Who will be playing first base in 2012?
Before yesterday afternoon, the Tampa Bay Rays had two glaring holes in the roster. Slugger Johnny Damon and the always-serious-looking Casey Kotchman both departed through free agency after the 2011 season and their slots at Designated Hitter and First Base were yet unfilled. The Rays addressed one of those needs yesterday with the acquisition of former Baltimore Orioles left fielder Luke Scott - who agreed to a one-year deal, with an option for 2013. Scott has a history of taking his turn at first base, but the signing likely intends to fill the DH role.
Moving forward, Vice President Andrew Friedman still has the First Base position to slot before players report for training at the end of February. The Rays will likely find their solution on the open market by signing a free agent or pursuing a trade.
FREE AGENT MARKET
1. Prince Fielder - .299/.415/.566 (Batting Avg / On Base % / Slugging %) in 2011
This name shouldn't be on the list. Not because of the price tag, but because Fielder is an incredible athlete that could have (and should have) been the center of attention this off season. As the story goes, though, Albert Pujols took the limelight and Prince is still sitting on the shelf. There are teams that continue to report interest - the Nationals, Mariners, Rangers and Marlins come to mind - but nothing seems like the perfect fit.
The lack of interest in signing Fielder to a seven or eight year deal, which is certainly what agent Scott Boras expects for the 27 year old behemoth, has led some to speculate a one-year deal may be in order. Which brings us back to Tampa Bay. The son of Cecil was second in line for the batting title in 2011, boasting 38 homeruns and 120 RBIs last year, earning his second Silver Slugger award. He led the majors in home runs in 2007 (50), RBI during 2009 (141), and walks in 2010 (114). Additionally, he has won the Home Run Derby and only sat out one game in the last three seasons. He's healthy, and he can hit.
If Fielder were truly interested in a one-year deal with a World Series contender, the Rays may be able to shell out $25 - $30 million. Such an investment would bring the payroll to 2010 levels (around $70 mil) and could be used to reignite fan attendance. Is it a stretch? Absolutely, but until Fielder is off the market, it must be considered.
2. Casey Kotchman - .306/.378/.422 in 2011
Kotchman was the answer to the Carlos Pena void left after 2010, and boy did he deliver. The St. Petersburg native had been horrid with a bat in his two years before playing with the Rays. After a tragic 2010, in which he batted .217 and no power to make up for it, Kotchman ended his season early and underwent eye surgery to clear up his vision. And it worked.
Remember the shock when the Rays announced signing Kotchman? At that point, most bloggers assumed Tampa Bay had thrown in the towel. CK was and is a fantastic defender, a la Carlos Pena, but certainly his bat wouldn't compare. The online faithful sat on their hands and could only say, "In Friedman We Trust..."
Little did we all know Kotchman would be Magic. He went on to rival Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzales and Blue Jays thumper Jose Bautista for the best batting average in the American League. The Rays could sign him once more, but Kotchman has reached his prime age of 28 and is likely seeking a long term deal. If the Rays want to commit to Kotchman, the pieces are there, but his batting average is likely to come back down to earth. The Magician had a BABIP of .335, meaning he had quite a lucky year. More realistically, Kotch should bat between .260 and .270 next year with little to no power. He's a familiar face, but there are better options.
3. Carlos Pena - .225/.356/.462 in 2011
Speaking of familiar faces, Carlos Pena was a pinnacle of the franchise from 2007-2010 in Tampa Bay. He signed a one year deal with the Chicago Cubs in 2011 and swung the bat with great appeal. His average may seem low, but 28 homeruns, 111 hits and 101 walks is a decent amount of plate production.
Pena could also bring chemistry into the club house. The likely scenario that Johnny Damon will not play with the Rays in 2012 begs a new leader fill his shoes. Pena will be 33, has a veteran approach to the game, a gold glove (2008), a silver slugger (2007), and has a rapport with the team. Combined with the potential for his bat to climb back above .500 SLG, he could reach 40 HRs once again.
4. Juan Miranda - 65 games, .252/.343/.447 in 2011
This former Yankees prospect is my dark horse for the 2012 roster. The 28 year old Cuban spent last year moonlighting at first base with the Diamondbacks for 65 games in 2011. Arizona kept Miranda on the bench as a pinch hitter for ~75 games last season, so his 2011 numbers are not clear. From 2008 - 2010, his minor league numbers reflect a .290/.370/.495 hitter that could translate to the major league level if he was coached properly and given a consistent opportunity.
The interesting aspect to Miranda is that the Rays already signed him to a minor league contract in early December. Tampa Bay not only lost the starting first baseman this off season, but the famed Dan Johnson from AAA Durham to free agency as well. Miranda fills the Johnson void well on the roster, but may I say, not in our hearts.
