Votto leads Top 10 first basemen into 2018

MLB Network’s “Top 10 Right Now” series ranks Major League Baseball’s top players at each position headed into 2018, with two episodes airing each Saturday night from Jan. 13 through Feb. 10. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello participated in the show, and as each position is aired, we’ll share his list along with the reasoning behind it. Rankings were compiled with a combination of subjective and analytical data, and no, batting average and RBIs never matter.

Position overview: First base is somehow both top-heavy (there’s a clear Big Four, maybe Five) and deep, as more than two-thirds of starting first basemen had a reasonable case to make to get on this list. That means that the “just missed” list is deeper than the actual Top 10, making this a particularly difficult position to rank.

Eligibility notes: Players are eligible only at one position, and several players who saw time at first base in 2017 were considered in other spots for these rankings, which primarily affected Rhys Hoskins (considered a left fielder).

Before we get to my list, here is The Shredder’s list — the official ranking of Top 10 Right Now — for comparison. This list was created by the MLB Network research team and is to be considered entirely separate from my list.

1. Joey Votto
2. Freddie Freeman
3. Paul Goldschmidt 
4. Anthony Rizzo
5. Cody Bellinger
6. Jose Abreu
7. Edwin Encarnacion
8. Brandon Belt
9. Matt Carpenter
10. Carlos Santana

Petriello’s list

1. Joey Votto, Reds
2. Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
3. Freddie Freeman, Braves
4. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

Group this list however you like, in any order. There’s no wrong answer here. You might prefer Freeman first and Votto fourth, and that’s fine. These are four of the truly elite stars in baseball, and they have been for years. Make your choice. You can’t be wrong.

Video: Sheldon on Votto finishing second for NL MVP

We went with Votto by a hair, because his all-around excellence is overwhelming. He didn’t just lead the Majors with a .454 OBP, he had a top-10 slugging percentage, too. That made him the third-best hitter overall on a rate basis behind Mike Trout and Aaron Judge. He even made improving his defense a preseason priority, and he did just that, moving his Defensive Runs Saved total from minus-14 in 2016 to plus-11 in ’17. 

Goldschmidt (.297/.404/.563, 142 wRC+) just put up his sixth straight high-quality season, and he was even better over the first five months (.319/.428/.607, 159 wRC+) before playing through an elbow issue led to a down September. He’s also stolen 71 bases over the past three years and adds strong defense, making him a worthy entrant in what’s really a four-way tie.

Throw Freeman in that mix as well, though he got there in a different way. For five straight years, he’s had a wRC+ between 130 and 150 (meaning he’s 30-50 points better than average each year), and he was off to smashing start (.341/.461/.748, 203 wRC+) before he broke his left wrist in May. He couldn’t maintain that pace when he came back, but that’s unfair; no one could.

Finally, there’s Rizzo, our top first baseman on this list last year. He’s “fourth” here through very little fault of his own, because he had essentially the same year he has every single year. Rizzo hit 32 homers in 2014, then 31, 32, and 32 the next three years. His OBP has been between .385 and .392 each of those four seasons; he’s rated as a strong defender each season, too. There’s nothing not to like here.

Video: CHC@NYM: Statcast™ measures Rizzo’s 462-ft. home run

5. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

There’s only one reason that Bellinger, who smashed 39 home runs last year while taking home all 30 first-place votes in the National League Rookie of the Year Award balloting, isn’t included in the top four: Track record. While the others have been stars for years, Bellinger spent most of the first month of 2017 in the Minors before arriving on April 25. It’s enough to bump him to the second tier — for now, anyway.

That difference might not last long, however. Bellinger looks like an elite defensive first baseman, and in his first year, he showed excellent consistency. Just look at his wOBA numbers in three important splits, won’t you?

Home: .380 / Away: .380
First half: .389 / Second: .369
Vs. lefties: .374 / Vs. righties: .383

Bellinger isn’t even 23 until June, and he could easily be much higher on this list next year.

