You know the drill by now. If you don’t know, now you know. We’ll now look at a graph of projected team WAR at first base, reflect briefly, then reflect verbosely.
To reflect briefly: It will all be over soon, Phillies fans. You’ve been great.
We’ve got four distinct tiers here. The “no worries here” tier, which features six star first baseman and a seventh star pairing, the “average-or-better” tier, which features eight solid regulars and a possibly questionable projection, the “meh” tier, which features plenty of platoons and sadness, and the “Ryan Howard” tier, which features only sadness.
To reflect verbosely:
So you wanna build the perfect first baseman? Well of course, we start with the bat. If first basemen have one job, it’s to slug, and so our perfect first baseman’s gotta slug. Paul Goldschmidt just led all first baseman in slugging, so our first selection will be his power. But we don’t just want power, we want a keen eye and the willingness to take a walk — the kind of skills that perpetuate a high on-base percentage and feel like they’ll age well. We might be inclined to take Joey Votto’s discipline, but Goldschmidt’s actually got the exact same approach, so we’ll make it easy and take his eye, too. But we want a first baseman, not a designated hitter, and we want a first baseman who will last, so we’re gonna need some defense. Last year, Goldschmidt’s tDEF (my simple man’s go-to runs saved metric — just an average of UZR, DRS and FRAA) was +12, four runs better than any of his peers. He actually beat the first-base positional adjustment. So let’s take Goldschmidt’s glove. And because we’re greedy, we want a first baseman who can run, too, and no first baseman even come close to running like Goldschmidt.
What’s the perfect first basemen look like? Paul Goldschmidt’s bat, Paul Goldschmidt’s eye, Paul Goldschmidt’s glove and Paul Goldschmidt’s legs. Diamondbacks are doing alright here.
Paul Goldschmidt may be the perfect first baseman, but Anthony Rizzo is just the left-handed version without as much speed. Rizzo’s mix of power and ability to control the strike zone is unprecedented in today’s MLB — Albert Pujols was the only other qualified hitter last year to post an isolated slugging percentage over .200 while striking out in 15% of plate appearances or fewer. Even then, Pujols doesn’t walk nearly as much as he used to, and Rizzo’s walk rate was in the triple digits for a third consecutive year. Rizzo is truly a special hitter, and will steal a Gold Glove from Goldschmidt one of these days.
|Ivan De Jesus||28||.246||.304||.347||.287||-0.8||0.0||0.0||0.0|
Remember how people who watched Ichiro take batting practice in his heyday said he could hit 20 homers a year if he wanted to? The fun thing about Joey Votto is it feels like he could do that, too, except with any part of his game. There might not be a player more in-tune with his swing, more curious about the game, more open to questioning himself and embracing change than Votto. He just feels in control. If Votto wanted to troll everyone and hit a bunch of singles in a quest for 200-plus hits, I think he could do it. If Votto wanted to hit 37 homers again, I think he could do it. Hell, I kinda think if Votto wanted a .500 OBP he could do it. Do you even realize how close he was last year? I bet you didn’t. But any of those specific goals would detract from other parts of Votto’s game, and the best version of Votto is the one that does it all — sprays the ball around, hits for power, gets on base more than anyone in baseball. That’s the one we’ve got. Except now I kinda wanna see Troll Votto try and break a record.
Miguel Cabrera’s decline might be underway. In 2014, the power dropped to its lowest mark since his rookie season way back in 2003. Then, last year, he hit the disabled list for the first time his career, spening six weeks on the shelf thanks to a strained calf. The power dropped further, and he wound up with an isolated slugging percentage below .200 for the first time in his career. Don’t get me wrong, Cabrera is still one of the very best hitters in the game; his wRC+ last year was the same as his Triple Crown year, and I don’t think it would surprise anyone if he suddenly returned to 2013 superhuman levels. But, for each of the last two years, we’ve seen proof that Cabrera is indeed a human, and that’s something that’d been hard to fathom for the better part of the last decade. Miggy is still elite for now. The eight-year contract extension that just kicked in? Don’t worry about that little guy.
For a while there, it looked like the Orioles were going to wind up in the bottom half of this post, but then they were able to bring back Chris Davis, and thank goodness they did, because I bet the city of Baltimore would’ve been devastated over their placement on the annual FanGraphs positional power rankings for first baseman. Last year, Davis cured his weird “my line drives aren’t hits anymore what do i do now” non-problem problem from 2014 and went back to being one of the most imposing hitters in the game. Chris Davis makes hitting look easy.
