If At First . . .

Clubs have plenty of first baseman to choose from this year

Logan White saw James Loney hitting and pitching for Elkins High in suburban Houston, like all the other scouts.

The industry consensus held that while Loney had potential with the bat, he was a better prospect on the mound. Baseball America ranked him No. 46 among draft prospects that year, listing him as a lefthanded pitcher. But White liked Loney at the plate as much, if not more, than he liked him on the mound.

White was in charge of his first draft as the Dodgers' scouting director. Here he was considering not only taking Loney as a position player instead of a pitcher—going against the industry consensus—but he also was going to take a first baseman in the first round.

If White was trying to blend in with his fellow scouting directors, drafting Loney as a first baseman would be the last thing he should have done.

"One thing I'd always been told was that taking a high school first baseman early was not a good bet," says White, who started scouting in the late 1980s with the Mariners and crosschecked for the Padres and Orioles prior to joining the Dodgers. "But I'd crosschecked Adrian Gonzalez, and I had crosschecked Derek Lee with the Padres. I had a history with similar guys I liked, and a few things separated those guys.

Yonder Alonso
"Gonzalez and Loney were alike in that to take a first baseman that high, you have to absolutely believe in the bat, both hitting for average and for power. And then those guys really I thought all looked like potential Gold Glove defenders. Loney was like Lee in that both are good athletes with plus arms. In fact, with Loney, it was always in the back of my mind that if he didn't make it as a hitter, we could always put him on the mound."

In other words, it takes a unique set of circumstances to make a first baseman a first-round pick. And that's what makes this year's class of first basemen unique.

The old draft adage is that teams take what the draft gives them. This draft has hitters, and most of the nation's top hitters who are draft-eligible play first base. The significant exceptions—Florida State catcher Buster Posey, California prep catcher Kyle Skipworth, Georgia shortstop Gordon Beckham and (unrelated) Georgia prep shortstop Tim Beckham—all play middle-of-the-diamond positions. The other exception, Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, is the draft's No. 1 talent.

First basemen aren't traditionally the most coveted prospects when it comes to the draft, but this chart shows that early picks on first basemen can pay off. It's notable that many of these players weren't primarily first basemen when they were drafted, perhaps indicating that it's the premium bat, not the position, that's most important when trying to project major league success.
Team Starting 1B Draft round, Year
Arizona Conor Jackson 1st, 2003
Atlanta Mark Teixeira 1st, 2001 (Rangers)
Baltimore Kevin Millar NDFA, 1993 (Marlins)
Boston Kevin Youkilis 8th, 2001
Chicago (NL) Derrek Lee 1st, 1993 (Padres)
Chicago (AL) Paul Konerko 1st, 1995 (Dodgers)
Cincinnati Joey Votto 2nd, 2002
Cleveland Ryan Garko 3rd, 2003
Colorado Todd Helton 1st, 1995
Detroit Miguel Cabrera [Venezuela, 1999 (Marlins)]
Florida Mike Jacobs 38th, 1999 (Mets)
Houston Lance Berkman 1st, 1997
Kansas City Billy Butler 1st, 2004
Los Angeles (AL) Casey Kotchman 1st, 2001
Los Angeles (NL) James Loney 1st, 2002
Milwaukee Prince Fielder 1st, 2002
Minnesota Justin Morneau 3rd, 1999
New York (AL) Jason Giambi 2nd, 1992 (Athletics)
New York (NL) Carlos Delgado [Puerto Rico, 1988 (Jays)]
Oakland Daric Barton 1st, 2003 (Cardinals)
Philadelphia Ryan Howard 5th, 2001
Pittsburgh Adam LaRoche 29th, 2000 (Braves)
St. Louis Albert Pujols 13th, 1999
San Diego Adrian Gonzalez 1st, 2000 (Marlins)
San Francisco Rich Aurilia/Dan Ortmeier 24th, 1992 (Rangers)/3rd, 2002
Seattle Richie Sexson 24th, 1993 (Indians)
Tampa Bay Carlos Pena 1st, 1998 (Rangers)
Texas Ben Broussard 2nd, 1999 (Reds)
Toronto Lyle Overbay 18th, 1999 (Diamondbacks)
Washington Nick Johnson 3rd, 1996 (Yankees)
The next hitters on most teams' draft boards might just all be first basemen. The group starts with Florida prep first baseman Eric Hosmer, who like Loney could be a pitcher (with a mid-90s fastball) but who has such present strength and hitting ability that he's the high school first baseman who has first-round talent. His signability remained in question as the draft approached because he has a strong commitment to Arizona State and is advised by the Scott Boras Corp.

