It happens nearly every time on draft day, especially in mixed leagues. I start sifting through the muck in the final rounds, looking for any useable player, and there sits Adam LaRoche, like a beacon in the night, gently flashing for me to grab him.
See how they all stack up:
Darn, don't need a first baseman.
Such is life in the first-base ranks, where Paul Konerko has a rare down year and falls all the way to 21st among first basemen. I believe it's the deepest position in fantasy, and I don't think it's even close. Will you get steals? No, but 23 first-base-eligible players hit 20 or more homers in 2008. Twenty-three! And 12 of the 29 players in baseball who had 100 or more RBIs qualified at first base. Now that's brisk, baby.
If you've made it to the final rounds, and still need a first baseman, corner infielder or utility man, then you've shown incredible restraint. As you can see above, I usually can't make it. I get so enamored by a stud first baseman, even as early as the first round, that I lunge for the golden egg. I just can't help myself. But no matter how many times I've told myself to make sure this is right, I always conclude that an edge can be had at first base just like any other position.
In a good number of my drafts, and I suspect yours, you don't even realize you have a first baseman until you reach the "fill in the blanks" rounds. We call the first five or six rounds the "best available" rounds, and that's when many first basemen are taken, almost blindly, because their stats are so good. You know what? That's OK. That's why the Roto gods gave us a corner infield and either one or two utility spots, to put the merely good first basemen after the studs are gone.
So there you have it: I've given you a blank check and my full blessing to spend it as you darn well please. It's tough to screw that up; as in, it's tough to pick an actual bad, nonproductive first baseman. Now it's just up to you to pick the piece of candy you want. Here's a breakdown of that candy -- er, first basemen and DHs. As you can see, there are very distinct "classes" to separate these guys.
Ah, Albert Pujols, he of the No. 1 status in many fantasy owners' rankings. And that makes perfect sense. The lowest average he has posted in a season since 2002 is .327. He hit .357 last season, and that's not even his career high. He's darned near assured of 33 to 35 homers, with the upside for much more. He even steals five to seven bases. He's tough as nails and durable. I'll stop there. He's a perennial MVP candidate, and you already know that. I personally wouldn't put him No. 1 overall, but I'd have no trouble taking him midway through the first, and mark off "batting average" as an area I've addressed.
Then you have four players -- Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, Lance Berkman, Ryan Howard -- ranked in some order, all relatively close. But comparing them isn't quite Red Jonathan apples to Red Jonathan apples. It's more like two red apples, a green apple and one of those yellow apples that tastes almost like a pear.
Huh? The two red apples are Miguel Cabrera and Mark Teixeira. Both provide the best of what you should expect from a first baseman -- elite four-category production. Think 32-plus homers, 120-plus RBIs, a .300-plus average, 90-plus runs. Since the day he was drafted from Georgia Tech, I have been a Mark Teixeira disciple. I have stuck with him through his slow starts -- when will he stop having those? -- and have considered him a late-first-round pick (or better), even if he hasn't necessarily deserved it. Now a Yankee, Teixeira will be hitting in the middle of arguably the top offensive lineup in baseball (as long as Jorge Posada can still hit), and I think that and a number of other factors (age included) mean a career year for him, and better numbers than we've projected. All that said, I still wouldn't take him over Cabrera. Now that he has figured out AL pitching -- it took him about a half-season to do so -- the sky's the limit. Do you realize he's only 25?
Lance Berkman would be the green apple, providing a little color to the bunch with his steals. As the only first baseman projected to hit double-digit steals, he's the only one we can safely call a five-category player. Oh, and don't mind the down second half; that was just a little market correction after a monstrous first half, and he missed Carlos Lee in the lineup.
