Yeah, this year's free agent class doesn't offer an epically good group of first basemen like next year's will- teams will presumably be lining up to sign Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Ross Gload and Adrian Gonzalez, the cream of the first base crop. But there are still some very interesting sluggers hitting the market this summer, and I thought I would outline the tiers that I perceive these guys as being in. There is no mega-Pujols/Gload tier this winter, but those with patience could be rewarded with Mr. Gload next winter, or maybe even better, a Casey Kotchman. So while we wonder if Ruben Amaro will offer Gload a five-year extension, let's take a look at this winter's class.
Tier No. 6: Everyone Else
Everyone else basically consists of bench guys and borderline non-factors. You have some younger, potentially interesting guys like Jorge Cantu, Eric Hinske and Xavier Nady and some utility guys like Ty Wigginton, Fernando Tatis, Mark Kotsay and Melvin Mora. Then there are the likes of Mike Sweeney, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi and David Ortiz (UPDATE: Boston exercised their $12M option on Ortiz today)- the kinds of guys that are relegated to DH status at this point.
Tier No. 5: The Wild Cards
Nobody really knows what Nick Johnson and Troy Glaus are capable of at this point. In 2009, Johnson put up a .426 OBP in 574 PA. In 2008, Glaus hit 27 homers and put up 5.4 WAR as one of the best third baseman in the NL. But each has missed significant time in the past two years, with Johnson missing most of 2010 and Glaus missing most of 2009, and neither player gave indications with their 2010 performance that they could play everyday in 2011. But Johnson is an elite on-base guy when he's healthy, and Glaus flashed a big bat while batting .298/.406/.529 in a 60-game stint from late April to the end of June, so teams out there might be wondering if they can catch lightning in a bottle. I highly doubt that anyone is going to go into Opening Day with Johnson or Glaus as a starter, but they could be intriguing options for teams in need of an offensive boost.
Tier No. 4: They're Decent. That's Sort Of The Problem.
Adam LaRoche, Russell Branyan, Lyle Overbay, and Brad Hawpe are fine hitters. They're not going to blow up and hit .350 or bash 45 homers, but you'll probably get something resembling a league average season from them most of the time. On some levels, that's kind of the issue. Each of these guys projects as something near league average, but none of them offer much upside beyond that.
Let's compare their career years and career offensive numbers, using their best single-season WAR and their career wRC+ (like OPS+, but using wOBA-based Runs Created) marks.
LaRoche: 2.6 WAR, 115 wRC+
Overbay: 2.5 WAR, 114 wRC+
Branyan: 2.9 WAR, 115 wRC+
Hawpe: 2.7 WAR, 117 wRC+
Looking just at those numbers, these four guys are remarkably similar. It's fair to give bonus points to LaRoche and Overbay, guys with long-term experience as everyday first basemen, but it also might be fair to say that Branyan and Hawpe offer a tad more offensive upside. But realistically, these guys are stop-gaps. They're not getting long-term deals, although it wouldn't be surprising if at least a couple of them found full-time gigs somewhere.
Tier No. 3: Former Stars Coming Off Relatively Weak Seasons
Lance Berkman, Derrek Lee and Carlos Pena grace this tier- each of these guys could conceivably come back in a big way next season, but it's hard to ignore the way their respective 2010 seasons played out. The former two ended up getting traded away from teams that were previously built around them. Pena, meanwhile, was the first AL hitter to put up a batting average below .200 while qualifying for the batting title since Rob Deer batted .179 in 1991. But none of these guys was truly worthless, even while struggling. Berkman and Lee still put up 2 wins apiece, as Berkman finished the year with a .368 OBP and Lee batted .287/.384/.465 in 151 PA with Atlanta after being traded. Pena struggled to a larger extent than the other two, but still managed to hit 28 homers and put up league average overall numbers despite an unsustainably low BABIP. One still has to wonder whether Berkman's power will return, the Atlanta Lee or the Chicago Lee will show up in 2011 and why Pena hit the ball on the ground so much in 2010, but in general these are guys that played decently in 2010 and offer a ton of upside beyond that. It's hard to see any multi-year deals given their age (Pena is the youngest, he turns 33 in May) and 2010 performance, but these guys are going to find starting jobs and don't be surprised if one of them has a big year.
Tier No. 2: The Aging Sluggers Coming Off Career Years
At the beginning of the year, I doubt that many people would've projected Paul Konerko as a top-3 first baseman in the AL, or Aubrey Huff as a top-3 first baseman in the NL. But that's where we are now- Konerko and Huff were both among the very best first basemen in their respective leagues. I'm not sure how much we need to talk about Huff- his impressive performance, his thong, and his upcoming contract have been discussed at length recently given the Giants' success. There's reportedly a decent chance that Huff returns to the Bay next season, which wouldn't be surprising given the success of both himself and the team. He'll likely get a multi-year deal after having to settle for $3M on a one-year contract last winter.
Konerko's situation isn't clear at this point, either. The White Sox presumably have interest in bringing their long-time first baseman back after the best offensive season of his career, but he may want to cash in on his first truly great season since 2006. He's not likely to put up a .326 BABIP again, so he's pretty much a lock to regress, but he should provide some nice pop to a lineup. I wouldn't be surprised if he went back to Chicago on a two-year deal.
Tier No. 1: One and Dunn
The top tier is Adam Dunn, plain and simple. After watching his WAR numbers get ravaged by UZR over the years, Dunn shifted over to first base full-time in 2010. Going from arguably the worst defensive outfielder in baseball to merely a poor defensive first baseman did wonders for his value, though, as he was no longer handing runs to the other team with his lack of range and instincts.
It was kind of an odd season for Dunn in 2010, though. He put up by far the worst walk-to-strikeout ratio of his career, flashing worse contact ability than we've ever seen from the slugger despite a tolerable .260 batting average. He's still a very good everyday player thanks to his power, but if this is the beginning of a career phase where he takes less walks and strikes out more, giving the former Red a long-term deal could end up being pretty risky. He's still the top first baseman available through free agency, but it's hard to get that excited when his three-true-outcomes numbers (homers, strikeouts, walks) were the worst of his career.
In the end, it's pretty clear that teams will have some options to sort through to fill their first base and designated hitter holes. They may not come away from the market with a Pujols, or a Gload (Ross Gload Jokes!!!!!!), but there are definitely some guys with impact potential that could come somewhat cheap. And, if some team is feeling particularly antsy, Fielder should be available for the right trade offer, although I'll say right now that giving up big talent for Fielder and then extending him probably wouldn't be the best course of action for most teams.