The college group includes Miami's Yonder Alonso, California's David Cooper, Arizona State's Ike Davis and Brett Wallace, and South Carolina's Justin Smoak. The switch-hitting Smoak leads that group, with Davis (who can play the corner outfield spots) and Wallace (the Sun Devils' third baseman this season) the only ones who possibly could move off first base. A second group of solid college first basemen with upside includes Wake Forest's Allan Dykstra, Wright State's Jeremy Hamilton and Long Beach State's Shane Peterson.

"You can only draft what's available," said one American League scouting director. "This year, that's first basemen; there's not much of anything else available, at least as far as hitters. The guys who can do more than that will go early, and then there are really no other college bats other than those first baseman that people are really getting excited about."

Go Get 'Em Early

Teams that get those top hitters should be excited, because many major league first basemen come from the first round of the draft. Out of current big league starters at the position, nearly half of them—13 out of the 30 big league starters—were drafted in the first round (see chart). That list includes several players, such as Mark Teixeira (third base), Daric Barton and Paul Konerko (catcher), and Lance Berkman (outfield), who were drafted at other positions, though only Berkman among those players has been a regular anywhere but at first base in the majors.

That leaves eight first basemen drafted in the first round who have done what the likes of Alonso, Cooper and Smoak are trying to do: play first base in college, get drafted in the first round and become big league regulars at the position. All of them have one thing in common—their best tool is their bat.

"The profile is part of the equation. Most of these guys, if not all of them, fit the profile," an AL front-office official said. "The hardest thing to do is to gain conviction in the hit grade. All these guys, well, it's hard to give plus hit grades to players in high school or college, but they have a chance to be above-average hitters, and it looks like it's harder to get above-average hitters after the first 10 or 20 picks."

The profile of a championship-caliber first baseman hasn't changed much over the years, and the scouts and executives contacted for this story believe the hit and power tools remain at the top of the profile.

But that was not necessarily evident in the 2007 playoffs. The eight playoff teams featured just three starters at first base who hit more than 20 homers (Cleveland's Ryan Garko, Philadelphia's Ryan Howard and the Cubs' Lee) and only one, Howard, who fit the true slugger profile, mashing 47 homers.

"The tools at first base always will be power and hitting," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Defense is third. I don't think that has changed."

What has changed is how GMs build teams, and many first basemen who fill the profile are too expensive. Howard is the perfect example, as his MVP award in 2006 and fine follow-up season earned him an arbitration-awarded salary of $10 million for 2008. Players like Howard are hard to find but also hard to pay, so clubs have started to look for inexpensive alternatives at first base. Homegrown players from the draft are one answer.

