Punting First Base Is The New Black

It’s no secret that this winter has not been kind to veteran hitters, particularly those with limited defensive ability. Mike Napoli is still a free agent, as are Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez. Brandon Moss just signed with the Royals yesterday, getting a backloaded $12 million on a two year deal. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Mark Trumbo all took significant discounts relative to their initial asking prices. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the market for offense-first players was remarkably poor this year, to the point where it could be seen as an overcorrection; perfectly useful players are signing for less than what similarly valuable players with different skills are getting paid.

What is perhaps most interesting about this development, however, is that the teams who could are most in need of a first base upgrade are also teams that should be trying to squeak out every marginal win they can find.

If you look at the projections on our site for value by position, you’ll notice a lot of the same teams at the bottom for most spots. Worst projected value from their catchers in 2017? The Rockies are down there in part because our forecasts don’t yet include the potential value of Tony Wolters‘ framing abilities, but then there’s the Braves, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Phillies, Twins, Padres, and Brewers. Worst second baseman? The Royals, who want to win, but then the Braves, Diamondbacks, Brewers, and White Sox. Worst shortstops? Padres, Brewers, Diamondbacks… you get the idea.

But if you go to the projected first base depth charts, here are the teams at the bottom, along with their 2017 projected record, according to our current forecasts.

30. Texas Rangers, 83-79
29. Pittsburgh Pirates, 82-80
28. Washington Nationals, 90-72
27. Seattle Mariners, 83-79
26. Colorado Rockies, 79-83
25. Toronto Blue Jays, 84-78

The Rockies are the only one of the six teams with the least projected value from their first baseman to not currently project as a .500 or better team, and that will change once the more-optimistic ZIPS forecasts are folded into the depth charts. All six of these teams are going into 2017 looking to win, and all of them have pretty questionable first base situations.

Of the six, the Nationals are probably the one without a strong opportunity to do something about their 1B situation, since Ryan Zimmerman still has three years and almost $50 million left on his contract, and getting ownership to replace a guy making that kind of money is never an easy conversation. But, of course, the Nationals could have acquired a better alternative than Clint Robinson, so that if Zimmerman struggles again, they could have a reasonable alternative around; for instance, Seth Smith would have been perfect for them, giving them depth behind Jayson Werth as well.

But let’s give the Nationals a bit of a pass, since they have more reason to continue to bet on Zimmerman than the other teams. The Rockies would, of course, quibble with the idea that Desmond is likely to produce at a below-average level, given what they just spent to get him, so that’s more of a difference in forecasts between the public and what Colorado thinks they’re likely to get. They’re not really punting first base as much as they just think their first baseman is better than we do.

But the other four? The Rangers, Pirates, Mariners, and Blue Jays just seem to be okay going into the season with mediocre options, most of which have fairly limited ceilings. The Pirates probably like Josh Bell more than the public forecasts do, but the reality remains that he’s a very weak defender without the kind of power you usually associate from a bat-only player. Likewise, the Mariners are going forward with Dan Vogelbach, hoping his high walk rates from the minors translate into enough on-base percentage to offset the lack of much else in his game that will provide value, but as a guy who probably fits best at DH, he’s going to have to hit a lot to be worth playing, and there doesn’t seem to be much optimism outside of Seattle that he’ll hit at that kind of level.

The Blue Jays are probably the most egregious offender here, with Justin Smoak — himself a cautionary tale about 1B prospects who extract a lot of value from their walk rates despite average power — looking like the guy in line for the most at-bats at first base. With Vogelbach and Bell, you can at least bet on their youth and hope for power development, but Smoak is 29 and has a career wRC+ of 95 in nearly 3,000 plate appearances; he is what he is.

And we haven’t even mentioned the Red Sox, who are only higher on our depth charts because we have Hanley Ramirez getting at-bats at the position against left-handers, when he would be in the line-up anyway; if we were to evaluate the team’s first base situation by looking solely at the expected production from Mitch Moreland and Chris Young (the right-hander who will likely play when Moreland sits), they’d be in this conversation too, as another contender that is basically punting production from first base.

Most likely, this is a reaction to the fact that first base is just particularly weak right now. Baseball talent is cyclical, and we’ve moved into a time where there just aren’t that many good players at the first base position relative to players at other spots. Shifts also disproportionately hurt older, pull-heavy slow players, and that basically describes the first base arch type, so it’s possible that the changes in the game’s defensive alignments are going to change what we should expect from first baseman offensively.

But it still remains interesting to me that so many contenders have moved so quickly away from looking to upgrade at first base. The Pirates found $11 million for Daniel Hudson to pitch in middle relief while the Mariners gave the same amount to Marc Rzepczynski, preferring bullpen depth over first base upgrades, so it’s not like these teams didn’t have any money to spend in a depressed market for decent hitters. It just seems that a number of teams in win-now mode are okay going into the year with a first baseman who doesn’t produce like we’ve historically expected.

The issue could very well be on our end, and perhaps we just need to adjust what normal production from a first baseman looks like these days. Or maybe this summer the White Sox are going to get a massive haul for Jose Abreu when a number of teams realize that they should maybe thinking about acquiring a player who could substantially upgrade their line-up. We’ll find out in July!

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Monsignor Martinez
7 years ago

Interesting take. Does this make 1B prospects far less valuable, as they would have to exceed normal levels of production in order to be worth having?

7 years ago

Yes, I think, is the short answer. If you’ve got two prospects with identical batting lines, and the first one’s write-up says “defense won’t play anywhere except first” and the second one’s write-up says “should stick in a corner-outfield spot”, you’ve got a pretty big difference in prospect values.

If I counted correctly, BaseballAmerica’s 2016 Top 100 Prospects List had 4 players listed at 1B only (as opposed to 14 at SS), only one of whom (AJ Reed) was in the top 75.

7 years ago

They are far less valuable and have been for many years.

7 years ago

Yes but not because of this, it’s because it’s basically always been true.

7 years ago

All else being equal, but by virtue of being a 1B prospect, they’re likely better hitters than prospects at other positions.