When the Rangers signed then-16-year-old Dominican Ronald Guzman in July 2011 for a whopping $3.45 million bonus, the 6’5″ hulk was said to profile as a corner outfielder with a big bat–the best offensive asset in the 2011 international amateur class. Over two years later, he remains a promising hitter–he hit .321/.374/.434 as a 17-year-old in the Rookie-level Arizona League and followed it up by posting a .272/.325/.387 line as an 18-year-old in Low-A this past campaign. He’s only gotten into 101 games due to a few injuries, but so far, Guzman’s offensive development is going about as well as the Texas front office probably hoped for. The other part of his profile, though, has changed.
Guzman was moved to first base almost immediately after signing. He has played in the outfield exactly once as a professional, back in 2012 for five innings to make room at first base for a then-rehabbing Mike Bianucci. To be fair, Guzman has played on teams that have featured notable outfield prospects like Nick Williams, Lewis Brinson, and Nomar Mazara, but his mooring to the game’s easiest defensive position at a young age owes far more to his lack of ability in the field than it does to his teammates. Guzman’s arm was widely panned as an amateur, he has a massive, sloping frame that doesn’t look built for speed (and will likely be even less so as he fills out), and he has a very odd gait that looks like he’s jogging on eggshells. Add it all up, and Guzman is, as WFAA’s Kate Morrison put it, “a first base prospect, not an outfielder/first baseman…but an honest-to-goodness stuck-at-first guy.”
In this post, I’m going to talk about the damnation of that designation.
First base is, of course, the easiest position to play on the field, and thus, it tends to be manned by the worst defensive players. It is assigned a -12.5 Positional Value according to our numbers, five runs better than designated hitter and five runs worse than the next worst spot, corner outfield.
Of course, being the easiest position to play, first base also carries the highest offensive standards. Here’s a listing of triple-slash by position (in order of the defensive spectrum) in 2013, according to Baseball-Reference’s League Splits:
You can see first base produces the best numbers, even more so than the DH spot. A .261/.337/.436 line is roughly a .340 wOBA.
So when we look at a prospect like Ronald Guzman and see that first base is the only place he plays, and that it’s the only place he projects to play, the question immediately becomes “Can he consistently put up a .340 wOBA in the majors?” If a player has nothing to contribute with the glove, he better be an above-average offensive asset, after all. In this sense, players like Guzman are a lot easier to get a handle on than raw, toolsy up-the-middle players, catchers, or pitchers–if they hit, they’re interesting, and if they don’t, they aren’t.
When people talk about first-base-only prospects, it is these high offensive standards that are typically cited as the reason they’re not going to make an impact in the major leagues. They certainly are imposing standards, but that’s only part of the story as to why players like Guzman face a daunting road to the big leagues.
There are 750 roster spots in the major leagues. In the era of twelve and thirteen-man pitching staffs, we can say that there are somewhere between 370 and 390 position-player jobs. Roughly sixty of these go to catchers, who are largely in an island by themselves–catcher is a position just about only catchers can play, and catchers usually can’t play much of anywhere else except first and DH. So that leaves us with about 320 other jobs for the seven non-catcher positions.
Consider, as an example, Cubs prospect Javier Baez. Baez is a shortstop, though not a particularly good one, who hit 37 home runs this past season as a 20-year-old between High-A and Double-A, establishing him as a premier offensive prospect.
Now, Baez could hypothetically take just about any one of those 320 jobs. If he can stick at short, he can take a shortstop job. If he can’t handle the position or comes up in an organization with an excellent shortstop, he can shift to just about anywhere except catcher–and maybe center field. And even if his offense comes in well under expectations, he could still be a utility player–Brandon Wood stuck around for a couple of years, after all.
So shortstops can play just about anywhere–just look at Ben Zobrist‘s career. Second basemen can play second, third, first, and the corner outfield spots, and sometimes center field. Center fielders can play all three outfield spots and first. Corner outfielders can play left, right, and first.
But the Ronald Guzmans of the world have exactly one spot to play–first base. Almost nobody carries a 1B-only backup unless they’re running a strict platoon at the position, which leaves only just about 30 possible jobs for Guzman and similar players. Yes, there are technically fifteen more spots these players could fill–the DH spots–but how often does a minor league first baseman (or a minor league anything) get promoted to the majors and immediately become an everyday DH? Even DH-in-waiting types like Billy Butler and Chris Carter have been forced to trot out into the field for a couple of years in the big leagues–the DH spot, for better or worse, seems to be largely off-limits to younger players, used more for defensively or health-impaired veterans.
