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Scorched Earth: NL-Only First Baseman

As Eno Sarris alluded to it yesterday, but the defections of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder to the American League have left behind an ugly scene at first base in the Senior Circuit. Joey Votto is clearly the best player at the position in the National League now, and the gap between him and the second best first baseman might be bigger than the gap between the number one and two players at any other position. With Ryan Braun likely to miss the first third of the season, the decision for first overall pick in NL-only leagues is down to Votto and Matt Kemp.

The second best fantasy first baseman in the National League is up for debate, though I only see two realistic candidates: Lance Berkman and Mike Morse. Ryan Howard would certainly be in that mix if we knew he was going to be in the lineup on Opening Day (we don’t), and as much as I like Freddie Freeman and (particularly) Ike Davis, they’re a notch below those those guys at the moment. Paul Goldschmidt, Michael Cuddyer, Todd Helton, Yonder Alonso, and Lucas Duda are below those guys, and then it really starts to get ugly.

Let’s take a second to explain why Berkman and Morse each deserve to be considered the second best fantasy first baseman in the NL…

Berkman | Fans: .284/.394/.487, 24 HR, 107 RBI, 87 R, 2 SB

Fat Elvis resurrected his career last year while playing the outfield in spacious Busch Stadium of all places. Berkman’s .301/.412/.547 overall batting line is a combination of an insanely hot start (.406/.467/.781 in his first 107 PA) and an excellent but not otherworldly finish (.276/.400/.490 in his final 480 PA), and his power production in particular tailed off…

The only significant concern here is age and injury. He’ll turn 36 one week from today and has a pretty recent history of knee problems, though he is moving to the less demanding position. I think the fan projection is a very reasonable approximation of what he’s capable of doing right now, and as long as he stays on the field, Puma should put up similar fantasy numbers: solid batting average, 20+ homers, and 90+ rib-eye steaks.

Morse | Fans: .282/.343/.479, 26 HR, 95 RBI, 82 R, 2 SB

At this time last year, Morse was basically in the exact opposite situation as Berkman. We wondering if the long-time Astro would be able to rebound while wondering if the long-time Quad-A guy could keep it up. Morse proved that his 2010 breakout was legit last season, hitting .303/.360/.550 with 31 homers, more than his career output coming into the season (21 HR). It took him some time to get going (.235/.269/.318 in his first 93 PA), but he caught fire in mid-May and was excellent the rest of the way (.316/.378/.595 in his final 482 PA)…

Morse’s batted ball profile didn’t change all that much from 2010 or from his career averages for that matter, so there aren’t any significant red flags with his .344 BABIP. It might come down because that’s what these things do, but there’s no glaring reason why we would expect it to crater next season.

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Although he’s not all that young in baseball years (30 in March), Morse is six years younger than Berkman and he plays in a better home park. Nationals Park is perfectly neutral in terms of homers for right-handed batters according to StatCorner (100 Park Factor) while Busch has sub-85 HR Park Factors for both righties and lefties (Berkman being a switch-hitter, of course). It’s not that Morse plays in a great hitter’s park, it’s that Puma plays in a pitcher’s haven. That should factor into the equation.

I do think Carlos Beltran will mitigate the loss of Pujols in the sense that he could replicate, if not exceed Albert’s .366 OBP from a year ago. I’m confident that the Cardinals will get plenty of men on base for Berkman whether he hits third, fourth, or fifth, though second might be an issue. Morse will need Ryan Zimmerman to stay healthy to get some RBI love, and a bounceback year from Jayson Werth would help as well. I’m leaning towards Morse at the second best fantasy first baseman in the NL because I feel that Berkman’s year had a dead cat bounce feel to it, that last hurrah so to speak. You’re welcome to feel differently, so please take part in the poll below.

Click here to submit your fan projections: Berkman and Morse.