2017 Positional Power Rankings: First Base

This positional power ranking won’t be like the others. Take a look at the graph. In particular, note the right side of the graph.

You’ll notice that a number of the clubs with the poorest first-base situations simultaneously possess strong clubs overall. Seattle, Texas, Toronto, Washington: they’re all supposed to be competitive this year. They’ve punted the position, it seems. Maybe with the ubiquity of high-powered low-defense sluggers on the market, teams have decided just to take the cheapest one. What the reason, it makes for a weird fun-house version of the first-base depth charts we used to know and love.

1. Cubs
Anthony Rizzo 637 .280 .382 .526 .384 31.5 -0.8 5.9 4.7
Kris Bryant 28 .275 .370 .512 .375 1.2 0.1 0.2 0.2
Javier Baez 21 .256 .305 .433 .315 -0.2 0.0 0.1 0.0
Willson Contreras 14 .267 .336 .430 .331 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .278 .378 .521 .380 32.6 -0.7 6.2 4.9

I say all that and then the first spot up features a vintage first baseman. Anthony Rizzo can hit for power (15th-best isolated slugging percentage in the league) while striking out like it was the 90s (third-best strikeout rate in the top 15 for ISO). He even stole some bases one year. What more is there to say except that the book on Rizzo has been out for years — throw the plate-crowder inside, where he had the 12th-most pitches in baseball last year — and yet Rizzo keeps ticking like a metronome when it comes to power, patience, and contact.

In a testament to the depth on his team, even if Rizzo goes down for a short stint, the Cubs should be able to replace him with a talented option (Kris Bryant) who will himself be replaced by a talented option (Javier Baez). If the stint is any longer than a game or two, though, the team can go with a third talented option (Kyle Schwarber) instead of running him around in left field. Oh, to be loaded with young positional talent and coming off a World Series win.

Paul Goldschmidt 658 .288 .402 .509 .383 27.8 1.6 4.1 4.4
Daniel Descalso 42 .239 .314 .365 .294 -1.3 0.0 -0.3 -0.1
Total 700 .285 .397 .500 .377 26.6 1.6 3.9 4.3

The 29-year-old Goldschmidt could be the second 30-30 first baseman in the history of baseball and has thighs similar to the first (Jeff Bagwell). He’s in the prime of his career and everything looks great, but is there a tiny bit of worry? Coming up through the minors, it was said the right-hander wouldn’t hit righties for much power; last year, while his power against lefties was fine (.224 ISO), his power against righties dropped nearly 70% (down from perennially above .230 to .183 last year). If he can figure out why he hit so many ground balls against righties last year, and fix it, we won’t notice this blip.

If he doesn’t, his lefty-mashing and patience will still make him a valuable player. If he gets hurt, though, this team doesn’t have a great solution behind him. Maybe they move Yasmany Tomas in from the outfield if it’s a long-term injury, since Tomas is terrible with the glove. Otherwise, they’ll suffer from moving a far inferior bat to the position.

3. Reds
Joey Votto 637 .290 .419 .490 .387 31.9 -1.4 0.9 4.1
Adam Duvall 56 .239 .293 .465 .321 -0.3 0.0 0.3 0.1
Christian Walker 7 .242 .296 .419 .307 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .285 .408 .487 .381 31.5 -1.4 1.2 4.2

There might be two things at which Joey Votto doesn’t naturally excel. One is defense, although he’s made generally made it an asset with a lot of hard, boring work. The other’s the inside fastball: no batter in baseball received more pitches inside last year. That torrid second half, when he had an OPS over 1.200 and a strikeout rate around 10%? That came when he developed a plan for the inside pitch. This spring, Votto said: “My swing is matched up to fail on the inside pitch, so I felt like I was going to fail. And then, as the season went along, I found something to counter that.” Did he ever. Still, it’s an okay flaw to have. “The inside pitch is a really difficult thing for them to do,” he said of pitchers. “So much room for failure.”

If Votto leaves town or needs a break, the team won’t lose much power, but they’ll lose all those walks that some fans yell about. First base might be where Adam Duvall is headed, but adding some patience will be key to his longevity in the game, really. He had the third-worst strikeout minus walk rate (K-BB%) among hitters last year, and he’s not likely to make much more contact with his power-hungry approach.

Miguel Cabrera   637 .306 .386 .531 .384 32.5 -3.3 0.2 4.1
Andrew Romine 42 .237 .294 .310 .268 -1.9 0.1 0.3 -0.1
Victor Martinez 21 .272 .332 .433 .325 0.1 -0.2 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .300 .379 .514 .375 30.7 -3.4 0.5 4.0

When he’s in there, Miguel Cabrera is still among the best in the game. His finished sixth in the majors last year by park- and league-adjusted weighted on-base average — and he, like Rizzo, combines great strikeout and walk rates with power to all fields. Unlike Rizzo, Cabrera is now baseball old. He’ll turn 34 this year, and after years of averaging close to 160 games a year, his health is in greater doubt than ever. His 2015 season was shortened by injury, and Cabrera was just removed from a WBC game for back tightness. More than anything, the question for Tigers fans is how often Cabrera will be in the lineup.

