2024 Fantasy Baseball: Stud or sleeper at first base, a strategy guide for how to draft each position

Playing first base may be harder than Billy Beane let on in the film adaptation of Moneyball (tell him, Wash), but what’s harder still is playing — that’s right — any other position. Historically, then, first base has been exactly what it was to Scott Hatteberg in that movie (not to mention real life): a safety net for players whose bats are too good to discard.

In theory, there should be no position that outclasses it offensively, but while that used to be the case in Fantasy, the juiced ball era and resulting stolen base scarcity changed the math some years ago. Smallish middle infielders and outfielders became the hulking first baseman’s peers in terms of power while still being the ones to provide all the speed.

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But the juiced ball era is over. The return to a more conventional home run distribution has been gradual, but noticeable, which on its own might be enough to reclaim first base as a position of studs. What’s come with it, though, is a more inviting stolen base environment that led to a 40 percent increase across the league last year. While stolen bases aren’t nearly as scarce, mass contributors of them are all the more essential. And once again, they’re most prevalent in the middle infield and outfield.

So where does that leave first base? Better than it was during the juiced ball era, yes, but not quite back to its former glory. Its surplus of sluggers gives it more usable players than any other position, but since none of them are capable of delivering the massive stolen base totals made possible by the latest round of rule changes, it’s a little light at the top end.

Only a little light, though, because it’s not long before the superlative base-stealers who also hit like first basemen are gone. We’re talking half a round or so, after which point the first basemen stand out for their ability to contribute huge quantities of everything else. And if you play in a points league, where stolen bases are of less importance, then a couple first basemen in particular should be in the discussion for top five overall.

But enough with such vagueries. Let’s talk specifics.

The two I was alluding to are Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson, who each averaged more points per game last year than any player other than Aaron Judge in 2022. Their massive run and RBI totals had a great deal to do with it — Freeman had a combined 235 while Olson had a combined 266 —  and their supporting casts remain just as strong (if not stronger in Freeman’s case) a year later.

Even with more typical run and RBI totals, they probably would have been Nos. 1 and 2 at this position. Freeman is arguably the best bet for batting average at any position, which as been true for nearly a decade now, and has turned himself into a pretty good base-stealer, one of the few at first base, the past couple years. Meanwhile, Olson’s 54 homers led all the majors last year. To me, they’re exactly the sort of singularities worth sinking an early-round pick into, and I’d look to take each a couple spots ahead of his ADP.

I’m nearly as high on Harper, the two-time MVP who didn’t seem quite himself in his first couple months back from Tommy John surgery last year before homering 19 times in his final 53 games, playoffs included. Vladimir Guerrero and Pete Alonso are no strangers to elite production either, though back-to-back disappointments for Guerrero make him hard to justify prior to Round 3. Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger have both earned their place here with their past performances, but they’re among my bust picks for 2024, making me unlikely to draft them except at a discount.

^2022 stats
Some lower-end choices: Jose Abreu, Josh Bell, Brandon Drury, Ty France

There’s a case for putting Christian Walker with The Studs, just going by ADP, but it’s already a stretch to put Paul Goldschmidt and Cody Bellinger in the same group as Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson. Walker to me is just a bridge too far. It’s a difference in upside more than anything. Walker’s is less than Goldschmidt’s and Bellinger’s even if his most-likely outcome is similar.

The bottom line is I’m probably not drafting any of those three (unless it’s Bellinger for the outfield) because I’m partial to some of the first basemen who come later. Chief among them is Triston Casas, who I was tempted to group with The Sleepers below just to emphasize the growth potential. Casas slashed .317/.417/.617 in the second half last year — his rookie season, mind you — and I think could be sort of a poor man’s Freeman (which is the best kind of man for a poor man, if you think about it).

Others here who I think could grow into more than we know them to be are Josh Naylor and Spencer Torkelson. For Naylor, you need only look at his per-game production and wonder what might have been if he hadn’t lost a month to a strained oblique. For Torkelson, you can can consider how his 27 home runs over the final four months would project to 41 over a full season. A Pete Alonso outcome might be on the table if Torkelson didn’t play half his games at Comerica Park.

Though there comes a point where I’d draft both, I should point out that Spencer Steer and Isaac Paredes are among my bust picks for this year. I’m skeptical Yandy Diaz can repeat his batting average and home run total, but you wouldn’t want to overlook him in points leagues, where his plate discipline makes him a borderline stud. Be careful also not to overlook Rhys Hoskins, whose late signing may have hampered his ADP to this point. He’s a bankable 30 homers in Milwaukee.

*minor-league stats

I refrained from putting Vinnie Pasquantino in my Other Deserving Starters because he so disappointed in 2023 and is now recovering from shoulder surgery. (Plus, I’ve already branded him a sleeper for this year.) But make no mistake: he is a deserving starter. In fact, if I don’t get Triston Casas from the last group, Pasquantino probably becomes my prime target. That’s certainly true in points leagues, where his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a cheat code of sorts. But for 5×5 leagues, I’ll note that he slashed .298/.383/.539 through his first 38 games, looking every bit like the player we hyped him to be, and it’s reasonable to wonder just how long he was playing with the bad shoulder.

After all, we came to learn Anthony Rizzo played for two months with post-concussion symptoms, batting .172 with a .496 OPS during that time compared to to .304 with an .880 OPS before it. That’s reason enough to take a late flier on him, even if I’m skeptical the early-season version is what we’ll get. For something a little safer, I’ll refer you to the Reds duo of Christian Encarnacion-Strand and Jeimer Candelario. My enthusiasm for Encarnacion-Strand, who I believe has 35-homer potential, would rival my enthusiasm for Pasquantino if not for the presence of Candelario, who figures to cost him at-bats in the Reds infield. Candelario himself could go from decent to good now that he’s playing half his games in the majors’ most homer-friendly ballpark.

By now, I think Andrew Vaughn is what he is, but he’s still a couple months shy of his 26th birthday and a former top prospect. We’ll call him a sleeper for one more year. Kyle Manzardo and Jonathan Aranda don’t actually have jobs yet, which is reflected by their ADP, but the upside I think is considerable for both. I’m especially fond of Aranda, who hit .375 with 23 homers and a 1.163 OPS in his final 72 games at Triple-A last year.

No one thought Freeman would repeat his career-high 13 stolen bases from 2022, and then he upped them by 10 in 2023. He and Bellinger are this position’s best hope for stolen bases, though we’ve seen comparable totals from Harper and Goldschmidt in the past. The truth is you can’t overestimate any player’s stolen base potential in what’s suddenly a stolen base-happy league, which is why I’m including Walker and Naylor here even though I think it’s something of a miracle they got to double digits last year. Ten steals likely won’t make or break you in this environment anyway, but we’ll take what we can get at first base.

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