Colby was throwing."

Brad Miller then tripled in the sixth, driving in Kyle Seager, before getting pulled.

"There wasn't one inning that was easy," Lewis said. "I didn't get any quick innings. I was always working out of the stretch. I was just trying to keep it close like I always do."

Lewis, now 1-1, boasts a 3.79 ERA and will look to get back on track Saturday against the Angels.


 
 
 
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