The NL Central figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season. Let’s have a look at how the first basemen shape up.
In this series we are looking at every position in the division to see how each team ranks by player. Each position will be graded by the player expected to start the most games at that position. For pitching, each collective of starters and bullpen arms will be evaluated. At the end, we will take all of the positional rankings and try to predict where each team will finish in the standings. Last week we looked at catchers. This week it’s on to first base.
Anthony Rizzo – CHC
The good news for Rizzo is that he got his wish of not having to play as many games last year. The bad news (good if you’re a Cardinal fan) is that it came at the expense of the Cubs making a deep postseason run.
Rizzo also had somewhat of a down year. I say that rather tongue in cheek, because a down year by Rizzo would be a career year for most players. He remains one of the best first basemen in the game.
Rizzo’s slash line of .283/.376/.470 was more than solid. For Rizzo, 2018 marked the first time in five years he hit less than 30 HR and produced a WAR less than 4.0. Still, his 25 HR and 2.9 WAR are still more than respectable, as was his 125 wRC+.
While his power numbers were down, there’s no reason to believe he will repeat his .187 ISO when he holds a career .214 mark. In other words, Rizzo rakes and that won’t change.
Defensively, Rizzo was once again among the best in the game as he earned his second career Gold Glove award, tying with Freddy Freeman of Atlanta for the honor. Rizzo is more than just a hitter. He is the complete package. He’s the kind of ball player every team would like to build around.
There is no denying greatness. Rizzo is great at what he does. This grade was an easy A+. The NL Central is stacked at first base, and Rizzo easily sits in the top tier of first basemen in the game.
Joey Votto – CIN
Joey Votto is another outstanding player at a very deep position within the division. The career long Red has been through the best and worst of times in Cincinnati. This may be the year they begin to truly turn things around. Votto is foundational to that happening.
In a trend that seems to be happening league wide among first basemen, Votto saw his power numbers drop dramatically in 2018. He only managed 12 HR with a .131 ISO. Whether it was age catching up (he is 35) or just an aberration is yet to be seen.
Votto still slashed an impressive .284/.417/.419 and put up a 131 wRC+. In addition, his 3.5 WAR was good enough for fifth best among first basemen across both leagues. Even at this stage in his career, Votto remains very good.
There are zero questions about Votto defensively. 2018 saw him put up solid defensive numbers again en route to being named a Gold Glove finalist. With a Gold Glove already, Votto remains a very good defender.
The drop in power is troubling, if only because of his age. Still, everything else about Votto remains strong. This earns him a solid A grade. If the power returns this year, bump that up another notch to A+.
Jesus Aguilar – MIL
Few people saw Aguilar coming in 2018 despite his strong 2017 in limited action. Aguilar’s play was a big part of the reason the Brewers surprised everyone to win the NL Central title last season.
Aguilar only needed less than 50% more at bats to double his offensive numbers in 2018 over 2017. His 35 HR, 80 runs, and 108 RBI were all at least twice the previous year’s numbers and in only 255 more at bats (566 over 311).
What’s even more impressive is that Aguilar accomplished it all with a nearly 30 point drop in BABIP! His overall batting average increased and his .274/.352/.539 slash line all represented improved marks.
Why the sudden improvement? Aguilar struck out less, walked more, and began pulling the ball more. His ISO increased from .240 to .264 and he produced a wRC+ of 134! It all translated to a 3.1 WAR. Short story? Aguilar can hit.
Aguilar was also solid defensively with a +6 DRS, 1.1 UZR/150, and only committed four errors all season. All in all, Aguilar looks like a complete player. The only real knock on him right now is that he’s a late bloomer at 28 and has only done it for one season.
Aguilar will have to keep up the torrid pace he set last year to remain among the game’s elite at first base. His season was also a tale of two halves. Aguilar produced a wRC+ of 160 over the first half, but only 101 for the second half. Was he tired? Did the league figure him out? Only time will tell.
Aguilar settles in nicely with a grade of B+ only because of the lack of a track record and his simply average second half. If he Can put together a complete season, we’ll be looking at an A+ by the time September gets here.
Josh Bell – PIT
Bell’s 2018 is a microcosm of the Pirates as a whole last season. He was decent, but not nearly good enough. After a strong sophomore campaign in 2017 that saw Bell slug 26 HR, he only managed twelve in 2018.
Not to sound like a broken record, but the culprit was a drop in power. Bell has never profiled as a power hitting first baseman. In that regard, his 2017 was a welcome surprise for the Pirates. As should have been expected though, Bell’s ISO took a 60 point hit and landed south of his career average.
Bell is a hitter though, and has always hit for a decent average. That’s just not going to be good enough from a premium power position, especially in a division where every other team now boasts an elite bat in that spot. Bell will have to improve to grade out higher.
Defensively it was even worse for Bell. His -9 DRS and -6.2 UZR/150 were both easily the worst in the division. That is, if you account for the Cardinals’ big offseason acquisition. Bell looked mostly lost last year both at the dish and in the field. It’s something Pirates fans are hoping he can learn from.
Bell’s underwhelming offense coupled with his woeful defense grade him out at D+, and that might even be generous. Still, he’s young, has the talent, and he can mostly only go up from here.
Paul Goldschmidt – STL
The St. Louis Cardinals made the splash of the offseason when they fleeced Arizona for Goldy by shipping them spare parts. The perennial All-Star and MVP candidate makes an already solid offense look absolutely lethal.
Goldy started 2018 historically slow. He was still sporting a batting average of less than .200 near the end of May with only 7 HR on the year. What he did from that point forward was nothing less than amazing.
Goldy finished the year with a slash line of .290/.389/.533. He slugged out 33 homers and produced a 145 wRC+. It all translated to 5.1 WAR, proving once again that Goldy is still the best first baseman in the game.
Goldschmidt also remains a good defensive player. He posted a +6 DRS at first base last season. While he was not in the Gold Glove conversation in 2018, he already owns three of them.
First base is another position where the NL Central is deep. Goldschmidt is clearly the best of the bunch and grades out easily as an A+.
First Base Grade Recap
This is another strong and deep crop of ball players owned by the NL Central. It is a position of impact bats and solid defenders. Here’s how they rank:
STL – A+
CHC – A+
CIN – A
MIL – B+
PIT – D+
Check back next week as we continue our look at the NL Central landscape with second basemen. If you would like to see other installments of this series, look for the links below:
NL Central 1B| Viewing Now