Coming into the offseason, there seemed to be a plethora of first basemen available on the open market. With Paul Konerko, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, Adam LaRoche, Lance Berkman and Lyle Overbay, among others, hitting the free agent market, it seemed likely that some teams would get some nice value at the position.
That hasn't necessarily happened yet, with both Huff and Konerko landing multi-year deals worth over $11 million per season and Pena also reaching double-digits in salary on a one-year deal, but the number of teams with a hole at the position is dwindling. With the previously mentioned three removed from the market, Berkman moving to the outfield in St. Louis, and Overbay taking a one-year deal worth $5 million from Pittsburgh, we're really down to two guys that are likely to land regular jobs: Lee and LaRoche. And given their respective contract demands and track records, it would seem to me that those looking for a first baseman should be going much harder after Lee.
There are other options on the free agent market, namely Russell Branyan, Nick Johnson, Jorge Cantu, Casey Kotchman and Troy Glaus, but it's hard to see any team feeling comfortable writing one of those names into the "1B" spot in the lineup frequently. I see three teams with a clear need to improve at first: Washington, San Diego and Baltimore. It should be easy for those teams to settle on some option (or options) in the upcoming few weeks, with Lee and LaRoche likely to constitute two of those solutions.
But with Baltimore showing clear interest in both players and previous discussion of the other two teams' interest, one has to wonder whether Lee or LaRoche would be a better fit for each team. It's fair to say that LaRoche brings consistency, while Lee brings upside. That seems to be reflected in their contract demands, as Lee is reportedly pursuing a one-year deal in the $8-10 million range while LaRoche wants a three-year deal.
LaRoche is only 31 while Lee is 35, so obviously age factors into this discussion quite prominently. But I'm really struggling to wrap my head around the idea that LaRoche deserves a three-year deal. He's been essentially a league average player over the past five seasons, averaging 2.3 WAR per year without obvious peaks or valleys. Lee is a completely different story; over the past five seasons his WAR has ranged from 0.8 to 5.2, averaging 3.6 WAR per year when you exclude his injury-marred 2006.
For me, the obvious call is to go with Lee's upside and lack of risk. Not only does Lee provide the potential for an elite offensive season (see: Lee's 2009), but he does so while asking for only a one-year guarantee. I haven't even mentioned Lee's superior defensive reputation yet. Even though Lee's more likely to suck with the bat than LaRoche given their respective ages, I just don't see how one can commit multiple years to a first baseman without upside in this market. The offensive consistency is nice, but when you're talking about two players, and one has more offensive upside, superior defensive skills and more reasonable contract demands, the answer seems to be pretty simple. I'm just wondering who figures this out first and ponies up for D-Lee.