If he does suffer a more long-term injury, the Tigers may deploy Victor Martinez at first base more often. Going to Andrew Romine would cost them just too much offense. But this does highlight how the Tigers, while composed of some stars, may not have the depth to survive the normal season-long assault that is injury.

Freddie Freeman 665 .278 .380 .495 .370 25.4 -0.1 3.1 3.8
Rio Ruiz 35 .236 .308 .364 .294 -0.9 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .276 .376 .488 .366 24.5 -0.2 3.0 3.8

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Freddie Freeman right now is that his power spiked last year at 27 years old. Could it be a peak-year thing, timed well to align with the power spike across baseball? Sure. But if you look at his launch angles and exit velocities, he “deserved” even better. And a move to a home park that might play a little more generously to hitters may cover up some regression. Cosmetically, at least. If the power holds, the Braves have their Rizzo.

Unfortunately, the Braves don’t have the rest of the Cubs’ young positional squad. If Freeman goes down, there isn’t a great solution behind him. Rio Ruiz might get a shot, but he probably doesn’t have the power specifically or the bat generally for the position.

Brandon Belt 602 .263 .361 .449 .349 16.2 -0.6 5.8 3.0
Buster Posey 70 .297 .365 .459 .351 2.0 -0.2 0.7 0.4
Conor Gillaspie 28 .261 .309 .402 .304 -0.3 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .267 .360 .448 .348 17.9 -0.8 6.3 3.4

There’s always so much focus on what Brandon Belt is not, at least in San Francisco. He’s not a 30-homer-hitting, league-leading slugger type. He probably won’t hit .300, either. And though his defense is decent, he’s not as fleet of foot as he used to be. Let’s not forget, though, that he had a top-10 on-base percentage among qualified batters last year, so he does have his strengths. He’s also good for an annual awesome adjustment that helps him make the most of his batted balls.

Interestingly, it’s a given that the Giants run Buster Posey out there against lefties. But Belt has been 28% better than league average against lefties. He can take a walk and has improved his power over the years, so he’s not a liability, really. Oh well, just another case of his skillset being undervalued.

Carlos Santana 560 .251 .368 .458 .357 15.6 -0.8 -0.1 2.4
Edwin Encarnacion 105 .259 .353 .500 .362 3.4 -0.1 -0.1 0.5
Giovanny Urshela 35 .253 .285 .376 .285 -1.1 0.0 0.3 0.0
Total 700 .252 .362 .460 .354 17.9 -1.0 0.1 2.9

Among active players, only Giancarlo Stanton has shown more power since 2012 than Edwing has. Encarnacion has walked the parrot 193 times during that period, an average of 38 a year, so the projections that have him hitting closer to 30 homers next year seem light. Then again, he’s 34 and moving from the homer-friendly Rogers Centre to a park in Cleveland that can stifle offense. As is the case with Carlos Santana, who’ll also play first, Encarnacion’s defense doesn’t rate particularly well. That explains why these sluggers aren’t higher up on the totem pole.

Then again, this team will, by definition, have the best backup first baseman in baseball this year. And in a time when teams seem to be looking past the slugging first baseman, the Indians feature two huge power hitters on relatively friendly deals on a team that has developed great starting pitching and a strong middle-infield tandem. The good got gooder.

Chris Davis 588 .235 .334 .492 .350 12.6 0.4 3.0 2.6
Trey Mancini 70 .267 .317 .436 .323 -0.1 0.0 0.2 0.1
Mark Trumbo 35 .255 .312 .493 .340 0.5 -0.1 -0.3 0.1
Pedro Alvarez 7 .248 .323 .502 .346 0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .239 .331 .486 .347 13.1 0.3 3.0 2.8

Last year, Chris Davis pulled the ball less than he had previously as an Oriole, and it was part of a troubling trend. The three months during which he recorded strong pull rates were still fine. As for the other three months… well, he’s a 31-year-old hitter with a lifetime strikeout rate above 30%. When he’s not maximizing his strengths, things go poorly. You’ll still look up and like what you see by the end of the year, probably, but those bad stretches may get longer and longer.

Unless he gets hurt, everything should be fine — and Baltimore has a capable backup in Mark Trumbo. If the Indians possess the top first-base backup in the majors, the Orioles are probably second on that list.

Matt Carpenter   616 .266 .368 .449 .352 15.1 -0.3 2.6 2.7
Matt Adams 70 .260 .310 .449 .322 0.0 -0.1 0.3 0.1
Yadier Molina 14 .283 .330 .396 .315 -0.1 -0.1 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .265 .361 .447 .348 15.0 -0.4 3.0 2.8

Carpenter’s romp around the infield may now be complete. The human defensive spectrum is probably a best fit at first base with the glove. With the bat? He upped his power the last couple of years by pulling more fly balls, and a full, healthy season may see him hit 30 bombs and give you those sweet, sweet Traditional First Baseman stats. Even if he doesn’t hit 30, though, he’s a perennial OBP king. Since he become a regular, only eight guys have recorded a better on-base mark. And, look: four of the eight are first basemen.

