Due to an unfortunate data error, the numbers in this story did not include park factors upon publication. We have updated the data to include the park factors, and the data you see below is now correct. We apologize for the mistake.
What’s all this, then? For an explanation of this series, please read the introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.
Is it me, or are there fewer superstar first basemen than there used to be? I did these same rankings last year, and the answer seems to be yes. I’m not sure why that is, though. Part of it is that Detroit is playing one of them at third base now, but that was true last year as well. I would also guess it is simply the current place of positional demographics: A lot of first basemen who were at the top of the rankings a couple of years ago are still primary starters, but they are in their decline phases. Some of the same names are on the top of the rankings, but not all are on the level they used to be. There are some younger players on the list who might have some potential for big leaps, though, and this list could look very different next year. So which teams project to have the biggest advantage at first base right now?
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Joey Votto put the Reds on top of these rankings, just like he did last season. The guy played only 111 games, but he still managed to put up six wins. Sure, his 2012 BABIP was high (.404), even by his normally insane standards (.359 career), but keep in mind that his .404 projected wOBA would be his lowest since 2008. When will he pop up again? Votto had knee surgery last year, so the playing time might seem a bit rosy — but other than 2012, 630 plate appearances would be his lowest since 2009. If Votto does go down, Frazier at first and Hannahan at third is far from ideal, but teams could do a lot worse.
The Angels managed to hold on to the second spot despite a disappointing 2012 performance from Albert Pujols. Pujols has apparently decided to age in the weirdest way possible: a declining walk rate. Given his contract, the future could get pretty ugly for the Angels, although they should be fine as long as Mike Trout keeps putting up 10 wins every year. Money aside, Pujols still projects to be a very good hitter, just not the utterly frightening one he was prior to 2011.
Despite a body that seems as if it might fly apart at any time, Pujols continues to be incredibly durable. The Angels will probably continue to give him breaks from the field and put him at designated hitter, but Mark Trumbo is fine as a fill-in at first on those days. Of course, if Pujols does go down and Trumbo becomes the first baseman, Kendrys Morales no longer is waiting in the wings. Then again, how many teams carry a backup DH? Angels fans are probably holding their collective breath with Pujols, but for now, he still projects as an excellent player.
Gonzalez had a disappointing 2012 both before and after being traded from Boston to Los Angeles. He no longer projects as a near-.400 wOBA hitter. But one year is still only one year. The primary issues for Gonzalez in 2012 were his walk rate and his power. As for his walk rate, there is at least some evidence that veterans with good walk rates tend to rebound after a one year dip. His power drop is more troubling, but given his past performance, it should rebound. Along with a good on-base percentage, he should be fine, if not quite the force of the past. Gonzalez still projects to be good enough to put the Dodgers right up there with all the other non-Votto-involved teams.
Gonzalez is another first baseman who has been extremely durable. He’s played at least 159 games every season since 2007. Even last year, his defense and durability enabled him to be worth more than three wins despite his troubles at the plate. Gonzalez has never been on the disabled list, which is nice, because the Dodgers’ options after him are not appealing.
Prince Fielder went from being Detroit’s big off-season signing to a player who, at least from my perspective, did not get as much credit as he deserved for an excellent 2012 season. Part of the reason for that was likely all of the attention (understandably) paid to his teammate Miguel Cabrera. Although Fielder’s power and walks decreased after his move from Milwaukee to Detroit, he also managed (against the usual expectations for a player of his type) to cut his strikeouts. Overall, it was a performance more in line with his traditionally outstanding odd years (2007, 2009 and 2011) than his average-to-above-average even years (2008 and 2010).
Fielder projects to continue his excellent plate discipline in terms of both walks and strikeouts, while hitting about 30 home runs. That is more than enough to make his less-than-awesome fielding and base running acceptable. While we are relatively conservative with playing-time projections, we could have gone higher with Prince Fielder, who is tied with Ichiro for the most games played in the past three seasons. As far as I can tell, Fielder has never been on the disabled list. That is an underrated facet of his value.
Fielder will probably get a little time at DH this year, and the returning Victor Martinez can always fill in decently at first if Fielder needs some time off. Cabrera could get some time at first, too, although we have not listed him here. In other words, the Tigers are probably OK for depth at this spot.
