Baseball Digest Fantasy: The NL Without Pujols

With Albert Pujols leaving the St. Louis Cardinals to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, some have insinuated that the National League’s pool of fantasy first basemen has grown weaker.  Pujols is just one man, and the NL first base pool still shows plenty of promise.

With the departure of Pujols, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers (currently a free agent) and Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies are clearly the cream of the crop among NL first basemen; however, Fielder is a free agent and could possibly leave the NL and Howard is currently out with an achilles tendon injury.  Nevertheless, there are promising first basemen in the NL for 2012.  Here are some first basemen to keep an eye on:

Michael Morse

Morse is a classic example of a late bloomer.  Drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2000, Morse made his MLB debut with the Seattle Mariners in 2005.  Morse appeared in 98 games in the 2010 season with the Washington Nationals before finally winning a full-time starting job in 2011.

At the age of 29 in 2011, Morse hit .303 with 31 home runs and 95 RBIs.  He reached on base at a .360 clip while slugging .550 with a .910 OPS.  Although his 126 strikeouts and 36 walks may be a cause for concern to fantasy managers, his overall body of work in the 2011 season was impressive and cannot be ignored.  Morse is at an age where he may be in his athletic prime; therefore, the chances of him staying healthy and improving are too tempting not to pursue.

Lance Berkman

Berkman’s fantasy relevance experienced a revival in the 2011 season.  Over the past few seasons, the concern with Berkman has been his health.  When healthy, Berkman is still a productive fantasy hitter; however, he had not played in 140-plus games since 2008.

Despite playing mostly in the outfield in 2011, Berkman appeared in 145 games and hit .301 with 31 home runs and 94 RBIs.  This was Berkman’s first season of 30 or more home runs since 2007.  Berkman also reached on base at a .412 clip while posting a .959 OPS.  The results of Berkman’s marvelous season led to him finishing seventh in the NL MVP vote.

With the departure of Pujols, Berkman should be the Cardinals’ full-time first basemen in 2012.  While playing first base rather than the outfield should conceivably help Berkman stay healthier, nothing is guaranteed.  Health permitting, Berkman should have another great season for the Cardinals.  As was the case the past few years, the potential for injury is the only thing that possibly deflates Berkman’s fantasy value.  If you draft Berkman in 2012, be sure to have a backup plan.

Freddie Freeman

At the young age of 21, Freeman had an excellent 2011 season with the Atlanta Braves.  Freeman hit .282 with 21 home runs and 76 RBIs while also hitting 32 doubles.  Freeman hit .274 in his first 88 games and .292 in his last 69 games of the 2011 season.

In addition to more experience in 2012, Freeman’s numbers can also improve if teammates Dan Uggla and Jason Heyward return to form.  Heyward hit only .227 while struggling with injuries in the 2011 season.  Uggla hit .233 in 2011, but struggled with a .185 AVG at the All-Star break.  Uggla and Heyward can have a positive effect on Freeman’s numbers in 2012 and will play important roles in helping the Braves contend with the Phillies in the NL East.

Ike Davis

Although there is the possibility that the New York Mets may trade Davis, he is still a Met and still in the NL at this time.  Davis appeared in only 36 games in 2011, but he hit .302 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.  If that pace were to be maintained over 162 games, it would amount to 31 home runs and 112 RBIs.

Granted, the 36-game sample size is too small to evaluate a player’s season; however, those who have seen Davis play know the quality of his talent.  I believe it would be very foolish of the Mets to trade Davis (unless they receive an offer they cannot refuse), and I believe Davis has the tools to be one of the best first basemen in baseball and in fantasy baseball.

Jim Thome

Berkman revived his fantasy relevance in 2011 with the Cardinals; Thome may have that same opportunity with the Phillies in 2012.  Despite receiving limited playing time in the past few seasons, Thome hit 23 home runs (362 at-bats) in 2009, 25 home runs (276 at-bats) in 2010 and 15 home runs (277 at-bats) in 2011.

In the 2008 season, Thome hit 34 home runs in 149 games (503 at-bats) with the Chicago White Sox.  Health permitting, it may be reasonable to project anywhere from 20 to 30 home runs for Thome in 2012.  There are several factors that work against Thome’s fantasy relevance in 2012, however.  First of all, Thome is in the twilight of his career and health is always a concern with an older player.  Secondly, how much playing time Thome receives is pure speculation at this point.

I believe Thome will see significant playing time because the Phillies signed him before they acquired Ty Wigginton.  I believe the Phillies acquired Thome first because they have plans to use him in the lineup.  Much of Thome’s fantasy value in 2012 will rest on the achilles tendon of Ryan Howard.  If Howard makes a healthy recovery and regains the starting job, Thome’s fantasy value will be shot.  If Howard suffers setbacks at all in his recovery, Thome could have a Berkman-like revival in 2012.

You should not gamble on Thome being your first base savior for your fantasy teams in 2012; however, drafting him late may be an opportunistic cheap source of home runs for your team.

Anthony Rizzo

It is not often you see praise written for a hitter who hit below the Mendoza line in 40-plus games of experience; however, Rizzo is a very promising hitter.  San Diego Padres fans who remember the sting of losing Adrian Gonzalez to free agency will feel much better if Rizzo plays to his potential.

In 2011 with the Tucson Padres (AAA) of the Pacific Coast League, Rizzo hit .331 with 26 home runs and 101 RBIs.  Rizzo reached base at a .404 clip while slugging .652 with a 1.056 OPS.  Although his MLB numbers were unimpressive in 2011, Rizzo hit the ball hard and just had the misfortune of hitting the ball to defensive players too frequently.  With some more experience in 2012 and a larger sample size of games, Rizzo should conceivably improve his numbers dramatically and play an important role in the Padres’ lineup.

Brandon Belt

Belt is a promising young first baseman who should see plenty of playing time with the San Francisco Giants.  In 2011, Belt and Aubrey Huff shared time at first base and in the outfield.  Whether playing at first base or in the outfield, Belt should see playing time in 2012; furthermore, Belt should have first base eligibility in your 2012 fantasy leagues (he played 26 games at first base in 2011).

Belt has already shown flashes of his potential at the MLB level; he merely needs more experience and consistency.  In 31 losses last season, Belt struggled with a .128 AVG, one home run and four RBIs; in 32 wins, Belt hit .323 with eight home runs and 14 RBIs.  If Belt can maintain some semblance of consistency in 2012, a .280 AVG and 20-plus home runs may be reasonable.

In addition to the six first basemen discussed here, there are others in the NL worth keeping an eye on.  The six discussed here are those who may have the best value for their average draft position (ADP) in 2012 if their stars are aligned (metaphorically speaking).  Pujols signing with the Angels should have no effect on how you view the talent pool at first base in mixed leagues or NL-only leagues.

Those of you in NL-only leagues should not hit the panic button and realize that there is plenty of promise at first base outside of Votto, Fielder and Howard.  Address as many needs as you can in your fantasy drafts and pay attention to news updates on first basemen.

Last, but not least:  on behalf of all of us at Baseball Digest, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!

Christopher Wenrich is a senior fantasy baseball contributor for BaseballDigest.com and can be reached atphilliesmuse@yahoo.com.  You can follow him on Twitter @DuggerSports.

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