Because they’re a team full of multi-eligible-bachelor bats looking for the right match of a position, the Cardinals of course have a backup plan. Mr. Almost Right in this situation is Matt Adams, who’s been 11% better than league average with the stick in nearly 1500 plate appearances despite more recent problems with platoon splits and injury issues. Should Adams prove to be better than expected, or any of the second- or third-base options worse, we may see a different set of names atop the depth chart at the end of the year. Welcome to Cardinal baseball!

10. Padres
Wil Myers 595 .258 .335 .453 .338 9.3 1.7 5.7 2.6
Alex Dickerson   105 .264 .322 .436 .322 0.3 0.0 -0.5 0.1
Total 700 .259 .333 .450 .335 9.6 1.7 5.2 2.7

Hey! Take that, Padres haters. The Friars are top ten in something other than throwback unis! Wil Myers finally broke out like we all thought he would four years ago with the Rays. Or maybe he was just finally healthy, because his production last year was similar to what came before in terms of rate — it was just the first time he managed to record more than 400 plate appearances.

That’s a bit worrisome, actually. With Alex Dickerson hurting, the depth chart behind Myers is threadbare. With Myers’ history, and his current neck spasms, you have to wonder how long it is until we see Cory Spangenberg at first base. Myers claims that his oversized hands have nothing to do with his ongoing wrist injuries, but since he’s had chronic issues with both wrists, you have to wonder what’s going on.

Shhh. Just enjoy the only first baseman other than Goldschmidt who could threaten to put up a 30/30 season. Nobody steals any more. And San Diego needs someone who might move the needle nationally.

Jose Abreu 630 .285 .346 .487 .352 15.4 -1.6 -3.0 2.1
Todd Frazier 35 .241 .310 .447 .324 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1
Matt Davidson 35 .207 .281 .361 .279 -1.2 0.0 -0.1 -0.1
Total 700 .279 .341 .479 .347 14.2 -1.6 -3.1 2.1

There might be a book out on Jose Abreu. Last year, he faced the second-most pitches inside, as a percentage of overall pitches. And he had an OPS under .700 on those pitches. So he hasn’t made pitchers pay there yet, in other words. The result is a spray-hitting 30-year-old known more for his ability to hit for average than anything else, and he’s doing this on a team that seems to be in the middle of a rebuild. You’d make him a lock for a trade if it didn’t seem like so many good teams are punting the position.

If he does go, it seems doubtful that the team would hurt Todd Frazier’s trade value by moving him to first permanently, so maybe they’d give Matt Davidson a longer chance. The 25-year-old prospect did cut his strikeouts in Triple-A last year. All the way down to 26.4%. Sigh.

12. Mets
Lucas Duda 525 .242 .343 .465 .344 11.2 -0.2 0.7 1.9
Wilmer Flores 91 .263 .306 .430 .314 -0.3 -0.1 -0.6 0.0
Jay Bruce 35 .239 .303 .439 .313 -0.1 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Neil Walker 35 .262 .331 .442 .331 0.4 0.0 -0.1 0.1
David Wright   14 .249 .332 .392 .316 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .246 .335 .456 .337 11.1 -0.4 -0.4 2.1

The quiet giant in Queens doesn’t get a lot of love even when he’s going well, so it’s no surprise that some Mets fans have been clamoring for an upgrade at his position after the year he had in 2016. A back injury limited him to 172 plate appearances and also robbed him of effectiveness when he was on the field. He hit barrels like David Ortiz in 2015 and like Alex Avila in 2016. Good health could help him beat his projections — the numbers don’t know he played through injury — in which case Duda would be a comfortably above-average first baseman.

And he has some decent help behind him, too. Wilmer Flores makes the most of his balls in play (he hits the ball really hard), but is better when limited to playing against lefties and at a position where defense isn’t super important. He might give Duda’s back a blow against some tough lefties. Jay Bruce, as a backup plan, is not a bad backup plan.

Gregory Bird 420 .249 .326 .469 .339 6.0 -0.1 -0.5 1.2
Chris Carter 210 .222 .317 .483 .339 3.0 -0.3 -1.1 0.5
Tyler Austin   70 .237 .306 .411 .310 -0.7 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .240 .321 .467 .336 8.3 -0.4 -1.7 1.8

There’s a fair amount of play in these projections for Greg Bird. On the positive side, Bird played in some pitcher-friendly parks in the minor leagues, which may have hidden the power that he’s shown in the majors. His strikeout rate has also oscillated from the high teens to the low twenties, so it’s hard to know how much he’ll improve on 2015’s 29.8% rate — or even if he’s a lock to do so. Add in a shoulder injury that cost him all of 2016, which may or may not affect him this year, and you’ve got a number of question marks for a 24-year-old who was 37% better than the league over 178 plate appearances in 2015.

