There is a very simple directive for a first baseman in fantasy baseball: hit home runs. If you’re not drawing significant power from this position, you’re doing your team a disservice in home runs and runs batted in. There are exceptions, of course, such as pairing a power third baseman with a loaded outfield leaving you with Casey Kotchman or Lyle Overbay. But with so much bankable power at first base, it is wiser to establish your power foundation here. Below is the first of my top 24s around the infield. Everyone does top 10s or 25s or 50s (or even 100s), so I went with 24 because it’s different… and my favorite number. Let’s count ‘em down:
24. Billy Butler, 23, Kansas City Royals – Butler labored through an up-and-down season including a trip back to AAA, which is probably where he should’ve spent the bulk of the 2008 but the Royals were enticed by his .794 OPS in 329 at-bats in 2007 plus they weren’t going anywhere so I don’t blame them for giving him a legitimate opportunity. I still think he’s at least a year away from being the guy fantasy baseballers want him to be and at 23 that is expected. Every league has at least one guy who loves young potential, so Butler will be snapped up before 23 other first basemen go, but the .300-30-100 line isn’t coming just yet. Tremendous choice in keeper leagues, but a middling line for 1B in 2009.
23. Mike Jacobs, 28, Kansas City Royals – Another reason that Butler isn’t a great pick for 2009 is Jacobs. We all knew he had 30-homer pop in his bat, it was a merely a case of when it’d all come together for him. The oddity in his numbers was that he went from .290 against lefties in 2007 to just .218 last which held his batting average down. He has the ability to be batting average-neutral instead of dead weight, but even if he fails to bring it back into the .260s he is still a great source of cheap power. The park move moot as both Dolphins and Kauffman Stadiums depress home runs. If not for the declining OBP since 2006 and move to a weaker lineup, I’d have a brighter outlook for Jacobs. Pay for another 30-home run season, but temper expectations beyond that category.
22. James Loney, 24, Los Angeles Dodgers – A magical September in 2007 has clouded the judgment of Loney. His nine home runs that month were two short of best total in any minor league season (11 over 504 at-bats in 2005). He is not a power hitter and while he may develop some, it would likely be two or three years down the road as that is a skill of aged. He is a .300ish hitter capable of driving in and scoring a decent amount of runs. And based on last season and his minor league track record, he is also good for a handful of stolen bases, though he is not terribly proficient at it (58% minors, 62% majors) so manager Joe Torre may stop sending him. If someone in your league wants to pay him as a 25 (or even 20) home run hitter, then let ‘em because they are likely to be dissatisfied with the results.
21. Conor Jackson, 27, Arizona Diamondbacks – Meet James Loney v1.0. Well that’s not entirely true as Jackson is significantly more patient at the plate than Loney, but in terms of the power production they are often lumped together and with good reason. Jackson made my outfielder list (#36) and I commented there that I’d much rather place him in the outfield because he has yet to top 15 home runs. In fact, he shaved three HRs off of that 2007 total despite 125 more at-bats. I don’t know where the speed (10 SB) came from or if it’s here to stay, but that would certainly add to his value. With his ability to control the zone and do what he wants at the plate, I feel he could hit 20 home runs at the expense of his batting average, but without knowing whether he plans to do such a thing (he never responds to my texts!) I’m buying a .290-80-15-80-3 line here.
20. Jason Giambi, 38, Oakland A’s – Health is your only concern here in terms of betting on another 30-home run season. I am not even concerned that the move back to McAfee Coliseum will eat up a significant portion of his power. Giambi is as legit as they get when it comes to power hitters and the reliability of that power makes the batting average easier to swallow. With Jack Cust & Matt Holliday joining Giambi, the middle of that A’s lineup is pretty formidable. For OBP leaguers, bump Giambi up quite a bit as last year’s .373 was his lowest full season output since 1998.
