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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
White Sox second baseman Micah Johnson has edge in position battle
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(10:05 pm ET) White Sox second baseman Micah Johnson appears to be in the lead for the position when the season begins, reports MLB.com. Manager Robin Ventura likes what he's seen from Johnson enough to give him a vote of confidence at the position, even though nothing has been officially set.

"He's done well enough to kind of be the leading guy," said Ventura of Johnson, who had two hits in Sunday's 4-1 win over the Indians.

Third base coach Joe McEwing likes the progress Johnson has sowed on defense this spring.

"Initially what we wanted to do was try to slow things down because everything Micah does, he does fast," McEwing said. "Everything in his game is fast. Just, defensively, try to slow him down and allow him to focus on his feet and his hands and everything working together."


Athletics pitcher Kendall Graveman posts another stellar performance
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:55 pm ET) Athletics pitcher Kendall Graveman continues to impress this spring. Sunday, he went 6 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing just three hits with three strikeouts and no walks. Manager Bob Melvin loves how the young pitcher has performed this spring, reports MLB.com.

"He doesn't blow you away, although you look at the radar gun and at times we've seen 93, 94 this spring," Melvin said. "But he's a pitcher; he's pretty cerebral in the way he does it.

"He reads swings very well. You know, it's late movement off the barrel of the bat, whether it's sink, whether it's cut, offspeed just enough. But he knows what he's doing and he's aware of what the hitters are trying to do against him."

Graveman has a minuscule 0.74 ERA in five starts this spring.

"There's a reason that he went from [Class] A-ball to the big leagues [in 2014 with Toronto], and then continued to pitch this well for us. It means he's real confident in what he's doing," Melvin said.


Nationals pitcher Doug Fister struggles again in outing Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:49 pm ET) Nationals pitcher Doug Fister surrendered six runs in four innings of work Sunday against the Marlins, pushing his spring training ERA to 7.02 in five starts. Fister gave up three more home runs in the outing.

"I can't let any of that affect me. I know I have to get the ball down regardless," Fister said to MLB.com. "I felt good today. I felt I was almost back in the swing of things. There are obviously some things I have to fine tune at the end of spring.

"I left the ball up, and it allowed the Marlins to get good contact on the ball. I don't let outside influences affect the game. It's a game I have to control and make adjustments."


Tigers targeting 200 pitches for pitcher Anibal Sanchez
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:45 pm ET) Tigers pitcher Anibal Sanchez tossed 10 strikeouts in Sunday's game against the Phillies, going 6 1/3 innings and surrendering four runs on five hits. 

"That means he's hitting his spots. It means he's locating," manager Brad Ausmus said to MLB.com. "When a guy takes a pitch, he thinks it's a ball or just off the corner and they end up getting the call. ... So he must have been locating. It looked like he was locating his fastball."

Ausmus also indicated he hopes to see Sanchez reach 200 innings this season.

"If we get 200 innings out of Sanchy, I'll be extremely happy. I think we'll be in a very good spot," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said Sunday morning. "We talk about a lot of things, but if Sanchy can stay healthy, that would be an enormous plus for us."


Rays pitcher Drew Smyly targeting April for a return to the mound
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:39 pm ET) Rays pitcher Drew Smyly threw a fourth bullpen session Sunday to rehab from shoulder tendinitis and his hoping to be back in action in April, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

"I'm very hopeful that I'll be pitching in April, for sure," he said. "Something would have to go wrong, there'd be a step backward for me not to pitch in April I feel like."

Smyly is hoping to throw batting practice at some point this week.


Rays to use Brad Boxberger as fill in closer to start season
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:36 pm ET) Rays pitcher Brad Boxberger is expected to fill in to the closer role for at least the first month of the season while Jake McGee recovers from elbow surgery, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

"He will be in a lot of meaningful situations," manager Kevin Cash said. "With some other guys, but for what Box did last year and the confidence we have in him, I would definitely anticipate him pitching in those leverage situations."


Brewers release pitcher David Herndon
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:33 pm ET) The Brewers have decided to part ways with pitcher David Herndon, the team announced Sunday. Herndon last pitched in the majors in 2012, posting an 0-1 record with a 4.70 ERA in five appearances.

Rangers pitcher Nick Tepesch struggles in outing Sunday
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:25 pm ET) Rangers pitcher Nick Tepesch surrendered seven runs on nine hits, including one home run, in just 3 2/3 innings of work Sunday against the Dodgers.

"He threw the ball well for three innings, then it got a little loose," manager Jeff Banister said. "He got the ball up a little and got it flat. But he had three solid innings. The fastball was there and the breaking ball was in play."

Tepesch is now 1-2 in spring training with a 10.38 ERA.


Rays 2B Logan Forsythe looking for consistency at the plate
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:20 pm ET) Rays second baseman Logan Forsythe is working to become a more consistent hitter, regardless of his role on the team, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

"I think consistency depends on how you feel at the plate if the rhythm and timing are there," Forsythe said. "Last year I think that my swing was at a good point to where the rhythm and timing were there going into playing every day, so when I got into that consistency of more at-bats, more playing time, my swing kind of came out more. It's not hit or miss, but I think there's certain times in the season when the swing is there and it's not there. That's baseball."

Forsythe hit .223 with 26 RBI in 301 plate appearances in 2014. He is feeling good about his approach with Opening Day right around the corner.

"There's time when you feel good about your swing. It comes based on results you get in a game,” Forsythe said. "That feedback doesn't necessarily always have to be, 'Oh I got a hit.' Or, "I drove a run in.' Or 'I hit a home run.' As long as you put the barrel to the ball, it can be a line drive out or a web gem made on you, that confidence is boosted, and the more opportunity you get when your confidence is up, you're going to get better results."


Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey makes first appearance out of the bullpen
by Brandon Wise | CBSSports.com
(9:15 pm ET) Twins pitcher Mike Pelfrey threw one scoreless inning Sunday, sending the Orioles down in order. Pelfrey, who made his frustrations about the transition known, settled down a bit and felt somewhat comfortable in the appearance, reports MLB.com.

"It was good," Pelfrey said. "At the end of the day, I have a lot of respect for him. I got a lot of things off my chest, and he got a lot off his. So it was a very good discussion. Obviously, my emotions probably got the best of me yesterday. So I told him I'm going to be professional and go to the 'pen and give it everything I have."

He has made just four appearances out of the bullpen in his career compared to 183 starts.

"I wanted to see how fast I could do it, and it was surprising to me I only needed those 10-12 pitches," Pelfrey said. "So that was pretty good. I think the hardest part was playing catch before the game and then waiting around and doing it again."


 
 
 
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