Not so long ago, first base was a position where you figured you could get strong production, even late in a draft. If you missed out on the biggest bats, there was still power to be had with options like Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, Adam LaRoche and Nick Swisher. You could also gamble that up-and-comers like Matt Adams and Chris Carter might become upper-tier hitters without having to pay a premium price.
Trumbo and Napoli have lost some luster as power sources while LaRoche and Swisher will probably go undrafted in the vast majority of leagues. Even the upper levels of the first base tiers have gotten thinned out, as the position has gotten older. Injuries have taken their toll on former elites Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the latter of whom will only have DH eligibility to start the 2016 season.
That's the reality of the game, though. Older players fall down the ranks and ultimately get ushered out of Fantasy rosters altogether, but there is also a process of rejuvenation. Is there enough young talent to replenish the aging first base pool? Or will production continue to be surprisingly scarce?
As I have discussed on our Fantasy Baseball Today podcast, I am taking a "7 and 7" approach to the traditional power positions of first base and outfield. There are seven players at each position who are reliable producers, and if you whiff on the group entirely, you will be at a distinct disadvantage. The seven at first base are Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, Chris Davis (who is also one of my top seven outfielders) and Jose Abreu. While Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Eric Hosmer are viable starters in just about any format, they will likely lag well behind the top seven.
There are a number of first basemen, like Rizzo, Freeman and Hosmer, who are coming into their prime, but the position lacks young players who are clearly on the rise. Despite being blocked by Mark Teixeira, Greg Bird looked like he had a chance to be that sort of player after bursting onto the scene with the Yankees last season, but he is expected to be out for the year after having shoulder surgery this offseason.
Because the pool of first basemen lacks pre-peak hitters, there are no obvious breakout candidates. Brandon Belt and C.J. Cron have entered the peak phase of their careers, but it's conceivable that both could still reach another level. Belt could simply benefit from staying healthy for a full season, though given his concussion history, that's not something his Fantasy owners should count on.
If there is one player who profiles as a possible breakout candidate, it's Jon Singleton. He is not a lock to be the Astros' first baseman out of spring training, but he is the frontrunner. If Singleton can replicate the lower strikeout rates and strong power ratios of his second and third tours of Triple-A, he could stick as a regular. His best-case scenario is that he turns out to hit like Carlos Santana, but with even more power, and that's something standard mixed league owners could use.
Ryan Zimmerman had an interesting second half of 2015, as he slashed .311/.372/.652 despite having missed time with plantar fasciitis. He is not a candidate to get benched, but his long history of health issues suggests that owners need to plan for some DL stints. Clint Robinson performed admirably filling in for Zimmerman last season, so he is someone mixed league owners need to know. Like Zimmerman, Mark Teixeira can be highly productive when healthy, but it's hard to count on him to stay off the DL.
Chris Carter, Mitch Moreland and Brandon Moss are all potentially vulnerable to lose their starting roles altogether. Carter signed on to be the Brewers' starting first baseman, but he will need to do better than his 2015 performance, when he hit .199. Moreland is coming off his best season, but he doesn't hit lefties well and the Rangers could always turn to Prince Fielder. That would open up a spot in their lineup for one of Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara or Lewis Brinson, should they prove to be major league-ready. And Adams is still in the picture for the Cardinals should Moss struggle as he did last season.
At 29, Byung Ho Park is not young, but he is a rookie. How a player's stats will translate from the Korean Baseball Organization -- or any international circuit -- is always a mystery, but Park did lead the KBO in home runs each of the last two seasons. Given the shallowness at the position, there is little to be lost by treating Park as a fallback option, once Pujols, Teixeira and Zimmerman are off the board.
In terms of younger prospects who could enter the Fantasy fray this season, A.J. Reed and Josh Bell have the best chance of making an impact. Reed not only has the clearer path to playing time, as he is in the mix to win the Astros' first base job along with Singleton, but he profiles as a good power source. Bell hasn't hit many home runs as a minor leager, but he could potentially help with batting average and on-base percentage.
The Big Picture
Unless some of the 30-plus first basemen like Trumbo, Pujols and Zimmerman rebound, there isn't much hope for first base to get any deeper this season. Because it is an aging position and there isn't much high-end minor league talent at the upper levels, it may get even thinner before it gets deeper again.
In some leagues, if you wait until the third round to draft one of the top seven first basemen, you've waited too long. At the very least, you are probably going to be left with only one or two of the top options at the position by that point. You should plan on making one of your first two picks a first baseman, and then you can rest easy knowing that you won't have to settle for a middling, inconsistent, injury-prone or unproven option at the position.