There is an argument to be made that James Loney was the best free agent signing of the 2013 offseason.
Before freaking out, consider the fact that Loney was signed for a base salary of $2 million. Then consider the fact that first basemen were paid an average of $4.56 million per fWAR produced in 2013 -- before incentives anyway. One may be inclined to think that this number is good, but the figure includes all contracts -- not just free agent deals. Outside of designated hitters (who were paid at a similar rate) the next highest position was left field, which was paid $3.42 million per fWAR produced before incentives. Getting a 2.7 fWAR player at a position where the average pay is so high -- on the open market, no less -- seems like something that should be nearly impossible. However, after the major contracts were handed out at the position to its best players -- Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto -- the market at the position wore thin and contracts like Loney's became the best options for teams.
In the 2014 fee agent class, more of the same can be expected out of first base.
Herein lies the problem with 2014's free agent class at first base: there are no elite players to be had on the open market. It's doubtful that any become available via trade either. That being said, there is one player that should create a lot of interest due to the emergence of his defense in the first year at the position. This player is Mike Napoli -- whose beard-driven four-win performance was a big surprise over at first base in Boston this season.
While Napoli may be the best player on the market, there certainly shouldn't be a ton of excitement over his free agency. While many have assumed that Napoli is a sure bet to head back to Boston, the market sure seems to dictate that Napoli could draw loads of interest. The Red Sox will be players, the Pirates have a need for a bat at first, the Rockies could build something around Tulowitzki and Gonzalez, and nobody should be surprised if the Yankees think one of Napoli or Teixeira could become a DH in the Bronx.
But in all honesty, it is very hard to see how Napoli could go anywhere outside of Boston. With the qualifying offer attached to his name, it wouldn't make much sense for other teams to pay such a premium on a player who will start next season at 32 years old and whose price can be driven up so easily by Boston.
The Secondary Market
Here are some names to consider for the secondary market at first base:
Along with the aforementioned James Loney, this is the group of players that makes up the market for 2014 free agent first basemen. In reality, it would be absurd for Kendrys Morales to turn down his qualifying offer -- so if it is assumed he makes the best decision, then the number of suitors shrinks even more. With this group of players -- many of which are poor fielders and mediocre hitters -- several players should be viewed as platoon options or designated hitters. When that is taken into consideration, teams like the Yankees and Orioles become more realistic options. However, given how poorly some of these players performed in 2013, it's hard to justify some of them even getting offers.
Of the group listed above, there are some creative options. One very interesting option teams have is pairing two players in this class as a platoon. Jeff Baker has had a knack in his career for destroying left-handed pitching -- he owned a 1.073 OPS last year and owns a career .875 OPS against lefties. Meanwhile, Justin Morneau carries the same kind of impressive numbers against right-handed pitchers. While neither is really an acceptable option as a full-time first baseman, it's not unrealistic to think that the pair could produce an OPS in the neighborhood of .850 over a full season when paired together. Baker also has experience at other positions, so it's possible to get his bat in the lineup in other cases as well.
James Loney really is the only member of this group that deserves a shot at a full-time first base job in 2014. Two of his past three seasons have been average-or-better performances -- with the one exception being his terrible 2012 that he split between Los Angeles and Boston. While Loney carries a mediocre bat, his glove is a bit better than might be expected. He's put up 21 DRS in the last three years and his rtot numbers are decent as well. If he can maintain his career BABIP of .308, he should hit well enough to produce around two fWAR in value. The nicest thing about Loney is that he's still only thirty years old -- meaning that signing him to a three-year deal is perfectly reasonable. Due to the lack of a deep market for first basemen and the lack of good ones available, Loney should be able to get a decent deal and possibly incite a miniature bidding war between a pair of teams.
Teams are going to have to be creative to make good additions at first base through the free agent market, and teams that are truly serious about upgrading at the position will have to pursue trades for players like Mark Trumbo. Mike Napoli is the true lead man on this market, but his inconsistent career performance, spotty injury history, age, and compensation tag really make him a risk. Without a true golden child on the market, the market at first base will be defined by the ability to find diamonds in the rough like the Rays did with Loney in 2013. Quite honestly, that Baker/Morneau platoon might be the best option available to teams in this year's free agent class.
. . . . . .
Ken Woolums is the Transactions Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on twitter @Wooly9109