So, for all practical purposes, Guzman has to win one of 30 jobs to have a real career. But he’s not really going to have 30 jobs available to him, just like Baez won’t have 320, because we know right off the bat that some of those jobs are taken and will remain taken throughout a prospect’s given window to break through. Texas already has a first baseman–Prince Fielder–signed through 2020, Guzman’s age-25 season. Albert Pujols, for better or worse, is signed through 2021. Freddie Freeman was just signed through 2021 as well. Miguel Cabrera‘s now back at first, likely never to leave, and he should be good for quite some time. At least a couple the Joey Votto/Paul Goldschmidt/Eric Hosmer/Brandon Belt/Justin Smoak/Chris Davis/Anthony Rizzo/Matt Adams group will likely still have MLB first base jobs at the end of this decade, and there likely will be another couple of players who emerge between now and Guzman’s ripening (let’s give him an ETA of 2016-17 if things go well) who will also establish strangleholds on first base jobs (Jose Abreu? Jonathan Singleton? Dominic Smith? Max Muncy? Kyle Parker?).
I wanted to get a better sense of exactly how high the turnover rate at the position was. To get a pretty simple perspective, I just made a list of all players who had played 900 innings or more at first base in a season in the last decade (2004-13). It turns out that there were 63 such players, which isn’t a whole lot. Thirty-one of them broke through to the big leagues before 2004, while the other half graduated that year or later, so we can say that 32 players were able to claim a first base job from incumbents in a ten-year period.
But not all of those players were first base prospects. Remember that the Javier Baezes of the world can move off their current positions and/or push others off their current positions. And one position that quite a few players end up moving to after becoming major leaguers is first base.
Albert Pujols was never a first base prospect. Neither were Miguel Cabrera, , Mark Teixeira, or Chris Davis–all four were third basemen/outfielders (Cabrera even started out as a shortstop!). Many longtime mainstays of the position from the last generation–Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, Carlos Delgado, Rafael Palmeiro, Derrek Lee, and Paul Konerko, among others–were also converted to first base from other positions after or near their ascension to the big leagues. Sometimes the position is used, like DH, to house veterans becoming increasingly slow or brittle (Carlos Lee, Nomar Garciaparra, Scott Hatteberg, Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds). Other times, the position is filled by somebody capable of fielding elsewhere as just a side effect of a particular team’s roster construction (Nick Swisher, Darin Erstad, Kevin Youkilis, Conor Jackson).
In fact, of the 63 players who ended up seeing 900 innings in a season at first base in the past ten years, only 26 (41.3%) were drafted/signed as first basemen. Two others–Joey Votto and Justin Morneau–were converted to first after their draft year, and Daric Barton and Derrek Lee were moved a couple of years before they reached the majors. Conor Jackson, Mark Trumbo, Garrett Jones and Ben Broussard were also moved to first before they reached the bigs, but also saw time at other positions after they reached the majors. Whether you count them or not, we’re left with a picture that right around half of the men who man the position regularly in the big leagues get extensive playing time there in the minors.
And that serves to really compress the openings of players like Ronald Guzman. Since 2004, between seventeen and twenty “first base prospects” have broken through, whether you count Jackson, Trumbo, and Jones. That’s not a lot. And, of course, not all of them have become good first basemen. Here‘s a listing of those twenty; note that only half cross the career .340 wOBA mark. The majority of the men in the bottom half were high draft picks–seven were first or supplemental-rounders. Of the three that weren’t, Trumbo was given first-round money, Rizzo was a two-time Top 100 prospect, and Jones was a minor league wanderer who just happened to fall backward into a job with a bad Pirates team. The players in the top half come from more diverse backgrounds. This suggests that players who fill first-base jobs either can really hit– consistent 110 wRC+ and up–or are so heavily prioritized by their organization that they get run out there.
Of course, in the minors, there are a lot of guys who can stand around at first base and hit pretty well. But, as this analysis shows, precious few of them end up standing around at first base and hitting well against major league pitching. As we’ve seen, only ten players in the past decade have pulled the trick of breaking through and posting above-average numbers for the spot on any sort of consistent basis. That means that, at any given time, there is probably somewhere between one and three first basemen in the minor leagues destined for that success. Anyone outside of that extremely select group is likely to end up topping out in the upper minors or Japan unless their organization is heavily, heavily invested in them.
The pressure is on, Ronald Guzman.
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