KEEPERS: 2017 Dynasty Reload—1B

This is the second installment of our annual off-season series aimed at helping keeper league (KL) and dynasty owners address needs over the next 3-5 years. Each week we will examine a position, and note players and prospects who 1) are likely available in your league; and 2) we think have a good shot at earning double-digit R$ sometime between 2017 and 2019.

Stable, established contributors are more difficult than ever to acquire, be it by trade or off your league's free agent list. This is even more valid for rebuilders with little excess talent to barter, and particularly relevant with respect to position players in deeper leagues.

We'll attempt to identify the best and most MLB-ready of both marginal producers and legit prospects with upside, some with little to no MLB track record. And of course context matters—in terms of opportunity, risk, health, age, price and productivity time-line. Our filter uses the following criterion:

  • Player must be growth-age—27 years old—or younger as of April 1, 2017
  • Player must have earned less than $10 in a 5x5 format during 2016
  • Player must have 100+ AB above A+, AFL experience, or 5 years in professional foreign ball

Links to previous positions: C

As we noted in our 2016 1B piece, legitimate first-base breakout candidates have been difficult to project recently for several reasons. For one, the more athletic players and prospects often begin their careers elsewhere, then make a position change—at times unexpectedly. Though we managed to tab the only three 27-and-under $10 breakouts from last year in Wil Myers, C.J. Cron and Travis Shaw, Myers was an introduction mention who had spent most of his 2015 in the outfield—and was featured more prominently in the OF piece. Likewise, even 2016 column cover-boy/prospect Josh Bell was in the process of being converted to first base then, but ended up dividing his 2016 MLB time between there and the outfield. Of the rest of our 2016 entries, injuries either torpedoed or took a chunk out of Greg Bird and Matt Adams' seasons, while A.J. Reed's MLB debut was a huge disappointment. 

This year's 1B breakout potential is much improved, both in terms of name who are ready to build on early MLB performances, and several minor league prospects with plenty of three-year upside. Obviously as we suggested last year with TAM, HOU and BOS among others, it helps to identify clubs with obvious first-base questions, both pre-season and after the games begin. HOU is again first and foremost on this list, as is NYY, TEX, OAK, TOR and SEA.

Last November in this space, we noted the following about Josh Bell (1B, PIT): The 23-year-old is more likely than not to make his MLB debut sometime in 2016... has a good shot at reaching our $10 mark sometime over the next three years on his hit tool and opportunity alone. And if the power comes, he could be special. Now a year later, Bell is on schedule and we see nothing that changes our minds about his upside and projected timeframe. Bell hit a career-high 14 in 421 AB at Triple-A while maintaining his outstanding plate skills, before posting a .273/.368/.406 line (14% bb%, 85% ct%, 3 HR) over 128 AB in his MLB debut. The 1B glove needs to improve and the power remains a work inn progress. But the left-handed-hitting Bell is now on the verge of his first 400 AB season in PIT. 

A hip injury sustained in the first game of the season sidelined Cody Bellinger (1B/OF, LA) for all of April, and he hit just .224 over 98 AB in May following his return. But once healthy, Bellinger showed why he's shot up the prospect ranks this season. We profiled his skills and 2016 performance here in this space at the end of September, and Bellinger has since posted a .314/.424/.557 line in the Arizona Fall League. His 1B/OF versatility will help him make his MLB debut sometime during the 2017 2H.

A torn labrum aborted Greg Bird's (1B, NYY) 2016 season before spring training, but he's now healthy and with a clear path to first-base playing time following the retirement of Mark Teixeira. The left-handed-hitting Bird brought a history of solid minor league patience and good power to his MLB debut in late 2015, and didn't disappoint, hitting 11 HR and posting an 11% bb% in 157 AB. He may get some off days vs. tough LHPs, and needs to improve on a sub-70% ct%. But Bird's age (23), a 196/203 PX/xPX and 131 HctX offer all kinds of upside in Yankee Stadium. Youngsters Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder could also join the 1B mix, and are even mildly intriguing as deep-league flyers. But Bird is the pre-emptive off-season favorite for most of the AB.

Wilmer Flores (3B/1B, NYM) doesn't project as the Mets' first-baseman-of-the-future—see our note on Dominic Smith below. But Flores qualifies at 1B now, has already earned double-digit dollars in 2015, and fell just a tad short ($9) last year. The 24-year-old Flores was slow out of the gate thanks to sporadic April playing time followed by a May hamstring injury. But he roared in the 2H, posting a .278/.291 BA/xBA while mashing 11 HR in 158 AB that was supported by a 130/127 PX/xPX. Flores continued to post record solid mid-80% ct%, and raised both his FB% and bb% over 2015. If the Flores owner in your league has weak hands due to Flores' positional uncertainty, absence of premier defense and limited AB, take advantage of him. Because this bat will play, and has room to grow. 

At this time last year, Tommy Joseph (1B, PHI) had fallen off the prospect map and was certainly off our radar. On the heels of several injury-wracked seasons that included concussive symptoms behind the plate, Joseph had just completed a trying 2015 in which he converted to 1B, hitting just .193 with 3 HR in 166 Triple-A AB. But Joseph began 2016 with a bang, earning a quick MLB promotion. He continued to improve by leaps and bounds during a 2H in which he post a .289/.364/.561 line with 13 HR in 180 AB—all with solid support from a .282 xBA, 10% bb%, 115 HctX, and a 154/146 PX/xPX. This surge happened very quickly, and in a part-time role. But the right-handed-hitting Joseph made big improvements vs. RHPs as the season went on, suggesting that this small sample splurge is worthy of our attention.

