Tuesday, March 15, 2005

FANTASY BASEBALL'S 1ST BASEMAN!

Fantasy’s Best First Baseman
By Jamey Feuer


Very simply, the corner Infielders are a fantasy franchise’s moneymen; no less integral to a team’s success then Starting Pitchers such as Randy Johnson and Johann Santana, or a top Closer like Eric Gagne. And, just like the 3rd Baseman, a 1st Baseman should be a major source of power, RBIs, and average. Predicated upon your draft day philosophy, a top tier corner Infielder (or outfielder contingent upon the size of your league) or top of the rotation hurler will be your first round selection. Make certain however, to secure a 1st Baseman who can at the very least provide you with solid DH or “Flex Position” numbers. Be warned, should you decide to postpone or “punt” taking a top corner infielder until you “get 1 more speed guy” or “another Saves guy,” you’ll be in one of two possible places; looking up at the league leaders, or doing your best “Monte Hall” impersonation, asking any owner in your league willing to listen to “let’s make a deal!”
There are a fair number of grizzled veterans... and some promising youngsters capable of powering your franchise through September. So, this week, let’s see “who’s on first?”

“First Rate First Baseman”
Albert Pujols (STL): As cool as the other side of the pillow, what can be said about this phenom that hasn’t been already? Pujols is certainly the best Right-handed hitter in the game, is probably the best hitter in the game, and is arguably the best pure-hitter since “Joe D” and the “happy-go-lucky” Ted Williams trod the basepaths. Pujols, a perennial Triple-Crown threat and top 3 overall fantasy pick, has finished second twice and third once in MLB’s MVP balloting over the past 3 seasons. A fantasy owners’ dream who tops (or darn close to) the league in multiple offensive categories, here’s the kicker; with his strikeouts decreasing and his walk totals increasing, Pujols is actually improving! Quite frankly, that’s like the Hershey company releasing a statement claiming to have “improved the taste of chocolate.” How can you improve that which is already wonderful? I, for one, cannot wait to find out. The sole (couldn’t resist, apologies) concern with Albert Pujols is the painful case of Plantar Fasciitis that he both suffers from and decided to opt out of surgery to correct. Nevertheless, The St. Louis 1st Baseman played with the condition last season and with a line of .331/46/123 to his credit, it didn’t really seem to impact his numbers much. Hitting amid the Cards’ truly murderous lineup and as aggressive with 2 strikes as he is with one, look for Pujols to again vie to be Baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since... since... who? And, to post eye-popping totals approximating, .337/47/128 with a handful of stolen bases.

Todd Helton (COL): At age 31, in the prime of his career, and as one of the top 3 fantasy options at First base, Helton has a ton of value. Last season saw a decline in Helton’s batting average, Hits, Runs Scored, and RBI totals. That decrease however, should be attributed to a case of the Rockie 1st Bagger trying to do “too much” coupled with pitchers simply throwing around the talented batsman. That being said, Helton’s “diminished numbers” of .347/32/96 would have been career best digits for virtually any other player. This season, with more talent around him, look for Helton to post better numbers. Pencil the Colorado corner infielder in for .345/37/110 and 4 SBs.

Mark Teixeira (TEX): Texas’ pair of corner infielders, 1st Baseman Mark Teixeira and 3rd Baseman Hank Blalock, are probably Baseball’s most powerful pair of book ends. Teixeira, a converted 3rd Baseman and skilled switch hitter, has 40 Homer ability. The guy’s improved steadily, is a student of the game, and should have ample RBI opps’ with Ranger 2nd Bagger Alfonso Soriano most likely hitting lead off, Shortstop Michael Young hitting out of the 2 spot, and the aforementioned Hank Blalock batting 3rd. As impressive as last year was for the young Ranger (.281/38/112), this season looks to be even better; .288/41/119 with 5 swiped bags is certainly attainable for this up and coming young slugger.

