NL left thin but with promising talent at first base
While AL is loaded, young sluggers have opportunities to rise
For all the difficult roster moves and lineup decisions that will take place this season, the most challenging one might be made in Kansas City.
Not for the Royals, but for the American League All-Star team, specifically at first base, where Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira, Paul Konerko, Carlos Pena and other potent sluggers play.
But one league's sudden surplus creates the other's deficiency, as the National League is left with a paucity of front-line first basemen. Instead, the NL presents few sure things -- a few aging sluggers and a good number of relatively unproven youngsters with plenty of potential.
As a group, NL first basemen were the only ones to collectively post an on-base percentage of .350 or better and a slugging percentage above .450 last season, putting together a batting line of .270/.350/.451. But Pujols and Fielder were two of the biggest contributors to those numbers, and each has moved to the AL, joining the Angels and Tigers, respectively.
The result is a potential weakening of the league's run production from what had been one of its premier offensive positions.
It leaves Cincinnati's Joey Votto standing at the top. In terms of Wins Above Replacement, Votto was more valuable last year than Fielder or Pujols, according to Fangraphs, and at 28, he's in the prime of his career. Something would have to go awry for Votto -- or extremely well for someone else -- for the 2010 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner to not be the league's starting first baseman at the Midsummer Classic.
Lance Berkman, who will be taking Pujols' spot in St. Louis, won't be far behind Votto if he maintains his excellent 2011 form. But it might be difficult for the soon-to-be 36-year-old to replicate that success without Pujols to protect him, though the Cardinals' lineup is still loaded with talent.
Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, the highest-paid first baseman by average annual salary at age 32, has seen his slugging percentage decline sharply in each of the past two seasons despite impressive home run and RBI totals, and he will likely be out until at least May due to a torn Achilles.
While a few first basemen, like Colorado's Todd Helton, 38, are still providing valuable production, the NL won't be defined at the position by its veterans.
While half of the league's 16 clubs will likely have a first baseman who is age 28 or younger this season or in the near future, many of them are in their early 20s, signaling the arrival of a bona fide youth movement at the position in the NL.
At 28, Gaby Sanchez is the oldest of the group. The 2011 All-Star hasn't posted overwhelming numbers in his first two full seasons, but he has been healthy and consistent and should benefit from an improved Marlins lineup with the addition of Jose Reyes.
Ike Davis might be the strongest breakout candidate, however. Davis, who will turn 25 in March, had an impressive rookie season with the Mets in 2010 but an ankle injury prematurely ended his 2011 season. If he is healthy, Davis projects to be one of the NL's top first basemen and potentially an All-Star. The decision to bring in the Citi Field fences should only work to his advantage.
Freddie Freeman, 22, finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award balloting after batting .282 with a .795 OPS, 21 homers and 76 RBIs last season. Atlanta let him find his way during a rocky April, and he showed his potential throughout three excellent months from May to July.
While Freeman flourished in his Major League debut, Anthony Rizzo struggled with San Diego. Now with the Cubs, the 22-year-old isn't projected to begin the season as Chicago's starting first baseman, but there's little doubt that Rizzo, MLB.com's No. 1 first-base prospect, is the Cubs' future at the position.
Yonder Alonso, MLB.com's No. 2 prospect at first, will replace Rizzo in San Diego. Acquired from the Reds this winter, the 24-year-old is expected to be the Padres' starting first baseman after hitting .330/.398/.545 with five home runs in 88 big league at-bats last year.
Mat Gamel, meanwhile, will have much bigger shoes to fill in Milwaukee. The 26-year-old's Minor League numbers provide plenty of promise, but his big league work thus far hasn't been impressive.
The NL West is home to two young first basemen with eye-popping Minor League statistics: Paul Goldschmidt and Brandon Belt.
Goldschmidt, 24, hit well after being promoted to Arizona last year, knocking 18 of his 39 hits for extra bases, including eight homers.
Belt, who will turn 24 in April, tore through the Minors in 2010, drawing rave reviews that sent expectations soaring when he opened last season as the Giants' starting first baseman. But he struggled with inconsistency and infrequent playing time, posting a .225 average and .718 OPS and spending time back in Triple-A, where he hit .309/.448/.975.
With Aubrey Huff on board and a crowded first-base/corner-outfield mix, Belt likely won't get full-time work in 2012, either. However, like Rizzo with the Cubs, Belt is positioned to be the Giants' future at first base.
Perhaps that's the glass-half-full scenario for the NL as a whole, too. While a vast majority of the current household names at first base now reside in the AL, the NL could very well be developing just as many young sluggers with the potential to take their places.
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.