Color me optimistic. He got to play a little in the Fall league, so he didn’t miss all of last year. He’s been hitting for power in the spring, too. That’s not a great barometer for general success, but it can provide us hope when it comes to health. When he was healthy, back in 2015, he hit as many barrels per ball in play as Jose Bautista, so that power wasn’t a mirage. A career 21% strikeout rate in the minors suggests that he’ll improve his contact rates in his second go at the league.

If he struggles while the team surges, the Yankees have options. They could send down Bird and use Chris Carter and Matt Holliday at first, or call up Tyler Austin and see what he can do. But the team fares best if Bird beasts.

Adrian Gonzalez 595 .266 .333 .439 .328 5.4 -2.3 3.6 1.5
Scott Van Slyke 35 .245 .325 .408 .318 0.0 -0.1 0.1 0.1
Chase Utley 35 .238 .302 .372 .293 -0.7 0.0 0.1 0.0
Cody Bellinger 35 .234 .304 .433 .316 0.0 0.0 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .262 .329 .434 .325 4.7 -2.4 4.0 1.6

Adrian Gonzalez has had down years before. So it’s possible that, in that context, his 2016 season might not be so worrisome. Consider: he was still 12% better than league average! Yes. But, poke under the hood, and it gets worse. He lost 1.3 mph off his exit velocity on fly balls and hit more grounders than he’s ever hit before. He pulled the ball in the air a lot less, and generally looked 34 years old. Now he’s got some injury issues in the spring and is a year older. Maybe he’ll only be about 10% better than the league this year, which is only about average for a first baseman.

Short-term replacements for Gonzo include lefty Chase Utley and righty Sott Van Slyke in some sort of platoon. The team has the depth to replace those players at other positions if it comes to it. The Dodgers also have the luxury of going to the best first-base prospect in the game. Cody Bellinger never gets cheated on a swing, and yet has never had crazy strikeout rates in the minors — and adds a plus glove and good athleticism on the basepaths. The future at first base probably won’t come this year, but if it does, Dodger fans should be excited.

Eric Thames 525 .259 .336 .504 .353 10.7 0.0 -2.4 1.6
Jesus Aguilar 105 .244 .306 .430 .314 -1.3 0.0 0.4 0.1
Hernan Perez 63 .264 .293 .392 .294 -1.8 0.2 0.0 -0.1
Travis Shaw 7 .246 .311 .432 .317 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .257 .327 .481 .342 7.5 0.2 -2.0 1.6

While placing 15th here in terms of projected overall production, the Brewers’ first-base situation may be No. 1 in terms of intrigue. The 30-year-old Eric Thames has been destroying the Korean Baseball Organization for the last three years, and the Brewers made a $16 million bet that those numbers will translate well to Major League Baseball. It’s those translations that everyone will be watching — using major-league equivalencies for the KBO can be scary, considering that the sample of hitters who’ve played in both leagues isn’t large. If those MLEs are right, Thames will be an above-average first baseman at the plate and on the basepaths, but not with the glove. Who knows, though? Grab the popcorn.

If the experiment doesn’t work out, the Brewers will have plenty of options. Jesus Aguilar, the right-handed former Indians farmhand, may steal some at-bats against lefties. He’s been raking this spring, but is 26 and lost most of his shine even as he hit 30 home runs in Triple-A last year. Travis Shaw is going to play some third, but so is Hernan Perez, and either of the two could play first base. The minor leagues may produce an option this year, too: Lucas Erceg is hitting the snot out of the ball, but is slated to taste Double-A and stay at third base. If Jacob Nottingham can cut the strikeouts and/or find the power again, he could also help at first. He probably shouldn’t catch any more, at least.

16. Astros
Yulieski Gurriel 490 .265 .326 .445 .327 3.7 -0.5 2.1 1.4
Marwin Gonzalez 105 .257 .297 .400 .301 -1.5 -0.3 0.3 0.0
A.J. Reed 70 .241 .318 .426 .320 0.1 0.0 -0.1 0.1
Tyler White 35 .248 .322 .414 .319 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .261 .321 .435 .322 2.4 -0.7 2.2 1.6

Zoom back in time three or four years, head to an Astros bar like the Flying Saucer, order a Yellow Rose, and ask a group of people watching the game about how they think the club’s first-base situation will unfold. I doubt that “all these stud young first basemen in the system are going to have trouble and the team will sign a Cuban third baseman to play first in his mid-30s” will be anyone’s reply. Considering the nature of Yulieski Gurriel’s major-league debut — marked more by strong contact skills than power — it’s just so bizarre that he’s become the answer in the wake of the prospect-packed, strikeout-ridden Astros clubs of recent history. In related news, this year’s Astros team is projected to make a rare leap on the strikeout-rate leaderboard.

Projections can’t agree on that contact rate for Gurriel, and you can see why. Cuban numbers are notoriously hard to translate, and Guirrel had more strikeouts in his 61 minor-league plate appearances that he did in his 137 major-league PAs. So he’s a bit of a question mark, even with his decent projections.

