Fantasy Keepers: First Basemen

Well, now that the postseason is over, I can get back to my series of rankings for the top fantasy keepers at each position. I started with catchers more than a month ago, and now it’s time to look at first basemen.

To recap what I said in that first article: my thoughts on keepers are that you should consider what you expect to get out of them in the next three seasons, but should be mostly concerned with what you think they will do next year. After all, next year is the only year you’re sure to have the player for, and too much can happen to change any plans past three years. With that in mind, here are my top 10 first baseman keepers.

1. Albert Pujols, Cardinals: .333, 40, 125, 126. That’s what Pujols has averaged in his four seasons in the league in batting average, home runs, runs and RBIs. Whether you think he’ll be 25 years old next year or not, there’s no disputing that he should be the best (or at least among the best) fantasy hitter at first base over the next three years, and probably much longer than that.

This season, Pujols was the second-most valuable fantasy hitter in baseball behind Vlad Guerrero and the only reason is that Guerrero stole 15 bases and Pujols only stole five, which is actually a decent amount for a first baseman. The only negative for Pujols is that he no longer has any fantasy flexibility. Whereas he used to qualify at first base, third base and in the outfield, now he’s just a first baseman. Still, he’s the very best first baseman.

2. Todd Helton, Rockies: He’s not going to hit 40-plus homers with 145 RBIs and 130-plus runs again anytime soon. However, he’s not that old at 31 and he still plays in Colorado. You know he’ll hit at least .325 (as he has for five straight seasons) and his career average is .339. He’s also hit at least 30 homers in six straight seasons. Even when he “only” scores 115 runs and drives in 96, he’s a great fantasy first baseman.

As long as Helton stays in Colorado, he’s somebody you can count on to be among the very, very best at the position. He’ll post one of the highest batting averages in baseball, he’ll hit enough home runs that he’s not low for his position and he shouldn’t do any worse in runs and RBIs than he did last year. At worst, I’d expect his sum of runs and RBIs to be 215, possibly as high as 230.

3. David Ortiz, Red Sox: Anybody who was worried that 2003 might be a career season for Ortiz shouldn’t be worried any more. He might not hit .301 with 41 homers and 139 RBIs again next year, but he’s even less likely to dip back below that 2003 level of .288, 31 homers and 101 RBIs that many people thought he wouldn’t reach again.

Ortiz will only be 29 years old next year and he seems to just be coming into his own. You can probably expect at least two or three more seasons of him hitting .290-.300 with 35-40 homers and 115-130 RBIs. He’s unlikely to score more than 100 runs because he gets pinch-run for on occasion, but he should score 85-95 and that’s enough to nicely complement the rest of his game.

4. Jim Thome, Phillies: Thome had something of a down year for him because he didn’t hit as well with runners on base or in scoring position as he did with the bases empty. He’s also one of those players whose batting average fluctuates a lot (from .266 to .314 since he’s started playing as a regular) and it was at the low end of his range (.274) this year.

Still, Thome hit 42 home runs and he did drive in 105 runs and score 97. He’s 34 years old, so he may start to decline at some point in the not-too-distant future, but we haven’t seen his power decline much so far. He should be able to keep hitting 40-50 homers for at least a couple years and he’ll at least be a top five or six fantasy first baseman. If his RBI total goes back up to 115-130 and his batting average goes back up to .280-.290, he could go as high as a top three fantasy first baseman.

5. Mark Teixeira, Rangers: After a mediocre rookie season, Teixeira took a big leap in his second season. Now, we need to see whether he slips back a little, stays at that level or even improves some more. He’ll turn 25 early in the 2005 season, so he obviously has a lot of value after hitting .281 with 38 homers and 112 RBIs. Since he’s a decade younger, he might be a better choice to keep than Thome, but I want to see him have another great season before I put him ahead of a player with four straight 40-plus homer seasons.

Really, though, there’s not much to dislike about Teixeira. He should hit at least .275 and could very well improve to .290. He should hit at least 30 home runs and could certainly improve to 40-plus. He should knock in at least 100 runs and could improve to 120-125. And he should also score around 100 runs. His age, the improvement he made in his second season and the park he plays his home games in make him a very nice choice to hang onto.

6. Richie Sexson, Free Agent: Sexson’s 2001 and 2003 seasons were carbon copies except for his walks and on-base percentages. They were also very similar to what you can normally expect to get from Thome. However, Sexson’s 2002 season was a disappointment and this season was lost to injury. He’ll be 30 when next season starts and, as long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason to think he can’t put up numbers similar to those he put up in 2001 and 2003.