Who had the Cubs fifth in the pool? Don’t lie. Anthony Rizzo is a young (23) hitter who had a nice debut for Chicago last year, but it is a bit shocking to see the nearly universal jump in power projected by all the systems. They must be really impressed by his Triple-A numbers, which look pretty stunning when it comes to his power. Minor league translations are a tricky matter, so there’s a great deal of uncertainty in play. Rizzo needs his power to to be for real if he’s going to be a star, because so far, his walk and strikeout rates are not exceptionally impressive. Still, even if Rizzo only repeats his rates from 2012, the Cubs will have an above-average performer at first base who has room to improve. Bryan LaHair left for Japan in the off-season, so there is no safety net if Rizzo has an Eric Hosmer-esque sophomore season.
Brandon Belt finally got his chance (sort of) in 2012, and Aubrey Huff won’t be around in 2013 to steal playing time . Belt’s 2012 numbers were generally good, and he projects as an average or above-average player for 2013. There is some concern over his contact rate and unimpressive power so far in the majors — his .339 wOBA last year was propped up a fair bit by a .351 BABIP. Even after regression and other adjustments, though, the projection systems still see him hitting at least adequately for the position. There really isn’t anyone else in San Francisco who is likely to take playing time from him. Buster Posey might get some time at first base, but at the moment, he’s too valuable behind the plate to push his way to Belt’s turf too often.
#7 Blue Jays
Not everything has gone as brilliantly for Toronto on their way back to the brink of contention. But it’s rather stunning that the team managed to find another player who suddenly found his power stroke at the end of what’s a typical prime. Edwin Encarnacion’s 2012 was not quite as out-of-nowhere as Jose Bautista’s 2010, nor was it as impressive, but it certainly solidified his status as a very good hitter. Regression is to be expected, but big jumps in power and walks tend to regress less than other peripherals.
Projection systems see Encarnacion as a very good, if not great, hitter in 2013. And that’s enough to make him an above-average player overall. When Encarnacion has a day off from playing first, Adam Lind will probably fill in. Lind isn’t much of a hitter at this point (and as a DH. well…), but as a backup first baseman, he actually rates pretty well. If his plate-appearances against southpaws are strictly limited, he could be pretty effective.
The Cardinals would probably rank a few spots higher if Allen Craig had a better health record. Even 560 plate appearances seems optimistic, but I will leave that in the hands of our Cardinals experts. When he has played, Craig has pretty much smacked the ball around. He doesn’t walk much, and his strikeout rate isn’t that good (nor is it that bad). He just hits the ball hard, for both power and average. Matt Carpenter is currently battling for the starting spot at second base, but if/when Craig does go down, Carpenter could fill in ably at first. The Cardinals’ depth continues to be a real advantage.
I have a hard time picturing the Yankees going into the season with some amalgam of Juan Rivera and Dan Johnson at first base, but here we are. One might think Kevin Youkilis should be penciled in here, too, but his services are needed at third base for an indefinite period of time.
Despite the mess to start the season, the Yankees still sit in the top third of the first base rankings. It’s hard to estimate how much Mark Teixeira will miss and whether the injury will affect his performance when he returns. While he was expected to decline during his contract, it has been more dramatic than anyone might have expected. Come think of it, his BABIP has suffered because he has become too pull-happy. Whatever the reason, the BABIP has been low for three straight seasons, and the projection systems cannot simply regress it all away.
Teixeira is no longer projects as a superstar. He still projects as at a good hitter overall and above-average overall player, though, due to good plate discipline and power. He has a nice glove, although that is difficult to measure. Assuming he can come back in mid-May, this injury will not, in itself, kill the Yankees — even if they are stuck with Rivera and Johnson in the meantime.
Freddie Freeman is just 23, and is coming off of two good seasons. While he superficially had a worse season with the stick in 2012 than in 2011, his true talent may have actually improved. His 2011 performance rested a fair bit on a high BABIP (.339). In 2012, his BABIP regressed, but his walk rate, strikeout rate and isolated power all improved. Those skills all correlate better year-to-year than BABIP. Those improvements, combined with his age, are the reasons that pretty much every projection system seems him as being even better in 2013.
The Mets’ hopes at first base in 2013 rest on the shoulders of Ike Davis, despite some fan enthusiasm for Lucas Duda. Our Mets’ depth chart experts seem to have faith in Davis’ ability to get more than 600 plate appearances, so I’m not here to doubt them. Davis doesn’t have much competition for playing time. He had a relatively disappointing 2012 season compared to 2010 and 2011, and his problems with contact are a concern. He has a big platoon split, although that is hardly unusual for a player Davis. Still, the power is impressive, and he can take a walk. His BABIP should regress to something more respectable after the .246 he put up in 2012, assuming he can cut down a bit on the pop-ups. Davis is 26 this season, so it is not as if he offers tons of upside. But power is power, and Davis should be at least an average overall first baseman (with potential for more) for the Mets, who have bigger problems elsewhere.
