What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position. The author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.
Jeff’s already covered the catchers, so let’s move to the other end of the defensive spectrum, and look at the position on the field where teams expect the most offense.
There’s a clear top tier, with a few very great hitters at the high end before the drop-off. And then there’s the bottom. This is what the Marlins get for not spending any money. This is what the Phillies get for spending a lot of money very poorly.
Miguel Cabrera is so good that we docked him first base time for injury and some designated hitting, and he’s still number one. There’s some chance that he should be docked further — Victor Martinez shows up here as a better defender, and another year removed from knee surgery, he might actually show better glove at the position. That would dock Cabrera some positional value, but when you’re projected to have the best bat in the league again, you can afford to lose a run here or there. Let’s not talk about his 31-year-old hips, that’s no fun. If those do start to bark, and Martinez is also hurting, Don Kelley can slide over and replacement level at first maybe.
Joey Votto is projected for the third-best offense in baseball, and he’s had better years with the glove than he did last year, so betting on a bit of a bounce back in that department makes him the second-best first baseman in the game. Talking to him last week, he said that the knees feel better a couple years removed from double meniscus surgery, and he’s not yet definitively into the post-30 phase. He’s working hard to improve once again this offseason — more on this later — and he was already so good. If he needs a day off, it’s probably glove man Jack Hannahan either playing first or pushing Todd Frazier to first. If he takes a longer break, maybe Neftali Soto gets a look. He’s already 25 and a couple years removed from his breakout season, his patience doesn’t seem to be an asset and his defense might not be either, but he did once hit 30 homers in Double-A, so there’s something interesting about him.
There were some questions about Paul Goldschmidt coming up in the minors. Would the right-hander hit right-handers enough? Would he strike out too much? Would his power translate? By not only being good enough in his rookie year, and then improving in all three of these categories in his subsequent years, the Arizona first baseman seems to have answered those questions by now. At 26, he’s the first pre-peaker, too, so if anything, he could move up the list, which is a scary thought. And having Mark Trumbo available as a backup makes this a pretty nice situation — they have some glove-first outfield replacements that would help them stay above water as a team even if Goldschmidt grabs a hammy.
|Scott Van Slyke||28||.245||.325||.411||.324||0.3||0.0||0.0||0.1|
32-year-old Adrian Gonzalez has long combined good glove with plus contact and good power to be among the game’s best at the position, so it’s no surprise to see him here. Perhaps the projected power and defensive bounce backs are a bit much for you, that would be fine, but it’s hard to argue with his ability to stay on the field. Despite a shoulder injury in the meantime, he hasn’t gone to the plate fewer than 631 times since 2006. It looks like Scott Van Slyke is making the Dodgers as his backup and an extra outfielder — independent of the health of Matt Kemp or Carl Crawford — and he’s got some decent upside, particularly if he faces lefties most of the time. The righty is patient, powerful, and has good glove. The question is ho much contact he’ll make.
Chris Davis had a great year, and nobody can take that away from him. But when it comes to projection systems, the numbers have to take into account the other 1600 or so plate appearances of his career. In those PA, he didn’t walk half as much as he did last year, and his power was more outstanding than Hall of Fame level. A little bit of regression still makes him a good player, and more time at first instead of the outfield should help his defensive value. Behind him, Steve Pearce can slide over from the outfield should the need arise (he has experience at the position), but he hasn’t had much success against right-handers (66 wRC+ against them so far). Perhaps Cord Phelps would come up and help in a platoon if Davis suffers an injury.
#6 White Sox
The White Sox have two known entities on their way out and an unknown entity on his way in. Given that the team is most likely looking to build — if quickly, given the window Chris Sale’s amazing contract might provide — the projection for Paul Konerko might be a little aggressive in plate appearance terms. After all, he’s on a one-year deal that seems to be his swan song. Adam Dunn could play here, too, so they are set with backups. Now we get to see how Jose Abreu’s numbers — best in Cuban history — will translate to the big leagues. It’s not an easy thing to do, projecting Jose Abreu.