Over the last decade, draft history has held, as first basemen in the first round have been few and far between. Three times a first baseman hasn't even been selected in the first round, with the wait dragging until the 60th pick in 2004. The success of those picks has been very hit and miss as well, with the run from 2003-06 looking particularly weak. This chart considers the first true professional first baseman selected in each draft—which might be contrary to the position they played as amateurs.
Year First Selection, School Drafted by Overall Pick
1998 Carlos Pena, Northeastern Rangers 10th
Only 1B taken in first round, finally found success with Rays.
1999 Chris Duncan, HS—Tucson Cardinals 46th
It took awhile, but Duncan has become productive—as an outfielder.
2000 Adrian Gonzalez, HS—Chula Vista, Calif. Marlins 1st
Seen as a budget pick, Gonzalez became a good all-around performer.
2001 Casey Kotchman, HS—Seminole, Fla. Angels 13th
Finally fulfilling his long-seen potential this season.
2002 Prince Fielder, HS—Melbourne, Fla. Brewers 7th
Great year for 1B, with James Loney going 12 picks after Fielder.
2003 Michael Aubrey, Tulane Indians 11th
Back injuries have short-circuited his bat and his value.
2004 Mike Ferris, Miami (Ohio) Cardinals 60th
As big a bust as you can get; never hit and already has been released.
2005 Henry Sanchez, HS—San Diego Twins 39th
No 1B in first round, and Sanchez has been hurt and performed poorly.
2006 Cody Johnson, HS—Lynn Haven, Fla. Braves 24th
Playing LF in the minors, his bat has been slow to develop.
2007 Beau Mills, Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) Indians 13th
Matt LaPorta went six picks earlier, but has played solely OF as a pro.
Another answer is to make up for less power at first base by finding it elsewhere. It's not a new idea; the Angels paired Rod Carew with slugging second baseman Bobby Grich in the late 1970s, and the Cubs had Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace together on the right side of the infield for more than a decade. Both clubs won division titles with those duos.

Last year, the Diamondbacks won the National League West despite getting modest power production from Conor Jackson at first (15 homers, .467 slugging). Veteran Tony Clark chipped in with 17 in a part-time role, and nine Diamondbacks hit double figures in homers, led by center fielder Chris Young. In Cleveland, Garko hit 21 as a cost-effective solution at first base for Shapiro, complementing an offense that also had three 20-homer hitters at middle-of-the-diamond positions: catcher (Victor Martinez, 25), shortstop (Jhonny Peralta, 21) and center field (Grady Sizemore, 24).

Strong Recent History

For some clubs, having a lefthanded hitter is part of the profile, and all of the premier players available at the top of the '08 draft class happen to be lefthanded hitters. But the scouts and executives contacted for this story didn't put too much stock in avoiding righthanded-hitting first basemen, and the game's top player at the position, Albert Pujols, bats righthanded.

This year's class does include some players who could increase their value by playing other positions. Dykstra and Wallace played most of this season at third base for their college clubs. While most scouts believe both should move across the diamond in pro ball, there are clubs that will send Wallace out at third base, comparing him to 2007 first-rounder Beau Mills. Wallace had made just eight errors for the Sun Devils through 50 games.

Meanwhile, his Arizona State teammate Davis has moved to first base this season from the outfield. While he's a below-average runner, Davis should be able to play outfield in pro ball due to his strong arm, as long as he's paired with a center fielder who can cover plenty of ground to compensate for his lack of range. Long Beach State's Peterson also could move to an outfield corner; like Davis he hits 90 mph off the mound as a pitcher and he's athletic enough to handle a corner spot.

Finding the middle-of-the-diamond players in the draft who can play center field will be harder than finding a corner bat this year. And White, for one, believes that this year's huge crop of first basemen could become more common, not less, in ensuing drafts.

"This could be a trend," White said as he boarded a plane on a Saturday morning during May's busy scouting season. "With the way the amateur game is in this country with select teams, and more kids playing year-round, these guys are getting more hitting instruction. We are seeing more young kids who can really hit. At the same time, we're not getting all of the athletes playing baseball.

"I just think we're going to see more and more lefthanded hitters, and more and more corner guys."

White didn't imply that was necessarily a bad thing. And this year's draft class being so heavy in first basemen isn't scaring away clubs either.

"We've all been watching these guys for a number of years, since they were in high school," a National League scouting director said. "I'm sure we feel like we have a little more feel for what they can do. There's no doubt there are some good bats in this group.

"You go around the major leagues over the years, there have been a ton of good college first basemen—Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Berkman, Helton. So I don't there's going to be a lot of hesitation to draft a first baseman high."