2019 First Base Primer (Fantasy Baseball)
First base has traditionally offered a bottomless supply of premium power. While safe drafters often locked in an elite slugger in the opening rounds, others waited to scoop up late values at fantasy baseball’s deepest position.
Those days are numbered. From top to bottom, first base no longer reigns supreme. None should get drafted in the first round of a 12-team mixed league, and while the mid-tier choices are plentiful, they’ll all fall down draft boards for valid reasons. Once an unthinkable thought, it wouldn’t be too bizarre to slot someone with multi-position eligibility (excluding catchers, of course) at first. Even if they have third base eligibility like Max Muncy or shortstop like Jurickson Profar.
Be careful waiting out the position. Before you know it, Eric Hosmer could be the best bet on the board.
With draft season rapidly approaching, let’s run down the decaying position. Note that these sections occasionally group players together by a common theme rather than representing perfect tiers of descending value. Matt Olson, for example, is better than the Late Bloomers, some of whom are less valuable than the Mid-Range Veterans. For those seeking a cleaner list, here are my full 1B rankings, tailored to 5X5 roto leagues. Some players aren’t listed above because I used 15 games as this primer’s cutoff point.
First base’s clear headliners, Freeman and Goldschmidt are both sturdy second-round selections. Who deserves the top spot? It’s a neck-and-neck battle; Goldschmidt places 18th in the ECR, one slot above his Braves cohort.
If only we could combine Freeman’s start with Goldschmidt’s finish. On the cusp of an MVP campaign, Freeman took a .333/.435/.583 slash line into June. He lost steam down the stretch and managed just seven second-half long balls. Goldschmidt, on the other hand, apparently had his talent stolen by the Monstars in May, when he hit .144/.252/.278 with a 31.5% strikeout rate. When regaining his powers, he made up for lost time by batting .330/.420/.602 with 26 homers from June 1 onward.
Having batted at least .290 in each of the last six seasons while playing 155 games in five of them, Goldschmidt offers the safety drafters should crave in the early rounds. Yet Freeman actually stole more bases (10) than Goldschmidt, who poached just seven of 11 tries after notching 71 steals in the previous three seasons. Freeman, MLB’s line-drive leader who could easily win a batting title, also allayed health concerns by playing all 162 games in 2018. It’s a close call, but Goldschmidt gets the slight nod because of his higher floor and home-run projections. Moving to St. Louis doesn’t seem so bad after floundering in Chase Field last year (.238/.363/.420) because of the newly installed humidor.
This wide-ranging group is where most drafters will find their starter. This isn’t quite a concise grouping, as Aguilar (80 consensus ADP) and Encarnacion (122) are going far later than Rizzo (35), Hoskins (41), and Bellinger (45). While a notch below these guys, Encarnacion also towers above the Mid-Range Veterans. While the career-high 22.8% strikeout rate and accompanying .248 batting average are concerning for the 36-year-old, this is still a steady slugger who has at provided at least 32 homers and 98 RBI in each of the last seven seasons.
Looking to build his own impressive streaks, Rizzo has driven in over 100 runs in four straight years. Yet he settled for 25 homers and a .470 slugging percentage after exceeding 30 and .500 in four consecutive seasons. If last year’s results sustain, he should at least parlay career bests in contact (85.1%) and strikeout (12.0%) rates into a higher average. Statcast agrees, ascribing a .291 xAVG to the .283 hitter. If the power returns, you’re getting a second-round player in the late third or early fourth.
Hoskins, meanwhile, is coming at too steep a price. Given his average and speed limitations, he’ll need more than last year’s 34 homers to deliver a solid return on investment. Going 21 picks later, Carpenter should provide the same elite power. Nobody in baseball recorded a higher hard-hit rate (49.0%), and a 46.9% fly-ball rate (fourth-highest in MLB) was accompanied by just six pop-ups. He finished in the 96th percentile of xwOBA (.376) and xSLG (.535), and the on-base machine now gets to set the table for Goldschmidt. Buy the breakout.
Despite his down year, Votto remains a line-drive machine who has drawn more walks than strikeouts in each of the last two seasons. He’s also a 35-year-old who hit just a dozen dingers last year, but there’s intriguing bounce-back appeal if he slips to the fifth or sixth round. A .477 xSLG suggests room for growth from last year’s actual .419, and he can get it by seeing his 9.5 HR/FB%-coming from someone who didn’t hit a single pop-up-inch closer to his career 18.3% clip. Votto would at least remain an OBP and points-league star even if settling for 22 homers.