We can talk about Freddie Freeman’s power ceiling, and wonder about his batting average on balls in play, or we can just get Jeff Sullivan to write about both things for us. But he remains easily projectable. For the last two years, he’s had an isolated slugging percentages of .181 and .196, walk rates of 10.3% and 10.5%, strikeout rates of 19.2% and 20.8%, and line drive rates of 26% and 26.7%. Maybe he is who he is and that’s great. He’s also been fairly healthy, averaging over 620 plate appearances for three years. That means it’s most likely that the Braves won’t have to use their depth much and move Chris Johnson over to first or play Evan Gattis or Ryan Doumit at the position. As you can see, though, they’ve got decent backup options when it comes to bats — it’s the defense that will suffer the most when Freeman sits.
With weighted offense numbers that beat Adrian Gonzalez and positive defensive value, Albert Pujols drops in the ranking due to his projected playing time. It’s important to remember that Pujols is projected for some playing time at designated hitter, too, so these projections aren’t docking him down below 500 PA because he failed to reach 600 for the first time in his career. On the other hand, Pujols is post-peak at 34 years old, and he hasn’t looked especially athletic on the bases this spring, and he does suffer from various ailments that could prove to ail him this year as well. The team is capable of shifting Kole Calhoun to first from time to time to rest Pujols, but if he misses a bit more time, they may consider prospect C.J. Cron. Cron’s plate discipline is fairly Trumboian, but so was his power until last year. If Cron finds the power swing again, he may find himself in the big leagues, spelling the starters in the corner outfield, first base, and at DH. But with management saying that’s an ‘if’ not a ‘when,’ it’s hard to say how much time Cron should be alloted.
At 26 years old, Belt is right in his peak age range. He’s made a couple adjustments to his swing and his grip over the past two years, and each time his numbers have taken off. The defensive numbers haven’t yet quite matched his apparent impact on the field, and maybe his good walk rate isn’t as appreciated as it should be, but the young man is an above-average producer at a tough position. So far his overall offense has been almost statistically indistinguishable against lefties and righties (121 LHP wRC+ vs 126 RHP), but his team has a great offensive catcher behind the plate that shifts to first against southpaws for the most part. Mike Morse moving over to first is a medium-term solution that fits Morse’s defensive skillset — the better defender in Gregor Blanco can then handle left field again — and Joaquin Arias will take over from Posey in the odd blowout, most likely.
Once you adjust their offense for their home parks, and then take a look at their backup options, you realize quickly how Anthony Rizzo and the Cubs might end up behind Brandon Belt and the Giants despite some superior raw numbers. This is not meant to take away from the young man in Wrigley — his combination of nascent power and above-average walk and strikeout rates bodes really well for his future — but it is to point out that the Cubs, with all their future talent on the horizon, don’t boast a ton of current depth. That should change at some point, as the prospects turn into everyday players and the veterans are pushed into depth roles. But it’s hard to know when exactly that will happen. So for now, it’s Anthony Rizzo and player x — perhaps the patience-and-power former Ranger Olt will shift over from third to help back him up in that role.
It’s important to remember here that the “fielding” value hasn’t been adjusted for position yet. So, yeah, Mark Teixeira is still a decent defender even as a 34-year-old first baseman. But once his positional value is returned to his overall line, he still won’t offer positive value from defense. And, as bad as last year looked, Teix still takes a walk and hits for power when he’s in there. When he’s not in there? It’ll be time for something new… for Carlos Beltran perhaps. Beltran has never played first, but as a 36-year-old with cranky knees and quickly dropping defensive numbers, maybe he’ll enjoy a break from the outfield. The backup plans behind Beltran are fine in short bursts, but they would also rob flexability from the positions that are bigger question marks for the Yankees. Kelly Johnson, at least, will be needed elsewhere.
There’s a non-zero chance that Joe Mauer surpasses this WAR projection based on defensive value. Catching defense can be tough to measure, and Mauer’s 470 or so innings at first base can’t be terribly predictive. As a plus defensive catcher in most estimations, it seems likely even that he’ll be a good defender at first. In any case, we also don’t know how healthy he’ll be at his new position. Seems like a good idea to bake some time at designated hitter in, and to figure he’ll hit the disabled list for something. That’s why Chrises Colabello and Parmelee will have to make contributions at some point. Colabello will always have that 2013 in Rochester, and has overcome some odds, but dude was 29 in Triple-A. Parmelee probably has a little more upside if he can hit for power, so he could change this depth chart the most with this play.