Behind Davis are a couple of Slim Shady imitators, more flawed versions of Davis who likely won’t see much time at first base. Mark Trumbo, much to the chagrin of everyone but the opposition, will be a man in the outfield this year, and if Pedro Alvarez took “leave your glove at home” too literally when he signed up to be a designated hitter, it might not be the worst thing in the world. Long as Davis remains healthy, he’ll play most every game at first base. The three of them combined could hit 100 homers.
Freddie Freeman went from “a key player on the contending Braves” to “one of the few bright spots left” to “the only bright spot” in a hurry. The Braves don’t even need anyone to operate the spotlight this year. The previously durable and prolific Freeman was banged up for much of the 2015 season with lingering wrist issues, but he encouragingly kept his power — often the first to go with a lame wrist. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the wrist is already bothering Freeman again in the spring, and the longer this goes on, the less likely it seems to be that it won’t hurt his production. The devil’s advocate to that bad news: it literally doesn’t matter what happens on the field for the Braves this year at all. The devil’s advocate to the devil’s advocate: but what if the Braves want to trade Freeman? Yeah, good point.
The depth behind Freeman is the man formerly known as Brohio. Brogeorgia doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Neither does Nick Swisher’s name being announced over a loudspeaker these days.
It’s a shame when a player struggles to reach his full potential due to wrist and thumb injuries, like Belt had in 2011 and 2014. It’s downright frightening when someone suffers head trauma, as Belt has each of the last two seasons. At this point, things move beyond baseball, and at the risk of sounding overdramatic in a silly power rankings post, the most important thing is Brandon Belt’s livelihood. A concussion derailed Belt’s 2014 and another one ended his 2015. Belt is supremely talented; his mix of power, speed, and defense from the first-base position is like a really poor man’s Paul Goldschmidt, and even through all the ailments, he’s never failed to produce. Just, please stay away now, concussions. Nobody wants you here.
When Belt needs his time off, Buster Posey can slide over to first base, and reports from San Francisco are that Posey’s defense at first has improved from passable to plus over the years, which bodes well for the present and the future in San Francisco. The real nice thing is that when Posey trades the big, weird mitt for the other, different big, weird mitt, a more-than-competent replacement in Andrew Susac fills Posey’s shoes. It’s a swap the Giants can comfortably make. Am I writing about catchers now, in a post about first baseman?
|Scott Van Slyke||63||.249||.333||.422||.329||0.8||-0.1||0.7||0.2|
Back to first base. Adrian Gonzalez’s time in Los Angeles has been the pinnacle of consistency. In three years, his plate appearances haven’t varied by more than 19. His wRC+ hasn’t varied by more than five percentage points. His WARs have all been within half a win. Hell, even his ground ball and fly ball rates haven’t budged. Gonzalez is aging, but you wouldn’t know it. He’s started relying more on the pull field for his power production, which could be a sign that he’s aware of that undeniable aging, but for now, the end result is the same, and it’s a good one.
Backing up Gonzalez — and the entire Dodgers outfield — is baseball’s very best backup. Peep that projected wOBA. It’s barely different from Gonzalez. Los Angeles hopes Gonzalez doesn’t go down, but if he happens to drop like the rest of the flies at Los Angeles’ Spring Training complex this offseason, at least they know a guy.
Is Lucas Duda the most underappreciated player in baseball? I don’t know. You tell me. Actually, don’t, because you don’t know either, because it’s an impossible question. But yeah, he’s pretty darn good, and maybe he’s not appreciated enough; that throw in the World Series certainly won’t do him any favors in the “do irrational fans on Twitter like this player or not” department. Duda fits the mold of the player whom casual fans underrate — good on-base percentage, good power, low batting average. If you get wrapped up in batting average, you might not think Lucas Duda is very great. If you get wrapped up in batting average, though, just know that you should know better.
Wilmer Flores hasn’t played first in the past, but he’s worked on it this spring with help from Keith Hernandez and seems ready to go as New York’s super-utility infielder. While Flores’ glove work at shortstop is less than ideal, it stands to reason that someone who can handle shortstop at the major-league level shouldn’t have many problems with the glovework at first. The scoops and stretches may be another story, but Flores’ athleticism and bat against lefties could serve as a nice spell for Duda and the Mets.
