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Free Agent Market: First Base and Designated Hitter

Today’s installment of our series on the coming free agent market takes a look at some of the first base and DH options that will be available. While the 2012 free agent class is pretty shallow overall, at first base (and DH, if you include it) there is some true quality and a bit of depth. At the top of the list are an old player, a player some people think will get old fast, and a player some people think is older than he says he is.

David Ortiz
After the 2009 season, Ortiz looked like he was close to finished. He still good power (.224 ISO), but the overall line was pretty bad for an well-paid player relegated to designated hitter duties (.238/.332/.462, 99 wRC+). Ortiz made a nice comeback in 2010 (.270/.370/.529, 133 wRC+) and the Red Sox picked up his $12.5 million option for 2011. Ortiz was even better in 2011. His 153 wRC+ (.309/.398/.504) was his best since the Red Sox last championship season (175 in 2007). A batting average jump like Ortiz’s from 2010 to 2011 is often the result of a random fluctuation in BABIP, but his .321 BABIP is pretty reasonable. The key was Ortiz cutting his strikeout rate to a career low. It is not that Ortiz will necessarily be able to maintain it, but it does show that Ortiz still has enough bat speed to make contact without sacrificing his power and walk rate. He will still be a hefty 36-year-old DH-only, and the past seasons do not disappear, either. Oliver projects Ortiz for a .366 wOBA (.270/.350/.500) in 2012. Over 600 plate appearances, that would make Ortiz close to a three-win player.

Prince Fielder
Fielder has done nothing but hit since he broke into the league as a full-timer at age 22. Now reaching free agency for the first time at the relatively young age of 28, some are concerned about how the “big-boned” Fielder will age. Given the fate of other big sluggers like Mo Vaughn, that is understandable. However, one should not get carried away with specific comparisons — for example, Prince was in the league earlier than his Vaughan, and hit better as well. His peripherals perhaps most relevant to the aging issue — his walk and strikeouts — are superior to Vaughan’s at similar ages, for example, so his approach may be more sustainable as he gets older. Yes, Fielder is a big guy, but while he is slow, takes plenty of walks, and hits for power, he does not hit all the statistical markers generally associated with players who are expected decline early. Fielder has a .282 batting average for his career, and although that does not have much independent value, it is helpful as a “peripheral” to separate him from guys like Kevin Maas, Adam Dunn, or Jack Cust (although even those latter two waited until their thirties to drastically decline… a topic for another day). Like Ortiz in 2011, Fielder has not excessively relied on BABIP for that, either. His strikeouts rates have never been all that much worse than average, and in 2011 he cut it to only 15.5%.

All this is not to say that teams should throw caution to the wind when deciding how long of a contract to offer Fielder, it is simply a warning not to get too carried away without looking at the specifics. There are other concerns, naturally — Fielder is a bad defender, a bad base runner, and has spent his career in the weaker league. Nonetheless, hitting for a .400+ wOBA can make up for a multitude of sins, and putting it all together makes it hard to project Fielder at anything less than four wins.

Albert Pujols
Pujols picked a heck of a time to have his Worst. Season. EVER. I’m not sure how the Cardinals managed to make the playoffs with El Hombre only putting up a five win season. Sigh. It must be rough. Luckily for Pujols’ free agent prospects, at least, he’s been raking in the postseason, and with every extra-base hit in the playoffs, he gets close to a $500 million contract. But seriously, folks…

…do you really need another lesson in how awesome Pujols is? If you ask me (and I am not alone in this), if he had retired three years ago, he still would have been a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame. That does not matter so much for potential suitors on the market, but when a player’s worst season yet is “just” five wins, well, that says something. Of course, a player’s most recent performance is the most relevant to his projection, especially when the player is reaching an age when many players are at the end of the line. On one hand, Pujols will probably rebound from the lowest BABIP of his career, on the other hand, he also had the lowest walk rate of his career. Still, it was not a bad walk rate (and there is some evidence that veterans tend to rebound from one-year dips in walks), his strikeouts remain astoundingly low, and his isolated power, while his lowest since 2007, was still excellent.

Pujols’ 2012 season will be his age 32 season, and that is not young. One might be spooked a bit from the persistent (but never substantiated, to my knowledge) whispers about his age. However, even if he is a year or two older than listed, Pujols is getting to the point of being sui generis, so comparisons to other aging players may not directly apply. He certainly is not unathletic — he is no speed demon, but he is no Miguel Cabrera or Molina brother, either. Pujols has had some injury issues the last few seasons that might be worrisome, but they have not caused him to miss a significant amount of time. He might still be the best-fielding first baseman in the game. Oliver certainly has faith, projecting him for an incredible .429 wOBA in 2012. I suppose there is a chance that Pujols has fallen off of a (very small) cliff, and is “only” a five-win player now. I am sure there are some people who think this season was simply an “outlier” (ahem) and that Pujols will return to his annual eight-win ways in 2012. I am leery of either “method.” Pujols seems to me to project as a six or seven win player, and probably closer to seven than to six. In case you are new here: that’s pretty good.

There are a number of players who will be available who fit into the first base and DH category, but while I would love to get to the Ross Gloads and Brad Hawpes of the world, for the sake of space I will limit myself to brief comments on three other players who do not have the value of the three discussed above but might be more than free agent afterthoughts in the right circumstances:

Carlos Pena had something resembling a nice rebound with the Cubs this season, and his power stroke fit in well at Wrigley Field. However, his platoon issues have really gotten out of hand, his flyball-oriented approach means that his BABIP is not going to regress up that much, and he will be 34 next season. He has his uses and can still play first, but it is more as a 1.5-2 WAR stopgap or platoon bat than as a long-term solution.

Derrek Lee was part of two failed attempts at respectability in 2011 in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but that was not his fault. Although his approach at the plate is different from Pena’s, he is sort of a right-handed version of the former Tampa Bay slugger in terms of value: an older player (36) who can still play first base, but whose bat is just adequate there — another 1.5-2 WAR stopgap.

Jim Thome was a guy who I thought would be here as sort of an “honorary” candidate. After all, he will be 41 next season, he cannot play the field, he might be the worst base runner in the league, and he has back problems. Who knows if he even plans on playing next season? However, he can still hit. A .362 wOBA for a DH-only may not seem that great, but in the 2011 run environment, it was good for a 133 wRC+. Thome put up a .437 wOBA in 2010, too, which is why even at age 41, Oliver projects him for a .362 wOBA in 2012. Even with all his other issues, if Thome can find a place to get 500 plate appearances, that would make him around a two-win player. Even at 350 plate appearances, he would be about a 1.5 win player. A team on a budget that is in search of a left-handed-hitting DH would do well to check with Thome before assuming he is finished.