A.J. Reed struggled in his debut but is projected to improve his strikeout rates in 2017 — and has shown better contact skills this spring. If he finds the power he exhibited in the minor leagues, he’ll better his projections and take the job. Either way, it should be a decent tandem, with different risks tucked in different sorts of pockets: Reed is a lefty with more ceiling and Gurriel is a righty with more floor. Tyler White is an above-average backup plan, even if he’s projected to be a league-average bat.

17. Royals
Eric Hosmer 644 .277 .340 .444 .335 5.6 -0.9 -1.1 1.4
Brandon Moss 28 .231 .311 .446 .322 -0.1 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Cheslor Cuthbert 21 .267 .317 .412 .315 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Samir Duenez 7 .257 .294 .384 .292 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .275 .338 .442 .334 5.2 -1.0 -1.4 1.4

The average first baseman in the American League last year hit .250/.327/.440. Eric Hosmer, meanwhile, hit .266/.328/.433. That’s almost the same thing! If you disagree with the defensive metrics and believe he’s not a liability with the glove, you can push the wins projection closer to average. It’s hard to say how you could go much further than that, though. This is who Hosmer is: an historical boring-bat anomaly at a bat-heavy position with (perhaps) the clutch skills that make him seem much better than his numbers say he’s been.

If an injury takes down Hosmer, then Brandon Moss — who prefers first base to the outfield — will jump in and provide similar value. But if talks break down between Hosmer and his current team, and the Royals aren’t very good this year, we might see prospect Ryan O’Hearn take over at first this year. Our own Eric Longenhagen recently said in a chat that O’Hearn was the player absent from his top-100 list most likely to have a decent career. He also rated the player fourth best in the Royals system and thought the door was open for him to be an average everyday player.

18. Twins
Joe Mauer 455 .268 .355 .390 .322 -0.5 -0.5 1.3 0.8
Byung-ho Park 140 .243 .316 .458 .330 0.8 0.0 0.4 0.4
Kennys Vargas 105 .242 .325 .438 .327 0.3 -0.1 -0.2 0.2
Total 700 .259 .343 .411 .325 0.6 -0.5 1.5 1.3

Two years and $46 million. That’s what’s left on the contract that was supposed to keep then-catcher and -superstar Joe Mauer at the center of this Twins team. Of course, he signed that deal the year after he hit 28 homers and nearly doubled his previous isolated slugging percentages, and then never showed that type of power again. Mauer’s extreme patience (only six players have swung less than him the last three years) and extreme opposite-field approach (only two players have gone oppo more often in the last three years) have carved him out a high-OBP, high-batting-average, low-power niche in the game, but it’s not one that’s commensurate in value with his contract. Oh well, nothing to be done about that contract at this point, and Mauer still has value.

If the Twins can ever trade him — they gave him a full no-trade clause, and he’s almost synonymous with the team name — they do have some options behind him. Byung-ho Park cleared waivers and the all-or-nothing Korean first baseman is rewarding them with a big spring built on the same high-exit-velocity game the righty showed last year, hidden beneath a terrible batting average. Kennys Vargas, the switch-hitting Puerto Rican developed in-house, was supposed to take the job this year with his own hard-hitting, contact-averse approach. They could work in tandem given their handedness but won’t both be Twins with Mauer still around since they need to split the first-base and DH situations.

19. Angels
Luis Valbuena 350 .232 .324 .404 .316 0.5 -0.4 -0.6 0.5
C.J. Cron 315 .266 .309 .452 .324 2.5 -0.6 -0.4 0.7
Jefry Marte 21 .243 .302 .417 .310 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Albert Pujols 14 .264 .320 .464 .331 0.2 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .249 .316 .428 .320 3.0 -1.1 -1.0 1.3

If you’re wondering why Albert Pujols isn’t higher on this depth chart, it’s not because his recovery from foot surgery has gone poorly. He’s playing this spring and should be ready for Opening Day. He’s just no longer an asset in the field like he used to be, and will likely be the designated hitter for the Angels going forward.

So newcomer, and former third baseman, Luis Valbuena looks like the strong-side platoon leader at first base. Valbuena may not have curried the market’s interest this offseason, but he’s been 26% better than league average against righties in the last three years, on par with fellow lefties Carlos Gonzalez and Christian Yelich.

The 31-year-old Valbuena will share the position with 27-year-old righty C.J. Cron, who looks like ex-Angel Mark Trumbo in a lot of ways. He also doesn’t walk or strikeout as much as other sluggers, at least. If he can push his power to Trumbonian levels, Cron may take the job outright and push Valbuena into a time share at third base. Either way, Cron’s flaws will keep the position from rising much further in the depth charts.

Mitch Moreland 420 .249 .312 .424 .315 -4.6 -0.7 3.4 0.5
Hanley Ramirez 210 .281 .355 .479 .356 4.8 -0.3 -0.8 0.7
Brock Holt 70 .272 .335 .376 .312 -0.9 0.2 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .261 .327 .436 .327 -0.8 -0.8 2.4 1.2

Remember when Hanley Ramirez was a bad-glove shortstop who was destined to move to third? He’s hit every branch on the way down the defensive-spectrum tree and is suddenly a DH who will play first base against lefties. The good news is that the bat has survived the fall — and also bounced back from a terrible first season in Boston. The bad news is that the health waxes and wanes and seems to be the primary indicator of his overall success in a given year. This spring, he’s dealing with a throwing problem of some sort, but maybe that DH slot will help him nurse his way through anything that’s barking.

