Reality Check: Looking at first base for 2013

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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Once again, we break from the grind of September baseball to take a sneak peak at next year's rankings, focusing this week on the first base position.

It's a deep position made only deeper by the growing number of catchers who use it as sort of a semi-siesta, resting their legs without resting their bats.

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(Looking at you, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer and Carlos Santana.)

Would you actually play any of them at first base? Not if you could help it. But because the first base rankings would be incomplete without them, here they are, chest protectors and all, bumping out the players you might actually target at the position.

So even though you'll find 20 names here, you shouldn't expect to see recent up-and-comers Todd Frazier, Chris Carter and Brandon Belt. You shouldn't expect to see one-time mainstays Kevin Youkilis, Kendrys Morales and Mike Napoli. You shouldn't expect to see the steady but unspectacular Michael Cuddyer and Nick Swisher. You shouldn't even expect to see Mark Trumbo, who looked like a lock for the top 10 before falling flat on his face in the second half. There just isn't room.

You should expect to see serious production, though. In a 12-team league, nobody should come out of the draft bemoaning his first baseman.

Keep in mind that even though these rankings do reflect my personal preferences to a degree, they also account for perception. After all, they wouldn't do you much good if they weren't anywhere close to what you'd see on Draft Day. Any justification I have to stray from the rankings I'll mention in the text below.

Onward!

Top 10 first basemen for 2013:
1. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
3. Prince Fielder, 1B, Tigers
4. Buster Posey, C/1B, Giants
5. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays
6. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Dodgers
7. Joe Mauer, C/1B, Twins
8. Allen Craig, 1B/OF, Cardinals
9. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees
10. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks

Don't like seeing Pujols at the top? I'll admit his slow starts each of the last two years have been a bit disconcerting, especially with him entering his mid-30s, but considering both times he rebounded with the same numbers you would have expected of him in his prime (he's batting .318 with 28 homers and a 1.014 OPS in 377 at-bats since May 16), you can't really say he's on the decline. His potential to sustain that pace over a full season makes him the cream of the crop at first base still. Even if he falls a little short, as has been the case this year, he's about on par with Votto.

And it's not like Votto has been the best first baseman on a per-game basis anyway. That honor, at least for right now, goes to Encarnacion, who trails only Mike Trout, Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera in per-game production this season. He doesn't seem like an elite first baseman, but he's right on the border of that tier, separating Pujols, Votto, Fielder and (sigh) Posey from the rest of pack.

Wait, what happened to Miguel Cabrera? As things stand now, he'll be third base-only next year. Look, you can't have it all. Just embrace the eligibility at the weaker position and move on.

Gonzalez figures to be a hotly debated pick next year given how much he has disappointed this year. It's not all bad, of course. Since July 6, he's hitting .320 with 10 home runs and an .899 OPS in 222 at-bats. But even if he performed at that pace all season, he'd still be half a step back from where he used to be and a full step back from the Pujols-Fielder-Encarnacion class. In fact, I'm not sure he deserves to be as highly regarded among first basemen as Mauer is among catchers, but I give Gonzalez the nod in the rankings because of Mauer's durability concerns. And let's be honest: If Gonzalez rebounded with 35 homers next year, it wouldn't shock anybody. What's the ceiling for Mauer? Twenty?

Speaking of shocking people, if I told you Encarnacion, Votto and Pujols are averaging the most Fantasy points per game of this group, who would you guess is fourth? The answer is Craig, who I actually consider a bit undervalued here. He's been nothing but a stud since returning from offseason knee surgery in early May and nothing but a .300-hitting, .900-OPS guy since signing with the Cardinals in 2006. And with Lance Berkman talking retirement, whatever concerns remain about his playing time are about to disappear entirely. I don't know if the average Fantasy owner would select Craig over Teixeira, who has all the name value, but an assured .300 batting average vs. a .250-ish mark is an easy call for me.

