Positional Power Rankings: First Base

If you asked a casual baseball fan to close their eyes and envision a stereotypical first baseman, almost every one of those fans would describe a large, lumbering fellow with a powerful bat, slow feet, and a subpar glove. While there certainly are many players in the past and in today’s game that fit that mold perfectly — Matt Adams, Chris Carter, and Pedro Alvarez come to mind — there is also a large proportion of players who have had success at the position despite not fitting those stereotypes. Through the 2000s, the Boston Red Sox’s Kevin Youkilis made a respectable career for himself at the position despite eclipsing the 20-homer mark just twice, making up for his lack of “pop” with incredible plate discipline (.382 career OBP) and stellar defense (44 career DRS at 1B). Nowadays, defensively-capable first basemen are becoming more and more common, and the players as a whole are getting more athletic (one player on the list has swiped a jaw-dropping 53 bases over the past two seasons). However, the offensive expectations still remain, with most teams demanding power and on-base ability from their first baseman as a primary facet to their game. The position seems to be getting better, more dynamic, and more exciting every year, making this top-10 list one of the most interesting to examine. So, without further ado, Baseball Essential’s First Base Power Rankings:

#10: Wil Myers, San Diego Padres

After a breakout rookie campaign in which he won the American League Rookie of the Year award as an outfielder with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2013, Myers sputtered out in 2014 and was traded to the San Diego Padres before the 2015 season. Myers began the transition from outfield to first base that year and posted good numbers in limited playing time for the Padres, batting .253/.336/.427 with a 115 wRC+ in just over 250 plate appearances. Myers took over as the Padres’ primary first baseman to start the 2016 season and recaptured the offensive spark he showed in his 2013 campaign, belting 28 home runs and 29 doubles (in a notoriously pitcher-friendly park) with a .259/.336/.461 line and another 115 wRC+, this time over a full 676 plate appearances. Myers also displayed excellent baserunning ability, coming around to score 99 times and swiping 28 bags, as well as solid defensive aptitude (+8 DRS). Headed into just his age-26 season, Myers looks to build on his excellent season in 2017 and become a centerpiece of the Padres franchise that GM AJ Preller is working so hard to rebuild.

2017 Steamer Projections: .256/.334/.448, 23 HR, 25 2B, 75 RBI, 68 R, 112 wRC+, 2.2 fWAR

#9: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

After Myers won the AL RoY in 2013, Cuban slugger Jose Abreu took the honors in 2014 after signing with the White Sox as an international free agent over the winter. Abreu belted 38 home runs and hit .317/.383/.581 in his age-27 season but has failed to match those numbers in the two seasons since, despite hitting over 25 homers and driving in over 100 in both campaigns. Abreu’s biggest shortcoming is his defense, as he’s accumulated -14 DRS in his three major-league seasons thus far. While his offensive output has regressed every year since his move to the United States, he’s still entering just his age-30 season and has shown excellent power (91 HR and 101 2B lifetime), above-average plate discipline for the position (2.9 K/BB rate), and still owns a .299/.360/.515 career batting line. Abreu has done enough to keep himself on this list for 2017, but can’t afford to regress once again in the coming season.

2017 Steamer Projections: .282/.344/.484, 28 HR, 29 2B, 91 RBI, 79 R, 119 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

#8: Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

Despite taking a backseat to superstar catcher Buster Posey and slick-fielding shortstop Brandon Crawford in the San Francisco offense, Texas native Brandon Belt has solidified himself as one of the position’s best over the past four seasons. Like the previously-mentioned Youkilis, Belt’s game is built on excellent defense (+30 career DRS) and plate discipline (2.1 career K/BB) while smashing home runs takes a back seat. That said, Belt is still a treat from the left side of the plate, notching 35 home runs, 74 doubles and 150 RBI over the past two seasons in San Francisco. Belt’s ability to take walks while avoiding strikeouts was elite in 2016, as he walked in nearly 16 percent of his plate appearances while striking out less than 23 percent of the time. For his efforts, Belt was selected to his first All-Star game last year, and is entering the second season of a 6-year, $79 million deal as a 29-year-old in 2017. Belt has been worth over 4.0 fWAR in each of his last three full seasons (2013, 2015, 2016) and there’s no reason to expect anything less in 2017.