For his career, Mitch Moreland has been 5% better than league average against righties, with a .258/.321/.457 line that looks useful. His isolated-power numbers, and his strikeout and walk rates, have been fairly stable — it’s just his ball-in-play numbers that have oscillated up and down, taking his overall value with them.

He’s obviously capable of serving as half of a league-average grouping, and Hanley’s bat is capable of floating the other half. But that doesn’t mean that the Boston tandem doesn’t have a fair share of risk between Hanley’s health and Moreland’s BABIP.

Mike Napoli 525 .234 .336 .439 .335 3.2 -1.8 1.8 1.2
Ryan Rua 105 .243 .307 .402 .306 -1.8 0.0 0.1 0.0
Joey Gallo 28 .213 .309 .450 .323 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Josh Hamilton   28 .250 .304 .428 .311 -0.4 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Ronald Guzman 14 .242 .286 .375 .285 -0.5 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .235 .328 .432 .328 0.5 -1.8 1.7 1.2

The Red Sox took the Rangers’ first baseman, and the Rangers took a former Red Sox first baseman, who was also once a Rangers first baseman. This is how your competitive teams fill the first-base position.

Not to say that Mike Napoli is flotsam or jetsam. He’s been 10% above league average with the bat, or better, every year of his career save one early season with the Angels and another one (2015) split between Boston and Texas. Of course, that last one is a little bit more worrisome, considering he’s 35 years old now and just had the second-worst strikeout rate of his career last season. If he keeps the three extra ticks on fly-ball exit velocity that led to the career high in home runs last season, Napoli would better the projections and push this ranking, but the opposite is just as possible, if not more so.

Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar are probably going to be needed in the outfield, but the team does still have an interesting backup plan in Joey Gallo. Gallo is still striking out nearly half the time this spring, but if anyone could push a 40% strikeout rate and still have enough power and patience to sniff league-average value, it would be this kid. But 50% is untenable.

Justin Bour 490 .264 .336 .444 .331 3.3 -1.0 -0.9 0.8
Derek Dietrich 210 .250 .335 .417 .326 0.7 0.0 -0.6 0.3
Total 700 .260 .335 .436 .329 4.0 -1.1 -1.5 1.1

You don’t have to fiddle with the filters much to make Bour look like a viable option at first base. You do have to relax the qualifiers, since he’s been hurt and platooned a fair amount, but among first baseman with 750-plus plate appearances since the start of 2015, Bour is 12th in wRC+, right between Carlos Santana and Wil Myers. He’s 28, healthy, doesn’t have a real flaw when it comes to contact, patience, or power, and his team has hinted they are ready to give him the everyday job at first. If he can handle lefties at all, and keep his power to his demonstrated levels instead of falling to projected levels, there might be some breakout potential here, even.

If Bour doesn’t take the job, they don’t have a natural platoon partner to hold his hand. Derek Dietrich has used decent power to hit 10% better than league average to date, but he’s basically projected to be league average there. He’s more of a super utility guy than any sort of backup plan or viable first-base solution.

Justin Smoak 420 .227 .313 .412 .314 -3.2 -1.3 0.0 0.2
Steve Pearce 140 .265 .342 .483 .352 3.3 -0.2 0.2 0.6
Kendrys Morales 105 .266 .330 .470 .340 1.5 -0.6 0.0 0.3
Rowdy Tellez 35 .251 .313 .433 .319 -0.1 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .242 .321 .436 .326 1.5 -2.1 0.1 1.1

The joke is that Justin Smoak has naked pictures of someone in the Blue Jays front office, since he’s basically been a replacement-level player for his entire career and Toronto opted to keep him around for two more years and $8.2 million. Maybe instead it’s that their in-house analytics like him more defensively at first base, see what Jeff Sullivan saw in Smoak’s batted-ball stats, and hope for more power going forward. Those things are more probable than leaked Snapchat images.

He’s 17% worse than the league against lefties so far in his career, though, so righty Steve Pearce will get some time at the position. The new Jay has been 30% better than the league against lefties. Let’s not mention here that he’s been Smoak’s equal against righties, though. That’d be rude. If Smoak is what he’s been, Pearce’s playing time at the position could go way up.

Speaking of rude, let’s get Rowdy Tellez in the picture here. Tellez has been tearing up the minor leagues, to the point that projections like the 22-year-old for league-average offense in the big leagues, this year. He’s bad bodied and a liability at first base to some, but he’s also dropped 30 pounds and worked hard on his glove in the meantime. It might be time to get Rowdy this year, though that probably only happens if Smoak is bad and Pearce isn’t healthy.

Yonder Alonso 455 .266 .331 .390 .314 -0.6 -1.1 1.9 0.8
Ryon Healy 140 .271 .308 .439 .319 0.4 -0.1 -1.2 0.1
Mark Canha 35 .248 .313 .411 .313 -0.1 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Matt Olson 35 .220 .312 .388 .304 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Matt Chapman 35 .214 .282 .412 .296 -0.5 0.0 0.2 0.0
Total 700 .261 .322 .402 .313 -1.2 -1.1 0.8 1.0

Despite the breakout of Ryon Healy and the signing of Trevor Plouffe, it looks like Yonder Alonso is still the starter against righties at first base. In the past, he’s ridden patience and a good glove to one-win production on a seasonal basis, so it’s not a stretch to expect about the same this year. What’s a little different this time around, though, is that Alonso is trying to hit more fly balls this year. He’s killing it this spring, and has been changing where he positions himself on defense to better fit his home park, so there’s hope for something better even as he turns 30 this season.

If it doesn’t work out, the Athletics can move guys around. Not only could they just make Healy and Plouffe full-timers and then rotate players like Mark Canha in and out of DH, but there are some young players in the pipeline who could help at first. Chris Mitchell’s KATOH system likes Matt Chapman as the 39th-best prospect based on his huge power. He’ll mostly likely have to make a little more contact, though, if he wants to be a regular in the majors. Matt Olson has the other problem: his contact and patience rates are fine, but he needs a bit more power to make it at first.

Tommy Joseph   595 .261 .306 .483 .334 5.3 -0.8 -2.1 1.1
Andres Blanco 70 .251 .308 .384 .301 -1.3 -0.3 -0.5 -0.1
Howie Kendrick 35 .273 .331 .390 .313 -0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .261 .307 .468 .329 3.7 -1.1 -2.6 1.0

He’s 25 now, and he’s not a catcher, but Tommy Joseph is in the big leagues. After coming over to the Phillies from the Giants in the Hunter Pence trade, he suffered repeated concussions and had to move off his first position eventually. Across the majors and minors last year, he hit 27 homers in 447 combined plate appearances, so the power seems legit, even if it disappeared at times in the minors. He had a lot going on then. What’s keeping his projections back now is a lack of patience (not likely to improve much, given his proclivity for swinging away) and playing time. It’s hard to project him as a full-time starter given his sporadic plate-appearance totals in recent years.

If he does play all year, and adds a little patience, the guys behind him won’t play much. If he needs a platoon partner… the guys behind him won’t play that much. The only lefty with the bat-and-glove combo to play first base, maybe, is Michael Saunders. He’s never played first before, but has hurt his knees playing in the outfield. Crazier things have happened.

Dan Vogelbach 385 .243 .334 .408 .322 1.9 -0.1 -0.3 0.8
Danny Valencia 301 .261 .314 .426 .318 0.6 -0.8 -2.4 0.2
D.J. Peterson 14 .221 .268 .376 .278 -0.4 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .250 .324 .415 .319 2.1 -0.9 -2.8 1.0

The Mariners are going to give everyone’s favorite adult son a chance at first base. The projection systems all think Dan Vogelbach can be a league-average hitter, at least against righties, and most think he can handle first base with the glove. There’s still a decent amount of disagreement about what Vogelbach will do with his chance, and the Mariners are projected to be in the Wild Card race. There might be a change at the position if the team is going well but Vogelbach is struggling.

It’s unclear what that change would be, though. The team seems to have painted themselves into a corner here. Danny Valencia would be a fine solution against lefties, and maybe the team would just let him loose while Vogelbach works on things in the minor leagues. Nelson Cruz at first? Eh. Justin Morneau? Billy Butler?

Vogelbach will probably be fine. Right?

Ian Desmond   420 .280 .335 .465 .342 -2.5 1.1 4.8 0.9
Mark Reynolds 210 .252 .334 .457 .339 -1.9 -0.4 0.1 0.1
Gerardo Parra 35 .278 .316 .420 .315 -1.0 0.0 0.1 -0.1
Stephen Cardullo 35 .266 .317 .426 .319 -0.9 -0.1 0.0 -0.1
Total 700 .271 .333 .458 .339 -6.3 0.6 4.9 0.9

This ranking took a bit of a hit when Ian Desmond suffered a broken hand this spring. The Rockies’ new first baseman will probably miss a month of the season, so you take a 100 plate appearances off for that, then you take another 80 or so off for the other positions he’ll play. Because he will play other positions, right? Right?!? It’s just so weird to put a guy with defensive ability and an average first baseman’s line at first base, but that looks like the plan.

The result is that the injury doesn’t actually hurt the club too much. Add back in the missing month, and the Rockies improve to 22nd or 23rd. Nope, the signing is still one of the weirder ones of the offseason. Maybe the weirdest.

Mark Reynolds can put up about the same weighted on base average, especially if limited to facing only lefties, and isn’t a terrible fielder. Gerardo Parra didn’t look great at first last year, but it was his first go. Not sure that platoon wouldn’t have sufficed if they wanted to spend the money elsewhere. Last year’s 28-year-old rookie Stephen Cardullo did show up in a “Next Brandon Moss” query, but his power numbers were likely inflated by good minor-league parks, since he didn’t show that same power in the independent leagues from whence he was plucked.

Josh Bell 245 .275 .351 .426 .334 2.8 -0.5 -1.2 0.5
David Freese 210 .256 .329 .395 .316 -0.6 -0.8 -0.6 0.1
John Jaso 175 .264 .348 .408 .331 1.6 -0.6 -0.7 0.3
Jason Rogers   63 .249 .318 .381 .305 -0.8 0.0 -0.3 0.0
Jose Osuna 7 .253 .295 .397 .297 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .340 .408 .325 3.0 -1.9 -2.7 0.8

The narrative is healthy here: this is just another good team here at the back end of this list. And in past years, the Pirates were completely into skimping at first base, as they’ve run out (in no particular order) John Jaso, Michael Morse, Garret Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Casey McGehee, Ike Davis, Travis Ishikawa, and Lyle Overbay at the position over the last five years.

But this year is a little different. Josh Bell isn’t projected to be awesome, but he’s an internal prospect with a little more upside than you’d normally see from a Pirate first baseman. Projections and prognosticators don’t think Bell will show a ton of power or glove, and the depth charts feel Bell will get some outfield time, and that’s why the group is hurt here. But Bell has been working hard on defense and has shown some power outbursts in the past; if he does better than expected in those two fields, you’ll see the Pirates zoom up the rankings.

If he doesn’t, the team still has John Jaso and can return to their standard practices at first base.

29. Rays
Logan Morrison 420 .245 .321 .413 .317 0.0 -0.7 -1.6 0.5
Brad Miller 175 .250 .317 .437 .324 1.0 0.1 0.2 0.4
Tim Beckham 70 .234 .285 .376 .286 -1.8 -0.1 -0.1 -0.1
Nick Franklin 35 .239 .306 .382 .299 -0.5 0.1 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .245 .315 .414 .315 -1.3 -0.6 -1.8 0.8

It’s been a long time since Logan Morrison was the brash young Marlin with the fire Twitter account. Morrison will turn 30 this year and his social-media personality has mellowed with time. Ongoing knee problems have kept him from ever putting up a full season, but the Rays won’t really need that from him this time around. They’ll just need him to walk some, make decent contact, and have better than league-average power and maybe get a little bit more out of his balls in play than he has for his career.

When/if he gets hurt, the Rays will have options. Nick Franklin can play second base and push Brad Miller back to first, where the latter played for much of last year. Even with regression coming for Miller’s power, most likely, that set-up wouldn’t miss much of a beat. In fact, the Rays may decide that’s the way to go, regardless.

Ryan Zimmerman 455 .249 .309 .424 .314 -4.1 -0.3 -0.8 0.1
Adam Lind 203 .269 .335 .436 .330 0.7 -0.6 -0.7 0.2
Clint Robinson 28 .252 .326 .382 .309 -0.4 -0.1 -0.2 0.0
Matt Skole 7 .230 .315 .398 .309 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Jose Marmolejos 7 .248 .301 .382 .295 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .255 .317 .425 .318 -4.0 -0.9 -1.7 0.3

Someone has to be last. In this case, it’s the Nationals — despite having one of the best teams in the National League. Going strictly by the numbers, it’s easy to see why they belong here. Ryan Zimmerman is 32 and has been 15% worse than league average over 857 plate appearances since the 2015 season started. He’s coming off a career-low walk rate and a career-high strikeout rate.

Dig under the surface, though, and there’s some hope. Zimmerman was 14th in average exit velocity last year, a fact which seems at odds with his poor batting average on balls in play the last two years. The problem for Zimmerman has been trouble getting the ball in the air. He’s been murdering grounders and is aware of the problem.

If he can lift the ball, he’ll see a resurgence — and the Nationals will be happy with their first baseman. If he doesn’t improve, he’ll probably fall into the soft side of a strict platoon with newcomer Adam Lind, who has been 26% better than league average against righties in his career. In which case, at least according to the projections, the team will improve their ranking here. All the way up to… huh, 30th.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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7 years ago

I love these write-ups so please take these as quibbles, not criticisms.

1) I’m a bit confused by this comment in the Indians’ write-up re: Encarnacion: “Then again, he’s 34 and moving from the fly-ball-friendly Rogers Centre to a park in Cleveland that can stifle offense.”

Fangraphs own data shows the complete opposite:


(and yeah I know that’s only one year and an incomplete year at that but Baseball Reference’s 3 year factors show the same thing.

2) The Yankees write-up on Bird says: “so it’s hard to know how much he’ll improve on last year’s 29.8% rate”.

That rate is, of course, from 2015, not last year.

Again, these are quibbles on an extremely enjoyable and interesting piece. Keep up the amazing work!!!

7 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Closer look shows that progressive field plays much better for LHH than a RHH.


7 years ago
Reply to  Samuel

Fair point though the sentence doesn’t mention handedness. It talks about park factors in general.

7 years ago
Reply to  emh1969

Yeah but it’s talking about park factors in general as they pertain to Encarnacion, which completely negates what you were talking about to begin with.