Earlier we looked at catchers who merit a roster spot with reference to the opportunity cost of owning them. There are very few – perhaps only Buster Posey – and in standard leagues, catchers should generally be used interchangeably based on matchups. First base is at the opposite extreme. With ten starting slots, ten corner infield slots, and ten or twenty utility slots depending on format, we should see a minimum of fifteen active first basemen, with others rotated through. Because first base tends to be a strong offensive position it often serves as the source of flexible options, and more first basemen qualify as “must own” than at any other position. Even so, there are fewer than you might expect, and many currently performing options are better used in trades.
For the purposes of this conversation, we will consider designated hitters to be first basemen. Players who qualify as catchers, like Joe Mauer, Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana, will not be discussed, as their value is clearly higher elsewhere.
Since the beginning of May, Pujols has produced at Pujolsian levels. Miguel Cabrera is probably more valuable to your team at third base, but if you own another of the top ten first basemen, you might create artificial positional scarcity by playing two elite options. Joey Votto’s season is drawing favorable comparisons to Ted Williams. In my mind, the first two are a coin toss moving forward, with Pujols a nudge behind, but you’re in good shape with any of the three.
Each of these four is a sound option, but with qualification. Fielder will not produce the batting average commensurate with the top first basemen and, now that he’s hitting in Detroit, has less power potential than Cabrera and Pujols. Konerko is aging, and despite his personal aging curve, it’s unlikely he continues to improve. Ortiz is limited in most formats to a DH or UT role, and Craig has acquired a reputation as an injury risk. Craig has the most upside of anyone in this tier, however, as he’s done nothing but hit while in the Majors. Consider, in just shy of a full season of at bats (522 PA) which include a rough .246 batting average in his rookie year, his line is .298/28/73/101/6. It’s possible when Lance Berkman returns, the fact of Holliday and Beltran in the corners will move Craig to second base. At his current performance level, there is no chance Craig loses playing time, so rather than see Berkman’s return as a threat, look to it as a chance for Craig to add eligibility. If he gets the requisite games, he’s a top-five infielder. If Craig’s owner is even a smidgeon concerned about playing time, trade for him now.
This tier consists of flawed players with some question about continued level of performance: health (Berkman), new skill-set (Butler and Encarnacion) and consistency (Goldschmidt). Then there’s Gonzalez, whose decline has been precipitous and inexplicable. With no indicators suggesting eroding skills, you have to think his ROS projection (.291/13) is attainable. Each player has the potential to produce at an elite level. You want players of this sort, but you want no more than a few of them to mitigate risk. Note the omission of Mark Trumbo. The improvement in plate discipline he showed in the first month has disappeared. His season line is resting on that first month. You do not want him moving forward. One-category players, whether they produce home runs like Trumbo and Dunn or steals like Dee Gordon, are not assets.
Again, the point with Hosmer and Rizzo is upside. If your league is a keeper league, Hosmer is a must own and Rizzo may be depending on depth. For this season, the two are essentially lottery tickets: they could produce as the above options do, so unless you have no bench slots or a ridiculously loaded lineup, they warrant rostering.
Even at first base, there are few players who should claim a roster spot. The rest can be streamed with no compunctions. Players like Brandon Belt, Bryan LaHair, Todd Helton, Carlos Pena, Lucas Duda, Mark Reynolds, and Mitch Moreland may be available on any given day.
Among first basemen available in more than half of ESPN leagues, there are a number of attractive streaming candidates.
Bryan LaHair: LaHair, of course, started the season at a torrid pace and has since slowed. If you’re relying on him in a starting role at first base or in the outfield, don’t be afraid to dump him, but he is useful when he starts against right handed pitching, so watch his matchups.
Ike Davis: Davis has gone the opposite direction, starting horribly and coming on lately. Do not ever leave him in your lineup against a lefty, but he can be useful on a daily basis against right-handed pitching in road games.
Kendrys Morales: The power is not sensational, but he won’t hurt your batting average, would prorate to 20-25 home runs in full time at bats, and hits in a strong lineup. Useful when your other streaming options are stuck on waivers, which will happen if you’re actively managing your roster.
Brandon Moss: One of the most underrated power sources available. He will destroy your batting average if you play him full time, but streaming him against right handed pitching, especially on the road, could be productive.
Tyler Moore: With only sixty at bats to date, he is likely to cool off, but he’s hitting in Washington for the time being.
Tyler Colvin: Colvin has forced his way into the lineup with his recent tear. His playing time is not assured, though, so check the lineup on days you plan to use him.
Jim Thome: Start him against every right-handed pitcher. The Orioles will, and he still has the power to help your team.
The first basemen and designated hitters outside the top 14 are simply not worth it. We might expect Mark Teixeira, for instance, to match his ZiPS projection of .259 with 16 home runs, or for Adam Dunn to meet his at .211 and 16. You can outproduce a prorated 32 home runs and bad batting average with what’s freely available. Unless a player is currently performing or has substantial upside as Hosmer, Rizzo, and Gonzalez do, it is not worth carrying that player. If you own Michael Young or Freddie Freeman (100% owned), Carlos Lee (93.2) or Adam LaRoche (81.9), Kevin Youkilis (77.9) or (gulp!) Daniel Murphy (69.8), get rid of him. The ability to use your wire is stronger.
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