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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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