Then there's the yellow apple, Ryan Howard. It has become increasingly obvious that the .313 average he posted in his 2006 NL MVP season is an anomaly. It's not coincidental that he set a career high for plate appearances in 2008, yet set a three-year low in walks. He's swinging at more pitches, and it has led to his second straight decline in batting average. In fact, he had to hit .352 in September just to get his batting average up to .251 for the season. We've projected another decline in batting average for him, this time under .250. But we've also projected similar power numbers, which are potentially league-best in homers and RBIs. That's what you call a high-low option. I'm not against taking him early in the second round in a mixed league, but preferably after taking a high-average guy at the end of the first. Otherwise you'll be fighting to get that batting average back up with the rest of your picks.
The next level
Let's be clear about this: At any other position, the players below would be elite. At this position, they're merely early-round picks. But I wouldn't be shocked if they all were gone before the end of the seventh round in a 12-team league.
Prince Fielder hit 50 homers in 2007, then dropped to a still-good 34 in 2008. The good news: There was no noticeable change in his stat splits from '07 to '08. No added power struggles versus lefties or at home it was just a slow start. He had eight homers combined in April and May; a year earlier, he had 19 homers as June began. Barring a trend, that should return to normal, which is why I expect him to split the difference and end up near the 40-homer mark again. Who cares about the lack of steals, the .280-ish average or the slight drop in runs (probably attributed to the drop in homers)? Forty homers are 40 homers.
A case can be made for the steady and durable Justin Morneau to be drafted ahead of Fielder, but that second straight decline in homers gives us pause. But it's worth noting that Morneau, a gap hitter, shattered a career-high in doubles in 2008, so maybe the balls just happened to hit the fences instead of going over them. Plus, his walk rate increased and K rate decreased. So he's seeing the ball. Regardless, a .300-25-125 season is money.
Derrek Lee's stats sure have seen a transformation. First he was this four-category stud, lacking batting average. In 2005, he put it all together and had an amazing season, including 99 extra-base hits. Since then he has stopped running as much and has hit a few less homers, but he has become a batting average guy. I guess it's the give-and-take of the baseball-stat gods. But the 2008 season is who he is right now, and we have to expect something similar in '09.
And finally, you have Adrian Gonzalez and Carlos Pena, two guys who might not be considered upper-tier by some rankers. Gonzalez continued to put up huge numbers quietly and consistently despite playing for the league's third-worst offense. He has several detractors, many of whom point out one of three criticisms: (1) he eventually wears down in the second half; (2) his home ballpark; and (3) his struggles versus lefties. Two of those can be rebutted. In 2008, he actually hit eight homers and drove in 25 runs in September, one of his best months, and he was just fine in September 2007, too. His batting average does sink versus lefties, but he still had a homer every 19.6 at-bats against them in 2008, a fine number. The home ballpark? Well, that is noticeable; he hit 22 of his 36 homers on the road last season. It's that, and the lack of lineup support and baserunners in front of him that put him at the tail end of this tier, and maybe even below it.
The glass is either half-empty or half-full for Pena. He didn't even approach the 46 homers he hit in 2007, but he still hit 31 homers in 2008. He should be good for 30-plus homers and 100 RBIs again this season, but I do have one concern about him: His struggles versus lefties. He hit .190 against them last season, and I fear that the Rays might begin to look at him as a platoon candidate as they continue to shore up their lineup. But hey, at least that would help raise his batting average, right?
Start 'em elsewhere
Mid-round sleeper: Joey Votto (shallow league), James Loney (deeper league)
Late-round sleeper: Gary Sheffield
Prospect: Justin Smoak, Rangers
Top-10 player I wouldn't draft: Ryan Howard
Player to trade at the All-Star break: Jason Giambi
Player to trade for at the ASB: Adam LaRoche
Home hero: Kevin Youkilis
Road warrior: Adrian Gonzalez
Player I like but can't explain why: Travis Ishikawa
Player I don't like but can't explain why: Carlos Pena
A quick note about a handful of first-base-eligible guys who qualify at other positions. The position versatility is nice, but you likely don't need to be starting these guys at the deepest position in fantasy:
Kevin Youkilis, 3B: Mike Lowell's 2008 injury jumped Youk's value immensely.
