Halpin' Hand: Fantasy first base preview
I was in Phoenix for First Pitch Arizona and some Arizona Fall League games over the weekend. A bunch of us were fired up to see Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg in the Rising Stars game ... until he got scratched due to a minor injury that apparently occurred because he "slept funny" two nights before the game. Nothing against Strasburg, but I'd have asked for a refund if I hadn't gotten free tickets. Oh, well. Also, you know the "neighborhood call" that usually involves a second base umpire ignoring the fact the second baseman doesn't touch the bag on a double play? We saw a 5-4-3 triple play negated because the ump said second base wasn't touched. Never before had I been so angry at an umpire for making the right call. He probably didn't expect to get booed when he saw only a few hundred people in the stands. As mentioned last week, these positional previews will appear every Tuesday until around Christmas, with complete position-by-position ranking lists ready by mid-December.
Albert Pujols, Cardinals — My goodness, this guy is awesome. In a career packed with spectacular seasons, 2009 may have been Pujols' best fantasy campaign, as he batted .327 with 47 home runs, 135 RBI, 124 runs, 16 stolen bases and a 1.101 OPS. Pujols isn't just the best first baseman in the game right now; he's probably the best ever. Go ahead, name a better one. If you want to argue Lou Gehrig, we can do that. Otherwise, you're wasting your time. Remember a couple of years ago, when some people were picking Ryan Howard ahead of Pujols in fantasy drafts? Howard's terrific, but that's like when the Houston Rockets picked Hakeem Olajuwon over Michael Jordan.
The Second Tier
Lots and lots of guys — Do you know how many first basemen finished with OPS totals above .900? Thirteen! Pujols, Howard, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Derrek Lee, Kevin Youkilis, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Dunn, Kendry Morales, Lance Berkman and the altitude-aided Todd Helton. And that doesn't even include Justin Morneau or Carlos Pena! I think Fielder might be ready to jump to second on my list for 2010, with Howard third. I need some time to think about the rest, but you can rest easy knowing that in a 12-team mixed league, you're almost certain to walk away with a strong first baseman. You might even want to wait a while to draft one, as long as you don't let Nos. 8-12 get poached by a team filling a DH slot.
Joey Votto, Reds — Votto seemingly struggled a bit in 2009, missing 31 games (and not playing well in some others) due to an inner ear infection and some personal issues. Everyone should struggle to stats like a .322 batting average, 25 homers, 84 RBI, 82 runs, four steals and a .981 OPS in 131 games. That list above is in order — Votto finished with a higher OPS than any first baseman other than Pujols and Fielder. If you want to win a bar bet with some baseball fans, use that information, because they'll never know the answer to the question, "Who finished third among all big-league first basemen in OPS in 2009?" Now that I read that question again, I realize what a nerd I am. So, why is Votto on a bounceback list? Because he was headed for a bigger season than he had, and in 2010, he's going to have it. His .373 BABIP points toward some luck, but it still says here the counting stats are about to reach star levels, with something like 35 homers, 110 RBI and 100 runs. I said on a radio show early last season that Votto could become a top-six fantasy first baseman. I'm doubling down on that prediction. P.S. I never forget that Votto stole 41 bases in the minors in 2006-07. You shouldn't, either.
Billy Butler, Royals — A .301 batting average with 21 homers and an .853 OPS at age 23, huh? With 13 homers, 55 RBI a .314 BA and a .925 OPS after the All-Star break, too? Get ready, folks. This guy's about to become very good. He's going to look great in a Yankee uniform in 2014.
Michael Cuddyer, Twins — "One of these things is not like the other ..." Cuddyer hit a career-high 32 home runs at age 30, and I'm betting it was a fluke. He's hit 24 homers or more twice in his eight-year career and has posted an OPS higher than .800 twice as well. I don't know what the new Target Field will look like, but unless it measures 250 down the left field line and 300 in the left-center gap, you should probably plan for Cuddyer to hit somewhere around 20-22 homers. In mixed leagues, guys like him are very replaceable.
Adam LaRoche, Free Agent — LaRoche gets no love from many fantasy analysts, and I don't understand why. I recently saw one list that had him ranked below players like Cuddyer, Branyan, Chris Davis and James Loney, the last of whom had a .399 slugging percentage (!) last season. Here's what LaRoche has averaged over the last four seasons: .275 BA, 26 HR, 86 RBI, 76 runs. You really need to fish for more than that from your mixed league cornerman? Draft LaRoche late, and let everyone else look for a sleeper.
Youngsters to Watch
Brandon Allen, Diamondbacks — The 23-year-old Allen responded well to his early trade to the D-Backs organization, hitting .324 with 12 home runs in 38 games at Triple-A. He struggled after a late August callup to Arizona, but at the moment he has a clear path to the 2010 first base job. Allen has decent patience with good power, and though he'll probably struggle during his rookie season, he's certainly a roster option in NL-only and keeper leagues. Chris Carter, A's — With just 58 plate appearances above Double-A, the 22-year-old Carter probably isn't ready for the big leagues. Then again, the only person really standing in his way in Oakland is the disappointing, slap-hitting, Lyle Overbay wannabe Daric Barton, so don't count Carter out yet for Opening Day. He has plenty of patience and big-time power, with 91 homers in his age 20-22 minor league seasons. He's not going to post anything close to the .337 BA he had at Double-A last year — his BABIP was a crazy-lucky .406 — but he could hit some longballs for the A's right away. He's a really nice keeper league option, and a smart grab for AL-only rosters even if he's in Triple-A Sacramento to start the season. Justin Smoak, Rangers — Smoak's the most advanced of this prospect trio, and while he may not make the Rangers' Opening Day roster, he's almost ready to contribute. He displayed tremendous plate discipline in 2009, walking 74 times against 80 strikeouts in 104 games between Double and Triple-A. I know, I know — walks aren't a fantasy category. But guys who walk this much tend to become good hitters, because they wait for pitches they can drive. Patience is a virtue, right? Smoak impressed the Rangers by making adjustments following some early struggles at Triple-A and ended the season with a .434 slugging percentage — not bad for a 22-year-old who played at three different levels in his first minor league season. I've heard him compared to Teixeira, Morneau and even John Olerud. Even if Smoak became the last of those, it wouldn't be too shabby, but the first two would be fantastic. Try to draft him in AL-only leagues. In keeper leagues, he should be near the top of your prospect list.