David Ortiz (BOS): A mammoth of a man, the Red Sox 1st Bagger has now been made the full time DH and just looks like a devastating hitter. In his case however, looks aren’t deceiving. In his 2 seasons as a Sock, David “Big Papi” Ortiz has recorded a .295 average with 72 Dingers and 240 RBIs. That’s no typo. With 72 Homers and 240 Runs Batted In, Ortiz hits like a January Nor’ Easter. Baseball observers say that Ortiz has no weakness in his swing and can hit virtually any pitch with impunity. “Big Papi” hits amid yet another AL lineup capable of turning opposing hurlers’ knees to jelly, and should turn in a season similar to .295/39/135.

“Just a Notch Below...”
Carlos Delgado (FLA): Delgado started last season off rather slowly and was subsequently hindered by a rib cage injury that cost him the final 5 weeks of the season. Before he went down with the injury however, Delgado rediscovered his swing and was red-hot from August 1st on, swatting .337 with 17 Homers and 54 RBIs. Clad in a new Uni’ and with good speed ahead of him in the lineup, look for Delgado to rebound this season and post a very solid, .279/35/107... and if Carlos steals even one base? It’ll be one more than he’s stolen since the ‘02 season.

Jim Thome (PHI): What’s NOT to like about Jim Thome; a guy that since ‘02 has deposited 141 balls into the cheap seats while adding 354 RBIs and 309 Runs to the back of his Baseball cards? Before the ‘04 All-Star break, Philly’s prodigiously powerful 1st Bagger was hitting a hair under .290, with 28 Home runs and 61 RBIs already in the bank. Yeah, yeah, great. Thome’s off to an MVP caliber season right? Wrong. The second half saw the nicked up Thome’s play slide into an appreciable decline (although his owners didn’t appreciate it); his average fell to .253, he mashed but 14 more Homers and tallied a mere 44 more RBIs. What else went wrong? Thome hit a somewhat less than breathtaking .204 with RISP in ‘04 whilst whiffing a mighty 144 times out of 508 total ABs. That strikeout total, mind you, was an improvement over the ‘03 season which saw Thome K 182 times out of 578 ABs. So, why draft Thome? Because he still managed to top 40 Dingers, because he again drove in more than 100 RBIs, because his Slugging % remains in excess of .570, and because surrounded by talent, he’s playing within the friendly confines of Citizen’s Bank Ballpark. But, savvy owners will be aware that at age 34 Thome has clearly peaked and may have even entered a modest decline. Still, on a team that is confident in their ability to make noise in the NL East, those same savvy owners can look for one more productive year of of the Philadelphia 1st Baseman; .275/40/112.

Aubrey Huff (TB): Arguably Tampa’s most valuable player and an equally valuable fantasy player given his ample power (27 Doubles, 2 Triples, 29 Homers last season) and ability to qualify as a third Baseman and DH (predicated upon your league), The 28 year old Huff should get most of his ABs out of the DH slot, is primed for a career year, and could be as good as .305/31/105 with a fistful of swiped bags in ‘05.

Derrek Lee (CHN): Offering owners an intriguing blend of power (32 Home runs with 98 RBIs) and speed (33 SB over the past 2 seasons), Lee posted career highs in HRs, RBIs, Hits and Doubles last season. Assuming he stays healthy, Lee is part of a most imposing lineup and has the potential to record a very good, .277/33/105 with 18 thieved bags.

Sean Casey (CIN): Much like Derrek Lee, an anomaly at the position due to his great speed, Casey isn’t your prototypical 1st Baseman due to his lack of pop. While Casey led the Reds in 7 different offensive categories last season, he just doesn’t crush pitches the way fellow 1st Baseman Albert Pujols, Carlos Delgado and Jim Thome do. What Casey offers is average, gap power, and excellent plate discipline which results in very few strikeouts. If team mates Austin Kearns and Ken Griffey Jr. can stay healthy (currently, tantamount to asking a pig to fly) Casey will enjoy wonderful protection and could record a season resembling, .320/23/95 with 3 SBs.