One notable omission here is Billy Butler, who will likely be a few games short of retaining first base eligibility next season. Granted, he might regain it within the first few weeks, but his DH-only status to start the year could cause him to slip to his usual sixth- or seventh-round range even with his newfound power. Hypothetically speaking, he would rank ninth among first baseman, just ahead of Teixeira.

Next 10 first basemen for 2013:
11. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves
12. Corey Hart, 1B/OF, Brewers
13. Carlos Santana, C/1B, Indians
14. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
15. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox
16. Eric Hosmer, 1B, Royals
17. Ike Davis, 1B, Mets
18. Adam LaRoche, 1B, Nationals
19. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies
20. Adam Dunn, 1B, White Sox

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My decision to address this position by groups of 10 breaks up the Goldschmidt-Freeman duo, which is unfortunate since that's probably the closest call at first base next year. It's a matter of preference, really. Both are young, high-upside players who have put up similar numbers in their sophomore seasons. The difference is the way they've arrived at those numbers. While Freeman has endured the usual ups and downs, Goldschmidt had a clear turning point in mid-May and has hit .306 with 16 homers and a .926 OPS in 95 games since. If he's been able to sustain that level of production for that long, who's to say it's not the new baseline for him? At age 25, he's probably closer to his big breakout than the 23-year-old Freeman is.

Morneau ... that's all about name value, right? Actually, I'm pretty encouraged by his performance this year. Though he's hardly back to MVP form, he's a different player from last year, when he was recovering from a severe concussion and wrist, knee, foot and neck surgeries, and he's continued to progress over the course of the season, batting over .300 since the All-Star break. With another year removed from all that nonsense, I'm not so sure he can't take another step forward. Given the shortcomings of the players behind him, it seems like a worthwhile gamble.

Yes, I include Konerko among those players. Yes, I know injuries are partially to blame for his recent lack of production, but at age 37, will next year really be any different? All I know is he's been outscored by both Hosmer and Davis (and Jordan Pacheco and Chris Johnson) since May 28, and I'm not into predicting turnarounds for players his age.

Frankly, I'm more likely to gamble on Hosmer or Davis even though I expect them to go a little later in drafts. Sure, their overall numbers aren't so great, but they have upside. Davis has shown his in recent months, rebounding from an early-season bout with valley fever to put up about the numbers everyone expected from him from mid-June on. Hosmer requires more of a leap of faith, but Jason Heyward's rebound from an inexplicably bad sophomore season gives me some reason for optimism. The reason I'd go with Hosmer over Davis in the middle rounds is purely a matter of upside. Davis is a nice player in a Corey Hart sort of way, but Hosmer could someday be elite. Here's hoping he shows signs of it next year.

After him, elite is no longer an option. LaRoche, Howard and Dunn are all built to meet needs, not fulfill dreams. Howard and Dunn are both all-or-nothing sluggers, and LaRoche ... well, he's just a safe contributor if you're not in a position to gamble. I know the skeptics will suggest I'm putting too much stock into what's shaping up to be a career season (or close to it), but LaRoche is the 10th-ranked first baseman in Head-to-Head leagues right now. Dropping him to 18th seems more than fair. Besides, if you go back and calculate his per-game production from some of his past seasons, it's about on par with what Gonzalez and Konerko have done this season. The reason you don't remember it that way is because players were generally putting up bigger numbers then. While offensive production as a whole has declined in the post-steroids era, LaRoche has remained about the same. Looking at it that way, this year's performance has some legs to it.

For the record, I'm down on both Howard and Dunn. Howard will turn 33 this offseason, so I'm not sure a few months of rest is all he needs to get back to hitting 35 homers every year. And Dunn, after an encouraging first couple months when his walks and batting average were more or less back to normal, has done nothing more than hit a few balls extremely hard in the three months since. Personally, I'd rather have the unranked Trumbo, whose late-season collapse I suspect is related to the back spasms he suffered in late July.

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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