All of these players broke out at age 25 or older last year. Aside from Profar, a former top prospect whose rise took injury-related detours, none were hyped much in their younger years. Drafters must determine which, if any, breakouts are for real.
There’s reason for healthy skepticism regarding Muncy, who posted an anemic 32.7% second-half strikeout rate before punching out 23 times in 62 postseason plate appearances. The .263 average will fall, but the power should not evaporate. He finished ninth in hard-hit rate (47.4%) among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances while producing barrels on 16.9% of his batted balls. A .530 xSLG and .407 xWOBA offer hope for a negligible regression. The 28-year-old, eligible for as many as four positions depending on the league’s rules, should still deliver 25-30 homers for an encore. A 16.4% walk rate substantially boosts his worth in OBP formats.
There may not be a trickier player to peg than Voit. He looked like Babe Ruth (.322/.398/.671, 15 HRs) in 47 games with the Yankees. His .447 wOBA matched Mike Trout, and his .437 wxOBA topped every hitter with at least 150 plate appearances. He also, however, posted a 40.5 HR/FB% with an abysmal 68.9% contact rate, stats which respectively scream HR and AVG regression. Given the microscopic sample size from 2018’s seismic breakout, it’d probably take only one slump to get benched or relegated to the short end of a platoon with Greg Bird. Yet the scorching contact suggests he could ward off some warning flags a la Aaron Judge and leverage Yankee Stadium into a 30-homer campaign. Weigh the risk and reward before determining if it’s advisable to swing for the fences.
Because he plays for the Royals instead of the Yankees, O’Hearn’s stellar debut hasn’t received nearly as much fanfare. As a 25-year-old rookie, he raked to a .262/.353/.597 slash line and 12 homers in 44 games. With a .458 wOBA against righties and .209 wOBA against lefties, he’s also a clear platoon player. Even if the Royals don’t, fantasy investors will have to sit him against southpaws. A better pick for managers willing and able to play the matchups, he could impersonate Lucas Duda and hit .245 with 25-30 long balls. Just beware a monumental difference between his actual (.403) and expected wOBA (.249) against breaking pitches.
Feel free to bump Olson up into the High-End Sluggers section. While his slugging percentage tumbled from his rookie campaign’s sizzling .651 to a tame .453, he still blasted 29 homers in 660 plate appearances. Only seven qualified hitters made more hard contact than his 47.3%, and despite his batting average falling from .259 to .247, he’s no longer a major category hazard after slicing his strikeout rate 3.1 points. A .250, 35-homer campaign, which would put him right in line with the older Encarnacion, is far from far-fetched.
Bell, Bauers, and Mancini don’t seem like the most exciting names, but the trio sports some potential. Bell belted 26 homers in 2017 before settling for 12 last year. While he hits too many ground balls (49.9% career clip) to restore that peak, he could at least meet the two totals halfway. Mancini’s batting average dropped from .293 to .242 despite a rise in contact rate. Per Statcast, he also improved in exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel percentage. Pairing his 24 homers with a .260 average would make him a decent corner-infield compiler.
Bauers, however, is the most exciting of the bunch. He should get regular reps at first base and prominent lineup placement for the Indians, who traded Encarnacion and Carlos Santana. While he hit .201 in 388 big league appearances, he teased power (11 HRs), speed (six SBs), hard contact (40.5%), and a keen batting eye (13.9 walk%). The Bat projects him to hit .255 with 20 homers, 14 steals, 81 runs, and 75 RBI. That would essentially make him Hosmer (with some batting average traded for steals) available over 100 picks later.
A destroyer of baseballs boasting 80-grade raw power, Peter Alonso will rake immediately if given the opportunity. Playing time, however, is far from certain after the Mets added Robinson Cano, Jed Lowrie, and J.D. Davis to a suddenly crowded infield. One of those second basemen will almost certainly open 2019 as the starting first baseman while the Mets delay Alonso’s service clock from starting. Keep an eye on his draft stock; the prospect would make an interesting power gamble if available for a discount.
