2009 Fantasy MLB Position Preview: First Basemen | Sharapova's Thigh

First base is a position that fantasy players tend to view as a fully stocked lake: it doesn't matter when you show up, you're probably going to get a pretty good-sized fish. While that may be mostly true, there are definitely tiers of talent. More important than getting a first baseman is understanding when and where to draft the middle tier first baseman or when to grab a "leaner" position and go for value at first as the draft moves on. I hope to list here the 5 best fantasy first basemen for next season as well as a late round pick. I can say this, however, I had trouble distinguishing numbers 4 and 5 on this list from numbers 6-10. Take that for what it's worth when reading and drafting your fantasy team.

1) Albert Pujols, St Louis Cardinals - 2008 - .357/.462/.653; 37 HR, 116 RBI, 100 R, 104:54 BB:K, 7 SB

Is he the best player in the game today? If your answer is not yes, then I'm guessing you are at least considering him in the argument. His 2008 numbers are excellent and he is rumored to be 100% healthy coming into the 2009 season (Pujols had surgery on his elbow after the 2008 season ended). Pujols is a player who very rarely chases bad pitches (21.6% swings outside the strike zone in 2008) and who also makes contact whenever he elects to swing (contact on 90.1% of his swings). Pujols is about as safe as a draft pick you can get, easily penciled in for 35 HRs and 100 runs and RBIs, especially if Ludwick can have another decent year. Troy Glaus going down for the first 3 months could provide a slow start in the power departments which will be offset by the increase in Pujols' OBP. Pujols saw his walk rate increase to 16.6% in 2008 from 14.9% in 2007 while seeing no increase in his K% (10.3%). He's in the discussion with ARod for number one overall pick.

2) Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees - 2008 (with LAA and ATL) - .308/.410/.552; 33 HR, 121 RBI, 102 R, 97:93 BB:K, 2 SB

Teixeira, the newly paid switch-hitting first baseman for the Yankees, is going to have a great, great year hitting in a lineup with ARod, Swisher, and Matsui. Teixeira ended 2008 absolutely slaughtering the baseball, accumulating a .366/.464/.656 second half line. His keen eye (swung at 62.1% of balls in the zone) and hand-eye coordination (contact 91.4% of the time on pitches in the zone) are indicative of his continued success. During his impressive 2008 campaign, Teixeira saw fastballs 60.7% of the time. I expect him to see at least that many this year hitting in front of ARod (which is where I assume he hits this year), which should lead to a similar, if not more productive, year from Teixeira. Teixeira is another safe pick, though Teixeira's reaction to now playing in New York under the scrutiny of the media after getting his huge contract will be interesting to watch.

3) Ryan Howard, Philadelphia Phillies - 2008 - .251/.339/.543; 48 HR, 146 RBI, 105 R, 81:199 BB:K, 1 SB

I think this can a value pick, though I believe Yahoo! still has him as an early pick. If you can get this guy in the second or third round, you have to jump on it. The strikeouts are what people always harp on, but he had the same number of strikeouts in his big 2007 season as he did in what people are considering a down 2008. Howard has largely been considered a patient player, and his patience numbers did not take a horrible turn for the worst in 2008 (he chased 25.8% of pitches out of the zone in 2007, 26.7% in 2008) and he saw roughly the same sorts of pitches in 2008 as he had seen in 2007 (less than a 1% increase fastballs, sliders, changeups, and cutters). Ryan Howard had an excellent second half last year, producing a line of .276/.360/.593. He also had a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .289 in spite of a line drive percentage of 22.3%. Reading I have done suggests that line drive percentage +120 is a way to determine what the BABIP should be, which would mean that Howard's BABIP in 08 should have been in the .340 range. This indicates poor luck in 2008, which I assume will no longer be the case in 2009. He could very well be the premier power first baseman this year, though he will probably suffer in the rate stats (especially if the slide inexplicably continues).

4) Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego Padres - 2008 - .279/.361/.510; 36 HR, 119 RBI, 103 R, 74:142 BB:K, 0 SB

The rest of these first basemen scare me as they each have their strengths and weaknesses. I went with Gonzalez here due largely to his year last year as well as the fact that he absolutely rakes on the road (.308/.368/.578) while suffering at home (.247/.355/.433). He also plays in a weak, weak lineup. So why would I put him fourth in my little list? Well, the numbers above came while he played in that same park with that same lineup and he still managed to have a great year. While he's a 30 HR first baseman, his high chase percentage (28%) and his lower contact rates (75.3%) scare me. This guy probably will have a top 5 fantasy year for first baseman, but I don't think the gap between him and the Prince Fielders, Joey Vottos, or Kevin Youkilises of the league are enough to merit an early pick on him.

5) Lance Berkman, Houston Astros - 2008 - .312/.420/.567; 29 HR, 106 RBI, 114 R, 99:108 BB:K, 18 SB

If the stolen bases continue into 2009, Berkman is a definite top 5 first baseman. However, if they do not continue on, this pick becomes iffy to me as well. Berkman had a high BABIP in comparison to his line drive percentages (.345 BABIP/18.5% line drives). These numbers will probably come down a bit. The good news about Berkman is that he doesn't suffer from any major home/road split differences (1.046 OPS at home, 928 on the road). Berkman did suffer a second half decline, seeing his OPS fall from 1.096 in the first half to 821 in the second. Again, if Berkman and Adrian Gonzalez look to be the next two first basemen off the board and it's still early in the draft, you may want to draft value early and come back later for a first baseman.

Numbers 4 and 5 above could easily have been replaced with either Prince Fielder, Kevin Youkilis, or Miguel Cabrera. I don't know if the power surge Youkilis saw last year is for real even though the on base percentage was legit. Prince Fielder...well, I hate him. Not very scientific, I know, but I think the players above each had their strengths and weaknesses and I just couldn't bring myself to list Prince Fielder over either Gonzalez or Berkman. Of course, if the steals do go away for Berkman, you may value Prince over Fat Elvis. Miguel Cabrera is on a mission to eat himself out of baseball as well as showed a disturbingly high percentage of pitches swung at outside the zone (34.2%) in 2008.

Late Round Pick - Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds - 2008 - .297/.368/.506; 24 HR, 84 RBI, 69 R, 59:102 BB:K, 7 SB

As opposed to Adrian Gonzalez, Votto plays in a favorable offensive park. He also hits line drives all over the place, accumulating a 25.2 line drive percentage last year. Votto also only chased 24.7% of the pitches he saw outside of the zone in 2008, very impressive for a rookie. Votto saw equal success both at home and on the road (875 OPS at home, 873 on the road). Of course, Dusty Baker being involved gives me pause when talking about a younger player.

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