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State of the Position: First Basemen in 2020

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Heath examines first base with a fantasy baseball slant.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

Mondays are typically the day for State of the Position pieces. Alas, yours truly had a case of the Mondays on Monday. And then we had some breaking news regarding Nicholas Castellanos (to the Reds) and Starling Marte (to the D-backs). So here we are, on Tuesday. Let’s get rolling before Tuesday’s gone...

Last year first basemen was a mixed bag. Goldy had a lesser year than we paid for, while guys like Matt Carpenter and Jesus Aguilar were colossal busts. Rhys Hoskins was a letdown, too. Still, we had some newcomers make some waves, most notably one Matt Olson—who cemented himself as a power threat by ripping 36 bombs despite missing over a month with a broken hamate bone. Imagine what he can do in a full season...

In our initial rankings we had a clear upper echelon, with 10 guys having an average ranking in the single digits. After those 10, there’s a bit of a chasm down to the next tier. That tier ends with Luke Voit, and after that it’s a big roll of the dice...I’m looking forward to digging more into those later guys as the week rolls on!

The Elites: Cody Bellinger and Freddie Freeman

In an era where everyone is striking out more than ever, Bellinger’s strikeout rate is on a downward trend. Last year he traded ground balls for more line drives, and he hit the ball harder than ever. His 14.4% walk rate was inside the Top 5% of the league. He qualifies in the outfield. He steals bases. He’s only 24 years old. He’s a legitimate pick after the big three outfielders are off the board.

As for Freddie Freeman, he’ll bat third again. NL MVP candidate Ronald Acuña Jr. and the toolsy Ozzie Albies should hit ahead of him. Atlanta just added Marcell Ozuna to offer some protection in the cleanup spot. He’s only 30 years old, and last year he ranked inside the Top 8% of the MLB in XBA, XSLG, WOBA, and XWOBA. With his batting average floor and surrounding cast, he’s still among the safest choices in all of fantasy baseball.

Is Pete Alonso worth a top 30 pick?

I’m gonna say no, gamers. Do what you will, but I see no reason to chase Alonso when I can draft Matt Olson 35 picks later. It reads like a no-brainer for me, but I’ll do my due diligence this week and dig into this further. In Alonso’s range, I could be drafting an impact power/speed player (Starling Marte, Austin Meadows) or a still elite starting pitcher (Chris Sale, Blake Snell). If I know I can get a comparable (or better!) bat later on, why would I chase Alonso?

The Man in the Middle: Jose Abreu

It seems like there’s always a screaming value in the relative middle of the starting options at every position. For catchers, I’m looking at Salvador Perez. At first base, it’s pretty clearly Jose Abreu. Take away the fluke injury in 2018, and he’s a .280 BA, 30-homer guy three years running. Add in the ridiculously stacked White Sox lineup, and maybe last year’s 123 RBIs can be repeated. Related, did you know Abreu had 123 RBIs last year? Only Anthony Rendon (126) had more. Draft this man aggressively, or else.

The Sleeper: Luke Voit

In last year’s State of the Position, I tabbed Voit as a sleeper. Back then he was being drafted at pick 197. All he did was deliver a .263/.378/.464 line with 21 homers (118 games). A sports hernia affected him last summer, so this year we get the injury discount (apparently). In 2020, Voit is currently being drafted at pick 203...or slightly later than he was at this time last year! He doesn’t chase out of the zone (less than 28% in each of the last two years), his swing rate is 10% better than league average inside the zone, and his 13.2% barrel rate from last year was twice the MLB average. Maybe pick 200 isn’t deep enough for a true “sleeper.” But if you’re looking for someone who can dramatically outperform their ADP, I don’t see a better bet than Voit at this position.

The Guy to Avoid: Danny Santana

All the people rejoice—there’s finally a year where I don’t list Eric Hosmer as an “avoid.” Do I like Hosmer? Nope! But his 220 ADP is pretty darn friendly (or about 50 picks later than his 2019 draft day price). And I came thisssss close to listing Yuli Gurriel as my avoid. But I didn’t have the stones. Anyway Santana launched 16 homers in Triple-A for Atlanta in 2018. Aside from that year, he’d never hit more than EIGHT homers at any level as a professional. All of a sudden he slugs 28 dingers with Texas last year...and the bouncy ball caveat applies? I’m not seeing anything enticing here. He’s 29 years old, he walked 4.9% of the time last year, and he struck out 29.5% of the time (bottom 7% of the MLB). His swinging strike rate continues to rise (15.7% last year) and his chase rate of 41.9% is obscene. People must be drooling over last year’s 21 stolen bases...but I’m telling you guys I’m out on this one.

