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Position/Role Battles: The Cubs' First Baseman

Bryan LaHair took an unlikely path to a Major League first-base job.  An unheralded 39th-round draft pick of the Mariners in 2002, LaHair plugged away in the minors for years, putting up solid numbers at the lower levels but stubbing his toe (a .661 OPS in 150 plate appearances) when he got his chance with Seattle in 2008.   The M's let LaHair go, he signed with the Cubs, and proceeded to put up whopping numbers at Triple-A Iowa in both 2010 and 2011. He was called back up to the Majors last September and made the most of his second chance, hitting .288/.377/.508 in 69 plate appearances, a performance that made him Chicago's incumbent first baseman going into the 2012 season.

Great story notwithstanding, Cubs fans were no doubt hoping their new GM would bring Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or another superstar first sacker to town this offseason.  The Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer management team, however, eschewed adding (another) big contract to the Cubs' payroll and instead made a long-term move by acquiring star prospect Anthony Rizzo from the Padres. 

Rizzo is clearly "their guy," as Epstein originally drafted Rizzo in Boston and Hoyer traded for him last year when he was San Diego's GM, but that doesn't mean the Cubs are in any rush to immediately put Rizzo in the everyday lineup.  Hoyer has already stated that Rizzo will begin this year in Triple-A for more seasoning in the wake of his disappointing .181/.281/.242 line in 153 PAs with the Padres last season.

For fantasy purposes, then, we have a clear handcuff situation.  If you're able to draft both LaHair and Rizzo, great.  If not, then the LaHair owner will be nervously checking the Triple-A boxscores to see if Rizzo is on the verge of a callup and the Rizzo owner will be hoping that he doesn't have to stash Rizzo on his bench for too long.  While the situation seems clear on paper, however, judging which player has the more fantasy value in 2012 itself is a bit harder to gauge.

LaHair, 29, is still very much a wild card heading into next year, as one doesn't want to make too much of a September cup of coffee.  Roto Authority's Mike Axisa didn't even give LaHair as much as an honorable mention in his recent first base position rankings.  This said, LaHair's recent minor league success can't be ignored, and Wrigley Field is a great place to play if you're a slugging first baseman.  I'd expect LaHair to at least be able to hit right-handed pitching, with right-handed utilityman Jeff Baker getting some starts against southpaws.

Rizzo is coming off his biggest minor league season yet (a 1.056 OPS 413 PAs for Triple-A Tucson) but those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.  In fact, Rizzo was in a way too successful, as his stint in the PCL gave him some bad swing habits.  Since Hoyer admitted that calling Rizzo up last year "was a mistake," he could take the opposite tack now and give Rizzo an entire season in Triple-A.  It's quite possible that Rizzo might not get the call up to Wrigley until the rosters expand in September, though Cubs fans and media will certainly pressure Hoyer to do if Rizzo is raking in Iowa and LaHair is struggling.

The good news for LaHair is that if he plays well, he won't entirely lose his job in the case of a Rizzo call-up.  LaHair can play both corner outfield spots --- he could split time in left with Alfonso Soriano if Soriano struggles or is injured again, and he could play right field against right-handers, with David DeJesus moving to center to spell Marlon Byrd against a tough righty.  Byrd and DeJesus could also both be midseason trade candidates, opening up a spot for LaHair or possibly prospect Brett Jackson

Fantasy outlook: I'd forecast LaHair for at least 350 plate appearances in 2012.  Given his minor league numbers and his positional versatility, LaHair is not just a placeholder; he carries some quality sleeper potential as a late- or final-round pick in your draft.  You can try to handcuff him with Rizzo if you have the bench space and are willing to wait a potentially long time for Rizzo to arrive in the Majors.  Otherwise, Rizzo could go undrafted and you'll have to brave a waiver-wire frenzy later in the season if he's called up.

Keep an eye on Rizzo's spring numbers, however, since that could set you up for a nice little sell-high tactic.  If Rizzo has a big Spring Training but the Cubs are adamant that he'll start the season in the minors, draft him anyway in your fantasy league.  Then, use the hype and a "oh, the Cubs will call him up soon" line of reasoning to try and deal Rizzo to another fantasy owner for a player who will have a clearer Major League impact right away.  Best-case scenario is that you'll ride the hype to acquire a player who can contribute now, while your opponent wastes a roster spot on a player who's in the minors for months.  The worst-case scenario if, of course, that Rizzo is called up early and starts annihilating Major League pitching...but hey, when are the Cubs ever that lucky?



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