Though Eric Hosmer is pre-peak and owns many standout tools, the overall package is left a bit wanting due to a few oddities in approach. For one, he hits a ton of ground balls and that saps his power potential. And for two, despite being an athletic player with some speed, his base running and defense aren’t quite what you might expect. Because of his age, there’s always the potential he figures certain aspects of his game out, but until he does, the projection systems will lag behind the faithcasting. Billy Butler’s best position is designated hitter, but at least he provides a good fall-back plan if Hosmer has to take a two-week (or longer) break sometime this season.
Prince Fielder’s new skin-tight approach to his uniform does not obscure the fact that he’s still a heavy player and that heavy players don’t seem to age as well as their more normally-bodied league mates. Perhaps that’s because a lack of speed can erode value with the glove and on the base paths. With Fielder, those were never strengths, though (a shame if just because of his name). Mitch Moreland could man the position if a short-term pain arises, but because of his more inferior work against left-handers so far in his career (74 wRC+), the team might need a platoon caddy for Moreland in the case of a longer absence by their new acquisition at first. Still, Moreland represents decent depth, and can even offer some defensive replacement value, or push Fielder to designated hitter for the odd game. That can help keep a small ache from turning into a 15-day vacation for the veteran.
#15 Blue Jays
Speaking of injury, we have Edwin Encarnacion here, coming off of wrist surgery in the offseason. After a major change to his swing early in his Toronto career, Encarnacion has paired great power with exceptional contact for a power hitter. He’s been fairly durable over that time frame (no trips to the DL in 2011 or 2012) but he’s also missed time here and there with injuries to different body parts (142-game average since 2011). And, given his defensive range, it’s probably best if he turns in his glove more often than not. Unfortunately, Adam Lind is only marginally better with the glove and has platoon problems of his own. So, if Encarnacion takes a longer trip to the DL, the Blue Jays would need someone to face lefties and play first. Maybe Moises Sierra could do that. He has a little bit of power.
#16 Red Sox
Mike Napoli probably won’t see an .367 batting average on balls in play in 2014. And he may see his defense regress from those great heights, even if first base is easier than catching. Given his chronic hip concerns, he’s not a great bet for a ton of playing time. The reason that works for the Red Sox is that he’s really good when he’s in — if on power and patience alone — and also because their backups are palatable. A Mike Carp and Daniel Nava platoon wouldn’t miss too much of a beat should Napoli’s hip act up this coming season. Carp would provide power against right-handers while Nava’s balanced approach would be fine over a short stretch.
Some of Nick Swisher’s defensive numbers weren’t pretty last year, but most of those came in the outfield, too. Carlos Santana’s slow move from behind the plate might push Swisher to the outfield again, but at least when seen in the prism of first basemen, Swisher’s glove matches his bat: they’re both fine. Not “fine” like when you ask your significant other if you can go to the beer festival on Sunday even though you promised her to take care of the child that day, but more “fine” like when you ask him or her if you can pick up dinner on the way home instead of cooking. Swisher’s athleticism seemed to project a slow decline, and we’re seeing it. He’s still decent, and a healthy shoulder could help him be better than his projection this season. Could Santana be better in the full-time role there? That’s a question for Swisher’s outfield glove to answer, as well as the Indians’ depth pieces in right field. At least with the two of them in the fold, there won’t be too much of a need for Jason Giambi to play the field.
As fun as Matt Adams’ power is to watch, there are some questions about the overall value of his work. He hasn’t ever put up a league-average walk rate in the minor leagues, for example. He strikes out a fair bit. He’s also shown platoon splits, too. And, as Jeff Zimmerman showed in The Hardball Times Annual, he’s an extreme pull hitter that saw his batting average on balls in play fall as teams began to shift him in the second half of the season. All of this adds up to a non-zero chance that Allen Craig sees some time at first base this year — especially considering that the Cardinals’ best prospect is an outfielder and Allen Craig is not the fleetest of foot. It’ll probably be fine, since Adams really hit the tar out of the ball in a half-season sample last year and was supposed to do that, but you have to pencil in Matt Carpenter for a few games of backup ball at first base just in case the season turns out differently than expected for Adams.