On one hand, you might view Hosmer, one-time super-prospect, as something of a disappointment. He’s been an actual disappointment in two of his five major-league seasons, and even last year’s career year resulted in “just” 18 homers and 3.5 WAR. That’s a fine season, but it’s not quite the bat we’d thought we might see after Hosmer ran a .303 ISO in Double-A and was named the Best Power Prospect in the Carolina League by Baseball America in 2010. But if your standards for top prospects are “superstar or bust,” then you need to readjust your expectations, because Hosmer’s a quality starter on a championship team, and from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like he adds unquantifiable value to his team with his leadership and presence. If Brandon Belt was a really poor man’s Paul Goldschmidt, then Eric Hosmer is Brandon Belt with less power. How far can we keep this going?
#11 White Sox
Jose Abreu can hit a fastball, alright. Jose Abreu can hit the rest of the pitches, too. The big Cuban’s sophomore showing wasn’t quite as impressive as the first, but Abreu is still an elite bat with plenty of upside. He shifted his approach last year, becoming more selective and putting the bat to the ball more often. The walks and power dipped, and you’d like to see the ball go in the air more often, but Abreu was still a top-30 hitter last season, and is expected to keep the exact same wRC+. The fall from a .964 rookie OPS can be pretty graceful.
The season-ending injury suffered by Mark Teixeira last August was a fractured shin. I don’t know what a fractured shin feels like, but it sounds brutal, and it’s one surefire way for a 36-year-old with a laundry list of existing medical concerns to put a real damper on an otherwise feel-good comeback story. Teixeira had his best year at the plate since his 20s and the highest isolated slugging percentage of his career, and yet now we’re again met with uncertainty.
When Greg Bird had to have season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this year, it didn’t seem like a major blow to the 2016 Yankees, seeing as Teixeira is the everyday first baseman and Alex Rodriguez the everyday designated hitter. And it’s true — as long as those two guys are on the roster, the Yankees didn’t have room for Bird. But what are the chances those two remain on the roster together for 162 games? This group would look a hell of a lot more promising with Bird in the mix.
Contenders don’t let contenders play Dustin Ackley at first base. On second thought, yeah they do. As a rival contender, that’s exactly the sort of thing you’d want your opposition to do.
#13 Red Sox
Remember earlier, when I talked about the “average-or-better” tier which featured a potentially misleading projection? This is the one. I’ve felt like kind of the high man on Hanley for much of the offseason, but even I’ll admit that a .352 wOBA for a 32-year-old coming off a .308 wOBA with his injury history could be seen as bullish, and same with the plus defensive rating at a brand new position, given Hanley’s history of changing positions. For what it’s worth, it feels like a guy who could stick at shortstop for a decade, warranted or not, could make the switch to first base with some ease, and reports out of Boston’s camp have been positive thus far. And, for what it’s worth, Hanley was killing the ball in the first half last year, but a monumental second-half decline coincided with a shoulder injury that ended his season, and the year-end numbers looked ugly.
When Hanley isn’t at first, former Kent State standout Travis Shaw (we’ve gotta rep these guys when we get ’em) will handle the position, though he may wind up preoccupied at the hot corner. Shaw impressed in his rookie season last year and is more of a natural at first base, so at the very least the Red Sox have a nice safety net in case the Hanley experiment goes off the rails again.
The Indians fans on Twitter who just can’t get enough of low-average, high-on base percentage first basemen will love Mike Napoli. Despite a seeming clean bill of health, Napoli started last season in a horrible funk, carrying a .193/.294/.353 slash line into the All-Star break, but recouped his value with second-half numbers that look like they were pulled right from his peak. All season, though, he struggled mightily against right-handed pitching, which doesn’t bode well for the everyday role in which Cleveland has suggested they’ll use him, but the glove stands to provide a major improvement over Carlos Santana, and Cleveland’s stable of left-handed platoon bats means Napoli should be able to get days off against tough righties with Santana in the field.
For the last two years, Joe Mauer has been a below-average bat, and a below-average bat is well below average for first basemen. Mauer last year posted the lowest BABIP since his rookie season and the projections see that coming back toward his career norm, but that’s about all the optimism to be found in Mauer’s game these days. The power looks to be gone, and Mauer just doesn’t strike the ball with the same authority he once had. It still gets sprayed all over the field, just not sprayed as well. Mauer’s position being ranked 15th on this list is perfect — these days, he couldn’t be more average.
Byung-ho Park has the ability to be much more than average, though how much time he’ll spend at first base remains to be seen. Reports have suggested Park could be at least an average defender at first, so maybe we’ve got his time spent in the field here a bit low. And the more time Park actually spends in the field, the higher this projection goes up the list, because there’s no reason to believe the bat won’t translate, and he sure can swing it. Park be nothing if not interesting.