The Diamondbacks have a very good hitter as their starting first basemen. The backups are players who are not good enough to start, but are better than most teams’ backups. Eric Chavez and Eric Hinske may not be all that exciting, but at least they aren’t Brent Lillibridge. There is a fair amount of hype behind Goldschmidt, and understandably so. He has good power and he even threw in 18 steals last year.
Enthusiasm should probably be a bit tempered given Goldschmidt’s strikeout rate and his friendly home park. And while 25-years-old isn’t incredibly young, it’s on the good side of most aging curves. Goldschmidt may not be a future superstar, but he is a very good player — and Arizona is fortunate to have him.
Cleveland’s contract with Nick Swisher looked pretty good when he was slated to start in right field. At first base, he is not quite as exciting, but the team is still in the first half of the rankings. Additionally, as some friends reminded me, having Swisher at first enables them to use a defense-first outfield of Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn and Drew Stubbs that would keep Mark Reynolds off the field. If one of the outfielders goes down or Stubbs does not hit, they can always move things around and put Swisher back out there. Assuming the outfield is really that great defensively, it makes sense.
If Swisher does have to go back to the outfield, Reynolds can at least swat some homers. It is too bad for Cleveland that Swisher playing first does not somehow move Ubaldo Jimenez out of the rotation.
I’m kind of surprised that the Twins would rank this high anywhere other than at catcher. And I guess even ranking this high is because a catcher is likely to get playing time at first base. Justin Morneau, the slated starter, actually got 570 plate appearances last season. A .337 wOBA barely cuts it as a starter at first base, but that would still be better than Morneau did in either 2011 or 2012 — when he logged only 150 combined games. Morneau is owed $14 million this season, so the Twins are hoping he gets out to a good enough start that he might be attractive as a trade piece. For that to happen without the Twins picking up a significant chunk of his remaining salary, he will not only have to stay healthy, but significantly outperform his projection.
[Note: when I originally wrote this post, I mistakenly had Morneau signed through next season, too. It is now fixed. Long story short: I thought that it was through 2013, but I wanted to make sure. When I looked, I misread the the information as having him signed through 2014. Brilliant, I know. I went on a trip pretty much right after this post went up, which is why it took a bit for me to come back and correct it. Hope that goof didn’t ruin anyone’s day or week.]
Adam LaRoche does not project to repeat his 2012 power surge, but his bat should be adequate. Combined with good defense, he should be about average. Assuming he can stay healthy, LaRoche should be able to carry his part of the load while the Nationals’ big guns elsewhere on the field — and in the rotation — do their thing.
#16 White Sox
Paul Konerko is finally starting to decline, but he’s still very good, at least with the bat. Even with his power dropping, his approach is still good enough that he manages to strike out at a remarkably low rate. Despite some injury issues last year, he managed nearly 600 plate appearances, so the playing time distribution is not all that crazy for him. Adam Dunn will probably have to see time at first at some point. After a nice start to 2012, Dunn tailed off, but can still deliver OK-ish production. I doubt Tyler Flowers will see much time at first base, but given Konerko’s age and Dunn’s “skills,” he is probably a fair approximation for whichever players the White Sox would have to put at first base in lieu of the other two.
Remember last off-season when some anonymous, non-Royals team official said that the 10 years and $100 million dollars would be about right for a deal between Eric Hosmer and the Royals? That was awesome. I have to remember to get screenshots of these things. To put it mildly, Hosmer had a disappointing sophomore season. Although his plate discipline improved in some respects, his problems cannot just be put down to bad luck on balls in play. That might have played a part, but he seemed to want to pull everything — which resulted in a lot of seven-hoppers to second. His power also went into the tank.
While celebrations of Hosmer’s incipient greatness were a bit premature, he’s still just 23, and he had a very good 2011 season for a 21-year-old. He does not project as the “Next Joey Votto” just yet, but projection systems have him performing much closer to his 2011 season than his 2012. Scouts and defensive metrics disagree about his fielding, with the former seeing him as very good and the latter not so much. Hosmer does not project as a superstar right now, but he does project as about an average player, and given his age, the future is still bright. If he really bombs and needs to got down to Triple-A, Billy Butler’s bat can make up for his defensive issues, although that would leave the Royals’ DH spot empty. I guess they could play Wil Myers there. Sorry, too soon?