With Mitch Moreland now a free agent, what TEX does with its vacated 1B AB remains to be seen. But now with 559 AB (and 133 MLB AB) behind him, Joey Gallo (3B/1B, TEX) is a prime candidate, be it on Opening Day or later in the season. Gallo's 80 scale power allows him to hit the ball out to all fields, and a good bet for 25-30 HR with 400 AB. And his outstanding patience—68 walks in just 359 AB at AAA-Round Rock in 2016—makes him more than just a one dimensional player. But atrocious contact (58% at Triple-A, 76 Ks in 133 AB in TEX over the past two seasons) likely has the Rangers considering other options. Now 23, Gallo needs to adjust in order to fit into the Rangers immediate plans and stay above our cut-line. He could be a productive strong-side platoon with just a .240 BA.

Following an outstanding 2015 at Double-A, A.J. Reed (1B, HOU) looked overmatched in his MLB debut. He showed off his power and patience in Triple-A, hitting 15 HR and working for 32 BB in 261 AB. But the PCL is a hitter-friendly environment, and Reed also whiffed 67 times for a 74% ct%. In HOU, he hit just .164 with 3 HR in 122 AB, striking out almost 40% of the time. A near-50% GB% was alarming, as were nine Ks and just one hit in 15 AB vL. Reed will get plenty of opportunity in HOU, and age (23) is on his side. But this could take some time. Even after posting a career .316 minor league BA, Reed's long swing puts his ability to hit for MLB average in question. 

Dominic Smith's (1B, NYM) sub-.270 BA and 7 HR over his first 280 Double-A AB were underwhelming, particularly for a consensus Top 50 prospect from whom observers had looked for more consistent power to complement BA skills. Questions about Smith's conditioning—he's listed at 6'0", 250 lbs.—haven't helped. But the 21-year-old Smith went on a tear after June, mashing his way to a .348 BA and .537 Slg (7 HR) over his final 204 AB, and finishing with a 50/74 BB/K in 484 AB. An excellent defender, the left-handed-hitting Smith will knock on the MLB door sometime in 2017, as current 1B Lucas Duda becomes a free agent that winter. He may never develop more than 20-HR power, and his body raises questions as to his MLB longevity. But Smith owns skills that could play quickly at the MLB level.  

Following an outstanding spring training, Sam Travis (1B, BOS) only recorded  173 AB (.272 BA, 6 HR) at AAA-Pawtucket before a torn ACL ended his season. We profiled Travis a couple of weeks ago in this space, and with health he should make his MLB debut sometime in 2017. Even with his lower ceiling, teammate Travis Shaw managed to earn $10 last year hitting in a potent Fenway Park lineup. We suspect that Sam Travis could do likewise over the next few years.

Following a promising 2014 rookie season, Kennys Vargas (1B/DH, MIN) buried himself in 2015 with poor pitch selection and a 50% GB% that left him unable to take advantage of outstanding raw power. But something clicked in the 2016 2H, as Vargas posted a 14% bb% (.333 OBP), hiked his FB% to 48%—and was able to club 10 HR (200/152 PX/xPX) in just 152 AB in MIN. The 25-year-old has plenty to prove, particularly in negotiating a sub-70% ct% and the accompanying BA issues. But the skill flashes and HR upside makes Vargas a decent flyer over the next year or two, particularly in OBP leagues.

 

Missed our cut, but worth watching:

Casey Gillaspie (1B, TAM): Switch-hitter with 18 HR, 80 BB and .284 BA over 472 AB between AA and AAA. Swing-and-miss (117 Ks) is balanced out by good power and outstanding pitch selection. Should make his MLB debut in 2017, and have a career.

Ronald Guzman (1B, TEX): 22-year-old Futures Gamer broke through in Double-A (.288 BA, 15 HR, 33 BB) in 375 AB before struggling at AAA-Round Rock over final month. LHB makes plenty of LD contact, has power projection and time. And the Rangers have 1B questions.

Trey Mancini (DH/1B, BAL): Posted second straight 20-HR year, this time between AA and AAA, before going 5-for-14 (3 HR) in BAL. 140 Ks in 546 AB suggest that contact could be problematic for improving 24-year-old with .306 career BA. But he's got Camden Yards going for him.

Matt Olson (1B, OAK): Struggled in hitter-friendly PCL (17 HR, 132 Ks in 464 AB) as a 22-year-old. OAK's 1B AB are up in the air, particularly with mediocre Yonder Alonso's projected 2018 free agency. Keep an eye on this playing time situation. 

Ryan Rua (1B/OF, TEX): Part-timer has likely just seen his career year ($7), fueled by 8 HR and 9 SB in 240 AB. And 57 xPX tells warns to be skeptical of the pop. But TEX may have 1B AB for the taking in a home venue and lineup. Positional versatility helps.

Rowdy Tellez (1B, TOR): 21-year-old LHB surprised skeptics with 23 HR, .297/.387/.530 line (63/92 BB/K) over 432 Double-A AB. Has power and all-fields hit tool; will lack of athleticism hurt as he advances? TOR has 1B AB available.

Dan Vogelbach (1B/DH, SEA): Posted "professional hitter" numbers in Triple-A (.292 BA, 23 HR, 96/101 BB/K in 459 AB), and finally trade out of CHC into opportunity. But observers still doubt physical tools and bat speed vs. MLB pitching. Immediate opportunity flyer; so was Tyler White last year.

 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.