There’s no telling what actually happens at first base in St. Louis this year. I think they’d like to see Matt Adams stay healthy, figure out lefties a bit, and at the very least maximize his opportunities against righties. Adams went 0-for-3 there last year, though, forcing the Cardinals to explore alternatives. One alternative is Matt Holliday getting some real time at first base, an idea long rumored but never realized that is now growing stronger each day. Holliday at first means Tommy Pham in the outfield, which means a more athletic and well-rounded Cardinals team. It wouldn’t be a shock for this to become the regular arrangement at some point this year. And then there’s still Brandon Moss, who can play at first or in the outfield and makes the baseballs go far when he hits them.
The Astros and their fascinating first-base situation present perhaps the most volatile ranking on this list. It all hinges on top prospect A.J. Reed, how long it takes him to get to the bigs and how he performs once he gets there. Which, I guess, means it actually hinges on Jon Singleton, and whether he forces the Astros hand.
Reed can flat-out hit. He’s already projected as the best bat on this depth chart, and the ceiling knows no bounds. There’ve been talks that he might open the season on the 25-man roster, with designated hitter Evan Gattis recovering from hernia surgery, but it seems more likely that the less-esteemed-but-still-interesting Tyler White would be the fill-in for Gattis while Reed spends the necessary amount of time in the minors to delay his service-time clock from ticking too far. It’s a fairly complicated situation with plenty of moving parts, but it might be this simple: the more A.J. Reed, the better chance this position moves up the rankings.
I always figured James Loney would play for the A’s. Made too much sense not to happen. It never actually did, but I guess this will have to do. Alonso plays a hell of a first base, we can give him that. What we can’t give him is a bat. Wait, actually, that’s not a half-bad idea. Has anybody tried that?
The more interesting player here might actually be Canha, a sneakily speedy Rule 5 selection from Colorado who can play the outfield in the corners, showed good pop in the minors and impressed in his 2015 debut. With all the outfielders on Oakland’s 25-man roster, Canha might be relegated to more strict first-base duty, and given Alonso’s history of injury and middling performance, it wouldn’t surprise at all if this were Canha’s job by the All-Star break.
The projections assume Adam Lind will face a mix of left- and right-handed pitching. That shouldn’t be the case. Lind should only face righties, and against righties, Lind is projected for a much more impressive .350 wOBA. Lind shows the most extreme platoon split of any hitter in baseball, and as long as Jesus Montero can pick up his end of the bargain, this could be a pretty nifty situation — niftier than it’s being given credit for here, at least.
When your team isn’t going to be good, might as well hit some dingers, right? The Brewers seem to agree. While they might not be an overly exciting team due to the quality of their play this season, they might be an exciting team if you’re a fan of well-hit baseballs. Just gotta weed through the whiffs. Chris Carter ought to produce plenty of both. Moving from one hitter-friendly ballpark for right-handed sluggers to another, Carter should again be counted on for more than 25 homers and about eight times as many strikeouts, given the opportunities.
#21 Blue Jays
Is Chris Colabello the new Jose Bautista? Damn near 30 and bad? Check. Come to Toronto? Check. Suddenly begin tearing the cover off the ball? Check. Colabello isn’t Bautista — a .411 BABIP and a contact rate that’s still frighteningly low make that easy to see — but Colabello joins a long line of hitters who came to Toronto in the last decade and experienced newfound success at the plate, and whether it’s right or not, it sure makes it easier to buy in.
Colabello’s a liability with the glove and his first-base partner, Justin Smoak, is a switch-hitter who’s more adept in the field, which could limit his opportunities. At the same time, Colabello hasn’t shown an inability to handle right-handed pitching in his career, and if he hits anything like last year, the Blue Jays would be happy to be left without a choice.
When David Ortiz retires after this season, he will officially pass the torch to Prince Fielder as the head of the Designated Hitter Committee. They’ve got uniforms and everything. Fielder, after missing a year due to neck surgery, played just 18 games in the field last year, giving way to Mitch Moreland, who turned in a surprisingly solid season, both at the plate and in the field. The same set-up is expected to continue this season, but Moreland’s got a bit of an injury history, and if he succumbs to those injuries again, it would likely be time for the Joey Gallo show in Texas.
Even if Gallo wouldn’t represent an immediate upgrade over Moreland, he’d certainly make things more interesting. Can Mitch Moreland do this?
