First base is fantasy’s deepest position, with enough established stars and up-and-comers that no team should ever be without above-average production in that lineup spot. Tier One is a who’s who of fantasy, consisting of five players that figure to be off the board within the first 8-10 picks in a typical draft. Using one of your keeper slots on these guys is a no-brainer, even if you have to overpay a bit to keep them around.
I included Zach Sanders’ end of season player rankings for reference. They were hardly the only criteria used to compile the rankings and the individual tiers though.
Miguel Cabrera – $29
As great as Cabrera has been in his career, he managed to post career highs in wOBA (.436) and wRC+ (171) in 2011. He slugged another 30 homers (fifth straight year and seventh time in his eight full seasons), drove in another 100+ runs (eighth straight season), and scored 90+ runs (seventh time in eight years). Miggy also hits for a sky-high average (.320+ for sixth time in seven years), draws a ton of walks (15.7 BB% vs. 12.9 K%), and he stays on the field. Only once in the last eight seasons did he fail to play in 158+ games, and that was last year, when he suited up for 150.
Cabrera has been one of the game’s most dominant offensive forces for the better part of the decade, which is why it’s hard to believe he’s still only 28. He’s seeing fewer pitches in the zone every passing season, down to just 40.0% in 2011 (was as high as 49.9% as recently as 2008), but he also doesn’t chase much. His O-Swing% has held steady right around 32% during this career, and his swing-and-miss rate continues to fall. Miggy is held back only by his spacious home ballpark and his lack of stolen bases, but otherwise he’s a super-elite fantasy producer.
Joey Votto – $25
It’s not often a player can hit .309 with 29 homers and 103 RBI and have it be considered a drop-off in performance, but that’s what happened to Votto this season. He was a fantasy monster in 2010, impacting all categories by hitting .324 with 37 homers, 113 RBI, 106 runs, and 16 steals in 21 chances. The Reds’ slugger was still among the very best hitters in all of baseball this past season, but he was just a notch below his MVP year self. It’s nitpicking more than anything, it’s very hard to repeat seasons like that.
Votto, who just turned 28, has increased his walk rate in each of his four full seasons, simply by swinging less. His Swing% has gradually dropped from 48.4% in 2008 to 43.1% in 2011, and not coincidentally he’s also seen fewer pitches in the zone, down from 49.2% in 2008 to 41.0% in 2011. Votto’s power production against righties also dropped off a bit this past summer, to a still excellent .216 ISO after a .262 ISO from 2009-2010. The power numbers did improve as the season progressed just because he started hitting the ball in the air more, so it’s not a long-term concern. If Votto manages to start stealing some bases again (just 8-for-14 in 2011), he has a chance to emerge as fantasy’s best first base option.
Albert Pujols – $27
The best fantasy player of the last decade had a bout with mortality in 2011, as Pujols’ raw totals sat at .257/.326/.395 with eight homers and 28 runs batted in through the team’s first 54 games, exactly one-third of the season. A left wrist fracture cost him a day more than two weeks in late-June, but otherwise he hit .322/.388/.623 with 29 homers and 71 RBI over the final two-thirds of the season. That’s pretty much vintage Pujols right there.
Albert’s walk rate took quite a dive in 2011, sitting at 9.4% after having not dipped below 14.5% since 2005. His O-Swing% was its highest ever at 31.5%, well-above his career 21.4% mark. Pitchers did throw him fewer strikes this year (43.6%), but not substantially fewer compared to last year (44.2%) or the year before (45.0%). He also spend the first few weeks of the season beating the ball into the ground. Like almost everyone else, I expect Pujols to be back in St. Louis next season, and the declining walk rate (plus the early-season ground ball tendencies) aren’t nearly enough to scare me away from him yet. Expect greatness.
Prince Fielder – $26
Prince has been alternating .405+ wOBA’s with <.380 wOBA’s for six years now, and he’s due for the “down” year in 2012. It’s too bad that doesn’t have any kind of predictive value, otherwise we’d know he might be a little overrated on draft day. Fielder had the best offensive season of his career (relative to league average) in 2011, posting a 162 wRC+. He clubbed 38 homers (fifth straight year of 30+), plated 120 runs (fourth time in five years he’s been over 100 RBI), and played in 157 games for the sixth consecutive season. Durability is a skill, one that I think is undervalued in fantasy.
Fielder cut his strikeout rate quite a bit last season, going from 19.3 K% in 2008-2010 to just 15.3% in 2011. He managed to do that while swinging at more pitches out of the zone (31.1% O-Swing) and at fewer pitches in the zone (66.5% Z-Swing) than ever before. You might see his strikeout rate climb just a bit next summer, which might cost him a few points of batting average, but otherwise there is little to worry about here. Prince hits for ungodly power, so much so that he could sign anywhere as a free agent and still produce well-above-average power numbers. He also draws a ton of walks and will provide huge value in at least three of the five traditional fantasy categories.
Adrian Gonzalez – $28
After four straight seasons of 30+ homers in Petco Park — including one 40-homer season — Gonzalez hit “just” 27 longballs in 2011 with his lowest ISO (.210) in five years after moving to Fenway Park. From June 18th though the end of the season, a span of 92 team games, he went deep just a dozen times. Gonzalez admitted to feeling weakness in his surgically repaired right shoulder late in the season, saying it robbed him of his trademark opposite field power. The midseason drop in his fly ball rate is staggering…
Aside from the disappointing but still very good power production, Gonzalez did everything fantasy owners could have asked him to do this summer. He led the league in hits (213) and was second to Cabrera in AVG (.338). He drove in (117) and scored (108) a ton of runs, and he was a top six finisher in OBP (.410). Just 39.8% of the pitches Adrian saw were in the strike zone, and he did end up chasing a bunch of them as his career-high 35.5% O-Swing shows. Gonzalez is still on the right side of 30, plus his power should return to previous levels as he gets further away from surgery and just generally more comfortable in Boston. He’s a safe bet for very good production with a strong chance for much more. That’s a great park and lineup to hit, better than what anyone else on this list enjoys.
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