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State of the Position: First base in 2021

Surveying the first base position with a fantasy baseball slant.

Getty Images/Pete Rogers Illustrations

If you missed Catcher Week, I guess you got lucky. The important thing is, you’re here now.

Only kidding, Catcher Week was great! And even greater than an entire week devoted to catchers, is an entire week devoted to literally any other position. So let’s continue First Base Week with an overview of the position...

The Elites: Freddie Freeman and Cody Bellinger

I’m ranking (and drafting) Freddie Freeman over Cody Bellinger for the time being, given that Bellinger isn’t currently swinging a bat following offseason shoulder surgery. However, if we actually get a delayed start to the MLB season, that would help Bellinger’s chances. For my part, despite ranking Bellinger second at this position, I’m still drafting him in Round 2 every chance I get. The shoulder surgery and/or last year’s career-low .245 BABIP are conspiring to give us this discount. I’m taking it. Bellinger quietly made some plate discipline gains in 2020, making more contact than ever, more contact in the zone than ever, and more contact out of the zone than ever. His 47.6% swing rate was the highest of his career. He also swung more inside the zone than ever. All of this, and his 29.9% chase rate was still better than average. If he’s healthy, you’ll make out like a bandit.

As for Freeman, his 14.1% strikeout rate ranked inside the top 10% of the league, which was no big surprise. Where Freeman may have surprised some was with his batted ball quality, though. His Statcast page has always been littered with “red,” but in 2020 he set career marks in barrel rate (14.7%), exit velocity (92.4 MPH), xBA (.341), xSLG (.660), wOBA (.449), xwOBA (.441), hard hit rate (54.2%), strikeout rate (14.1%), and walk rate (17.2%). He was downright filthy, despite having one of the tougher bouts with Covid-19 that we heard about last year. Add in that he’s just 31 years old and hits in the heart of an elite Braves offense...he’s an outstanding “floor” pick towards the end of Round 1.

A Tier of His Own: D.J. LeMahieu

LeMahieu’s re-signing with the New York Yankees means his Round 3 ADP is fixed. The batting average, the counting stats, the triple-eligibility (1B/2B/3B)...what’s not to love? Sure, you’ll give up a little power to the next guys on the list, but that’s all you’re giving up. His 9.7% strikeout rate from 2020 was the best of his career, and that mark ranked inside the top 1% of the league. Likewise, his .422 wOBA (top 1%) and .315 xBA (top 3%) were stellar. He’s another superb “floor” play.

Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game Three Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Beef: Jose Abreu, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Pete Alonso, Luke Voit

This tier is easy enough for me to navigate. I’m drafting Guerrero Jr. aggressively in 2021, and I ranked him fifth among all first basemen. But I won’t take him over Abreu, who offers power and counting stats in a phenomenal White Sox lineup. Abreu, who is a career .294 hitter, has batted .293 over the last two seasons, following an injury-plagued 2018. His 52 home runs over that stretch trail only Pete Alonso. Luke Voit checks in at ninth on that same list with 43 dingers—but his .268 BA far exceeds Alonso’s .252 mark. Alonso has the potential “unicorn” skill with power, but if you miss out on him I think Voit is an excellent consolation prize given his ability to hit for power but also potentially not sacrifice batting average. And stay tuned later this week, as we’ll have a deep dive on Voit’s potential in 2021.

As for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., what he offers is an elite ability to hit the ball hard, ranking inside the top 7% of the league in hard hit rate and exit velocity. He also doesn’t strike out much, with rates of 17.7% and 15.6% over his first two MLB seasons. It’s easy to see why pundits continually drool over his upside—he truly is one launch angle adjustment away from being a phenomenal contributor for fantasy baseball purposes. If only he can elevate the ball a bit more, we’ll have a monster on our hands. Add in the positive reports on his physical shape this offseason, and I am drinking the Kool-Aid. I have done two NFBC drafts so far this year, and I have Vladito on both of my squads.

The Sleepers: Josh Bell, Christian Walker, Carlos Santana

Before I hop into the above three, I’d like to mention that I’m a big fan of Eric Hosmer as a first base target in 2021. His 135 ADP doesn’t qualify him as a “sleeper,” but the fact that he’s being drafted 30 picks after Anthony Rizzo is enticing to me. Besides last year’s elevated 8.7 degree launch angle (and hope for more on that front), he’s carrying hard hit rates of 46.0% and 47.0% over the last two years. Add in the stacked Padres lineup and Hosmer’s ability to consistently hit for average...that’s a recipe for success.

Bell’s move to Washington can only be construed as a positive, and right now he’s a bargain in drafts relative to some of his peers, at an ADP of around 150. Walker quietly rakes, as his 13.1% barrel rate in 2019 was inside the top 10% of the league, and he has posted hard hit rates north of 48% in each of the last two seasons. To boot, he swiped eight bags in 2019 and is slated for tons of playing time as one of the heart-of-the-order batters for a mediocre Arizona lineup. I dig him as a solid corner infield bat. As for Santana, I just think he’s too cheap as a proven power bat, one that the Royals will need to lengthen their lineup. I have no fears about his playing time, and I expect we see an improvement on last year’s .199 BA (his expected batting average was .253). With a walk rate inside the top 2% of the league, he’s another solid corner infield bat if you miss out early.

Chicago White Sox v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images

The Prospect to Watch: Andrew Vaughn

Vaughn is the top-ranked prospect for Chicago, and offers plus hitting and plus power potential for a White Sox team that got mostly nothing from Edwin Encarnacion out of the DH spot a year ago. The tea leaves say we’ll see Vaughn sooner rather than later in this role, and he’ll have a chance to produce as the everyday DH and perhaps even spell Jose Abreu at first base when needed. With an ADP after pick 300, you certainly aren’t having to shell out much to find out if he’ll win the lion’s share of DH at-bats in Chicago.