For all the fun already had at Hosmer’s expense, he’s a durable volume play who notched wOBAs of .350, .355, and .376 in 2013, 2015, and 2017, respectively. In the last three even years, those rates have crumbled to .314, .326, and .309. He was also the only regular position player to record a negative launch angle in 2018. If available around or later than his 163 consensus ADP, feel free to take the decent compiler (who intermittently delivers more) in deeper leagues. He’s no fun, however, in a 10- or 12-team mixed league without a corner-infield slot. Don’t expect a return to 25, or even 20 homers unless he starts elevating more.
The only player to record a higher ground-ball rate than Hosmer? That would be Desmond, who somehow batted .236/.307/.422 despite playing half of his games at Coors Field. He was the NL’s least valuable player—again saving Hosmer from the bottom—in 2018, so there’s real danger of the Rockies waking up and benching the $70 million sunk cost. Yet if that doesn’t happen, he could easily go 20/20 again. He’s an atrocious real-life player, but a useful fantasy one in 5X5 roto formats. Just don’t reach.
Here’s a list of every first baseman who batted at least .290 in each of the last two seasons: Freeman, Goldschmidt, and … Gurriel. Don’t overlook the batting-average stabilizer, who discovered some late pop with four doubles and five homers in September. He’s a boring value who could also stack up RBI and/or runs in a stacked Astros lineup.
Remember when Zimmerman went wild with 36 homers and a 137 wRC+ in 2017? He looked like the same stud when healthy last year. After returning from an oblique injury in July, he batted .295/.374/.538 with eight homers and a 141 wRC+. Among hitters with at least 200 batted balls, only four (Joey Gallo, Khris Davis, J.D. Martinez, and Mookie Betts) recorded more barrels per plate appearance than Zimmerman’s 9.9. The chances of the 34-year-old avoiding another DL stint are minuscule, but he’s a cheap lottery cheap ticket who could pay massive dividends when on the field.
Depth Pieces: Kendrys Morales, Yonder Alonso, Jay Bruce, Marwin Gonzalez, Brandon Belt, Wilmer Flores, Justin Bour, Ryon Healy, Niko Goodrum, Mitch Moreland, Tyler Austin, Ronald Guzman, Eric Thames, Albert Pujols, Greg Bird
Consider the league and team context before choosing amongst these depth pieces. A decent floor play who won’t hurt anywhere, Yonder Alonso can help tie a 15-team lineup together. In a shallower league, however, it makes more sense to gamble on Belt staying healthy long enough to replicate last year’s stellar first half (.287/.383/.480, 13 HRs).
Having played 18 games at first, Morales won’t be relegated to DH-only status in most leagues. Drafters still haven’t shown much interest in a .249/.331/.438 hitter with diminishing power, but he’s building a cult following among Statcast enthusiasts. A .271 xBA and .375 xwOBA make him a notable bounce-back candidate.
This cynical Mets fan has often half-jokingly said Flores is destined to take the Daniel Murphy/Justin Turner breakout path once he leaves Flushing. Here’s his chance. With Goldschmidt gone and Ketel Marte moving to center field, the 27-year-old should receive regular playing time in Arizona. (He’ll play mostly at second, but will start with only 1B eligibility in leagues requiring at least 15 games played.) Although he gave back 2017’s power gains, Flores was one of four hitters to log a strikeout rate below 10% (9.8%) in at least 400 plate appearances last year. He has posted a wRC+ above 100 in three straight seasons while averaging 20 homers per 500 plate appearances. Merely meeting Steamer’s projected .278 average, 21 homers, and 78 RBI would make him a steal beyond the top-300 picks. His NFBC ADP since the start of January is 445.
It’s sad to realize Albert Pujols is no more than a courtesy inclusion in the final tier. The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is now a grizzled veteran who has posted a negative fWAR and OBP below .300 in two straight years. Drafters are far better off using a late pick on Angels teammate Justin Bour, who will at least open with a starting role in light of news that Shohei Ohtani won’t be ready for Opening Day. Although he wilted (.227/.341/.404) in a career-high 501 plate appearances because of a .265 wOBA against lefties, Bour is a career .260/.344/.466 hitter who has averaged 23.5 homers per 500 plate appearances. Last season, however, showed the lefty is best suited for a platoon role.