2017 Steamer Projections: .260/.358/.438, 16 HR, 30 2B, 68 RBI, 65 R, 118 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

#7: Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians

After coming into the majors in 2010 exclusively a catcher, the Indians’ Carlos Santana began playing at first base in 2011 after a gruesome knee injury ended his rookie campaign. While he did catch primarily from 2011 to 2013, he began playing first base exclusively in 2014 after a short stint at third base early in the season. Santana’s biggest asset is his ability to get on base, as he owns a career walk rate just shy of 16 percent and career strikeout rate just over 17 percent. In 2016, Santana walked and struck out exactly 99 times each in 688 plate appearances. His lifetime batting average of .247 is nothing to write home about, but his excellent vision makes up for it in that he also owns a career .365 on-base percentage. Santana also owns above-average power to go with his great on-base abilities, clubbing 151 home runs and 199 doubles over seven big-league seasons, including 34 and 31 respectively in 2016. Santana also has value in his ability to hit anywhere in Terry Francona‘s lineup, even batting leadoff 85 times for Cleveland in 2016 — a rarity for a 1B/DH. While he is getting older and entering his age-31 season, Santana’s skillset projects to age well and he hasn’t appeared in fewer than 143 games since his rookie season in 2010.

2017 Steamer Projections: .253/.372/.459, 25 HR, 27 2B, 80 RBI, 87 R, 125 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR

#6: Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

While more than one of the other players on this list have gone through positional transitions in their careers, nobody has moved around more than the Redbirds’ Carpenter, who’s gone from playing first base and corner outfield in 2012, to second base in 2013, then over to third base in 2014 and 2015, and finally splitting time almost evenly between first, second and third base in 2016 (312, 318, 431 innings at each position respectively). However, the Cardinals seem to be committed to Carpenter taking up first base full-time in 2017, with the incumbent Matt Adams’ future with the organization seemingly in flux. Carpenter has quietly been one of the National League’s most productive offensive players since his first full season in 2013, when he lead the major leagues in runs, hits, and doubles (126, 199, 55) while amassing an impressive .318/.392/.481 line to the tune of a 146 wRC+. 2014 was a “down” year for Carpenter as he hit just .272/.375/.375 with eight home runs and 33 doubles, but in 2015 he exploded for a career-high 28 homers while adding 44 doubles to lead the NL. Last year, Carpenter once again eclipsed the 20-homer mark while notching 36 doubles and a .271/.380/.505 line despite missing almost all of July with an oblique injury. Carpenter’s unique mix of gap-to-gap as well as home run power and elite on-base ability make him one of the most versatile offensive weapons in all of baseball.

2017 Steamer Projections: .268/.370/.445, 18 HR, 36 2B, 64 RBI, 91 R, 120 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR

#5: Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

In the time between the reign of Albert Pujols and the rise of Mike Trout, it was all but accepted that Miguel Cabrera was the best pure hitter and maybe the best overall player in baseball. While it’s now basically sacrilegious to dispute Trout’s title as the best in baseball, Cabrera hasn’t really lost much from his prime. With the exception of 2015, when he missed time due to injury and played just 119 games, Cabrera has hit 25+ homers, driven in 100+ runs, and batted better than .292/.349/.512 in EVERY SINGLE SEASON since 2004. Seriously. 2016 was Cabrera’s best season since his back-to-back 44 home run campaigns in 2012 and 2013, as he clubbed 38 home runs and 31 doubles while scoring 92 runs and driving in 108 with a modest .316/.393/.563 batting line and 152 wRC+. Cabrera’s defense is mediocre at best (-16 career DRS at 1B) but the bat is clearly still one to be feared. Even after 14 years in the majors, Cabrera is still entering just his age-34 season, and it’s not difficult to envision his offensive output staying high for years to come.

2017 Steamer Projections: .310/.393/.540, 31 HR, 33 2B, 102 RBI, 94 R, 147 wRC+, 4.2 fWAR

#4: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

After a slow start to the 2016 campaign, Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman turned around with a monster second half to post the best offensive numbers of his career last season. Freeman clubbed a career-high 34 home runs, tied a career best with 43 doubles, and posted lifetime highs in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and wRC+. Freeman also played an excellent defensive first base, saving 9 runs according to DRS. By fWAR, Freeman was actually the most valuable first baseman in all of baseball last season, posting an impressive 6.1 mark. Freeman’s already established himself as one of the better offensive first basemen in the game, and he’s entering just his age-27 season in 2017. Freeman’s career .288/.373/.484 line and 135 wRC+ have all been amassed during his seven-year career with the Braves as part of largely ineffective offenses. Should Freeman find a way out of Atlanta and onto a better team before his eight-year, $135 million contract expires after 2021, he may have the opportunity to blossom into an even more dynamic offensive force before he reaches his prime.

