MLB

MLB Fantasy Baseball 2011: Top First Basemen

| by Hardball Times

Other 2011 fantasy rankings by position: Catcher

Welcome back everyone. I hope you enjoyed last week's fantasy rankings article. Before I present/justify this week's rankings (first basemen), I just want to remind everyone that these rankings are based on position eligibility. Hence, a Top Five catcher (e.g. Posey) with first base eligibility gets ranked based on his numbers in comparison to other first basemen. Accordingly, being low on one list and high on another just goes towards a player's economic value by position. Thus, as you might see below, it would be silly to pay high for Buster Posey to play 1B when you can spend less (or draft later) on a comparable/better hitter (e.g. Billy Butler). Position eligibility and evaluation criterion for the purposes of these rankings is explained here.

And without further ado, 2011's class of first basemen:

Rank Name Team Oliver Slash (2011)
1 Albert Pujols Cardinals .319/.423/.616
2 M. Cabrera Tigers .311/.389/.579
3 Joey Votto Reds .301/.395/.535
4 A. Gonzalez Padres .290/.391/.536
5 P. Fielder Brewers .278/.391/.524
6 Ryan Howard Phillies .263/.342/.516
7 Mark Teixeira Yankees .275/.370/.496
8 K. Youkilis Red Sox .289/.384/.513
9 J. Morneau* Twins .293/.375/.523
10 Adam Dunn FA .251/.369/.508
11 Billy Butler Royals .297/.365/.467
12 K. Morales* Angels .289/.335/.510
13 Nick Swisher Yankees .249/.346/.443
14 Carlos Pena FA .214/.336/.444
15 L. Berkman* FA .262/.374/.443
16 Paul Konerko FA .266/.345/.455
17 Aubrey Huff Giants .265/.339/.448
18 Buster Posey Giants .300/.376/.480
19 Derrek Lee FA .257/.339/.421
20 Mike Napoli FA .257/.338/.507

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*Assuming health, being tendered a contract

Before I go off and explain why each player is ranked where they are, I want to make a point about first basemen unequivocally clear. First base, as a position, is as deep as it gets in fantasy baseball. As I noted last year (click the link in the previous sentence), first base is the absolute worst expenditure of one's limited resources on draft day. Be it auction or snake draft, patience is a virtue. For example, before 2010 started, I noted that Paul Konerko was a strong top-20 value pick. I am not saying that I predicted Paul Konerko would have a career year. What I am saying is that first base has so many fungible/productive options, that paying a premium of $20+ for 10 extra home runs is better spent shoring up a scarce position like 2B or SS (especially in AL only formats).

Now granted, I am a huge hypocrite. I paid $26 for Joey Votto last season in one money league and drafted Ryan Howard with my #2 pick (#13 overall) in another. Regardless, I would do what I say, not what I do. I only paid for Votto because I had a lot of faith in his production and because I could later flip him for a pitcher (granted, I did so by shorting myself for an underperforming Dan Haren). I got home run drunk with Ryan Howard and have no excuse for him in my other league other than I learned my lesson. In 2011, unless Ryan Howard or Prince Fielder come my way for $25 or less, I am waiting until people fill their first base holes before buying up a first base guy (though there is a theory that you can pounce early/cheap on first basemen in expert leagues, where such players often become so overvalued that they become undervalued).

Let me drive home the point with a quote from my Game Of Inches article. "According to Roto Authority's [2010] estimates, you can win a 14-hitter, 12-team league by averaging a .282 BA, ~12 SB, ~83 R, ~80 RBO and ~21 HR output per hitter." In 2010, the average first baseman hit .263/.349/.451 with 25 HR, 85 R, 91 RBI and 3.5 SB. Get the point? 'Nuff said. Let's move on to the rankings themselves.

