2011 Keeper Rankings: First Base

First base is loaded with young talent. Are there even more up-and-comers that could be making their way onto keeper lists soon?  Below are FB365’s final first base keeper rankings for 2011.

Note: These are not positional rankings for 2011 and do not consider players with no major league experience (there are plenty of sources of prospect rankings for that). These players should help fantasy teams in 2011 as well as the foreseeable future. The number next to the player’s name represents his age on opening day 2011.

No-Doubt keepers
1. Albert Pujols – 30
2. Miguel Cabrera – 27
3. Joey Votto – 26
4. Adrian Gonzalez  – 28
5. Prince Fielder – 26
6. Mark Teixeira – 30
7. Justin Morneau – 29
8. Ryan Howard – 30
9. Adam Dunn – 30
10. Kevin Youkilis – 32

As much as I want to rank Miguel Cabrera over Albert Pujols, I just can’t bring myself to do it. M-Cab has the edge in age and I think his best years are yet to come, but Pujols is just so damn good year-after-year-after-year. The fact that Cabrera is even that close speaks volumes about how awesome a hitter he is. Joey Votto isn’t that far off either, by the way. He’s the youngest of the three, has great plate discipline and the potential to cross the 40 home run mark at some point.

Adrian Gonzalez saw the biggest jump up the rankings from my original ranks back in September of last year. The move away from Petco and into Fenway is one thing — his opposite field power should play fantastically there — but the lineup around him should help him to his best season yet. A-Gone is only 28 and should be a roto beast in Boston for years to come.

Ranking Prince Fielder is a bit more tricky. He has tremendous power potential, as we’ve seen already in his young career, but his body type is concerning. Since he’s only 26 years old, he should be able to maintain high-level production for the next five or so seasons. As he ages into his mid-30’s, however, he could see an accelerated decline.

I fully expect Mark Teixeira to bounce back in terms of AVG in 2011 and he is a safe bet to produce consistently into his mid-30’s. Justin Morneau, when healthy, is one of the better first basemen in the game. Keep tabs on him this spring, as he continues to recover from his mid-season concussion.

Much like Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard’s body-type is a cause for some concern. He’s not “big” like Prince, but he carries considerable weight on his upper half. Despite an ankle injury that hampered him for most of 2010, Howard still managed 31 homers and 108 RBI. However, reports have surfaced that his ankle still hasn’t healed 100 percent, which is interesting news considering how close we are to spring training. Again, he carries a lot of weight on his upper half and his decline may come faster than others. Adam Dunn is another burly fella, a “big donkey”, as some call him. More like an ox if you ask me. Like Howard, Dunn may decline sooner than say, Mark Teixiera, but his move to home run-friendly U.S. Cellular should help him mash around 40 bombs for the next few years. There is some risk that Dunn will be moving to a full-time DH role before long, but he is slated to spend some time at first base, substituting for Paul Konerko from time to time in 2011.

Kevin Youkilis makes the “No-Doubts” list — by the way, the band No Doubt (you know, Gwen Stefani’s band) is now being played on KROQ’s “flashback lunch”, which makes me feel old –, but Youk’s long-term prospects may find him dropping to the “Maybes” before long. Youk will be 32 by opening day, which means we can expect him to start declining in a few years. In the meantime, however, he should continue to produce fantasy goodness in the middle of a stacked lineup.

The Maybes
11. Kendry Morales – 27
12. Billy Butler – 24
14. Justin Smoak – 23
15. Freddie Freeman – 21

Kendry Morales seemed well on his way to becoming a consistent “No-Doubt” keeper before he busted his knee after “landing” on home plate. While Morales could very well bounce back with another 30 home run season, there are a few risk factors that make me weary of keeping him (depending on how many keepers we’re talking about). Morales doesn’t have the best plate discipline, but I have described him as a “Natural Born Hitter” in the past. The fact that he chases a lot of bad pitches, and swings and misses most of the time when he expands the zone, makes me think his AVG could fluctuate greatly from year-to-year.