Guaranteed double-takes for this ranking, I’m guessing. But instead of focusing on the faults, let’s look at the different things that the tandem at the top of this first base heap do right. Both Ike Davis and Lucas Duda put up plus walk rates on the regular. Maybe Davis has proven his power upside more than Duda, but both can put a charge into the ball. Davis has shown some up and down work with his glove over the past few years, but more often than not, he’s better than average at his position. Should either Duda or Davis make a bit more contact or make good on their power, they could easily better these projected numbers and eliminate the need for much of Josh Satin lesser power or (free) Brandon Allen and his high strikeout rates. This group is below average with a whiff of average, not quite the disasterpiece theater it has sometimes been made out to be.
The Cuban sprays the ball to all fields, has good walk and strikeout rates, and has the upside to better his work in the field. Alonso has also been hurt and his power has been inconsistent on the field, so he hasn’t quite made the statistical case for a better projection. It’s probably fair to say that scouts were higher on him than his production in the bigs so far might suggest, and at 27 years old, he’s (maybe) pre-peak. Putting his tools into better on-field results would push this ranking, but there’s also the risk that another injury pushes big Kyle Blanks and his big strikeout rates to the plate more often this year. If both of those things happen and Blanks doesn’t make good on some of the strides he made last year, maybe the team turns to Tommy Medica despite the fact that the non-prospect has been a bit old for his levels, has played in hitter’s parks most recently, and has seen his strikeout rate get worse as he’s ascended. Alonso still has the best upside of the crew.
James Loney is cheap, and with a little platoon help, he can help the Rays get almost league-average production from a position that normally demands high free agent prices. Loney pairs good fielding with a lot of contact and has value above replacement most of the time. So that’s an accomplishment for the team and the player. But it can’t go without notice that Loney often puts up power numbers that would look more at home on the middle infield, and that he’s been worse against southpaws for his career (82 wRC+ vs LHP, 113 vs RHP). That could require some work from backup middle infielder Sean Rodriguez against lefties even when he’s healthy, and maybe occasional help from super utility man extraordinaire Ben Zobrist when he’s not.
Adam LaRoche used to be good for 25 home runs, an above-average walk rate, and some value-stealing strikeouts every year. But he’s 34 years old now, so it’s no surprise that there’s been some erosion on many fronts over the past two years. Most worrisome, maybe, have been his worsening platoon splits. His swing and stance may not ever have been great against lefties, but he’s been worse than league average against southpaws five out of the last six years. That means work for right-handed 27-year-old Tyler Moore even when LaRoche is going well. Moore has some promising power perhaps, but plate discipline problems make him a worse option for the future. This might be a position in transition for the Nationals — Ryan Zimmerman brought his first-base glove to camp and was told he might get ten starts at the position over the course of the year. His throws to first seem to suggest that this is a good long-term idea.
Brandon Moss changed his approach with the help of Chili Davis. He opened up his front foot and starting selling out to become the power hitter he was always meant to be, not the fourth outfielder with contact and patience his last two teams wanted him to be. And now he’s adjusting again, working on his bunting in case teams continue to shift him so very hard core. It’s really a great story. But with late career power breakouts like his, the statistical projections are going to take a skeptical approach. And the 30-year-old isn’t a great fielder, and he usually sits against lefties on his platoon-heavy team. Freiman’s numbers should be a bit better if adjusted for the fact that he’ll probably only ever see lefties (he hit .304/.352/.453 against them last year), but once again he’s a flawed option. Daric Barton has good glove and patience, but he’s not going to develop the power to make him more relevant. Since he bats left-handed, he’s going to have a harder time making this team when everyone is healthy.
Justin Morneau’s weighted on-base average seems to suggest his position should rank about seven spots higher, but once you correct for his home park, it’s a lot less exciting. Then you add in the injury risk — it’s not just concussions, he’s suffered from wrist, neck and back issues over the last three years — and the declining glove, and it makes sense that the projection systems are a little skeptical that he’ll put up average value at first base. Would Michael Cuddyer be a better option? That depends a little on Morneau’s health and production in 2014, but also a little on how the various non-Carlos-Gonzalez outfielders do with their playing time. If Morneau ends up on the shelf, Cuddyer is no spring chicken himself (35 years old), and so the Rockies will eventually find themselves turning to Ryan Wheeler’s poor plate discipline, Jordan Pacheco’s light stick, and probably a bottle of antacid.