Speaking of former star first basemen turned designated hitters, here’s Albert Pujols! Pujols’ transition to a bat-only player isn’t quite as drastic as Fielder’s — he’s mostly doing it out of preservation rather than necessity — but Pujols only played two-thirds of his games in the field last year, and it seems likely that number will only drop from here.
Which means more C.J. Cron. It certainly isn’t the biggest hole in the Angels’ lineup, but it seems like a hole. Cron’s had more than 600 plate appearances in the major leagues now, and he’s barely been a league-average hitter. Cron’s too aggressive to draw any walks, and he doesn’t have enough power to quite make up for the OBP.
How many 25-year-olds go straight from everyday center fielder to everyday first baseman? The answer is ones that should never have been in center field to begin with, and ones that need to do anything they can to keep themselves healthy. The question now is: can Myers’ bat play at first base? It remains to be seen. His prospect status has certainly dimmed since he was the focal point of the James Shields trade (now known as the Wade Davis trade), and the fact that 2014’s wrist injury didn’t go away is worrisome. That being said, when Myers was on the field, he looked a lot more like the 2013 Myers that still had a bright future, so it’s too soon to give up just yet, but Myers’ next successful season will be his first.
Then there’s Brett Wallace, who just had the mini-breakout you didn’t hear about. Sure, it was only 107 plate appearances, but it’s easy to forget Wallace was once a top prospect, too, and hit like one for the first time, with an average north of .300 and an isolated slugging percentage north of .200. Behind those numbers, though, are a .400 BABIP, a 25% HR/FB and a contact rate that would make Russell Branyan proud.
The one thing that seems certain about John Jaso is that when you put him in the lineup against right-handed pitching, he’s going to produce. Over the years, he’s upped his aggression at the plate while maintaining his sky-high walk rate and on-base percentage, and as far as bat-only, left-handed platoon guys go, Jaso’s about as good as it gets. That’s the more certain part. The less certain part is everything else. Will Jaso stay healthy? Can Jaso play a position?
The nice thing is that the Pirates have a pair of right-handed batters to fill in for Jaso when he’s hurt or when there’s a lefty on the mound, and if there’s one thing Michael Morse can do, it’s hit a lefty. When Jung-ho Kang returns from the disabled list, Freese will be relegated to the bench, and if Jaso misses extended time, he becomes the everyday first baseman. Or if the Pirates aren’t comfortable with that, the switch-hitting and baseball-crushing prospect Josh Bell steps in. It might not be the prettiest situation in Pittsburgh, but it’s nice to have options, and it’s nice to have options with easily-optimized strengths.
Ryan Zimmerman moved to first base mostly because he’d become incapable of consistently throwing baseballs across the diamond, but he’d become consistently incapable of throwing baseballs across the diamond due to injury. First base is less demanding, too, and so the real reason Zimmerman moved to first base was health. The move hoped to keep Zimmerman in the lineup more often, but the injury bug bit again, and Zimmerman missed about a third of the season. The silver lining is that Zimmerman showed power we hadn’t seen since his prime. The problem is that for yet another year, there had to be a silver lining at all.
Morrison got really good at Tweeting during those years in Miami when he spent all that time on the disabled list, and last year, the Twitter game conspicuously declined, and it coincided with his first healthy season in five years. The health didn’t lead to much production, though, and at this point Morrison isn’t much more than James Loney with a worse glove and a bit more pop. For now, the real James Loney is still on this team, though I wouldn’t expect to last long.
When Morrison doesn’t play, which should be against every lefty, Steve Pearce will, and just on talent, Pearce is the most interesting player in this table. Unfortunately, Pearce bats from the side of the plate that gets to play less often in these platoon-type scenarios, and so until the Rays figure out how to turn him into a lefty, his value remains limited.
His name is Ben Paulsen. One time, he had this mustache. His name is Ben Paulsen. Then he had this beard. His name is Ben Paulsen. He’s projected to be a replacement-level player. His name is Ben Paulsen. Mark Reynolds will hit some sweet dingers in Coors this year. His name is Ben Paulsen.
For a player receiving the majority of the at-bats for the 29th-ranked first-base team, Justin Bour is actually a somewhat interesting player; it’s Chris Johnson’s negative WAR that’s weighing him down here. Bour’s shown plus power and controls the strike zone well enough to get by, it’s just that his hulking frame makes him more of a designated hitter playing in the wrong league, and he’s unplayable against left-handed pitching.
Johnson is being paid $7.5 million by the cash-strapped Indians this year to not play for them, so that’s all you’ve got to know about that.
Print This Post