6. Edwin Encarnacion, Indians
7. Carlos Santana, Phillies
8. Jose Abreu, White Sox

This next group, all in their 30s, keeps on putting up strong hitting seasons year after year. They’re so consistent in their own ways that it often seems like they get overlooked, yet there they are, constantly putting up production.

Video: SF@CWS: Abreu hammers a triple to notch the cycle

Encarnacion is 35 and more a designated hitter than a first baseman, but he qualifies here for the purposes of this list, and he remains one of baseball’s consistently elite hitters, just as he has for a decade. He’s hit 34 or more homers each year since 2012, and he posted a .350 or higher OBP and a .500 or higher slugging percentage for each of the past six years, and it’s not like any of that changed in his first year in Cleveland: .258/.377/.504, 132 wRC+, 38 homers. The age and lack of defensive value is going to hurt him on this list sooner than later, but not yet.

Santana, formerly a catcher and briefly a third baseman, proved himself to be an increasingly adept defensive first baseman in recent years, and he’ll need to continue doing so, now that he’s signed with the Phillies. Like Encarnacion, he’s consistent, with an OBP between .351 and .377 every full season of his career, dating back to 2011. We rank him slightly below Encarnacion because the power upside isn’t the same (he’s never slugged .500), but his ’17 line of .259/.363/.455 (117 wRC+) is right on track with his career averages.

Abreu had the same hard-hit percentage (45.5) as Bellinger or Giancarlo Stanton, believe it or not, and he’s logged at least 620 plate appearances in each of his four big league seasons. Like Santana, his 2017 line (.304/.354/.552, 138 wRC+) almost exactly mirrors his career line (.301/.359/.524, 138 wRC+).

9. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers

Cabrera is going to be remembered as one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but for 2018, it’s extremely difficult to know what to make of him. After 13 great years, is one poor injury-plagued year (.249/.329/.399, 91 wRC+) enough to give up on him? At 35 years old, is his aching back the beginning of the end? What do we make of the fact that no hitter in baseball had a larger gap between his expected Statcast™ outcomes and his actual production? Or of home/road splits that make no sense? (He hit .288/.340/.493 for a 116 wRC+ at home and .213/.319/.308 for a 69 wRC+ away from Detroit.)

It’s all enough to make us bump him down (he was No. 2 last year) but not off. This could still go either way.

Video: Must C Clutch: Cabrera’s walk-off lifts Tigers

10. Joey Gallo, Rangers

There’s perhaps no more divisive figure on this list than Gallo, who hit just .209 and has a .201 career average. That’s a deal-breaker for many people, but not here, because batting average really does not matter when evaluating a player.

Instead, look at a slugger who mashed 41 homers in his age-23 year, becoming one of just six players this century to do so. (The other names are impressive: Bryce Harper, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, Prince Fielder, Troy Glaus). Look at a .333 OBP and .537 SLG that feeds into a 123 wRC+ that made him an equal or better hitter to Alex Bregman and Francisco Lindor, and look at a first baseman who is athletic enough to play third and left, too. If he’s healthy, he’s going to smash. Even in a world where everyone is hitting home runs, that still matters.

Just missed (in no order): Greg Bird, Yankees; Matt Olson, A’s; Eric Hosmer, Royals; Matt Carpenter, Cardinals; Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals; Justin Bour, Marlins; Yonder Alonso, Indians; Brandon Belt, Giants; Yuli Gurriel, Astros; Justin Smoak, Blue Jays, Logan Morrison, free agent

The sheer size of the “just missed” list here — there are 11 names mentioned — tells you a lot about the depth of the position. The “just missed” list doesn’t even include Josh BellEric ThamesJoe MauerWil Myers or Chris Davis, and while you could probably argue for any one of those names over the ones in the just missed list, the point is, there’s something like 25 good, interesting first basemen right now.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

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