Fantasy sleepers at first base
Each FOXSports.com fantasy contributor shared three-to-five fantasy baseball sleepers to keep an eye on heading into owners' fantasy baseball drafts. Over the next two months, expect several updates to our positional fantasy baseball first base rankings.
Ryan Howard, Phillies – The perils are clear-cut and genuine: rising age (turned 33 this offseason), an accretion of injuries and declining performance (a career-worst .219/.295/.423 slash last year). Yet Howard still possesses one of the more powerful strokes in the league, evidenced by 14 homers in 71 games, and his 27.5 home-run-to-fly-ball percentage was his best showing since 2008. Moreover, while hitting .280 is a pipedream, his 25.6 line-drive percentage states Howard’s putrid 2012 batting average was a product of bad luck. If Howard can notch 140 games, it’s easy to envision production along the lines of 30 jacks, 100 RBI and 80 runs. For the 20-something ranked first baseman, that’s one of the better selection values in your draft.
Pre All-Star: 295 PA, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 30 R, .201/.271/.388
Post All-Star: 289 PA, 20 HR, 41 RBI, 36 R, .255/.346/.542
Davis’ 20 second-half home runs were the second-most in the Senior Circuit last season, and his 32 total long balls were tied for fifth-best in the league. Alas, most owners will see the seasonal slash of .227/.308/.462 and scoff. Make no mistake, home is not where the heart is for Davis, as he was stuck on the interstate in 77 games at Citi Field (.188 average) with only a third of his taters (11) coming in the Big Apple. Yet in 183 career games before 2012, Davis posted a .271 batting mark, meaning that average should see improvement in 2013. Replicating the round-tripper output might be a stretch, though turning just 26 years old in March, the best should be yet to come for Davis.
Adam LaRoche, Nationals – Seems to be an overriding sentiment that LaRoche’s 2012 feats (.271/.343/.510, 33 homers, 100 RBI, 76 runs) were an aberration. Yet, subtracting his injury-filled 2011 campaign, LaRoche submitted similar figures from 2008 to 2010, with an average harvest of 25 blasts, 89 ribbies, 73 runs and a line of .269/.339/.485. Better yet, projected to bat in the heart of Washington’s dynamic lineup, no reason to believe the run and RBI yield will lapse. With Michael Morse no longer suiting up in our nation’s capital, LaRoche has top-12 potential.
Adam Dunn, White Sox - Yes, the average is so abysmal that it negates his 16.2 walk rate. Yet, in formats where batting marks are not scored, it’s hard to ignore last year’s 41 homers, 96 RBI and 87 runs. Suppose their remains suspicion from Dunn’s infamous 2011 output (.159/.292/.277 in 122 games), yet the Windy City slugger’s rushed return from an early-season emergency appendectomy was probably the catalyst for this lethargic showing. Dunn’s mean output from 2004 to 2010 further illustrates this anomaly, with the Big Donkey brandishing a line of .253/.381/.533 l with 40 dingers, 101 RBI and 94 runs. Likely to be available near the end of your draft, Dunn offers great value for a backup first baseman or starting utility player.
Brandon Belt, SF - I’ll apply the “post-hype” sleeper tag to Belt this season. The 24-year-old former fantasy “Next Big Thin” posted strong numbers in his first full season of play. Belt struggled during his 2011 introduction to San Francisco, but settled into a groove last year. He batted .275 with 40 extra-base hits and 56 RBI while stealing 12 bases. Most importantly, Belt picked up his production markedly in the second half of the season, boosting his batting average by 39 points. He also batted .315 at home, a full 78 points higher than his road mark.
Obviously, the huge power alleys in San Francisco will hold his power output down, but it’s clear that he’s just finding his stroke.
Brett Wallace, HOU - Wallace has long been on the fantasy radar, appearing on “sleeper” and “breakthrough” lists throughout minor league career. He produced solid numbers as a member of the Astros in 2012, his third taste of major league pitching. Wallace batted .253 with 20 extra-base hits and 24 RBI in 229 at-bats last season. Unfortunately, the former first-round pick by the Cardinals also struck out every 3.14 at-bats (insert your Pi joke here). Wallace generated a .372 BABIP for the Astros last season.
