The Best Young First Basemen of 2007

This week, I will continue my position-by-position review of the game’s best players by examining young first basemen. The following list differs from traditional prospect lists in two ways. First, anyone under 25 is eligible. Second, I won’t give you a false sense of precision by ranking players. Instead, I’ll group players according to their upside and closeness to fulfilling their potential. I order players alphabetically within groups.

When I describe “excellent” potential, I simply mean that the player has a non-trivial chance of being among the top five major leaguers at his position during multiple seasons. In other words, these are guys who could be perennial All-Stars. These players usually have all the skills to become complete hitters and at least average fielders at their position.

When I describe “good” potential, I usually am describing a player who has the skills to become a consistently above-average starter at the position. Often, these players will have at least one major limitation that probably will prevent them from becoming top-tier players. When I describe “average” upside, I usually am describing a player with more than one major concern or limitation that suggests he probably will become an average player relative to other starters at his position.

Players who are “close to their prime” usually are within a year of reaching a level of performance that will be among the five best seasons of their career.

I don’t have a crystal ball, so I rely heavily on quantitative analysis of hitting and fielding performance to describe these players’ futures. These are simply estimates—any one of these players could be out of baseball at age 26 and any one could become a star. Mostly, I hope this list can help you identify exciting young players who are worth watching in the near future.

Excellent Upside, Close to Prime

Justin Morneau would be an easy choice here, but he’s a bit too old and experienced for this list. No first basemen under the age of 25 qualify for this category.

Excellent Upside, at Least Two Years from Prime

Daric Barton
21 years old | Oakland Athletics
A freak injury led to a forgettable 2006 season, but Barton is an on-base monster who regularly walks more often than he strikes out. His OBP of .389 in 2006 was the lowest of his professional career. Like some other players ranked lower in this list, there are concerns about whether Barton will hit for enough power to become the middle-of-the-order bat everyone expects from a first baseman or designated hitter in the American League.

It is true that Barton has not hit more than 13 home runs in a professional season. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that he is only 21 and, unlike most other players on this list, whether Barton hits 20 or 30 home runs per year won’t change the fact that he’s going to be among the most productive hitters in the league given his other strengths at the plate. Barton warrants inclusion in the “excellent upside” category because he projects to be about as productive a hitter as Nick Johnson, the same Nick Johnson who was fifth among all first basemen in win shares last year. Barton, a former catcher, still is learning to play first base, but his bat makes him an asset even if he becomes a designated hitter at a young age.

Prince Fielder
22 years old | Milwaukee Brewers
My analysis of Prince Fielder’s minor league record and his component statistics in 2006 suggests he will improve his batting average and walk rate incrementally in 2007. My analysis of power development in this year’s THT Annual also suggests that big players like Fielder tend to develop their power at a faster rate than other players in their early 20s. He already looks like a slightly above-average first baseman who is good for a solid OBP and 30 home runs per season, but I don’t think he’s close to being finished developing as a hitter. Milwaukee’s infield is going to be filled with similarly productive homegrown talent for at least the next five years.

Travis Snider
19 years old | Toronto Blue Jays
Question: Who were the four most recent 18-year-old first-round picks to hit over .300 and launch 10 or more home runs in their first few months of rookie ball?
Answer: Travis Snider, Ian Stewart, Billy Butler and Prince Fielder.
That’s good company surrounding Snider. He is technically a corner outfielder at the moment, but I’m comparing him with first base prospects because that is where he is headed. How many 5-foot-11, 250-pound teenagers don’t move down the defensive spectrum before reaching the big leagues?

Good Upside, Close to Prime

Adrian Gonzalez
24 years old | San Diego Padres
Adrian Gonzalez, the first pick of the 2000 draft, finally got his chance. An early injury to Ryan Klesko gave Gonzalez the opportunity to prove what many people in the Padres organization believed all along: He just needed consistent at-bats to fulfill his potential as a hitter in the big leagues. PETCO Park is a challenging environment for power hitters, but Gonzalez rose to the occasion in his first full season of major league baseball. I don’t think he’s going to improve on last season’s numbers much, but he’s already an above-average first baseman.

Joe Koshansky
24 years old | Colorado Rockies
Koshansky blasted 62 home runs at Class A Asheville and Double-A Tulsa during the past two seasons. He has as much power as anyone on this list, but he was older than most prospects in Double-A and his strikeout rate remains a concern. An optimist can look at Ryan Howard’s minor league career and see some parallels, but the comparison isn’t strong and Howard is an exception to the rule.

For a more pessimistic outlook, turn back the clock to 2004 and look for 24-year-olds with Double-A statistics comparable to Koshansky’s 2006 campaign. Among Kevin West, Nelson Cruz, and John Hattig, only Cruz has secured even a part-time role in the big leagues.