The "big controversies" of my rankings here, at least in my mind, are Justin Morneau, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Kendry Morales. As anyone who knows me knows, I have "an irrational hatred" of both Morales and Morneau. The former has to do with my non-belief in his AVG or power production (I see him as a .280 hitting, 25 HR first baseman, not a reliable 30+/.300 kind of guy) and my distaste for the quality of the hitters who surround Morales in the Angels lineup (limited RBI upside). With respect to Morneau, I have never liked him. I think he is an overrated, overdrafted first basemen whose most notable accomplishments involve stealing an MVP award and Home Run derby from infinitely more deserving parties (Jeter and Hamilton, respectively). Before an injury-stiffled 2010 (concussion, which is always quite worrisome), Morneau's career AVG sat at .277. That's decent, but it's hardly the .300+ AVG everyone seemingly expects from him year-in, year-out. Though I realize that Morneau is an annual "lock" for 30/100/100 when healthy, I just despise the fact that most of Morneau's value comes from Joe Mauer. He's the mooch of fantasy baseball, in my mind. Sure, he is probably better than I give him credit for, but again, this goes toward my "irrational hatred." I know that if I ever draft Morneau, like the only time I drafted a catcher (Joe Mauer) early (2008), he'll only do what I always say he will do: disappoint heavily. My ranking here can be justified by the type of injury (concussion) Morneau sustained, as such are lingering and teams are increasingly "taking it easy" with concust players. If you are a Morneau fan, I highly recommend you follow his health closely this offseason.

With respect to Howard, I have a few lingering worries about his age and future production. Howard has been playing like the left-handed half of a platoon for several seasons now and he's only getting older. After hitting 45+ HR/136+ RBI for four straight seasons (with a 22 HR, 63 RBI half season in 2006), Howard barely eclipsed the 30 HR mark in 2010. Howard's 2010 ISO of .229, while still quality, was a career low. His ISO had been .292+ each of the past four seasons and had never been below .279 before 2010. Howard's walk rate (career low 9.5% in 2010) has also been on the decline for four or five years now. Granted, Howard was injured in 2010, but he still played 143 of his team's games. These are all worrisome signs (injuries, declining power/walk rates) for a 32 year old signed to a negligently large contract extension. Like the Dodgers with Manny Ramirez in 2008, the Phillies are likely to regret the contract they handed Howard last year. Still, in 2011, Howard should rebound some and be quite productive. I am expecting a .270 AVG, 38 HR and 120 RBI if healthy.

You might also ask why Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder are so high on my list. With respect to A-Gon, I think he gets traded to the Red Sox by July, at which point he'll hit that many more home runs. In rudimentary form a year ago, I analyzed at how Adrian Gonzalez's bat would play at Fenway over Petco Park. In hindsight, I realize the analysis is quite flawed, but the overarching point remains salient nonetheless. Whereas Petco Park suppressed home run production by almost 12 percent in 2010, Fenway bolstered such by a little over 8 percent. That huge swing in power numbers would easily launch Gonzalez into the top five by season's end, even if he plays half a season for the Padres.

Fielder is also quite high on my list, despite a down 2010, for two reasons. First, this is Fielder's final season before he hits the open market. At age 26, Fielder is still quite young and though he'll only be 27, he has the physique of Bartolo Colon, even as a vegetarian (those black bean burgers really hate home runs, don't they?). If Scott Boras is going to convince a team to give Fielder Texeira/Howard/A-Gon money, he is going to need to prove he is still capable of big things to offset the worries that by the time he is 30, like his father, he will barely be able to trout around the bases on home run swings, let alone non-home run hits.

Second, Prince Fielder seems to alternate power seasons. He hit 28 HR and .271 in his first major league season, but smacked 50 while hitting .288 in his sophomore year. Fielder followed 2007 up with a slightly disappointing 2008 (34 HR, .276 AVG), but returned to form in 2009 (.299 AVG, 46 HR). 2010 was likewise "poor" by comparison (32 HR, .261 AVG), but the gambler's fallacy compels me to hope for a rebound in 2011. In all seriousness, however, Fielder still hit 32 home runs in "the year of the pitcher," a mark only bettered by nine other players (Bautista, Pujols, Konerko, Cabrera, Dunn, Votto, Cargo, Uggla, and Teixeira). That's elite production and if you are going to pay big for a first baseman, Fielder may be the "value player" of the big boppers.

As always, leave your love/hate in the comments. If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them. Just keep in mind that even if you do not get a "top 20" first baseman, guys like Russell Branyan, Gaby Sanchez and Adam LaRoche (at least in the second half) could always prove to be useful options. First base is not a hard position to fill in fantasy (or real life, probably, though I am no General Manager) and one should economize accordingly.

Jeffrey Gross is a 23-year old law student (and Cubs fan) who currently resides in Madison, WI. In addition to writing for The Hardball Times, he currently writes baseball analysis for the Game Of Inches blog under the pseudonym David "MVP" Eckstein and has previously worked for The Daily Illini and Northern Star newspapers as a film critic and sportswriter (respectively). You can reach him by email at [email protected]

or by comment at http://www.gameofinches.blogspot.com

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