His high strikeout rate remains problematic, but Wallace is just now entering his power prime. Wallace will serve primarily as the DH for Houston this season while logging some at-bats at first base to spell Carlos Pena. I’m curious to see whether it finally clicks for Wallace.
Justin Morneau, MIN - Can you label a former league MVP as a true “sleeper?” I believe that based on the prevailing concern about Morneau’s health and his early draft status, he represents a “value” play, at a minimum. Therefore, I’ll take some liberty in adding Morneau to the back of this list. Morneau appeared in 134 games last season, producing 47 extra-base hits (19 home runs) with 77 RBI. His second-half batting average was 43 points higher than his first-half effort, and his power numbers stayed consistent.
Morneau enters the final year of his contract without the concerns of surgery and rehabilitation of the past several seasons. He’s a career .280 hitter with three 30-home run seasons on his resume.
Brandon Moss, OAK - I don’t discount the presence of Chris Carter and Daric Barton. I simply can’t dismiss a slugger that tore the cover off the ball in one-half of a season in Oakland. Moss slammed 39 extra-base hits, including 20 home runs, with 52 RBI in 265 at-bats. Granted, he also struck out 90 times (one per 2.94 at-bats). I believe you know where I’m headed with this analysis. Moss posted a ridiculous .440 BABIP to yield his .291 season batting average. He’s also expected to see at-bats in the outfield.
Eric Hosmer, Royals - Sophomore slumps are nothing new in sports. Hosmer experienced his last season. In 24 more games played (compared to 2011), the first baseman produced fewer runs (65), hits (124), doubles (22), triples (2), home runs (14), and runs batted in (60). There are some whispers that a shoulder injury (rotator cuff, no surgery) was partially to blame for his paltry .232 batting average.
I’m interested to learn where Hosmer falls in 2013 fantasy baseball mock drafts. Once FOXSports.com’s mock draft engine is turned on (coming in February), I’ll be sure to dig into the data to learn his 2013 average draft position. Owners may be able to steal this first baseman in later rounds. Previous stats indicate this guy possesses the ability to hit .275 with 20 home runs, 80 RBI and 20 stolen bases.
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs - Bryan LaHair shocked everybody with his hot, All-Star-worthy start to the 2012 season. While the late bloomer mashed in the big leagues, the Cubbies’ first-base prospect, Anthony Rizzo, tore the cover off the ball at Triple-A Iowa. Rizzo, a top prospect dealt by the Red Sox and Padres, hit .342 with an OBP over .400 and 23 home runs in 70 games.
After LaHair’s in-season meltdown (he hit .202 after the All-Star break), Rizzo won the first-base gig and hit .285 with 15 home runs in 87 games the rest of the season. One glaring weakness is Rizzo against lefties. He hit .208 with an OBP of .243 against southpaws. Still, because of the hype and prospect love surrounding this guy, expect Rizzo to be selected as a middle-tier first basemen.
Ike Davis, Mets - Fantasy owners want to love Ike Davis. Heading into the 2011 season, the Mets first basemen looked to build on his 2010 freshman resume of 73 runs, 19 home runs and 71 RBI, but only managed to play in 36 games due to an ankle injury.
Last spring training, Davis was diagnosed with the fungal infection known as “Valley Fever.” The good news was he only missed six regular-season games in 2012. The bad news was 240 of his at bats came at Citi Field where he hit .188 with a .277 OBP. Away from his home field, Davis hit 21 of his 32 home runs with a .262 batting average. Also worth noting that after posting a .201 BA in the first half of the season, Davis hit at a .255 clip during the second half with 20 home runs to finish the 2012 season.
Allen Craig, Cardinals - According to my rankings, there is a severe tier drop (pun intended) after Craig. He had an injury-filled 2012 season (knee surgery, hamstring injury, and chest discomfort) yet still managed 22 HRs, 92 RBI, and a .307 AVG in 119 games. Since 2010, Craig has improved in almost all statistical categories.