Joey Votto
23 years old | Cincinnati Reds
Votto improved all facets of his offensive game in 2006. He made contact often enough to hit over .300, walked frequently enough to post an OBP over .400, and launched a career-high 22 home runs for Double-A Chattanooga. Votto earned MVP honors in the Southern League and is now the heir apparent at first base for Cincinnati. Of Votto’s 22 home runs in 2006, 15 went to right field, so he should have no trouble maintaining his power production when he has a shot at Great American Ball Park’s cozy right field.

Good Upside, at Least Two Years from Prime

Lars Anderson
19 years old | Boston Red Sox
Anderson fell to the Red Sox late in the 2006 draft due to signability concerns, and he still has not had an official at-bat as a professional. Nobody in the game questions his power potential, however; Anderson hit .429 and tied a league record with 15 home runs during his senior year of high school. The road to the major leagues is typically long for teenage first basemen, because competition for playing time typically increases with age as other players move down the defensive spectrum.

Kyle Blanks
20 years old | San Diego Padres
Blanks has all the raw power you would expect from a 6-foot-6 first baseman who weighs nearly 300 pounds. He is a riskier prospect than others in this category and there is a temptation to compare him with guys like Calvin Pickering. Blanks is not your typical giant, however. According to a July 2003 article in the Albuquerque Journal, Padres scouts were overflowing with praise for Blanks’ athleticism and speed when he was as young as 16. He runs the bases and fields his position surprisingly well given his size, and he demonstrated above-average plate discipline before an ankle injury ended his first full season as a professional in 2006. If Blanks continues to refine his game, he could emerge as the minor leagues’ most promising young power hitter by this time next year.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

James Loney
22 years old | Los Angeles Dodgers
I’ve already taken a close look at James Loney, and I’m not too worried that he never has hit more than 12 home runs in a season. His power production steadily improved as the 2006 season progressed and more than 20% of Loney’s batted balls in the Pacific Coast League were classified as line drives. I don’t think he is going to be an All-Star any time soon, but he could be among the league’s more productive first basemen before he reaches 25. Loney also is one of the better fielders you’ll read about in this article.

Chris Parmelee
19 years old | Minnesota Twins
The first baseman/outfielder launched a home run in his first pro plate appearance in the Gulf Coast League. Although Parmelee’s power and patience at the plate are above average, early results suggest he might be a low-average hitter in the upper minor leagues and major leagues. Parmelee still can handle the outfield, but he spent more time at first base as his first full season progressed and I have ranked him with this group of players accordingly.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Snider, Parmelee and Anderson had a grand total of zero major league at-bats four years from now.

Average Upside, Close to Prime

Chris Carter
24 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
Last spring, I described Carter as “the best-hitting first base prospect that most people don’t know about.” He probably still deserves that title after continuing to hit for power and walking more often than striking out in the Pacific Coast League. Carter is about as skilled a hitter as Conor Jackson, but his awkward and error-prone play in the field limits his usefulness to a National League club. I can think of at least three small- to mid-market American League teams that could use a cheap upgrade for their designated hitter spot, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carter involved in a trade before the end of the year.

Conor Jackson
24 years old | Arizona Diamondbacks
The hitter-friendly environments of Arizona’s minor league system made Jackson look like more of a prospect than he really was from 2004 to 2005, and his 2006 rookie season was merely adequate. He is a good contact hitter and should be able to maintain a productive career in the big leagues, but his declining walk rate and climbing strikeout rate in the second half of 2006 are not reassuring.

Casey Kotchman
24 years old | Los Angeles Angels
Kotchman has played with the Angels for parts of three seasons now, but he has struggled to stay healthy and effective. He might seem like a distant memory for many prospect-watchers, but he is only 24 and could be a nice high-average/high-OBP option at first base for the Angels as soon as this year.

Kendry Morales
23 years old | Los Angeles Angels
Morales is better than his .234 /.290 /.371 line with Los Angeles in 2006 suggests, but his power potential doesn’t make up for his below-average on-base skills and questionable glove at first base. The Cuban defector is a switch-hitter, but he is usually most effective versus right-handed pitching and could be a very good component of a platoon somewhere.

Average Upside, at Least Two Years from Prime

Max Ramirez
22 years old | Cleveland Indians
Ramirez, a catcher traded from the Braves organization for Bob Wickman, is exceptionally patient at the plate. He is not a good defensive catcher and spent half of his 2006 season as a designated hitter, so it is likely that he will make a Ryan Garko-like transformation as a first baseman/designated hitter before reaching the big leagues. As soon as he focuses on hitting full-time, he’ll become a useful bat for Cleveland.

Honorable Mentions

Wes Bankston, Eric Duncan, Travis Ishikawa, Mark Hamilton and Gaby Sanchez are a few other promising young first basemen who received consideration for this list.

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