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State of the Position: First Basemen in 2022 fantasy baseball

Heath surveys the first base position with a fantasy baseball slant.

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Four Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The fantasy baseball (content) season is in full swing, and here at fake teams dot com we aim to please. Or to misbehave, if you like shiny references. Shouts to the first one of you who leaves that (slightly) obscure reference in our shiny new comments section.

The questions at first base begin in earnest after the top six bats are off the board. That’s Vladdy, Freeman, Olson, Goldy, Alonso, Abreu. Of those six, I like the top two the best, or my clear preference is to wait for Abreu (assuming he falls farthest). But we’ll touch on that in the overview...

The Undisputed #1: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

If I say “alllll reds,” you should know that actually refers to Vladdy’s Statcast page, not to an epic Matt Damon movie. Vladdy has always hit the ball with authority. The difference last year? Finally elevating the ball more, to make better use of his crazy exit velocities. His average launch angle (in degrees) by season since 2019: 6.7, 5.3, 9.4. What’s scary is that he still has room to grow, given that conventional wisdom asserts that the optimal launch angle is somewhere around 15 degrees—and Vladdy could likely get away with a higher mark than that based on how hard he hits the ball.

Vlad’s barrel rate also jumped from an above average 8.7% in 2020 to a whopping 15.1% rate in 2021 (top 10% of MLB). He doesn’t run, but he’s an outstanding contributor in the other four categories given his ability, his home park environs, and the quality of his surrounding lineup. He’s a first-round guy for a reason.

The Undisputed #2: Freddie Freeman, Free Agent

He’s similar to Vladdy as far as batted ball quality is concerned, but obviously older (32) and still with questions surrounding his landing spot. Maybe there’s a place that really moves the needle (Yankee Stadium) or maybe he winds right back up in Atlanta and his ADP doesn’t shift much. Either way, he’s a solid value in Round 2, and that probably won’t change no matter the spot. But I could see him push into the first round if he got to attack that short right field porch of Yankee Stadium as a new member of the AL East.

Fade the three-cat bats?

Check out the following ADPs in NFBC 50s over the last 20 drafts:

Matt Olson - 41.35
Paul Goldschmidt - 51.85
Pete Alonso - 58.95
Jose Abreu - 78.65

These guys are mostly three-dimensional, with only Goldy having an outside shot at contributing anything in the steals category. I did grab one share of Abreu in Round 7 (pick 82) of a 12-teamer over at the NFBC, well after all these other guys were taken. In that scenario, I had an excellent core of power and speed already, and after pick 80 I was okay taking the last guy in this tier. But that’s about the only scenario I could see drafting any of these guys, honestly. In general, I’m aiming to avoid this group at ADP. There are plenty of power bats that don’t offer speed that you can draft much later. Abreu has stolen 11 bases over his entire eight-year career, and Olson’s sprint speed is below the 30th percentile despite going 4-for-5 last year. Pete Alonso is right at the 30th percentile and was 3-for-3 in 2021. None are moving the needle in the stolen base category, and I could see regression across the board (say, 1-for-3, ha).

And as for Goldy, he was 12-for-12 on the bases in 2021 despite a 34th percentile sprint speed. In his first full year with St. Louis in 2019, he was 3-for-4 over 161 games. In the shortened 2020, he was 1-for-1 over 58 games (out of 60). His sprint speed percentiles over those three years: 44.4, 36.0, 33.6. Maybe there’s enough veteran savvy here to nab eight or so bags, but man I hate banking on that at his ADP. I feel most comfortable projecting 5-7 steals, and Steamer agrees, projecting seven. This is a circuitous way of saying you probably shouldn’t draft these guys at ADP when you can be drafting players with power AND speed, a upper flight closer, or a stud pitcher.

What do to with Ryan Mountcastle?

The Baltimore Orioles are shifting their left field fence dimensions, and Mountcastle seems like the hardest hit Oriole. You can read our own Camden Chat below for a deeper dive on the ramifications. Me, I’ve been more partial to Trey Mancini’s draft day price this year anyway, and the fence-shifting in left field only points me more in Mancini’s direction. I wasn’t overly enthused about Mountcastle to begin with, and the fence shenanigans mean I’m probably out on him unless his ADP tumbles.

The Avoids: DJ LeMahieu, Jake Cronenworth

This might seem like low-hanging fruit, but don’t get sucked into these guys manning your first base slot. The ADPs here are inflated due to the popularity of the NFBC. If you’re in a hometown format or a shallow league with plenty of waiver wire moves available, you’re probably not in need of the positional flexibility these guys offer. Both of these guys have ADPs inside the top 125, but they would be better served down around the Ty France range, near pick 150 (and after the next foursome is drafted).

