What used to be the premier offensive position in the game has lost some of its luster over the past years. Despite the shortcomings of RBI, it serves as a good measure of how first basemen simply are not as good as they used to be. For example, there were eleven 100+ RBI first basemen in 2008 while only four first baseman eclipsed that mark in 2012. Injuries (Justin Mourneau, Ryan Howard), positional changes (Miguel Cabrera), and skill degradation (Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis) have all contributed to the slimming of the first base talent pool. Ironically, despite the talent loss, first base has become among the best paid positions in baseball. Lucrative contracts to Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and Joey Votto have all contributed to this fiscally irresponsible splurge. As for the future of the position, only one first baseman (Jonathan Singleton) qualified for BTP's Top 100 list. One thing going for first base is that as players from other positions continue to age, many will pick up a first baseman's mitt to play the least physically demanding position in the game. This trend has already gained momentum as more and more catchers (Joe Mauer, Buster Posey) play the "cold corner" to save their legs and to keep their bat in the lineup. Anyhow, below is BTP's top 5 first baseman in the game today.
5. Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The centerpiece of the mid-summer blockbuster between the Red Sox and Dodgers, Adrian Gonzalez remains one of the best first baseman in the game. However, Gonzalez enters the 2013 season not without questions about his own offensive abilities. He batted a solid, yet unspectacular, .299/.344/.463 with 18 home runs and 108 RBI as 2012 saw his walk rates and power numbers take significant hits. For example, from 2006-2011, Gonzalez averaged 31 HRs, 88 walks, 144 OPS+ (only 116 this year), and a .297/.380/.520 triple slash line. Additionally he saw his normally excellent walk rate decline substantially from 10.4% to a below average 6.1%. So while 2012 would be a good season for most, it fell well below his usual standards. Defensively, he continued to excel as one of the best fielders at his position with 15 defensive runs saved and a 17 runs above average according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). In order for Gonzalez to remain a top 5 first baseman, he needs to reverse the aforementioned batting trends that plagued him in 2012. His track record is what made him so appealing to the Dodgers when he was first acquired. He is familiar with NL West after playing much of his career in San Diego, and it is certainly plausible to see his numbers return to pre-2012 heights. I expect him to be about a 3.5 win player in 2013.
4. Adam LaRoche, Washington Nationals (currently a free agent)
One of the major pieces of the National League Eastern Division Champions, Adam LaRoche had a career year in his age 32 season. For much of his career, LaRoche has provided decent offense with decent defense but took his game to new heights in 2012. He hit a career high 33 HRs, had a 128 OPS+, and hit a solid .271/.343/.510. Add in solid glove work that resulted in his first career Gold Glove, and LaRoche's impressive package of skills has set himself up beautifully for a big contract this offseason. However, like Gonzalez, LaRoche also has several questions . Can he repeat his career year or is his career year just that? Will his age (32 years old) factor into any future decline? That remains to be seen, but LaRoche's productive 2012 showed that he deserves to be recognized as one of the game's best at his position. I actually expect LaRoche and Gonzalez to have similar seasons so a 3.5-4 win season should not be too far out of reach.
3. Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
One year into the third largest contract of all-time, Albert Pujols produced career lows across the board. What validates his ranking as the third best first baseman in the game is that Albert Pujols' poor play is still better than most players' best performance. He hit 30 HRs, drove in 100 runs, had a very respectable .285/.343/.516 slash line, and had a 141 OPS+. In addition, he had eight defensive runs saved to go along with his reputation as one of the best defenders at his position. However, his disturbing declines in every important offensive category have left concern in Pujols' future. His walk rate has dropped below average, his strikeout rate is the highest since his rookie year, and he had the lowest HR/FB rate of his career. While Pujols remains a solid hitter and fielder, gone are the days when Pujols reigned as the game's best player. Perhaps I am overstating his decline a bit but I foresee 2013 to be more comparable to 2012 than any year from his prime. He had 4.6 WAR last year and should be 4.5-5 win player next season.
2. Prince Fielder, Detroit Tigers
The offseason's second biggest signing had one of the biggest immediate impacts, as Fielder helped justify his hefty contract by the Tigers to their first pennant since 2006. Fielder provides some of the best offensive production in the league and has an excellent blend of hitting for average, power, and ability to get on base. For example, Fielder had a .313/.415/.528 with 108 RBI in 2012 batting behind league MVP Miguel Cabrera. Although his slugging percentage and power numbers (30 HRs, lowest total since rookie season) did take a bit of a hit coming to Detroit, Fielder still managed a 152 OPS+, good enough for third in the league. Defensively, he lacks what Gonzalez, LaRoche, and Pujols bring to the table and is a below average defensive player. Yet, his offensive ability makes up for his defensive shortcomings and I just simply have more confidence in his offense compared to the others heading forward. He should once again be around a 4.5-5 win player in 2013.
1. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
The 2010 NL MVP had another extremely productive season in an injury shortened 2012 campaign, which was good enough for BTP to name him as the game's top first baseman. He lead the league in OBP (.474!) to go along with a .337 average, .567 slugging percentage, 44 doubles, and a 174 OPS+. His patience at the plate is unmatched (94 walks) with the only complaint of Votto's game being that he did not hit for a lot of power in 2012 (only 14 HRs). However, Votto has hit for good power in the past and his outage could simply be a result of the knee problems that caused him to miss 48 games. Defensively, Votto saved 9 runs and was 6.5 runs above average according to ultimate zone rating. Heading into his age 29 season, Votto should be experiencing his prime in the coming years. Votto has every desirable trait from a face of the franchise first baseman and assuming good health, could have a MVP caliber season in 2013.
Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees
Allen Craig, St. Louis Cardinals
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks