Position Battles: First Base For the Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have never been known to do things in a traditional way. Bat a rookie catcher lead off? Sure. Platoon your shortstop based on the opposing pitcher’s GB/FB tendencies? Absolutely. Seemingly use a different lineup every night? Why not? They thrive in the unorthodox and relish in the abnormal. For a team in contention for another division title, having such a question mark at a cornerstone position like firstbase is anything but normal.

This isn’t a position battle in the true meaning of the phrase. Those usually leave one player either released or relegated to giving teammates hotfoot while on bench duty. As currently constituted, Dan Johnson is the Rays starting firstbasemen, though he could have competition.. The last time Johnson played a full season in the big leagues was 2007 with Oakland. He then spent 2008 in the Rays organization at AAA Durham, and all of the 2009 season in Japan. Most of Johnson’s 2010 season was once again spent in Durham where he hit well enough to earn himself 140 plate appearances with the Rays later in the year. Despite a .198 average in those 140 appearances, Johnson slugged seven home runs and walked 25 times.

The Rays feel good about Johnson, but 140 appearances is a small sample size. Many projection systems are high on Johnson this season, but Marcels is a bit more pessimistic, giving Johnson only 270 plate appearances and a .233/.327/.414 slash line. If he can maintain something close to his .339 wOBA from last season, and hit decently enough against left handed pitching, he’ll likely keep his job all season and be a viable fantasy asset. If not, there is someone waiting to take those at bats. His name is Ben Zobrist.

Fantasy wise, Zobrist is most valuable at second base due to his combination of speed and power.  He’s likely to get starts all over the diamond, but could gain first base eligibility rather quickly if Johnson slips. The Rays have two very capable players in Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce who play Zobrist’s two fantasy positions, second base and the outfield. The Rays’ ability to man those positions ably without Zobrist would make the transition to firstbase a rather easy one. The 2010 season wasn’t a kind one to Zobrist, but while his power numbers were way down he still maintained some value by swiping 24 bags. He’s likely never going to hit 27 home runs again as he did in 2009, but nearly every projection has him back into the 15-20 homer range. The increased power coupled with tri-positional flexibility gives Zobrist back much of the value he lost last season.

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Erik writes for DraysBay and has also written for Bloomberg Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ehahmann.

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The Duder
The Duder

If the Rays start Zobrist at first for more than a handful of games, I don’t like their chances…

If you are starting Zobrist at first in your fantasy league… you have a stout 2B/OF and an awful 1B.