Paul Konerko (CHA): Even with fellow sluggers in Sox Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez shelved with various injuries last season, Konerko fell just 2 round trippers’ short of the AL Home run title en route to a career year of .277/41/117 with a Slugging % of .535. Thomas is still on the shelf nursing an injury and will more than likely remain there until at least early May, Magglio Ordonez has been shipped out, and the Sox have been cleaned, starched, pressed, and virtually remade during this past off-season. With the addition of eye-blink quick Center Fielder Scott Podsednik setting the table, and an All-Star Left Fielder in the making in Aaron Rowand batting out of the 2 slot, Konerko could see his RBI totals creep up a bit in ‘05. A line of .280/35/123 is certainly attainable for the powerful 1st Baseman. Oh yes, for those of you who requested SB totals regardless of position? Pencil Konerko in for as many as 1 Stolen bases.

Travis Hafner (CLE): Another DH who slips into rosters under the guise of a 1st Baseman, Hafner was available to virtually any owner through the Waiver Wire at the start of the ‘04 season. That availability however, changed as quickly as his stat-line did. Hafner recorded a simply outstanding ‘04 campaign, to the tune of .311/28/109. With a little more work, league observers believe Hafner capable of posting a 40/125 year. Let’s be slightly more conservative and look for an improved .310/35/115 with a trio of swiped bags.

“Comeback Player of the Year”
Richie Sexson (SEA): A shoulder injury limited the usually quite durable Sexson to 18 games in ‘04. Although the guy has a penchant for K’ing, (308 Strikeouts out of 1,266 ABs the past 3 seasons) he’s been working on his plate discipline, offers great value, and may well be undervalued due to his injury (should be 100%) and move to Seattle’s Safeco Field. Let’s project a season of .275/38/110 for Seattle’s comeback kid.

“Breakout Players”
Brad Wilkerson (WASH): Here’s an athlete who hit 32 Home Runs primarily out of the leadoff slot, and if he was on a more prominent franchise would be annointed as one of the game’s brightest young players. Part of a Washington Nationals team that possesses more talent then many realize, Brad Wilkerson is primed to go BOOM! Offering even greater value due to his plate discipline (an eye-opening 106 Walks) speed (39 doubles, 2 triples and 13 SB) and versatility (he’ll qualify as an Outfielder too), this promises to be the last draft that sees Wilkerson taken in the mid to later rounds (contingent of course upon the depth of your league). There’s a lot to like this kid and he’s more than capable of racking up a line of .275/27/75 with 15 SB.

Justin Morneau (MIN): Taking over at 1st when Doug Mientkiewicz was sent to Boston last July, Morneau is the best power hitting prospect Minny’s developed in decades. Capable of hitting while under pressure, team officials think “Mo” possesses 40 Homer po’. That’s nice, look for the young Twin to build upon a very good ‘04 (.271/19/58) and be close .279/37/110 with a duo of swiped bags for good measure.

Adam LaRoche (ATL): Given his exemplary performance and demonstrated upside over last year’s final 26 regular season games where he hit at a .347 clip with 8 doubles and 5 Round Trippers, I couldn’t leave LaRoche off the list of “up & comers.” While his Gold Glove caliber D has made a marked impression upon the Braves and will ensure him ample ABs, it’s his work with the lumber that is sure to impress fantasy owners. Keep an eye on his spring and early season work. Should LaRoche pick up where he left off last season it’ll be a sprint to the Internet to see which of your league mates snatches him off the ‘Wire first. Look for numbers akin to .280/20/65... and the dude’s just not a base stealing threat.

“In Decline”
Jeff Bagwell (HOU): “Friends,” the staggering financial performance of the “Dot-Coms,” summer, and the multimillion dollar run that really boring/really smart guy, Ken something-or-other recently made on “Jeopardy.” What am I getting at here? That all good things must come to an end. And, so to must the wonderful career of Jeff Bagwell. Boasting an utterly unique trademark stance that made “Bags” look sort of intimidating... and sort of like he was preparing to pass a little gas, Bagwell provided himself with a firm platform that allowed him to both drive the ball to all fields with authority and see the pitch for a fraction of a second longer. Nevertheless, at age 36 Bagwell is long in the tooth and must alter his approach due to significant shoulder woes (arthritis). That is a recipe for offensive mediocrity at best. Look for “Bags” to post solid, but for him very average digits; .273/28/95 with 5 stolen bases.

NEXT UP, FANTASY BASEBALL’S OUTFIELDERS!