Some of Sexson’s value will depend on where he ends up signing. It would be nice for his fantasy value if that was Arizona, but it doesn’t look likely. Regardless, he should be good for a .270 average, 40 homers, 90-95 runs and 110-120 RBIs. Even if he’s still bothered by his shoulder and he signs with a team that has a pitcher’s park, I’d still expect at least 35 homers and 100 RBIs.

7. Carlos Delgado, Free Agent: He showed in the second half of this season that he can still pound the ball when healthy, hitting.305 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs after the All-Star break. Delgado might not have as much pure power as Sexson, but he’s displayed his power more consistently and he’s shown the ability to hit for a higher average. So why do I have him ranked behind Sexson? Partially because he’s 2 1/2 years older than Sexson and partially because I believe Sexson will consistently show off his power from here on out as long as he’s healthy.

Delgado’s struggled a little bit with injuries two out of the last three seasons, but he’s still managed to put up good numbers both years. Like Sexson, the team he signs with will have some effect on his value, but you can probably expect about the same as you can expect from Sexson — a .270 average, 40 homers, 90-95 runs and 110-120 RBIs. The difference between the two is that I think Delgado has the ability to hit .290-.300 and I think Sexson has the ability to hit 50 homers, and I think Sexson is more likely to use that extra ability in the next couple years. Ultimately, they’re pretty close in my book.

8. Justin Morneau, Twins: This kid, and I can call him that because he’s one of the few major leaguers who’s younger than me, has some serious power. He won’t turn 24 until mid-May, but he hit 19 homers in 280 at-bats this year. The only reason he only got 280 at-bats in the majors is that Minnesota decided to leave him in the minors longer than necessary. The result was that he hit 38 homers in Triple-A in 553 at-bats spread over two seasons, despite playing in a league and park that are somewhat tough on hitters.

So, I’ll be shocked if Morneau doesn’t hit 30 homers next year and he should drive in 100 runs. I really expect him to hit 35 homers, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him knock 40-plus longballs already. The big question is where his batting average will end up. He showed the ability to hit for a high average at times in the minors, but he only hit .271 this year in the majors. I’d expect him to hit .270-.280 this year, but eventually I think he’ll get up to the .290-.300 range, and he might even become a .300-plus hitter. In three or four years, I’d expect Teixeira and Morneau to be the top two first basemen in the AL, and I’m not sure Teixeira will be No. 1.

So, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m very, very high on Morneau. However, he has pretty much only had half a season in the major leagues, so we need to temper our excitement a little bit. If he has the season I expect him to have, he’ll at least be in the top five on this list next year.

9. Travis Hafner, Indians: I like Hafner, but he has several things working against him from a fantasy keeper perspective. First, this season was his first full season, and he’s already 27 years old. Second, while he had a great year (.410 OBP and .583 SLG), it wasn’t a tremendous fantasy season as he only hit 28 homers to go with his .311 average, 109 RBIs and 96 runs. So, even if he can sustain that production, I don’t know if he’s a top five fantasy first baseman (this year, he was in a clump of five players behind Pujols, Helton, Ortiz and Teixeira) and he obviously isn’t if he can’t sustain it.

Maybe Hafner will be like Ortiz and, after having his first really good season at age 27, explode to even new heights. If he does that, he’ll go up to the area Ortiz is in this year. But this is about where I would have ranked Ortiz on my list of first base keepers last year, so don’t think I’m being unfair by putting him this low. I don’t think he can’t take another step, but I do think he needs to prove he can.

10. Derrek Lee, Cubs: After seeming to underperform early in his career (at least from a fantasy standpoint), Lee has settled into a nice and consistent stat line the last three years. He’s hit in the .270-.280 range with 27-32 homers, 90-95 runs, 86-98 RBIs and 10-plus steals. Despite the fact that he has eight years of experience, Lee just turned 29 a couple months ago. I see no reason not to expect another .275-.280, 30-35 homer, 10-15 steal, 90-95 run, 95-100 RBI season from Lee. In fact, he might go over 100 by a bit if he hits fourth or fifth most of the time instead of hitting sixth as he did much of this season.

Lee just edges out Paul Konerko for the 10th spot on the list. I know he hit .277 with 41 homers and 117 RBIs this year, but he hit .234 with 18 homers and 65 RBIs the year before. And the four years before that he was a decent fantasy first baseman, but nothing special. Since I think Konerko is more of a 30-35 homer hitter than a 40-plus homer hitter, Lee’s stolen bases give him the advantage. Of course, if Lee stops stealing double digit bases, then he falls behind Konerko. But he’s had his steals three years in a row, so there’s no good reason to expect it to stop.

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