Ah, this is much more to my liking than the abominable catcher position, in which we started out. If you haven’t checked it out, you can read it here to get a sense of how I value these players. First base is full of fantasy goodness this year. Not only is there an elite top-end, but there’s a solid midsection and a chunky bottom end, as well. I’m not sure where I’m getting these descriptors. Suffice it to say, whenever you decide to dive in and purify yourself in the waters of first base, you’ll be able to find something that suits your fancy.
The Dude – Justin Smoak
Where there’s Smoak, there is not fire — there are dingers. So many dingers. Thirty-eight of them in 2017, to be exact. Justin Smoak had one of the most unexpected seasons in baseball last year, finally breaking out in his age-30 season. Prior to 2017, he had hit the 20-homer mark just once, and never once hitting above .240. But Smoak says he didn’t partake in the “air ball revolution,” and indeed his 44.5% FB% is only slightly higher than his 2016 mark. Heck, his hard-contact rate was about the same in 2016, too. However, his .174 ISO was a far cry from his .259 mark in 2017. So what’s going on here? Doesn’t this look like more fluke than breakout?
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The adjustments that Smoak made were more in his approach than anything in his launch angle. He actually hit for more power by trying to make more contact and letting the power come naturally, and that is what shows up in the numbers. His contact rate surged from 72% to 79.2%, he chased outside the zone 3.8% less, and cut another 3.8% off his swinging strike rate. He cut over 12% off his overall strikeout rate! Most of those improvements came on breaking balls, meaning pitchers can no longer get him out with curveball after curveball.
Even if you regress Smoak’s 2017 a bit — which is fair, as 38 HR with 90 RBI is lofty — I would still expect 30+ home runs. You could also regress his average 20 points and still come out pretty close to what you might expect from Edwin Encarnacion 90 picks earlier. With Smoak, you’re getting great production at a discount because, prior to last year, he had never done it before. On draft day, go ahead and enjoy a Smoak and a pancake. (I hope people still get that reference.)
2018 Projection: 625 plate appearances, 85 R, 30 HR, 90 RBI, .255 AVG
The Don’t – Greg Bird
Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, wait, you had it the first time. It’s Greg Bird. Well, his draft stock anyway. I don’t really think Greg Bird can fly. He is, however, being overdrafted this season. I was flying high (sorry) on Bird last year until his barrage of homers in Spring Training inflated his draft stock to a level that sucked out all his value. He then suffered an ankle injury that would bother him all season, limiting him to just 48 games and a .190 batting average with the Yankees.
He did manage to hit six homers with 16 RBI last September, which is the only reason I can fathom that he’s being drafted as the 13th first baseman on Fantrax this year with an ADP of 154. I’m not sure whether it’s the injury history or the complete lack of track record that has everyone falling over themselves to draft him, but this is not a party I want any part of. Let’s just say he does stay healthy and hits for power with an average that isn’t terrible. Wouldn’t you rather have Matt Carpenter, who has had a long, successful career, at the same ADP? If it’s this type of profile I want, I’ll be happy to wait 40 picks for Justin Bour, or 75 picks for Chris Davis.
2018 Projection: 500 plate appearances, 65 R, 27 HR, 85 RBI, .245 AVG
The Deep League Dude – Jose Martinez
This is probably my favorite sleeper of the year, and I am just giddy about him. It is the one, the only, Jose Martinez of the Cardinals. Of course, when I say “the one and only,” what I really mean is my favorite Jose Martinez. If you go to Fangraphs or Baseball Reference and look for Jose Martinez, well, you’ll get more than a few results.
Martinez finally got his first real dose of MLB playing time last year at the not-so-prospecty age of 28. He had never been much of a prospect due to a lack of defensive value and a lack of power. He really started to turn heads last year, though, because — stop me if you’ve heard this before — he started to elevate the ball. Getting on base had never been an issue for him, but his lack of power and defense had kept him in the minors. Over 307 plate appearances with the Cardinals, he hit for a .210 ISO, .309 average, and 37% hard contact rate, all the while making 80% contact and showing great control of the strike zone. There is a potential fantasy star here, as long as he gets the opportunity.
Opportunity — that is the subject that is very much in debate and what is keeping Martinez’s draft price nice and low. Defensively, he is limited to first base or a corner outfield position, and if you haven’t looked, the Cardinals’ outfield is stacked. It would take an injury to one of Ozuna, Pham, or Fowler for Martinez to garner anything more than platoon at-bats against lefties. First base is where his path to playing time lies, but it is also of concern that Matt Carpenter’s shoulder might still push him from third base back to first. Personally, I’m not worried about that. I believe that Martinez will be hitting well enough so that if Carpenter requires a shift defensively, they would push him to second base, where he would only be unseating some mix of Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko. As the 25th first baseman off the board — 296 overall — you won’t have to reach to gain access to Martinez’s services. The breakout looms.
2018 Projection: 500 plate appearances, 70 R, 28 HR, 90 RBI, .300 AVG