NLC First Baseman Rankings: King Votto Reigns Supreme


As Reds fans, we’ve been blessed in many ways. We’ve been blessed with some of the best drafting and player development in the league, which has resulted in some very good players coming through the Cincinnati Reds farm system. The 2012 Reds team was well documented as a heavily home grown squad. The 2013 Reds will be very similar in that regard. And perhaps the best success from any of this is our own first baseman Joey Votto.

First base and the NL Central used to be best-buds. Easily three of the top five first basemen in the majors played each other in multiple series each season, and were each in contention for a playoff spot in each of the past three years. However, 2011 saw Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder go to the American league to form MLB super-teams. What was left were a lot of questions, and some pretty big potential. Some of these questions were answered surprisingly well. Others, with the unfortunate news we received today about Mat Gamel, won’t be answered any time soon.

Each run-down below is comprised of a description of the player, the big question regarding that player for the 2013 season, and some statistics. Projections are by Bill James, and projected WAR is the average of Steamer and Oliver projections.

So, who are the top 5?  This first guy should be no surprise, and needs no introduction…

#1 Joey Votto – Cincinnati Reds

Recently MLB Network’s show “Best Top 10 First Basemen right now” named #JoeyVotto (sorry, it’s a habit now) as the number one first baseman in the entire MLB. Despite an injury plagued 2012, Votto was set to have a phenomenal season. In fact, even after missing extended time last season, Joey still finished the season with more walks than anyone in the league. His OBP was also tops in the National League, although he didn’t record enough At-Bats for this statistic to “count” for league leader status.

Feb 16, 2013; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) poses for a photo during photo day at the Reds Spring Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

As we all know, Votto is a player that does a lot of things extremely well. He consistently puts up MVP-worthy numbers, especially when it comes to walks and OBP. He’s got an MVP award, a Gold Glove, and three All-Star appearances in 5 full-time seasons. The only thing he doesn’t do well is run, and he still has swiped a respectable 41 bags as a first baseman.

The Big Question: Will we have the same Joey Votto back in 2013? Before his injury, Joey Votto was being talked about as the best hitter in baseball. After the injury, Joey didn’t hit a single home run. He’s never been a guy known too well for his power, and I’ve pointed out before that the long bomb isn’t what makes him a great player. In fact, I’d say he’d still be in the MVP running even if he hit 14 HRs every year.

However, Home Runs are a lot easier on those knees than sliding into second for a double and advancing twice for the run. It’s early in training camp, but so far Votto looks to have his power stroke back. John Fay wrote a couple of days ago that he even went as far as to call his own shot Bambino style in a BP session. If we do indeed have the 25+ HR Votto back for 2013, opposing pitchers should be very, very afraid.

Projected WAR: 5.7

#2 Anthony Rizzo – Chicago Cubs

September 9, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (44) at the plate against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the seventh inning at PNC Park. The Chicago Cubs won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2011 was the first year in which the battle for top First Baseman in the NL Central wasn’t even close. After years of the Votto/Pujols/Prince question, there’s a pretty steep drop-off of talent now that Prince Albert and Prince Fielder are gone.

That’s not to say that the rest of this list doesn’t have some real talent and potential. And potential pretty much sums up Anthony Rizzo, the  Chicago Cub First Baseman. Cubs fans are undoubtedly very excited to potentially have their own little slice of Joey Votto in the young Rizzo, who’s game resembles Votto’s in many ways.

While his major league numbers have yet to match the insane production he experienced in AAA (.331/.404/.652 with 26 HRs in 2011 and .342/.405/.696 with 23 bombs in ’12), he is certainly trending upward. After a disappointing stint with the Padres in 2011 resulting in a trade to the Cubs, Rizzo rebounded during his second shot at MLB playing time. In 87 games with Chicago last season, Rizzo batted .285/.342/.463 with 15 homers and 48 RBIs. His strikeout rate, which has always been pretty high, has been quickly trending downward, moving from a 30.1% rate during his disastrous stint in San Diego to a much more manageable 16.8% in Chicago.

The name of the game with Rizzo is potential. Potential usually doesn’t place very well in lists like these, but it’s hard to ignore this young guy. He’s fantastic with the glove, gets on base at a healthy clip, and has 30+ HR potential. He’s not exactly “Young Joey Votto With More Strikeouts and Less Walks”, but he’s close. If he can get a feel for the major leagues, Rizzo will be fighting for an All-Star spot very soon. It was a tough call between Rizzo and the next guy on the list, but in the end the upside of Rizzo won out.

The Big Question: Will he live up to the hype? Chicago fans are banking hard on Rizzo one day becoming an MVP type player. He’s already becoming a huge star in Chicago, a city which desperately needs to put together a string of winning seasons to avoid becoming the “new Astros”.

Projected WAR: 3.9

#3 Allen Craig – St. Louis Cardinals

Since I can never seem to land Mr. Votto on my fantasy team, Allen Craig has been a popular choice in my early mock drafts for the 2013 season. I’m somewhat of a fantasy junkie, and Craig fits the mold of the type of players I want on my team. He hits for a relatively high average (.307 in 119 games in ’12) and a moderate amount of HRs (22 in those same 119 games). He’s not really a first baseman, but he’s playing first base. Good enough for me.