#18 Red Sox
While 525 plate appearances is far from a full season, for Mike Napoli that would be a higher number than in any other season of his career. But that figure isn’t totally far-fetched. After all, he won’t be catching any more, and the Red Sox don’t really have anyone else worth playing in his place. Napoli’s 2012 strikeout rate jumped to scary heights, but it was never that bad before, so projection systems do not think it is likely to repeat itself. Napoli’s .320 average in 2011 was pretty clearly a one-time thing, but he has enough power and takes enough walks to be an effective hitter. Napoli should be at least an average first baseman, but Red Sox fans are hoping Napoli’s hip holds up, because too much Mike Carp is not a good thing.
The first base situation does not look pretty, but without running through all of the math, this could actually work pretty well if the Pirates consistently platooned Jones and Sanchez at first. By himself, Jones has a somewhat adequate bat for first. In 2012 he overachieved as sort of a poor man’s Corey Hart: low walk rate, more strikeouts than you would like to see, but plenty of power. Sanchez hit well for the Marlins in 2010 and 2011, then came crashing back to earth in 2012. I doubt Sanchez is really a .272 wOBA hitter, although he probably doesn’t hit well enough to start at first base. Lefties have been Jones’ kryptonite, and if Sanchez were to get those plate appearances, the Pirates could earn themselves a few more runs — and maybe an additional win.
Yes, he plays his home games in San Diego, but Yonder Alonso seemingly modelling his game after Daric Barton is not what Padres fans were hoping for. Basically, walking and striking out at a slightly-better-than-average rate was the only part of Alonso’s offensive game that went well last year. He is going to be 26 in April, so it is not as if he has plenty of time left on a typical developmental curve. To top it off, he’s a lousy base runner. Even for his home park, those projected numbers are mediocre for a first baseman. The Padres need to give him the full season and try to live up to his projected potential pre-2012, though, because no one else offers that much hope, either.
Sign that the upcoming season may not go well: A season-ending Mat Gamel injury throws a wrench into the gears. OK, that is not quite right, it was Corey Hart getting hurt that set this into motion. Still, Mat “Am I Still A Prospect?” Gamel looks pretty good compared to the other options available to Milwaukee until Hart returns sometime in this spring (hopefully for the Brewers).
When I saw that Alex Gonzalez was projected to get playing time at first, I checked with our Brewers experts to make sure it was not a mistake. They assured me it was not, although the playing time situation is in flux. Yeah, the Brewers might end up envying the Yankees over the first six weeks of the season. I guess Taylor Green might hit better than Alex Gonzalez, but.…
While the situation is bad, as with the Yankees and Teixeira, losing Hart for six weeks-or-whatever is not devastating. That assumes, of course, that it does not drag out for much longer and Hart comes back ready to hit. Hart is not a great hitter, but he is pretty good. His walk rate fluctuates around average and his contact skills are getting worse, but he manages to put up decent numbers simply by hitting the ball hard and for power. For a right fielder, he is above-average. At first, he is closer to average. It may only cost them a win, but for the first part of the season, average will probably be a sweet dream for the Brewers.
One might think that the A’s are going to do some more of the smart platooning that worked so well for them in 2012, but no, both Moss and Barton are left-handed hitters. The offensive projection for Moss may seem unfair, given that he hit .291/.358/.596 (.402 wOBA!) in 2012 — but that was over 296 plate appearances, versus a longer history of poor hitting. Even after last season, his career line is just .251/.317/.442 (.328 wOBA), and he is 29. The A’s are projecting something more from him than Steamer and ZiPS, one would think. Or maybe they just don’t have better options. Barton probably is not that better option. While Moss has poor plate discipline and good power, Barton has good plate discipline and very little power.
For all the mockery of the Ryan Howard contract, I really didn’t think we’d already be at the point where the Phillies’ first basemen collectively are ranked below a potential Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez platoon. To be fair, if Howard hits as projected — and is average in the field and on the bases — he could be about an average player. But how is assuming Ryan Howard could be average in the field and on the bases be fair? The Phillies had such a fun infield a few years ago. Now it just makes me sad, and no amount of snark makes up for that. That won’t stop jerks like me from trying, though.
Mitch Moreland projects, at best, as an adequate stopgap first baseman, especially with a team with its eyes on the playoffs. It beats rushing Mike Olt or risking injury to Lance Berkman by playing him at first too much, though. The Rangers have to hope they have enough firepower in the rest of the lineup to make up for Moreland’s bat.
