Don't let them fool you -- first base isn't any deeper than normal. Focus on dominance at the position and thank me later.
If you're like me, you're hearing a lot about first base being a deep position this year. If you're like me, you also need to watch less TV and lose 30 pounds, but those points are less germane to the rest of this piece, so let's stick with the thing about first base.
In theory, this means that you can hold off on first basemen, grab a lower-tier guy like Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rizzo, and focus your early-draft attentions on Troy Tulowitzki, Dustin Pedroia, some guy at a weaker position. Maybe you don't draft Joey Votto, says this wisdom.
But, while I do watch too much TV and do weigh too much, first base isn't deep. At least, it's no deeper than normal. What first base is, to its detriment, is shallow at the top. This means that there wasn't quite as much difference between the top and the bottom in 2012 as there historically has been, but the middling first basemen are exactly as good as always. You want a Votto.
Okay, first things first - I'm not going to consider elite-catchers-with-first-base-eligibility. If you have Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, and you have to play them at first base, you have bigger roster-construction problems than whether first base is appropriately deep. Don't play an elite catcher as your first baseman unless the top 17 first basemen all die of dysentery on the Oregon Trail.
Those guys aside, there were 14 first basemen in 2012 who earned at least 1.9 oWAR. Add in Ryan Howard and Eric Hosmer, who fell short of that mark but seem worthy of inclusion, and you're at 16 guys. In 2008, the number of first basemen who notched at least 1.9 oWAR was...16. Go back a decade. In 2003, it was 17.
No, first base is not deeper than normal.
The difference, then, comes at the peak. In 2003, four first basemen had an oWAR of at least 5.0 - Albert Pujols (8.3), Todd Helton (6.9), Carlos Delgado (6.2), Jason Giambi (5.0). In 2008, that number was three - Pujols again (7.2), Mark Teixeira (5.5), Lance Berkman (5.1). Last year, though, there were only two guys (Edwin Encarnacion and Prince Fielder), and they topped out at 5.1.
That means that the best-hitting first baseman in the game in 2012 was 46% worse than the best in 2003, and 29% worse than 2008. That means that it's easy to get a first baseman with an oWAR in the mid-2.0s, but finding someone to get you a 2.4 oWAR is no way to clinch a victory in anything.
Votto, though. Last year, he had a 4.5 oWAR (good for third among first basemen) and, considering his injury and his obvious infirmities upon his return, he did that in barely over half a season. Assuming he's back to full health this year (and there is no reason to think otherwise), Votto figures to be good for an oWAR that would be competitive with the peak guys five and ten years ago. Add in the fact that the Reds actually have a guy (in Shin-Soo Choo) who can actually get on base more than once a week hitting in front of Votto, and his RBI should rise nicely.
You know what you're getting from Fielder these days. He's good for an oWAR in the 4-5 range. He's an upper-echelon first baseman, but he's likely never going to run away with the position. Pujols? He's on a four-year downward trend, and at age 33 it seems unlikely he'll ever even bounce back to about 5, let alone his huge years gone by.
Barring further injuries, and other than that knee last year Votto has stayed fairly healthy for his career, his floor is probably an oWAR in the mid-4s. It's just hard to imagine he falls below that. But Votto's ceiling is far higher than any other first baseman. He could, with just a bit of good fortune in 2013, get you an oWAR about 6, maybe even above 7.
Yet Joey Votto is going 10th in ESPN's average draft positions, behind both Pujols and Fielder. He's going behind Justin Verlander, and we all know the risk that comes with any pitcher. He's going behind Matt Kemp, who has a more limited track record, and whose production can be nearly matched by a second-round outfielder like a Giancarlo Stanton or Jose Bautista.
You can't equal Votto's production with a later first baseman. Much as I love Eric Hosmer, much as Paul Goldschmidt is the darling of the prognosticators, either guy's ceiling barely matches Votto's floor.
So no, first base isn't deep in 2013. First base has no more or less depth than it has had for years. If you miss on Votto (or Pujols or Fielder or, heck, Encarnacion), you can easily stay in contention with an Ike Davis. But that will give you that much more work to do with the rest of your roster. Dominate a position. Use your sixth or seventh overall pick on Joey Votto, and opt for a late-round sleeper somewhere else in your infield.
Smart roster construction, folks. Votto's it.
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