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Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back: First Base

Over the next few weeks, writers will be going through each position and identifying two players we predict will take a step forward and improve in the 2014 season; and, three players we anticipate will take a step back and regress. If you missed our Catchers preview CLICK HERE.   This week we look at first baseman.

Two Steps Forward:

Prince Fielder

Joey Votto

In fantasy baseball patience is king. Just ask anyone that cut Eric Hosmer in June last season. The urgency and week –to-week reactionary nature of fantasy football often bleeds over into fantasy baseball. Every year I’m amazed how greatly the “yeah, but what have you done for me lately” mentality dominates fantasy rankings and projections.  Players like Paul Goldschmidt and Chris Davis have catapulted above more consistent and proven players after single seasons (or in Davis’ case half seasons) of dominance.  Joey Votto and Prince Fielder may not be coming off career years in 2013, but they have both put up first round numbers nearly every season of their careers.  These two superstars are likely to fall to the second round this season giving them some sneaky added value.  Let someone else use their 1st round pick on Goldschmidt or Davis and grab an elite outfielder or middle infielder instead.  You can take comfort in knowing your old friends will be waiting for you with open arms in round two.

It’s certainly not unprecedented for superstar first baseman to bounce back from a season-long power outage only to return to form the following year.  In 1986 at the age of 30, Eddie Murray watched his home run totals nearly split in half from 31 to 17. Imagine Murray’s sleeper value in 1987, when “Steady Eddie” returned to form with 30 bombs.  At the age of 29 legendary first baseman Jimmie Foxx  saw his OPS+ drop from 155 to 127 and then sky-rocket to 182 in his age 30 season (the very same age Votto will be in 2014).  Fielder and Votto still have youth on their sides and do not assume the risk of decline of another former 2013 1st rounder like Albert Pujols (though I do expect a solid bounce back from Albert as well).  Votto’s low RBI totals in 2013 have more to do with Cincinnati’s league worst production out of the #2 hole than anything Votto did wrong.  Votto’s .435 OBP made Brandon Phillips an all-star by inflating his RBI total. When you add Billy Hamilton’s ability to steal 70+ bases in the lead -off spot, and subtract Dusty Baker’s refusal to hit a serviceable player in the #2 spot (the most important spot in the lineup), Votto should see an increase in RBI totals.  Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system predicts a significant uptick in RBI and Slugging for Votto, which should return him to his career norms.

Believe what you will about how Prince Fielder’s divorce may have affected his 2013 performance, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here.  I’m sure many players experience off- the- field issues that are never exposed by the media, and there is no real way to quantify how this might influence player performance.  Fielder goes into 2014 as a Texas Ranger.  He’s in a better ballpark, better lineup, and a September OPS of .933 gives fantasy owners a lot to look forward to this season. For all the flak Fielder gets about his weight, it’s easy to forget Fielder has played in 162 games the last three years and has missed one game in the past 5 seasons.  Sandwiched between Choo and Beltre in the three spot should provide plenty of RBI and run-scoring opportunities in the heart of Texas this summer.


Three Steps Back:

Chris Davis

Davis was the feel-good story of baseball in 2013.  You have to commend him for the strides he made as a hitter. The power is clearly here to stay, though I’m much more comfortable penciling him in for around 35-37 homers in 2014. PECOTA is a bit more bearish projecting Davis for a mere 30 HR. I traded Davis in my hometown league at the mid-way point last season.  I was weary of the high strikeout rate and considered him to be at peak value.  Davis’ .242/.336/.563 second half performance made me look pretty good after a Ruthian .330/.404/.704 first half. I then traded Yasiel Puig for Mark Trumbo expecting the same type of regression, but we won’t go into that here (gulp)… Pitchers seemed to make the necessary adjustments to Davis turning him back into a low average/low OBP slugger.  Now the Ball is in Davis’ court.  He needs to be the one to make adjustments and cut down his AL leading 199 strikeouts.  If you want to roll the dice and take a player with one amazing half season with your first round pick, then more power to you.  I will be avoiding Davis like a AA pitcher facing him in spring training.

Justin Morneau

Michael Cuddyer  

Morneau is one of those fantasy players whose name recognition often gives him more value than he’s actually worth.  Some may see sleeper potential with the move to Colorado, and his nine August HR, but I would urge caution. Mourneau’s move to the NL with the Pirates yielded a HR total of zero. There is a case study in this very scenario from Morneau’s former Twin’s teammate Michael Cuddyer. The 1B/OF moved from the spacious Target Field to Coors in 2012 and actually saw his HR totals drop from 20 to 16.  He had fewer at-bats that season, but his slugging Pct. still couldn’t eclipse .500.  2014 is a make- or- break year for Morneau. If he posts another season with an OPS in the low .700’s, his days as a starting first baseman could be over.

Here’s a great idea for one of your first nominations in an auction format. Select Michael Cuddyer for bidding.  A lot of sites like Yahoo only post the stats from the previous year when you choose a player to be auctioned.  The fantasy novices in your league will see a stud with a .331 BA, 10 SB, 20HR, and 84 RBI. The dude can play 1B or OF and he plays in Coors bro!! Shhh… let’s keep this our little secret. Here are the stats that won’t be on your buddy’s laptop display. 14 of those 20 HR came in the first half.  Cuddyer is 35 years old. In a 12 year, MLB career Cuddyer has never hit above .300 until 2013, and has only reached double digit SB totals twice. The start of auctions is traditionally when a lot of money gets thrown around.  Cuddyer is the perfect candidate to be over-valued by eager bidders.  I beg you; do not pay for last season’s numbers. Let the new guy that doesn’t know what he’s doing eat this bust.

For Keeper/ Dynasty Players

For the first time in years, top tier first base prospects are scarce. I anticipate the position thinning out greatly in the next five years.  If prospects like Kris Bryant and Miguel Sano stick at their positions and don’t have to transition to 1B, we could see a massive drought at the position like we have never witnessed. I strongly advise Dynasty/Keeper owners to go with youth.  Players like Goldschmidt, Hosmer, and Freeman are incredibly valuable in these formats.  Go after these players hard, and to anyone reading this that I might be playing in a league with, this never happened…