2017 Steamer Projections: .275/.378/.490, 27 HR, 32 2B, 88 RBI, 86 R, 129 wRC+, 3.6 fWAR

#3: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

Remember the blurb in the intro about first basemen getting more athletic, and there being a particular player at the position who has swiped an unprecedented 53 bases over the last two seasons? Well, that man is none other than Paul Goldschmidt, who — despite his six-foot-three, 225 pound frame — just might be the best pure athlete at the position in today’s game. In addition to his uncharacteristic speed on the basepaths, “Goldy” is quite the offensive threat as well, and has posted 33 or more doubles in five straight seasons, even in 2014 when his season was limited to just 109 games due to injury. For his career, Goldschmidt owns an impressive .299/.398/.525 batting line, with 140 home runs and 198 doubles to boot. Like many of his counterparts on this list, Goldschmidt excels at controlling the strike zone, posting walk rates of 15.0 percent or better and strikeout rates below 22 percent in both of the last two campaigns. He puts his excellent athleticism to work in the field as well, picking up 22 defensive runs saved over the past two years and 34 such marks for his career. Under contract at very affordable rates through 2019 (his age-31 season), Goldschmidt is certainly the centerpiece of an Arizona rebuild, should there be one in the near future with incompetent — excuse me, incumbent — general manager Dave Stewart ousted from the organization late in 2016.

2017 Steamer Projections: .286/.401/.503, 26 HR, 34 2B, 87 RBI, 91 R, 133 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR

#2: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

After a miserable debut season in 2011 with the San Diego Padres, Anthony Rizzo’s stock was at an all-time low, as he batted .141/.281/.242 over 153 plate appearances as a 21-year-old and was subsequently shipped off to Chicago in January of 2012 in exchange for starter Andrew Cashner. He bounced back in the following year to post 1.8 fWAR in 87 games, but then posted just a 1.9 mark in 160 contests in 2013. Rizzo finally broke out in his age-24 2014 season, eclipsing the 30-HR mark and posting a .286/.386/.527 batting line en route to a 155 wRC+ and 5.7 fWAR as well as his first All-Star Game appearance. Rizzo has only improved since then, posting two more 30+ home run and 5.0+ fWAR campaigns while maintaining incredibly steady batting lines and even cutting his strikeout rate by close to three percent. Rizzo also plays an incredible defensive first base, amassing 21 defensive runs saved over the past two seasons, bringing his lifetime total to an impressive +49 DRS. While he was beaten out in the 2016 NL MVP vote by teammate Kris Bryant, the Cubs franchise certainly wouldn’t be in the position it’s in now without Rizzo’s fantastic play and leadership. Still entering just his age-27 season and under contract through 2019, Rizzo still has room to grow and contribute even more to Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon‘s Cubs in the coming years.

2017 Steamer Projections: .279/.381/.523, 32 HR, 32 2B, 98 RBI, 92 R, 139 wRC+, 4.5 fWAR

#1: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

Despite not making an All-Star game since 2013 and starting 2016 off on a horrendous note, Reds first baseman and 2010 NL MVP Joey Votto had one of the most dominant offensive stretches in recent memory over the second half of 2016 and proved why he still has the juice to claim the top spot in our 2017 first baseman power rankings. Votto’s surpassed 30 home runs just once in his career — in his MVP campaign, when he stroked 37 dingers — but what he “lacks” in power (I type that quite tongue-in-cheek) he makes up for with otherwordly on-base ability. Prior to the 2016 All-Star break, Votto was hitting “just” .282/.386/.446 with 14 home runs and 15 doubles, numbers many batsmen would happily take over 80-something games. However, Votto was clearly dissatisfied, and he proceeded to casually hit .408/.490/.668 with a brain-melting 201 wRC+ over his final 72 contests, clubbing another 15 home runs and 19 doubles while walking 47 times against just 32 strikeouts. Nobody in today’s game takes bases and avoids strikeouts the way Votto does and has for his entire career; since 2010, his walk rate is a whopping  17.3 percent while his strikeout rate is just 1.2 points higher at 18.5 percent. In five of those seven seasons, he’s lead the National League in on-base percentage, twice topping all of Major League Baseball. The other two years? One was cut short by injury (2014), and the other was overshadowed by Bryce Harper‘s MVP mega-year (Votto’s OBP that season? .459, second-best of his career). Votto has historically played good defensive first base as well, posting positive defensive runs saved marks every year from 2010 to 2015 before an inexplicably poor 2016 (-14 DRS; his career mark is still +29). While he is the oldest player in the rankings besides Miguel Cabrera, Votto is showing no signs of slowing down, especially on the offensive side of the baseball. Whether or not he remains with the hopelessly bad Reds through or past 2017 (he’s entering the fourth year of a 10-year, $225 million deal next season) remains to be seen, but Votto reigns supreme as the league’s top first baseman regardless.

2017 Steamer Projections: .288/.418/.487, 23 HR, 30 2B, 77 RBI, 88 R, 140 wRC+, 3.9 fWAR

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