I can’t remember a previous year where you could wait on first basemen for so long and still get borderline elite talent. David Ortiz, for example, is my 23rd ranked first basemen; he is also my 99th ranked overall hitter. Following the underlying math then (trust me on this), first basemen make up just about 20 percent of my top 100 hitters. Indeed, all Ortiz did last year was hit 28 HRs and knock in 99 runs. Not too shabby for a double digit round draft pick.
Even crazier than Ortiz not cracking the top 20 is that the top 16 first basemen are all amazing offensive performers. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them finished in the top five at their position. You could even argue that this list should be expanded to include Derrek Lee (17) and Todd Helton (18), and maybe even Michael Cuddyer (20) who quietly hit 32 HRs last year.
So, let’s say you’re in a 12-team league. Why would you waste an early pick on a first baseman when you could get almost comparable value much later on? Take Adrian Gonzalez, my eighth best first basemen. You know he’s going to play well. You’ve followed his production. Rather than take a “premiere” first baseman, you’re better off waiting and scooping up Gonzalez in a later round. While your leaguemates have been busy taking sexy power hitters, you’ve stockpiled speedy outfielders and big fly infielders. I suggest you find your line in the sand between elite first basemen and non-elite, and simply wait until the elite category is almost depleted. I say ‘almost’ because illogical owners and autodrafters can screw up even the best-laid plans. It pays to be patient, though don’t be so patient that you’re bordering on reckless.
For me, this year, I start looking to add a first basemen once my board’s top eight or nine first basemen have made their way onto opposing rosters (as a point of comparison, my top ten doesn’t include Palo Sandoval, Adam Dunn, Kendry Morales, Carlos Pena, or Lance Berkman). For the full rankings, check out here.
I am a pretty big believer in Kendry Morales this year (40th overall). Morales is likely, only 26. This means Morales is likely entering his peak. Given what Morales did in his first full season, (86 runs, hit 34 HRs, knocked in 108 and batted .306 with a .355 OBP) he’s in line to provide some serious production. While I am generally skeptical of players with such a short sample of of major league success, Morales minor league career is a convincing substitute. In three AAA seasons, Morals hit .335 with a .374 OBP.
You might be wondering how Adrian Gonzalez is ranked so low (34th overall). In prior years, the obscurity (and horribleness) of San Diego has led to AGON being a media afterthought. His amazing numbers (and the constant rumors about his impending departure) have swung the pendulum almost too far the other way, to the point that he is now almost overrated. Sure the guy can rake, but if you look a little deeper, he doesn’t have the run, RBI or AVE upside of players like Youkilis, or Mark Reynolds (though through no fault of his own).
Last year, much to my co-owner in a HR league’s happiness, I guaranteed AGON would hit at least 40 HRs. He did. He also hit .277, which is in line with his previous seasons. What changed last year is that Gonzalez’s OBP skyrocketed to .407. In his previous three full seasons, Gonzalez had a .357 OBP. A 50-point jump over his career average speaks volumes about the Padres lineup. There is simply no hitter there that can knock Gonzalez in when he walks. Nor is there ever anyone on base when he swats a homer (40 dingers, just 99 RBIs). Again, if you are playing in an OBP league, Gonzalez’s value bumps slightly. Unless he is traded, however, it’ll be hard for him to top 100 runs or RBIs, which I think Youkilis and Reynolds will do.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the Big Papi situation in greater detail. Last season marked the second straight year of declining production for Ortiz, though some point to his improvement over the season’s second half as proof that there is still jump in his bat. Technically this is true; however, Papi’s second half wasn’t all that great. In the first half of 2009, he hit 12 HRs and batted .222. In the second half he hit 16 HRs and batted .258. The second half statistics are similar to 2008, during which he batted .264 and hit only 23 HRs. I find it hard to believe that Papi will be a top 15 first basemen next year.
Still, this part of Papi’s career reminds me somewhat of Jim Thome’s 2006 campaign. Thome, if you recall, was coming off horrible back pain, which limited him to just seven HRs in 59 games during the previous season (oddly enough paving the way for Ryan Howard to become a fixture in Philadelphia). At the time, I thought Thome was done and refused to touch him in the later teens of drafts. Well, he rewarded folks with HRs, and lots of them (42 to be exact). While Ortiz has never been as prodigious as Thome, I wouldn’t doubt one more big season from Big Papi, which is why he slides in as my number 99 hitter.
People love sleepers; they love grabbing the guy late who outperforms everyone. To help you look smart to all your friends, I’m highlighting at least on sleeper candidate per position.
As much as I hate to do it, I kind of have to pick a Royal. Is this the Alex Gordon kiss of death for Billy Butler? I hope not.
Billy Ray Butler is a big ol’ 240 pounds of something, and everyone has been waiting for him to use that weight to pound some balls over the fence. Last year, he managed to hit 21 long balls, a ten-HR improvement over his 2008 campaign. In two AAA seasons, Butler hit 18 HRs in 83 games, which projects to about 30 over a full 162-game season. It’s likely Butler is hitting his power groove and could approach 30 HRs next year.
If Butler can reach this homerun plateau, he would be on his way to becoming a lighter-hitting version of Kevin Youkilis. Last year, Butler hit .301 and posted a .362 OBP, while those aren’t at Youkilis’ levels, they are decently close. With some small improvements in OBP, Butler could push 90 runs. I don’t think you should be surprised if Butler hits 25+ hrs, scores 85+ runs, and knocks in 100 batters. For someone who is almost an afterthought at first base those are very respectable numbers. If Butler comes close to meeting this potential, those of you in deep leagues would be greatly rewarded in having him as your first basemen and using your draft picks or auction dollars elsewhere.