ST. LOUIS, MO -SEPTEMBER 7: Prince Fielder #28 of the Milwaukee Brewers and Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals stand on first base at Busch Stadium on September 7, 2011 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Cardinals beat the Brewers 2-0. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
I'm sure that most of you have already heard about some of the first basemen that will be on the market this winter. The two guys expected to command more attention, and presumably more money, than anybody else both happen to play the position. But not everybody will be able to afford Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, so let's take a look at the long list of alternatives that could be changing uniforms before next season. I've already previewed this winter's market for catching help, and as I delve through each position, you can expect me to cover the same topics: free agents, trade candidates, possible sleepers and one wild card player that I believe could shake up the market.
THE FREE AGENTS
Obviously keeping up with the likes of Pujols and Fielder is hard, but you can see pretty clearly from this list that you're not acquiring an elite talent unless it's one of those two guys. Pena will give you 30 homers, a bunch of walks and good defense, but he'll do it while batting .230 on the year. Berkman and Cuddyer could end up spending most of their time in the outfield next season. Lee and Kotchman are cheaper alternatives that won't require long-term commitments, but obviously it's hard to gauge what either one will bring to the table next season.
A back-up first baseman is one of the most limited roles that a player can fill, given that these players are often simply glorified pinch-hitters. Most good first basemen are pretty durable, and it's hard to waste an ever-valuable roster spot on someone that lacks defensive versatility. Most of these guys can play another position, like third base or left field, but realistically none of these guys can be helpful players in the field.
Not a whole bunch of first base options that are looking at options this winter, and I would be surprised if either of these guys ended up on the open market. Encarnacion has had a solid year at the plate and should have trade value even if the Blue Jays exercise their option, after another solid year on Atlanta's bench, I'd be surprised if the Braves didn't simply exercise Hinske's option to retain his services.
THE TRADE CANDIDATES
I've decided to boil this section down, ignoring potential starter and potential back-up designations. Nobody really trades for a back-up first baseman- most franchises already have a decent Quad-A hitter in house. When it comes to first basemen, unless you're a potential starter, you're really just not worth discussing for too long. So instead, I've decided to divvy them up into three groups based on pay and experience.
All three of these guys are owed a bunch of money for 2012, but all of them could end up being dealt if their respective teams want to go in new directions. Dunn is probably too costly to be a legitimate trade candidate, but the White Sox are going to have to figure out how to find room for Dayan Viciedo this winter. LaRoche is far cheaper than the other three, but he's not a particularly good player and already lost his job to Mike Morse earlier this season. And as for Lee, he's played well enough to earn a spot with the Astros next year, but Houston could be interested in moving him to save some money and give Brett Wallace another shot. Yeah, and there's Huff, too.
Morales probably stands out a bit here, but all three of these guys have been pretty good for an extended period of time in the past. Barton was one of the AL's best first basemen in 2010. Morales was one of the best in 2009. Jones batted .293/.372/.567 over a half-season that same year. None of these guys thrived this season, as Morales has missed the season and Barton's spent most of the year in Triple-A, but they're all intriguing to different degrees.
None of these guys is fully proven yet, but all of them have the potential to be cheap, high-quality regulars. Morrison is the big name here. I wouldn't mention him, but there are a few things that stand out to me: he's a bad defensive outfielder, Gaby Sanchez is Florida's regular first baseman (he's good) and Morrison hasn't gotten along too well with Marlins management. So, he's blocked in an organization that hasn't exactly loved his off-field antics. That's a possible trade candidate to me, even if it's highly unlikely. Alonso is probably the other name that stands out, and I'll be utterly shocked if he doesn't get traded this winter. The other seven guys listed here have had different degrees of success this season, but they all have nice pop and wouldn't cost much in terms of money.
THE BIG WILD CARD
Don't immediately ignore me here. This could make some sense. Yeah, I know that Votto is one of the best players in baseball. Realistically, that's a big part of why it could make some sense to trade him. The Reds owe Votto just over $30 million for the next two seasons, after which he'll become a free agent. It would be shocking to see the Reds retain him after that point, given that he'll presumably be able to start contract negotiations with Mark Teixeira's eight-year, $180 million deal. And the Reds already have a top-notch prospect waiting in the wings with Alonso, who could slot right into Votto's role.
There are numerous reasons to not trade Votto, too. Namely, it's really hard to get a strong return for a franchise player. But we saw over the summer that teams are still willing to give up good prospects for proven talent, and few guys have proven to be as good as Votto over the past two years. If someone is willing to give up a monster package, I think there's a non-zero possibility that the Reds show interest in making a deal. We've already heard that peculiar Votto-for-Bautista rumor this summer. Maybe there's more to it than we thought. Yeah, I'm just speculating here, but Votto is the kind of bat that would appeal to practically every team in baseball.
LaHair is becoming less of a sleeper as people talk about his gaudy Triple-A numbers, and there are some legitimate signs that the 28-year-old slugger is proving to be more than a mere Quad-A guy. We can go over the numbers- 38 homers, a .331/.405/.664 line in 129 games with Iowa- but more importantly, the scouts are starting to buy him as a potential starter. In a recent piece for ESPN.com, Kevin Goldstein quoted one scout as saying, "If you gave him a full-time job in the majors, he'd hit .270-.275 with 20-25 home runs." There are a bunch of teams that would take that kind of production at first base.
It's easy to look at Sands' brutal .187/.283/.302 line with the Dodgers this season and assume that his pre-season hype was unwarranted, but I'd rather focus on his impressive Triple-A numbers. In 94 games with Triple-A Albuquerque this season, Sands has posted a .278/.344/.596 line while launching out 29 homers. Even in a strong hitter's environment, a .308 isolated power stands out. It's unclear whether Sands will be able to hit for average in the majors, but the power is there, and he could have a nice breakout next year if the Dodgers are smart enough to drop James Loney and give him the full-time job.
Adams doesn't get a ton of attention, partially because of a relatively weak pedigree and partially because it's hard to envision anyone but Pujols playing first base for the Cardinals. He's worth watching, though, and I expect him to become a pretty intriguing trade candidate if/when Pujols re-inks with St. Louis. A 23rd-round pick in 2009, Adams has had to hit his way onto most prospect lists, but he's certainly done that. The bulky slugger posted a .300/.357/.566 line with Double-A Springfield, winning Texas League MVP honors. With excellent power and good hitting skills, you have to wonder what the Cardinals plan on doing with him next season. There's probably a non-zero chance that he's the 2012 first baseman for St. Louis.