Previewing 2019 Fantasy Baseball Rankings: Top 20 first basemen feature mainstays like Paul Goldschmidt and newcomers like Tyler White
First base may not be as loaded with studs as in years past, but it's certainly not lacking in depth, according to Scott White.
First base is shallow now.
You may have heard this take at some point this year, but I'm here to tell you it's wrong. Yeah, the position has changed for the worse, but in terms of depth, of offering an abundance of usable options, it still stands out in Fantasy Baseball.
Mostly, it's weaker at the top. Some of the tried-and-trues are getting long in the tooth, and there hasn't been a new crop of elites to replace them. But it's a position that ages gracefully, where being on the wrong side of 30 is hardly a death knell, so it'll still be well represented in the early rounds of next year's drafts.
No, the challenge when ranking this position isn't finding names to fill out the 20 spots. It's organizing those names in a way that's meaningful and defensible. The position features a lot of the same thing, at least in terms of ceiling and floor and likelihood of achieving each, which has me pulling out my hair over what makes No. 7 so much better than No. 13.
But that's why they pay me the big bucks, right?
Paul Goldschmidt dug himself into a deep hole with a May so disastrous there were whispers his bat had slowed beyond repair, but the passage of time has led him to more or less the same numbers he's always had, with a typical batted-ball profile and strikeout-to-walk ratio. OK, so he's not running anymore, which takes him out of the Mike Trout class of hitters, but he's still a borderline first-rounder.
Freddie Freeman became the de facto No. 1 first baseman when so many others disappointed from the start, but in the end, it's he who has underachieved, reverting to the line drive-oriented approach from earlier in his career after enjoying some power gains the previous two years. That's not altogether a bad thing — he's as safe as it gets for batting average — but he probably doesn't belong in the first-round discussion.
... Which means Anthony Rizzo doesn't either even though he's done a fine job salvaging his season in the second half. It's also true that he'll never fall too far outside of the elite in points leagues because his plate discipline is so good. Judging by his batted-ball profile, 30 homers should still be considered the norm for him, but given that he's not a true standout in anything else, it doesn't merit an especially heavy investment in categories leagues, especially knowing the sort of numbers you can find later at the position.
Tell me the version of Matt Carpenter we're going to see in 2019, and I'll give you a more confident ranking. The one I've chosen straddles the line between the MVP candidate of 2018 and the injury-riddled curiosity of 2016 and 2017. As good as his quality of contact is, combining elite hard-hit, fly-ball and line-drive rates, you have to consider he'll be 33 and as liable to play through nagging injuries as ever next year.
In what's a totally believable self-assessment coming from Joey Votto, the 2017 NL MVP runner-up told MLB.com in early September that his skills hadn't regressed like he thought they might and he had prematurely made adjustments to compensate. And it's true: He traded off fly balls for line drives in way that adversely impacted his numbers. With this acknowledgment, September has turned into one of his better months power-wise, and given that his plate discipline has been as good as ever, we shouldn't dismiss him as old yet.
Jose Abreu spent most of 2018 contending with a substandard BABIP, and then when it showed signs of correcting early in the second half, he wound up needing emergency surgery for testicular torsion (which doesn't sound good). He's getting up there in age, set to turn 32 this offseason, but every aspect of his batted-ball profile has been normal in 2018. And I suspect without the interruption, his overall numbers would have gotten there, too.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what's gone wrong for Cody Bellinger in 2018. He just hasn't homered as often, which sounds overly simplistic, but variations in home run-to-fly ball rate aren't so uncommon, really, particularly for a player as young as he is. You have to remember he hit nearly 40 homers as a 22-year-old in 2017, and there's no reason to believe the power profile has diminished at all. Chalk it up to growing pains.
Yes, there's some doubt in my mind the Brewers will enter 2019 totally content with Jesus Aguilar as their everyday first baseman, especially since Eric Thames and Ryan Braun will both still be under contract, but he's the real deal, performing equally against lefties and righties with an elite line-drive rate and power production that's been proven over the past two years. His second half has been worse than his first, but the underlying numbers don't reveal anything scary.
So far, Edwin Encarnacion's decline has been about as gradual as they come, gently lowering him from a place of Fantasy stardom to ... whatever's just below that. He's had some awful batted-ball luck in 2018, too, so while the walks and strikeouts continue to trend the wrong way, the overall step back may not have been as great as it appears. Still, another has to be expected in his age-36 season.
