2020 Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep: First base strategies, complete with sleepers and ADP review

You know what you’re getting at first base. From now until the end of time, it’ll be position of sluggers. It generally doesn’t require the sort of athleticism that would lend itself to a high stolen base total. In fact, most first basemen only happen into the position because it’s an easy way to fit an extra bat in the lineup. First basemen were developed to hit, and hit many of them do. 

But because of its low athletic threshold, it can become repository a for old guys. And with some of the more recent standbys also beginning to show their age, you could absolutely take a wrong step at the position. It’s like a minefield of possible busts.

Hey, players get worse as they age — sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly. But particularly when they begin showing signs of their age, you’d be wise not to ignore it.

That’s not to say you should pay up at the position. There is no position scarcity in 2020, and if there was, first base wouldn’t be the priority. But you are rolling the dice a little if you don’t. That’s doubly true given that all the first basemen worth owning are likely to be drafted in a standard size league. 

So who are the ones you can feel best about? You’ll find the studs right here:

Obviously, we could chop this group into smaller ones — and in fact, I do elsewhere. Cody Bellinger is of course going to be one of the top five picks, and Freddie Freeman is going to be a borderline first-rounder. They’re both probably worth the upcharge if you’re in a spot to land them, but speaking in broader terms of strategy — as in making a decision when there’s an actual decision to make — chances are you’ll be happy with any of these guys.

The one that gives me the most concern — and it may sound strange given that he’s in the company of DJ LeMahieu and Josh Bell — is Paul Goldschmidt. He’s sort of the poster boy for those “standbys beginning to show their age.” That age being 32, and the lower point-per-game average than the rest of the group is actually more telling than you might think given some of the underlying changes to his plate discipline (more first-pitch strikes, more swings-and-misses, etc.). It and the career-worst numbers against four-seam fastballs suggest his bat is slowing down, and he’s actually among my bust picks for 2020 because of it.

As for LeMahieu and Bell, they may have caught people by surprise last year, but the expected numbers (xBA, xSLG, xwOBA) back up the actual numbers. They both elevated better, and they both genuinely crushed the ball. Given that widespread skepticism is already baked into their price, it pays to play the optimist, and it’s a role I find myself playing quite often.

Something to keep in mind: Bellinger may well be drafted to play outfield and LeMahieu and Max Muncy to play second base, so realistically, we’re not nine spots into the position yet. Fortunately, there are some fallback options if the half the league is still without:

Now the position is really showing its age. Jose Abreu is 33. Yuli Gurriel is 35. Carlos Santana is 33, turning 34 soon after Opening Day, and Edwin Encarnacion is bordering on ancient at age 37. Just by virtue of being a year older, it stands to reason these players will all be worse in 2020, and that’s especially true for Gurriel and Santana, who far exceeded their career norms in 2019.

Of course, those two are also the ones who get a healthy boost in Head-to-Head points leagues, as their point-per-game averages would suggest, distinguishing themselves through superior plate discipline. Santana especially has a long history of excelling in that format, where he would probably pass as a “stud” even if his batting average regresses to more of the .250 range.

What about Encarnacion? The points format has always been his better one, too, but he’s just so old now that serious doubts about his playing time are beginning to creep in. He’s with his fourth organization in three years — a young one with some bats still looking to break in — and is mostly limited to DH at this stage. He’s not a bad flier in the range he’s going, but counting on him as your primary first baseman may be asking a little much.

Speaking of fliers …

*minor-league stats

Shallower drafts are going to end before you’d have reason to dip into this group, of course. The most likely to be drafted is Voit, who lest we all forget had a .280 batting average, .393 on-base percentage, 17 homers and a .901 OPS at the All-Star break last year. Unfortunately, a sports hernia wrecked his second half, preventing him from staking his claim to the first base job, and now MIguel Andujar is back from shoulder surgery and looking for a place to play. And let’s not overlook Mike Ford, who homered 12 times in 143 at-bats as an on-again, off-again, fill-in, demonstrating exceptional plate discipline with optimal exit velocity and launch angle readings. He’s like a sleeper among sleepers, that guy.

Nate Lowe has put up big numbers in the minors the past two years, reaching base at an elite clip while showing the potential to hit for average and power, but the Rays have spent the offseason lining up roadblocks for him. Ryan Mountcastle and Evan White have an easier path to at-bats, albeit lower ceilings overall, with White probably having the inside track to a starting job this spring after signing a long-term deal in the offseason.

First base, again, is a position for plodding sluggers, but two more athletic types just so happened to make the requisite number of appearances to retain eligibility there. Bellinger we know well, and he’ll go where he goes, but Santana makes for an interesting way to inject some steals into that spot if you buy into the bat. It’s held back by some horrid plate discipline, but he showed a legitimate power profile last year and is actually locked into a starting job heading into 2020. Still, you’ll have to pay up for him given the paucity of steals across the league, and there are certainly safer ways of addressing that need.

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