Yonder Alonso, Padres - First base is supposed to be a team’s power source, but it’s difficult when you play in an unfriendly home run ballpark. Petco Park surrendered .62 HRs per game (28th). He may have only finished with nine homers, but he tallied 39 doubles (fifth among other first basemen). Alonso also wrapped up 2012 with a .273 AVG (top 10 of first baseman).
If you look deeper into Yonder’s stats, you’ll also see that he’s a clutch hitter. His best batting average comes when there are runners on first (.343) or runners on second and third (.333). So, even though the Padres only scored 651 runs last year (about four runs per game), Alonso took advantage of his opportunities.
Chris Davis, Orioles - Yes, this is the same Chris Davis that is known for his strikeouts (both swinging and pitching). In 2009, he struck out every 2.6 at-bats (391 ABs). Since joining Baltimore, he has improved to a K/3 plate appearances (515 ABs). His organization also put a great deal of confidence into the slugger. In the offseason, they dealt Mark Reynolds to Cleveland and signed Davis to a one year $3.3 million contract.
Last season, Davis hit a career-high 33 home runs. That was second among first basemen and three more than Prince Fielder…in 23 fewer games. Worst case scenario, you’ll have a great relief pitcher to add to your bullpen.
Mat Gamel, Brewers - If patience was a fantasy baseball stat, Gamel would be an All-Star. Early in his career, he was stonewalled by Fielder. Last season, he finally gets a chance to play and injures his ACL. About a month ago, Gamel’s future was again in question. Would he get reps in the outfield? Would Corey Hart split time with him at 1B? Now with the news that Hart will miss three to four months after knee surgery, Gamel jumps up the rankings.
With Mat likely hitting behind Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy the deck is stacked in Gamel’s favor to shine. I wouldn’t stretch in the draft for him, but I’d keep Mat in the queue for a bench or utility role.
It’s tough to tab first basemen as sleepers. Since there are so many 25-homer bats at the position, you’re looking at 15-18 or them going in the top 150 picks. Still, here are a handful of second-tier and low-end guys that can provide late value on draft day.
Ike Davis, Mets – Ike, Ike, baby! Davis started slowly in 2012 due to an illness called Valley Fever, and hit just five homers in the first two months of the season. Then he hit 27 homers from June 12 through the end of the year, while posting an impressive .888 OPS in the second half. The main concern about Davis is his .227 batting average, but that was dragged down by some bad BABIP luck (.246 last season). There’s 40-homer upside here, and even though his BA won’t be great due to a high strikeout rate, it probably won’t hurt you. Davis has been going in Round 10 during early drafts at Mock Draft Central, and I suspect he’ll be on a few of my teams.
Kendrys Morales, Mariners – Morales missed most of 2010 and all of 2011 with an ankle injury suffered during a home run celebration. His return in 2012 was OK, as he batted .273 with 22 homers and a .787 OPS. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that Morales hit 14 homers with an .810 OPS in the second half. Great? No, but solid, and with a bit more upside than most when you’re looking for that backup corner infielder. Check Morales’ 2009 stats to see what’s possible.
Brandon Belt, Giants – Yeah, I know. It’s hard to pick a first baseman if you can’t expect at least 20 home runs, let alone 15. However, Belt is only 25, and his minor-league track record suggests more power than he’s shown so far in San Francisco. He’s no more than a late-round pick in standard mixed leagues, but he could give you a batting average north of .280 with 20 homers and 10 steals. I’m ready to give him one more chance.
Logan Morrison, Marlins – Morrison has been a disappointment as a big leaguer, showing only modest power with a .250 batting average, and his 2012 was cut short due to a knee injury that eventually required surgery. LoMo’s failure to reach his potential has made him a forgotten man in fantasy circles – he’s basically being ignored in early drafts (ADP: 262). You shouldn’t expect a breakout, but he’s still young, will bat third in the Marlins’ pitiful lineup, hit 23 homers in less than 500 at bats a couple of years ago, and also qualifies in the outfield. That versatility could help you in daily lineup leagues, and the bet here is that he’ll be a pleasant surprise.