Though it's obscured by the fact he hasn't played as regularly, Joey Gallo actually has a respectable batting average in the second half thanks to something like a league-average BABIP. The key is a greatly improved line-drive rate, which has come at the expense of some fly balls, but that's a tradeoff Gallo can afford and will need in order to take the next step in his development. If he can be just a .240 hitter, he'll be a big-time contributor in Fantasy.
Jurickson Profar might be the game's unluckiest hitter this year, which is saying something considering it's by all accounts a breakout season for a player once considered the top overall prospect. But if it seems like the batting average is too low for as rarely as he strikes out, that's because, yeah, he has a low BABIP — and in a way you can't explain by his line-drive or fly-ball rates, which are both normal. You're probably not drafting him to play first base, but the 25-year-old should be drafted at about this point among first basemen, his arrow firmly pointed up.
This ranking will require the Dodgers to get their heads out of their you-know-whats and recognize what they have in Max Muncy, who was their best hitter going into the All-Star break and would have the highest point-per-game average among first baseman if we only included the month and a half when was getting everyday at-bats. And he should have kept getting them seeing as his numbers are just as good against lefties as righties, but someone had to suffer from the Dodgers acquiring both Manny Machado and Brian Dozier. They're both free agents this offseason, though..
Maybe the difference between Bellinger at No. 7 and Matt Olson here is little more than perception. They're of a similar age and experience level, both completing what has been a disappointing sophomore season, but in a way that hasn't betrayed their power-hitter profile even though the results aren't there. So why the discrepancy? Well, Bellinger is a year younger and was considered the higher-end prospect, but it probably says something about the five in between — as in they should all be drafted in quick succession.
Too aggressive? Maybe. But in his most extended look as a major-leaguer since early in 2016, Tyler White has maintained an OPS near 1.000, pushing aside all other challengers in what was a crowded Astros lineup. He's done it with a high walk rate, a typical BABP and a minor-league track record that supports it all. His final ranking will obviously depend on how committed the Astros are to him, which their offseason activity should reveal, but a vote of confidence would only support the idea that the soon-to-be 28-year-old has indeed broken out.
Carlos Santana remains the hitter with the greatest disparity between his categories- and points-league value. With his superior plate discipline, you could make the argument he belongs as high as 10th on this list in points leagues, but as first basemen go, he's only an average home run hitter and never much help in batting average. Owners in traditional 5x5 leagues might not even take him as high as 15th.
It's fair to say Miguel Cabrera won't be a hot commodity after following up his 2017 nosedive with a 2018 almost entirely forfeited to injury, but there's reason to believe the future hall of famer can still make a significant Fantasy impact at 36. For one thing, he played with two herniated disks in 2017, which no doubt impacted his performance, and for another, he continues to make some of the hardest, loudest contact of any hitter, sort of like we said about Matt Carpenter before he finally turned it on this summer.
Eric Hosmer had been a reliably boring Fantasy option prior to 2018, during which he has probably delivered his worst-case scenario a year after delivering his best-case scenario. Plagued by one of the lowest fly-ball rates in the league, he's no threat for 30 homers, but he has shown better in that area in years past than he has in his first year for the Padres. He's also predisposed to a higher-than-average BABIP that we haven't seen in 2018.
Rotisserie league owners especially will find room for Ian Desmond, who fortunately plays in a home park that can forgive his glaring shortcomings. The guy puts so many balls on the ground, only amplifying that natural tendency upon joining the Rockies, that it's a wonder he can hit 20 homers still. And maybe it was a fluke that'll never happen again, but because he's also a reasonable bet for 20 steals, as coveted as stolen bases are in today's game, he'll be worth a roll of the dice in that format.
In the end, Justin Smoak's 38-home-run 2017 will go down as his career year, but he wasn't a total dud in 2018, his on-base skills helping him make up for a notable drop in power. In fact, it's those walks that would push him ahead of Desmond in a points-league scenario. We'll see if a newcomer like Rowdy Tellez poses any sort of threat on a rebuilding club.
Jose Martinez showed his potential from time to time in 2018 but ultimately wasn't consistent enough as a power hitter for the Cardinals to stomach his defensive limitations on an everyday basis. There's been some talk of them moving him to an AL club, where he could become primarily a DH, and it'd be enough to move him up a few spots in these rankings given how geared he is for a .300 batting average. There's still a lot to be sorted out for him, though, clearly.
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