Chris Davis, 3B: Played more games at first base in 2008, but likely will play more at third in '09.
Aubrey Huff, 3B, Orioles: Just when it looked like he was turning into a DH-only, he went and played 33 games at third base in 2008.
Garrett Atkins, 3B, Rockies: Few of you even considered him a first baseman anyway.
Conor Jackson, OF: Played more games in the outfield than first base last season.
Jorge Cantu, 3B: Third is nice, but wouldn't it be great if he still played second base?
Carlos Guillen, 3B: He'll likely add OF to the mix in 2009.
Casey Blake, 3B: Doesn't have OF eligibility like he has had in years past, and likely won't, given his lack of wheels.
Hank Blalock, 3B: Sounds like he won't play third base much this season, which would really hurt his value.
Pablo Sandoval, C: Depends on your league rules here; he played 17 games at first, 12 games at third and 11 at catcher in 2008. It would be great if he could play enough to qualify at catcher early on.
Where's the ceiling?
Personally, I would have liked to put Joey Votto into the upper tier. That's how much I think of him, and how well I think he'll do, something like .300-34-105. But I'm woefully outnumbered, which makes perfect sense. As well as Votto did last season, he still will be without big lefty lineup mates Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr. all of this season. And at 25, he still has some developing to do. But let it be known I expect big things from him and could justify taking him above such guys as Pena and Adrian Gonzalez.
Loney is another one of those guys who has the talent and tools to dominate the game, but doesn't, yet. He's only 24, and progression into the player that we think he can be takes more than just a few months. Expect a slight step up from last year's numbers. The same can be said for Billy Butler. The big 22-year-old is still growing and developing, but I also fear a weakness versus right-handers might have been exposed, and it could become a trend. He hit just three homers (and had a .290 OBP) in 299 at-bats versus righties in 2008. Too many years of that and we'll be calling him Wes Helms. But he's still young, and there's room there to improve.
Mike Jacobs and Ryan Garko both have had their moments, Garko in 2007 and Jacobs last season. But the two are headed in different directions. Garko flopped last season, posting a .404 slugging percentage and eventually losing at least a share of his starting job, and that's with Travis Hafner out. Now with Hafner due back, Kelly Shoppach still there and expected to start often at catcher, the team set at third base and Matt LaPorta waiting in the minors where will Garko play every day? He won't, which makes it unlikely he'll match his 2007 numbers any time soon. As for Jacobs, he might have had the quietest 32-homer, 93-RBI season in the past decade. It was probably because of his .247 average, .299 OBP and struggles getting on base versus lefty pitchers (again). Jacobs goes to Kansas City to play in the AL Central, which has stronger pitching than the NL East, but the fact of the matter is Jacobs is in his prime and coming off a fine season.
And finally a few wild cards for you: Chad Tracy still has the skills that saw him hit .281-20-80 in 2006, and he's said to be healthy again, but where will he play? He's probably only a .267 hitter no matter where he plays. And remember one-time fantasy darling Ryan Shealy? Well, he probably doesn't have a position to play with the Royals, but if he gets one, he might be worth adding. He batted .301 with seven homers in September alone last season. And then there's Travis Ishikawa. The Giants seem to like him, and he's in line to get at least a share of the starting job in San Fran to begin the season on the heels of a Triple-A season in which he hit .310 with 16 homers in just 48 games. Smells like a sleeper to us.
Or should I call this "Steady Adam." Adam LaRoche is the reason I created this subhead. These are guys who don't carry a big fantasy name, or who have deficiencies, and thus tend to be undervalued.
LaRoche's deficiency is month-to-month consistency, or rather half-to-half consistency. He's a renowned second-half hitter. Who wants to mess around with a guy you know will hit a disappointing .250 till mid-July? Someone who missed out on the top guys is who, and you can count on his numbers being there at the end of the season.