19. Ryan Garko, 28, Cleveland Indians – He seemingly belongs in the Jackson-Loney zone, but I’m projecting a power boost back up over 20 and nearing 25 in 2009. Garko has seven home runs and 45 RBIs both before and after the break, but the latter came in 87 fewer at-bats and with a .319 average (again a .241 before). He has shown 20-HR power before and a correction in hr/f % will take him there again. He is capable of a .280-25-90 season, especially in that lineup. Talks of trying him in the outfield only improve his value since he will lose fewer at-bats as the Indians try to fit him, Victor Martinez and Kelly Shoppach into the lineup together.
18. Jorge Cantu, 27, Florida Marlins – Welcome back, Jorge! There are a couple reasons why he shouldn’t fade as he did after 2005’s breakout: doubled his walk rate from awful 3% to a usable 6% and the power was supported by a boost in flyballs. His at-bats shouldn’t be affected by the arrival of Gaby Sanchez as Cantu can play either corner and Sanchez is expected to battle Dallas McPherson for a starting spot. Surprisingly only 27, Cantu might actually improve as he enters his prime, however I’d be most comfortable paying something along the lines of 85-25-85-3.
17. Adam LaRoche, 29, Pittsburgh Pirates – LaRoche is absolutely unnerving to own in head-to-head leagues, but he’s the classic set it & forget it type for roto league players. Looking back, it seems 2006 saw luck on his side and resulted in a 32 home run season as opposed to signaling his arrival as a perennial 30-HR guy. The 25-85 he delivered last year is what you should expect from LaRoche. If you get him on draft and he sputters out of the gate in April and May, be ready to pounce as he will inevitably heat up. He was part of my 2nd-halfers list last year and gave owners 14 home runs and .975 OPS after the break.
16. Paul Konerko, 33, Chicago White Sox – Looking for a good value in 2009? Here it is. Konerko bounced back from an awful first half, but his final line is still unappealing and he could be mistaken as someone who is finished. That creates a buying opportunity. He still plays in a very power-friendly park and he slugged 14 home runs in 210 second half at-bats to offset a rough first half of eight in 228 AB. It is not entirely unrealistic to believe that Konerko could put up a .280+ batting average with 30 home runs and 95+ RBIs. A bounce-back season is on the horizon for a now healthy Konerko.
15. Carlos Delgado, 36, New York Mets – It will be interesting to see how Delgado is treated in fantasyland this season. Will he be remembered for a second half surge that is deemed unrepeatable or will owners see his final numbers, realize they are legit and bid him up? The latter should happen. A composite view shows that 2007 is the clear aberration and last year was nothing new in terms of skills, merely a slow start. Relying on a 36-year old can be frightening, but take comfort in the fact that Delgado has a string of four straight 500+ at-bat seasons and 11 of the last 12. He is also just 31 home runs short of 500 for his career, which could provide motivation for another solid year. Bid confidently.
14. Chris Davis, 23, Texas Rangers – When you hit 17 home runs in 80 games, it gets some attention. He hit 23 other home runs in 77 minor league games. That raw power of Davis is being coveted by many fantasy baseballers this season especially with a full season at his disposal and the potential of 81 games at the Ballpark in Arlington. With Michael Young moving to third base, Davis should be locked in at first for the bulk of the season. The Texas lineup should remain rather formidable giving Davis a great chance at 100+ RBIs with his 30+ home run capability. He didn’t quite set the league on fire like Ryan Braun, but his power is as legit and should be pursued aggressively.
13. Aubrey Huff, 32, Baltimore Orioles – He might not have another 32 home run season, but his return to prominence should not be ignored. His skills have been steady for a long time now, though an increase in flyballs likely made the big HR number possible. Still, a 25/100 season from Huff won’t cost that much and carries the potential for more. Huff’s dual eligibility at first and third only makes him a more attractive option. There seems to be a perception that Huff is older than his 32 years and if that prevails in your league, he could be discounted further; take advantage.
I was going to put all 24 up this morning, but I went to the late showing of the movie The Wrestler last night. It has been highly acclaimed and with good reason. It was a very good movie, but by the time I got home at 1:30, I was too tired to finish the last seven. I’ll complete the list tonight after work.