And fine, if you want a more prototypical guy to avoid, I submit Yuli Gurriel’s name to you. He’s 35 years old and coming off of a career year, one in which he slugged 31 homers. Like Santana, that was an anomaly, given that his previous career-high was 18 dingers. He’ll be a plus in batting average, but I’m not buying the power. His average exit velocity stayed the same in 2019 as in years prior, and his 3.8% barrel rate was in line with his 3.0% career rate (and below the average MLB mark of 6.3%). He did beef his pull rate up 4% to 45.3% and increase his fly ball rate by about 4% up to 39.4%. It appears that selling out down the left field line for the Crawford Boxes is a worthy goal. I’m just not buying it. Too much had to go right in 2019 (he also set a career mark with 612 PA). If someone else bets on Gurriel and I’m wrong, I’ll happily take the “L” and just find my first baseman elsewhere.

Also, you can avoid ground ball specialist Eric Hosmer. Just don’t do that to yourself.

The Deeper Sleepers: C.J. Cron, Michael Chavis

I don’t think this is a stretch. It’s a position where we want power, and Cron has that in spades. He’s also staring a ton of playing time in the face as a member of the Detroit Tigers. His 15.0% barrel rate was 20th in the MLB last year, tied with some guy named Ronald Acuña Jr. and just a tick ahead of Bryce Harper. If we scope out barrels per plate appearance, it’s even better. Cron checks in at seventh in the MLB last year, behind these guys: Nelson Cruz, Gary Sanchez, Joey Gallo, Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, and Miguel Sano. Oh, and he was one spot ahead of Yordan Alvarez and Jorge Soler. There’s more to hitting than simply hitting the ball hard, but what are you losing around pick 240? Cron is in some really epic company with regard to how hard he’s hitting the ball and the angle at which he’s hitting the ball. Comerica Park is a drag for home runs, but again—the cost here is pretty darn friendly. He’s a worthy corner infield target.

Chavis is 1B/2B eligible, but what I really like is his pathway to at-bats in Boston. Right now he’s slated to bat sixth, but I could see him leaping up a spot in the everyday lineup to fifth if Andrew Benintendi underwhelms again. Either way, he’ll have a chance to hit homers and to drive in runs. He slashed a respectable .254/.322/.444 with 18 homers last year (95 games). He’ll need to sharpen up his plate discipline and cut down on his strikeout rate, but he’s a legitimate 30-homer threat being drafted around pick 250. With the dual eligibility and his surrounding cast in Boston, I’d say that’s worth taking a shot on.

The Prospect: Evan White

It’s safe to say that no one is going to top last year’s prospect, one Pete Alonso who went on to crush 53 baseballs into oblivion—setting an MLB rookie record for home runs. But I’m gonna shoot my shot, anyway. I’m no prospect guru, but when other pundits throw out Cody Bellinger as a comp, I pay attention. Per MLB.com, White is described as “unusually athletic” with plus speed. He was apparently a good enough runner that some teams considered him as an outfield prospect. He hasn’t run much in the minors, but that doesn’t mean he can’t (Bellinger has run more in the bigs, for instance).

If you subscribe to the “follow the money” phrase, then you assume that White will get his chance to break camp with the big league club. He signed a six-year, $24 million contract in November, and GM Jerry Dipoto has described him as a “lock” to break camp. White is also currently slotted atop the depth chart at first base, with guys like Patrick Wisdom and Austin Nola listed as his competition. White was a first-round draft pick out of Kentucky in 2017, and he spent all of last year at Double-A Arkansas. He slashed .293/.350/.488 last year, with 18 homers in 92 games. Maybe he hits, maybe he doesn’t. But he’s going to definitely get a chance to do so, and opportunity is one half of the battle in the fake game. At pick 350, I’ll take a chance on any part of this coming to fruition. He’s going in the same area as Freddy Galvis, for instance. Take a chance on some upside, people.