Speaking of hitting .250, we'd love to see Nick Swisher hit that after a .219 bogus last season. And yet, despite the miserable average, Swisher still managed to get in his home-run and RBIs numbers. You can count on about the same this season, although it might not be for the Yankees. He seems to have been forgotten already in New York, and I think a trade will happen sooner rather than later.
Then you have Casey Kotchman, and Casey Kotchman Jr., also known as Lyle Overbay. Kotchman teases us with great spring-training performances, but has settled in as regular 15-homer, 70-RBI guy who can be used in spots. Let's just hope his struggles after being traded to Atlanta aren't a trend. As for Overbay, we've given up on his becoming the power hitter we thought he would be, and now even his batting average is average at best, perhaps because of an increased K rate. But hey, at least he's still pretty good against righties (.291 average, all 15 of his homers), so he can be used when you see righties up next in the pitching matchups grid. He also might be helped by a platoon at first base.
How many years left?
Just. One. More. Year. Of. Greatness. That's all we're asking for.
Carlos Delgado had such a huge second half that he finished ninth in NL MVP Award voting. But it's tough to ignore that he was showing a major decline in his numbers, including a .231 average, three months into last season. He's 36, not quite a breakdown age, but no way he matches 2008 again.
Paul Konerko is not at a breakdown age (33 in March), but injuries seem to have caught up with him. He still has nice power, but the drop to .259 in average in 2007 was only a precursor. What scares me is he has become too reliant on U.S. Cellular Field, and there's talk that he might be dealt from Chicago if he doesn't fit in right away. Jason Giambi, meanwhile, fits in quite well in Oakland. He doesn't hit quite the same as he did the last time he was in Oakland green, but if he can play in another 140 games, 30 homers are almost assured. Kevin Millar has always thought more of himself than even his employers do, but his AVG/OBP/SLG numbers have all fallen each of the past two seasons. But he did hit 20 homers last season, and should be good for another 15 this season.
And finally, Nick Johnson is only 30 but it seems his body is about 74. He's still good for a .290 average with good RBIs and modest pop, but that's when he plays, which might not be more than 100 games this season. He's coming off (another) wrist surgery, which is bound to affect him at least early in the season.
Oh, that ugly DH spot. Since most fantasy owners treat it like The Plague, I kind of have to as well, sequestering it to its own area.
What's funny is that fantasy owners tend not to treat David Ortiz, the top DH, like The Plague, taking him early. His numbers have warranted that, but do they now? I'd say no. Injuries seem to have sapped his power, and struggles versus lefty pitching have dropped his average, too. If we project a bounce-back to, say, .290-30-100 numbers (which I don't think he'll hit), is that worth a top-20 pick, considering he's a DH? I'd say no.
And yet, when he's taken, everybody lets Jim Thome slide all the way back to the middle rounds. No lyin'. Sure, Thome is old and maybe a little brittle, but the only time he steps on the field is to hit, and he has had at least 34 homers and 90 RBI in each of his three seasons with the Sox. I think he hits 30 homers and 85 RBIs again, and I wouldn't mind taking him well before the middle rounds.
See how they all stack up:
Designated hitter rankings
Meanwhile, what do we do with Travis Hafner? Answer: No idea. I read up on the status of his shoulder, and it sounds like it's getting back to 100 percent, but he has admitted to some tentativeness, so there goes that. I circled him as a nice late-round sleeper, and I believe it, but now it sounds like a lot of other people have, too. There goes that idea.
The only other DHs worth discussing are Gary Sheffield, who I happen to think has another good year left in him, and Rocco Baldelli, who I happen to think doesn't have a good (full) season in him.
Normally we advise frugality and penny-pinching, to an extent, in this area. But that shouldn't be the case at this position. Simply put, you'll have to spend money to get some of these top guys, and we won't hold you back from doing that. Go get your big boys, and if you don't get one, then there's plenty more to fill in.
Brendan Roberts is a contributing writer/editor for ESPN.com Fantasy.