Oct 21, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Allen Craig hits a RBI single against the San Francisco Giants in the 6th inning during game six of the 2012 NLCS at AT

Despite him being a Cardinal, and although I’m fighting back every instinct to hate his guts, I really like the way this guy plays the game, which I seem to be saying about more and more Cardinals as the years go on. I guess this is growing up.

Craig is an “old young” player, having spent 2006 through most of 2011 in the minor leagues. The small stint of games he had in the big leagues in 2011 were impressive, with a slash of .315/.362/.555. This wasn’t far off from his first “full” season in the big leagues in 2012 when his triple slash was .307/.354/.522. Although he doesn’t put up any sort of fight for the King of the NLC First Baseman Hill just yet, Craig is still a very solid player who is a great fit in that dreaded Cardinal lineup.

The Big Question: Will he be able to play a full season? Craig has yet to play more than 120 games at the Major League level, which is a pretty big concern. He’s already had four DL stints in his short career, and he has a pretty good backup in Matt Carpenter looking for playing time anywhere he can get it. It will be interesting to see how this pans out, especially if Carpenter takes off.

Projected WAR: 2.7

#4 Corey Hart – Milwaukee Brewers

It’s safe to say that the first base situation in Milwaukee is a mess. Corey Hart, who filled in admirably in 2012 after moving from Right Field to First Base after Mat Gamel went down with an injury, is out indefinitely following knee surgery. Brewers fans were hoping for Gamel to make the best out of yet another “try” at first base, but now we’ve learned that Gamel will miss the entire 2013 season.

September 18, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Corey Hart (1) reacts during the pre-game before playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s times like these that I really am glad that I’m not a General Manager.

Hart is a decent ball player. Although he’ll miss around the first six weeks of the 2013 season, he’s still the best first baseman the Brewers have. Going into his age 31 season, Hart is likely at his peak. He’s becoming more and more of a power hitter, and his strikeout rates say just as much. He hit 30 HRs for the second time in his career in 2012 (2010 being the last time), but he also had a career high 24.3% strikeout rate. For those keeping track at home, that’s not very great. It’s not quite Drew Stubbs territory, but it’s still not good.

Hart’s triple slash of .270/.334/.507 won’t turn many heads, but his offense isn’t as important to the Brewer’s overall plan as some of the other names on this list. He’s below average defensively, committing 4 errors at First Base in 2012. Unfortunately, Brewers fans will more than likely be counting down the days until his return, as whoever they find to plug the hole probably will be much worse.

The Big Question: Will the same power-hitting Hart come back from injury? We saw it with Joey Votto in ’12 after his injury. Votto was still a great player, since his game doesn’t necessarily revolve around him hitting Home Runs. However, for a guy whose power is vital to his career, how will Hart bounce back from injury?

Projected WAR: 2.1

#5 Garrett Jones – Pittsburgh Pirates

Garrett Jones is a lot like Hart, in that he relies a lot on his ability to hit the long ball. He’s not necessarily fast, and he’s not a great fielder, but if his power can stay on par with his 2012 numbers, he should be able to make up the difference.

September 30, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones (46) hits a two run home run against the Cincinnati Reds during the third inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2009 saw Jones bat .293/.372/.567 with 21 homers in only 82 games. Had he kept up that pace, Jones would be much higher on this list. However, two full seasons in 2010 and 2011 saw his slash and power drop considerably (.247/.306/.414  and 21 homers in ’10 and .243/.321/.433 and 16 bombs in ’11) and it started to look like 2009 might have been a fluke.

Jones still isn’t fitting the mold his 2009 stats built for him, but 2012 saw him take a step in the right direction. His .275/.317/.516 was better, and he approached the 30 HR plateau with 27. Realistically I believe Jones is a 30 Home Run guy, but undoubtedly he’ll be a bit nervous with big named Gaby Sanchez fighting for playing time.

The Big Question: Will Jones get enough ABs to surpass 30 HRs? It’s looking to be a platoon situation with Jones and Sanchez. Jones is notoriously terrible at hitting left handed pitchers, so Sanchez will look to take a couple of those At Bats away. Will this platoon hurt or help Garret Jones? Only time will tell.

Projected WAR: 1.5


#1: Joey Votto
#2: Anthony Rizzo
#3: Allen Craig
#4: Corey Hart
#5: Garrett Jones

By far the toughest call on this list was putting Rizzo above Craig. I don’t usually put a lot of stock in potential, especially because so many players don’t live up to their early career projections. However, watching Rizzo play just gives me a gut feeling that he’ll be a great player sooner rather than later.

Jones and Hart are interchangeable at this point, and I believe the 2013 season will cement one above the other. I can see Jones shooting up this list, but in order to do so he’ll need to take another step toward his 2009 short-sample numbers.

For now, Votto reigns supreme. If you like first base, it’s a great time to be a Reds fan.