Jesus Guzman is a low-ceiling righty that should probably only face lefties, but with Chris Carter playing elsewhere as the team cycles through possible in-house first basemen, Guzman is the one that might end up with the most playing time of the crew. Since Japhet Amador is older and not really a prospect, maybe he gets the Opening Day nod and the first 150 plate appearances against right-handers at first base. But a family issue kept the big first baseman away from the team for a chunk of spring, and so it might be Marc Krauss getting first crack at proving his contact rate. In any case, Guzman’s going to be the guy that spends all season taking your ballots in the Jon Singleton Waiting Game. What Singleton does with his time (in the mid-season call-up? late-season call-up?) is also a matter of debate, as his strikeout rate hasn’t improved with more seasoning. Chris Carter may eventually take this job, and that’s why he shows up in the bunch.
If it’s really true that Smoak is better against righties (101 career wRC+) than lefties (82), then that’ll make for an awkward platoon with the newcoming lefty Logan Morrison, who has also been better against righties than lefties. Morrison is 26, Smoak is 27, but both have under-shot their expectations. Morrison might have shown better plate discipline, but his power and health have been more inconsistent. Maybe with the power of platoons, these two can outperform their overall batting lines and do better than this projection. It requires some good health not only here, but also in the corner outfield and DH. Given the older guys that are at the other positions, it makes sense that a backup infielder will have to step in and help the crew at first at some point.
Juan Francisco’s one tool and left-handedness puts him in the catbird seat for one of the worst first base groups in baseball. He can put a charge into the ball, but he doesn’t add value anywhere else. Mark Reynolds just hit his first homer of the spring, but his right-handedness and power/patience package — as well as his age compared to Lyle Overbay — probably makes him the backup/platoon first baseman most of the year. Lyle Overbay is still in camp, but at 37, and with his recent track record, he probably makes more sense on a contender’s taxi squad if he decides to stay in baseball. There’s a decent chance neither of the veterans makes it out of April, in which case it would be time to give more plate appearances to the recently outrighted Sean Halton or Hunter Morris. Neither of the younger guys really has the upside to be league average at first, most likely, and that’s how you end up with a group like this. Probably fine for a team that’s looking to build, but it doesn’t really look like it will produce a long-term solution without help.
For a team that’s looking to win now, this is one terrible depth chart. Travis Snider is past the pooping or getting off the pottie moment, most likely, but he’ll get another shot at playing time perhaps. Andrew Lambo has some promise (his power has risen in recent years in the minor leagues) but with every step forward, he seems to bring a step backward (his strikeout rates have also jumped). If he beats his projections, maybe he can form a decent platoon with Gaby Sanchez and push this overall number closer to two wins and an average rating. But if he doesn’t, behind them there’s only a Rule 5 acquisition with questionable power and contact skills (Chris McGuinness) and an 30-year-old lefty with a revamped swing looking at one of his final chances. This is why the Ike Davis trade rumors won’t go away.
This is probably not the projection Ruben Amaro, Jr was hoping out of year three of Howard’s five-year $125 million-dollar extension when he signed the first baseman before his original contract was up. The last few years have seen Howard’s contact rate, platoon splits and power all get worse, and the first two of those were already questionable when he inked that contract. Darin Ruf is an old rookie without a ton of projection, but he’s cheaper and and has some power of his own. At 33 old, a mini-resurgence from Howard isn’t impossible, but it might only be enough for management to find a way to jettison some piece of his contract and move the youngster in. Either way, we’re all hoping that Kevin Frandsen mostly plays at other infield positions despite some of his nicer (small sample) numbers over the past two years.
This list is not great. It could be worse, though. If we listed some of the other players that might get time at first, it would look worse. Ty Wigginton, though, is needed at third base and Jordany Valdespin was headed this way at some point. So this is your list of replacement level first basemen, all in camp on tiny deals, flaws and all. Maybe Garret Jones and Jeff Baker can form a platoon that pushes this WAR total over zero! They both have power and can hit opposite-handed pitchers! That’s something to look forward to! Right?
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