The 2018 batch of first basemen was one of the worst in the modern era. There were 12 teams whose first basemen were below average by wRC+ and seven of them were below replacement as a group. It would stand to reason that this winter first basemen on the market would be going… *Googles “hot toy Christmas 2018”*.
The Red Sox already brought back World Series MVP Steve Pearce, but that move might have been less about them being enamored of Pearce and more about Boston realizing that the bar is closing soon, and they don’t want to go home with Tommy Joseph.
If first basemen were bad in 2018, they might not be much better in 2019. The talent pool isn’t changing after all. But there are players out there that would be clear upgrades over most starting first basemen. Here’s who is available.
Free Agent First Baseman
There are some decent-to-good options here. The teams that need first basemen can thank the Rays, Phillies, and Marlins for that. CJ Cron is coming off a 30-homer season. Justin Bour can hit a bit. Derek Dietrich would be an upgrade for most teams. Marwin Gonzalez, though primarily an outfielder, could provide flexibility to a team that’s dedicated a bunch of money to their current (and bad) first baseman.
First basemen that could be traded. Maybe. Hypothetically.
Goldschmidt is entering his walk year, and the Diamondbacks likely won’t re-sign AJ Pollock and Patrick Corbin. Arizona will probably wait until the trade deadline to see what to do with Goldschmidt, but if the package is enticing enough, the Diamondbacks could deal him before the season.
There’s a possibility, albeit low, that Farhan Zaidi attempts to unload Brandon Belt and his remaining three years and $51.6 million. That’s probably about what Belt would receive on the open market, so unless the Giants retain some of the salary, they’re not getting prospect capital back. Belt also has a modified no-trade clause, so potential matches could be blocked.
So, neither is likely to go. One would think that in a world bereft of first base talent that two of the better ones would be in high demand, but there might not be a market for either.
Teams that could use a First Baseman and can think about contending
Rockies first basemen had a worse wRC+ than the Orioles. The Orioles! Baltimore gave 522 plate appearances to Chris Davis. Chris Davis! He had a 46 wRC+ and was worse -3.1 fWAR. The only two other players to man first for the Orioles this year, Trey Mancini and Corban Joseph, were also below replacement and were below average hitters. Somehow, the Rockies failed to outhit them.
Ian Desmond was the main culprit, and he creates a problem for the Rockies as they attempt to upgrade. Desmond is owed $53 million over the next four years, and Desmond theoretically can play other positions. He came up as a shortstop, and he’s spent some time in the outfield, but (A) his defense isn’t good at either position (B) sliding Trevor Story out of short would be ludicrously stupid. If the Rockies want to upgrade at first, they’ll have to move Desmond to the outfield, and they’ll likely just get worse there even if he’s the fourth or fifth outfielder.
Out of all Angels hitters first basemen, Jose Fernandez led with a 94 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR. The Angels are in a similar predicament as the Rockies because Albert Pujols is owed $87 million over the next three years, and hey, they gotta play him somewhere. Pujols’ options are first and DH. Though Shohei Ohtani underwent Tommy John, he should still get significant playing time as the designated hitter. Slotting Pujols into the designated hitter spot isn’t an option if Ohtani is available.
Like the Rockies, they won’t be in the market for a high-priced first baseman like Goldschmidt or Belt, though Marwin Gonzalez would work as he can play in the outfield when Pujols is in the lineup. But there’s only one Gonzalez, and teams that aren’t on this list could also use his talents as an outfielder.
Last offseason, Cleveland signed Yonder Alonso to a two-year deal with a vesting option for 2020. Alonso might bounce back, and Cleveland is probably counting on that. Each available free agent could conceivably be worse than Alonso in 2019, so they could sit on their hands. Unless the Twins go bonkers or everything comes together for the White Sox, Cleveland will win the division regardless of what they do.
The Rays DFA’d CJ Cron, who hit 30 homers, had a 122 wRC+, and ranked 11th in fWAR among first basemen. But Cron was going to make a whopping $5.2 million in arbitration, and the Rays can’t be shelling out Sam Dyson money for an average starter. (Meanwhile, they’d like Tampa Bay taxpayers to pay for half of their proposed billion dollar stadium).
Jake Bauers appears to be the internal replacement option, and Steamer projects him to have a 100 wRC+ and be worth one win. The Rays might have a free agent in mind to take his place, but that seems unlikely seeing as how arguably the best option on the market is, well, Cron.
The Twins are entering the post-Joe Mauer era, and there’s no heir apparent to the all-time great Twin. The Twins have Tyler Austin, who they received from the Yankees for Lance Lynn. Will Austin stick at first? Perhaps. Steamer projects him to be roughly league average next year, and the Twins might not feel an intense need to spend for a slight upgrade.
Ryon Healy’s first year with the Mariners was awfully forgettable. He had just a 90 wRC+ and was worth -0.8 fWAR. Healy is under team control, so Seattle doesn’t have an onerous contract to contend with like the Angels or Rockies. However, after the Mariners dealt Mike Zunino to the Rays and James Paxton to the Yankees, there’s been some signaling that Seattle is punting 2019 to get better in 2020. If that’s the case, there isn’t really the need to upgrade over Healy with a mid-tier first baseman.
Of the teams that most intensely need a new first basemen, two already owe their current one $50+ million, one won’t need one until October, another already released one of the better options on the market, and the other two might not even want to contend next year. Even with the need, it’s possible none of them will sign a replacement.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, McCovey Chronicles, and BP Wrigleyville.