Chris Davis’ unexpectedly effective bat was one of the big reasons the Orioles made the playoffs last year. Most projection systems expect regression, but they vary on how much there will be. Davis did have a high BABIP at .335, but he also had exellent power (.231 ISO). The power seems to be mostly for real, and while the BABIP is not terribly high, it is high. Of more concern are his career 6.5% walk rate and 30% strikeout rate in the majors. Overall, the power seems to be enough to make him an adequate, lower-division stopgap starter as a first baseman. Davis will likely see some time elsewhere on the field and at DH, with Wilson Betemit filling in at times, and quad-A-classic Russ Canzler possibly also getting some plate appearances.
In 2012, Logan Morrison played poorly and got hurt. Before that, he looked very promising. While some of the shine is off, he still has upside. He’s projected to hit decently even with a low BABIP — if not as low as last season — and there is reason to think his power is still there. Again, he needs to stay healthy. Of course, no one is exactly going to be crying for the poor ol’ Marlins if they end up with an unhealthy dose of Casey Kotchman.
The Rockies’ first base situation pretty much sums up the organization as a whole: big names that might give ough of an illusion of contender-hood to mask a messy reality. Todd Helton is a shadow of his former self, but his recent numbers and current projections show that if you have good plate discipline, you can hang around as an adequate hitter, even at first base, for a long time. Still, at this point, a .341 wOBA in Colorado does not cut it at first base. Helton missed a lot of time last year, and he hasn’t had at least 500 plate appearances in a season since 2009. That means Michael Cuddyer and others will probably see time at first base. Cuddyer’s bat is better than Helton’s, probably, but not really what you want for a first baseman (or even a corner outfielder) in Coors Field.
I would imagine that if, prior to the 2012 season, you had told Mariners fans that Justin Smoak would have a better wRC+ than Eric Hosmer during the upcoming season, they would have been thrilled. Yeah, about that…. Does anyone outside of the Seattle front office believe in Smoak? He doesn’t even have the numbers to project as an adequate half of a platoon. I guess the Mariners are not ready to give up on the prime piece from the team’s Cliff Lee trade.
If the Mariners were willing to cut bait on Smoak, they could improve their offense and defense by moving Morales (currently set to be the primary DH) to first and move Morse from left field to DH (leaving aside the issues of whether they should have made the trade for Morse). Of course, that would also potentially mean a two-headed Jason Bay/Raul Ibanez monster in left field.
It’s something of an achievement for the Astros to not be in dead last in these rankings. At the moment, it looks like Brett Wallace is going to get most of the playing time at first base. The Wallace jokes have pretty much all been made, but at this point, with the Astros playing for nothing (a.k.a., “pride”), it looks like he’s going to get a final chance to show whether he has anything to contribute. So far the answer has been pretty a pretty clear “no,” but the Astros don’t have better options.
Pena is slated to be the Astros’ primary DH, but he can play first if needed. Chris Carter, who came over in a trade with Oakland, has some offensive potential, and might end up being the long-term solution. For now, Carter is will play the outfield with a bunch of other players. If something goes drastically wrong with Wallace this year, it would not surprise me if Carter ended up getting most of the time at first base. Carter’s glove is best suited for DH, but his power is pretty exciting, regardless of his defensive limitations.
This ranking calls into question two bits of what might (unfairly) be called current sabermetric dogma. No. 1: “It is easy to find a decent first baseman.” And No. 2: “The Rays’ front office can do no wrong.” I put the parenthetical “unfairly” in there because if any saberists actually hold either anything like these, they do so with numerous qualifications. For example, it is only easy to find a decent first baseman relative to other positions, or the Rays are just way smarter than just about every other front office. Even then, these positions seem a bit silly.
Nonetheless, for the sake of this blurb, let us imagine a stereotypical saberist who holds these as articles of faith. It seems like said saberist’s faith would be shaken by the depth chart above, doesn’t it? I mean, either it is really difficult to find a somewhat average first baseman or the Rays just — well, I don’t know. What is going on here? I guess one could imagine that if James Loney is the best-fielding first baseman in the majors, he could be decent in a platoon with Shelley Duncan or someone else. Even Luke Scott, whose brief encounters with the first base glove have not been stellar, would not be great. There are only so many epicycles our imaginary, stereotypically dogmatic and non-existent saberist could spin.
But, hey, at least they didn’t trade Cliff Lee for any of those guys.