Simply put, corner infielders are a fantasy franchise’s money men, 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 third baseman, a first baseman should be a major source of power, RBI, and average. Depending upon your draft day philosophy, a top-tier corner infielder, outfielder or top-of-the-rotation hurler will probably be your first-round selection. Make certain, however, to secure a first 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 “one more speed guy” or “another saves guy,” you’ll be in one of two possible places, either looking up at the league leaders, or doing your best Monty Hall impersonation, talking to any owner in your league willing to listen to your Let’s Make a Deal spiel.
In this year’s 1B crop, there are a fair number of grizzled veterans, as well as 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, probably the best hitter in the game, period, and 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 three overall fantasy pick, has finished second twice and third once in MLB’s MVP balloting over the past three seasons. A fantasy owner’s dream who is at (or darn close to) the top of 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 suffers from and which he decided not to have corrected by surgery. Nevertheless, the St. Louis first 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 two strikes as he is with one, look for Pujols to again vie to be baseball’s first triple crown since Carl Yastrzemski and post eye-popping totals approximating .337/47/128 with a handful of stolen bases.
Todd Helton (Col): In the prime of his career at age 31, Helton has a ton of value as one of the top three fantasy options at first base. 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 first 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 four SBs.
Mark Teixeira (Tex): Texas’ pair of corner infielders, first baseman Mark Teixeira and third baseman Hank Blalock, are probably baseball’s most powerful pair of bookends. Teixeira, a 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 second bagger Alfonso Soriano most likely hitting leadoff, shortstop Michael Young hitting out of the two spot, and the aforementioned Hank Blalock batting third. As impressive as last year was for the young Ranger (.281/38/112), this season looks to be even better: .288/41/119 with five swiped bags is certainly attainable for this up-and-coming young slugger.
David Ortiz (Bos): A mammoth of a man, the Red Sox first bagger, now made the full time DH, just looks every bit like a devastating hitter. In his case, however, looks aren’t deceiving. In his two seasons with the Sox, ‘Big Papi’ has recorded a .295 average with 72 dingers and 240 RBI. 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 five weeks of the campaign. 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 RBI. Clad in a new uniform 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. Don’t look for speed on the basepaths, though. If Carlos steals even one base, it’ll be one more than he’s swiped 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 RBI and 309 runs to the back of his baseball cards? Before the ‘04 All-Star break, Philly’s prodigiously powerful 1B was hitting a hair under .290, with 28 home runs and 61 RBI 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 certainly didn’t appreciate it). His average fell to .253, he mashed but 14 more homers and tallied a mere 44 more RBI. 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 AB. That strikeout total, mind you, was an improvement over the ‘03 season which saw Thome K 182 times out of 578 AB. So, why draft Thome? Because he still managed to top 40 dingers, because he again drove in more than 100 RBI, because his slugging percentage remains in excess of .570, and because he’s playing within the friendly confines of Citizen’s Bank Ballpark surrounded by talent. But savvy owners will be aware that at age 34 Thome has clearly peaked and may even have entered a modest decline. Still, on a team that is confident in its ability to make noise in the NL East, those same savvy owners can look for one more productive year of of the Philadelphia first baseman: .275/40/112.
Aubrey Huff (TB): Huff is arguably Tampa Bay’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 at 3B, 1B, and, depending upon your league’s requirements, possibly OF as well. Huff started last season rather slooowly, but if he hits the basepaths running look for him to improve upon last season’s figures of .297/29/104. Let’s assume he will, and pencil him in for .305/33/105.
Derrek Lee (ChN): Offering owners an intriguing blend of power (32 home runs with 98 RBI) and speed (33 SB over the past two seasons), Lee posted career highs in HR, RBI, 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 first baseman either due to his lack of pop. While Casey led the Reds in seven different offensive categories last season, he just doesn’t crush pitches the way fellow 1Bs 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 teammates 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 three SBs.
Paul Konerko (ChA): Even with fellow Sox sluggers Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez shelved with various injuries last season, Konerko fell just two round trippers short of the AL home run title en route to a career year of .277/41/117 with a slugging percentage 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 two 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 first baseman. Oh yes, for those of you who requested SB totals regardless of position? Pencil Konerko in for as many as one stolen base.
Travis Hafner (Cle): Another DH who slips into rosters under the guise of a first 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 striking out, (308 Ks out of 1,266 AB the past three seasons) he’s been working on his plate discipline, offers great value, and may well be underpriced due to last year’s injury (which shouldn’t hamper him this year) and off-season move to Seattle’s Safeco Field. Let’s project a season of .275/38/110 for Seattle’s comeback kid.
Brad Wilkerson (Was): Here’s an athlete who hit 32 home runs primarily out of the leadoff slot. If he played for a more prominent franchise, he 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 late rounds (contingent, of course, upon the depth of your league). There’s a lot to like about 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 first 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’. 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 upside and exemplary performance over last year’s final 26 regular season games when he hit at a .347 clip with eight doubles and five round-trippers, I couldn’t leave LaRoche off the list of up-and-comers. While his Gold Glove quality 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 leaguemates snatches him off the wire first. Look for numbers akin to .280/20/65 … and the dude’s just not a base stealing threat.
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 too must the wonderful career of Jeff Bagwell. Boasting an utterly unique trademark stance that made ‘Bags’ look sort of intimidating, 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 five stolen bases.
Next up: Outfielders!
A native of Brooklyn, Jamey Feuer now roots for the Yankees from his home in Northern New Jersey.
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