Another first baseman that has earned his NBH degree (Natural Born Hitter) is Billy Butler. In 2009, Butler hit .301 and blasted 21 home runs. Then, last season, his home run production fell down to 15. I think this might be the trend we see throughout his career. Butler hits the ball on the ground a ton (47.7 percent career ground ball rate) so his power upside is limited. Still, he’s a better bet than Morales to consistently hit for AVG. When some of the Royals’ top offensive prospects find their footing in the big leagues, Butler will have the lineup protection he needs to take the next step in his R and RBI production.

This list gets a bit murky now, as both Justin Smoak and Freddie Freeman have a lot to prove at the big league level. Smoak, in particular, is a player that I have very high hopes for. He has always shown good plate discipline and plus-raw-power when healthy [See: Justin Smoak: Both Ends of the Spectrum>>>]. In deeper keeper formats, he should reward fantasy GM’s as a long-term investment. Freddie Freeman, on the other hand, is two years younger than Smoak, but scouting reports are not in agreement as to his ultimate power ceiling. In deeper long-term formats, Freeman is worth taking a flier on, but keep in mind that he is very young and doesn’t have the same plate discipline as Smoak. He may struggle for the first few years.

Deep keeper considerations
16. Adam Lind – 27
17. Ike Davis – 24
18. Chris Carter (A’s) – 23
19. Logan Morrison (LF eligible only as of now, however) – 22
20. Gaby Sanchez – 27
21. Carlos Pena – 32
22. Matt LaPorta – 26

Adam Lind fell into the same trap as teammate Aaron Hill in 2010. Both players got a bit too homer-and-pull-happy coming off of breakout power seasons. Lind was a good pure hitting prospect before his breakout 2009 season, so the chances that he bounces back a little in 2011 are better than average. Due to his inconsistent performances, Lind doesn’t represent long-term certainty, but he could provide nice value if the cost is low.

There are some things to like about Ike Davis, like his raw power, but there are some things not to like as well, like his swing. I’m not a fan of how Davis drops his hands and takes a slight upper-cut toward the ball. While this swing generates a lot of power when contact is square, it also generates plenty of swing-and-misses (75.7 percent contact rate in 2010). Unless he can turn into a perennial 30-plus home run threat, which is no lock, his low AVG’s will be an issue for fantasy GM’s. Speaking of raw power, but a lot of swing-and-miss, Athletics’ prospect Chris Carter is the pure definition of that.  Carter has proven over and over again that he can slam the ball over the fence at the minor league level, but all his power has come along with a lot of strikeouts. Best case scenario, he’s Adam Dunn. Worst case scenario, he’s Jack Cust, which is OK, but nothing fantasy GM’s can rely on long-term.

Despite him not having 1B eligibility in 2011, Logan Morrison makes this list. His natural and future position is first base, but for the time being, Gaby Sanchez is holding his own there for the Marlins. There is a lot to love about Morrison. He is a sweet swinging lefty with a very good eye and projectable power — he has flashed some of that power in the lower minor league levels. If the power develops, as many believe it will, Morrison could push a top 10 1B ranking down the road. In OBP leagues, he would be even more valuable. Morrison’s road block (not really a road block, as LoMo will play left field to start 2011) is Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez did a fine job in his first shot at full-time duty, hitting .273 with 19 home runs, 72 runs and 85 RBI. He’s not exactly a young prospect, but there is a decent chance he can hit .275-.285 with 20-24 homers over the next few years.

Carlos Pena makes this list only because of his potential at Wrigley Field. Working with hitting guru Rudy Jaramillo could help him raise his AVG a bit in 2011 and the potential for around 35 homers in Wrigley is enough to make even a .250-ish AVG worth while for fantasy GM’s…if the price is right, of course.

The last name on my 1B keeper list is Matt LaPorta and I fear that it could be his last. LaPorta was the big name prospect the Indians received in the CC Sabathia deal, but at age 26, his prospect status is gone. Now he needs to produce in the big leagues. To this point, LaPorta has done next to nothing, hitting .232 with 19 home runs in 557 career major league at-bats. His line drive rate in 2010 was a miserable 12 percent and his chase rate (over 33 percent) and contact rate (less than 76 percent) were both well worse than average. If there is anything, anything at all that keeps hope alive, it’s the fact that LaPorta posted a .953 OPS in the minor leagues and averaged one home run every 15.8 at-bats.