The Four Horsemen: CJ Cron, Josh Bell, Joey Votto, Rhys Hoskins

These guys are where you want to nab your starter if you miss out on the elites. At least, that’s my opinion. And you’re here reading, so on some level you’re soliciting it—that, or you’ve got nothing better to read on Saturday. Poor you. Anyhoo, I’m going to be a sucker for Joey Votto until I die, or until he dies, or both. Let’s give the man a free pass for the ugly .235 BABIP he posted in the 2020 Covid year. He’s got a career .342 BABIP, posted a .287 BABIP in 2021 despite his foray into the fly ball revolution, and his .274 xBA was still a quality mark. At the least, he shouldn’t tank your batting average. And if he continues to elevate and to make awesome batted ball quality as he did last year, another epic season is in the cards. Votto was inside the top 10% of the league in nearly every metric that yaps about batted ball quality last year, while his 41.8% fly ball rate was his highest mark since his rookie season of 2007 (only 24 games). Essentially, Joey Votto set a career-high fly ball rate last year, while also knocking the hell out of the ball. Marry all of that with his extreme experience, his home park, the NL DH, and a sturdy enough Reds lineup...I’m fully in.

The Sleepers: Bobby Dalbec, Nathaniel Lowe

Dalbec was written up yesterday by our own Andrés Chávez, so I’ll point you in that direction...

No time to read? In short, Dalbec’s second half was noteworthy in 2021, when he upped his walk rate (4.7% to 8.2%) and trimmed his strikeout rate (36.8% to 31.3%). He’s one of these power guys you can draft much later in drafts to chase a .250 BA, 30 homers, and 90 or so RBI.

As for Lowe, he’s one of my guys. He’s always shown the ability to hit for average. He batted .249 from A to A+, and that’s his lowest mark as a professional, excepting the 2020 Covid year. In his second stint at A+, he batted .356 and his ISO jumped from .104 to .232.

Lowe batted .260 when he made the leap from Double-A to Triple-A. In his second stint at Triple-A, he batted .289 and his ISO bumped from .200 to .219. In fact, the 2020 year is the only one in recent memory where Lowe hasn’t shown growth in his second year at a given level. He batted just .224 with a 36.8% strikeout rate in 2020, but that was across a measly 39 batted ball events, folks.

Enter 2021, when Lowe rebounded with a .264/.357/.415 slash line, along with 18 homers and eight (!) steals over 157 games with the Texas Rangers. That slash line was much more in line with 2019 (.263/.325/.454) and Lowe even improved his walk rate (12.5%) and lowered his strikeout rate to a tolerable 25.2% (29.6% in 2019). In short, he does a lot of things well, and his 8-for-8 performance on the bases last year—coupled with the 56th percentile sprint speed—mean he’s got a solid enough floor in 2022. He actually has a higher career BA in the LvL split (.269 vs. .257) so I don’t seem him being platooned—nor do I see the Rangers aggressively adding more bats after already doing so with Marcus Semien and Corey Seager. There are too many holes on the pitching side of things in Texas (at least in my opinion, which again, you’re wholly invested in receiving).

In summary, a guy who can theoretically compile 20+ homers, push for 10 stolen bases, and not tank your batting average, that you can draft after pick 250? That’s shades of Paul Goldschmidt, folks. Shouts to one Paul Sporer for making that comparison over at Fangraphs, and piquing my interest in the first place.

The Deep Sleeper: Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks

Walker has an ADP of 427.15 over the last 20 NFBC 50s. In short, he’s an afterthought on draft day. In normal-sized leagues, he’s likely not on your draft day radar. But put him on your sleeper lists for a corner infield slot. He battled an oblique injury early on in 2021, but his second half splits were much more in line with his 2019-2020 levels. Peep the splits:

1st half: .223/.280/.340, .117 ISO, 66 wRC+
2nd half: .265/.346/.422, .157 ISO, 106 wRC+

Setting the world on fire? Nope. But does he have the ability to compile a solid corner infielder slash line if he mans first base all year for Arizona and continues his return to form? Yep! Walker had a three-year high in swing rate in 2021, while also increasing his contact rate, increasing his zone swing rate, and decreasing his chase rate. In short, his plate discipline improved.

Of note was Walker’s sprint speed, too. Despite the oblique injury, Walker was a hair faster in 2021 than he was in his banner 2019 season (when he swiped eight bags). That’s 27.4 ft/s compared to 27.2 ft/ yeah, it’s negligible. But I think noteworthy that his skills aren’t cratering as his ADP would have you believe. Add in his Gold Glove caliber first base defense, the fact that Pavin Smith was awful against lefties in 2021, and the fact that Jordan Luplow can only hit lefties...I can see why Arizona “surprise” tendered Walker. I’m buying a rebound in 2022.

The Prospect to Watch: Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers

Torkelson’s ADP of 246 isn’t prohibitive, so if you’re a believer then you can safely wade into the waters. There’s also hope that a new resolution after this wacky lockout could mean no more service-time shenanigans, and perhaps Tork breaks camp with Detroit. Either way, Torkelson looks poised to make an impact on the big league level at some point soon in 2022.

You can read a deep dive right here at SB Nation:

I actually prefer Nate Lowe, but that’s my own bias against prospects. I just think you’re going against the grain, typically. There’s also the addition of the NL DH and the late-round values like Luke Voit and Jesus Aguilar. If you think Tork will be atypical for a rookie, then be my guest and draft him. I don’t think the pick will torpedo your team, but I’m probably not in on him at his current ADP. I like the area of his max pick, around 280.

What say you all? What sticks out to you at first base? Who are you really buying into or fading this year?