The Rays still have not traded any of the plethora starting pitchers at Tampa Bay's disposal. As things stand, the Rays have 7 or 8 serviceable major league starters: James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Alex Cobb, and Alex Torres - with Chris Archer waiting in the wings. Andrew Friedman has been patient this off season to not trade a pitcher before their value had reached its boiling point, but consequently the Rays have seen first base prospects Yonder Alonso and Anthony Rizzo be freely traded for starters and left the fanbase saying, "that could have been us!" Do we trust Friedman? Yes, absolutely - but its about time we pulled the trigger on a deal.
Konerko is 35 and a slugging first baseman worth the Rays time. He has two years left on his contract for $12 mil in 2012, $13 mil ($7 deferred) for 2013 - so if money is a concern, Konerko is still an fiscally conservative choice for his talent. In 2011, Pauly managed 163 hits, 31 HR, 77 walks in 149 games. The year prior was even better, featuring 171 hits and 39 homeruns also in 149 games. Konerko is aging, so the ball could be in Tampa's court.
The White Sox may be willing to swallow some of the paycheck to facilitate a trade as well. The south siders are shedding talent for prospects in their current rebuilding effort under second year general manager Ken Williams. The team failed to pursue the face of the franchise - Mark Beurhle - and even flipped their near rookie closer Sergio Santos to Toronto for prospects. The Sox seem willing and desperate. If Friedman is willing, it's a perfect fit.
25 year old Lucas Duda was called up by the New York Mets to great success last season before a concussion benched him in the final weeks. Duda will not be a free agent until 2018 and is just the kind of controllable player the Rays look for in their contracts. Best of all, his numbers at the plate seem to be sustainable. He had a 22% line drive rate, a BABIP of .326, and owns a reasonable career BABIP of ~.305. In otherwords, where Kotchman was lucky last year, Duda is consistent. It's not luck, it's not magic. It's talent. He lacks speed expected from a 25 year old, but the heavy bat could pay dividends instead. According to Fangraphs, Duda belted the longball an average of 412 feet last year. The Mets currently intend to use him in right field, which is all kinds of nonsense.
The Mets appear to be done with their roster, but could be persuaded otherwise. The New Yorkers have plenty of talented depth at pitcher, but none much older than the drinking age (Seriously, the top six Mets pitching prospects are 22 or younger). R.A. Dickey is 37, Johan Santana is 32 and returning from a shoulder injury, and Chris Capuano is 33 with high strikeouts but a high ERA. Come on Mets, you know you want the help. The Rays even have extra outfielders like Justin Ruggiano and Sam Fuld to sweeten the deal.
Trumbo is the first baseman in waiting behind the slightly used, shiny new toy the Angels just bought - Albert Pujols. Trumbo finished second in the rookie of the year voting at age 26 (thanks to 29 homeruns) and played 149 games for the Angels last year. His raw power is a worthwhile asset and worth pursuit. His contract is also controllable, and the market recently blazed a path for incumbent first base prospects getting traded for powerful starting pitching - re: Anthony Rizzo. The Angels currently intend to work out Trumbo at third base.
Should talks for Trumbo fall through, another back up plan could be the man Trumbo replaced: Kendrys Morales. The former Halo first baseman broke his leg a year and a half ago and is just recovering. He has two years left in arbitration, and would be a low cost given his absence. From 2009 - 2010 until the injury, Morales hit .302/.353/.548 with 45 homeruns. His health is extremely questionable, given the long recovery, but that doesn't preclude the Rays from buying low ($3 mil in 2012) for a potential huge bat. Morales plans to return this year.
If all of these options run dry, there are other solutions. The versatility of Matt Joyce and Luke Scott to play right field, first base or designated hitter could allow the promotion of Brandon Guyer or Russ Canzler from AAA Durham. If the Malins pursue Prince Fielder (unlikely), 28 year old Gaby Sanchez would become available for a low-cost trade. Additionally, should the Cubs decide 22 year old Anthony Rizzo should play first base immediately, 28 year old Bryan LaHair would be a fantastic trade target as well. Both Sanchez and LaHair are young power-hitters and under contract for years to come, potentially expendable and controlled by teams desperate for pitching.
So fear not Rays fans. We are all anxious, but time has not run out. There are plenty of options left on the table for only one month remaining.
Who should the Rays pursue at first base in 2012?
Prince Fielder, Free Agent (26 votes)
Casey Kotchman, Free Agent (17 votes)
Carlos Pena, Free Agent (21 votes)
Juan Miranda, Rays (AAA) (2 votes)
Paul Konerko, White Sox (22 votes)
Lucas Duda, Mets (7 votes)
Mark Trumbo, Angels (26 votes)
Kendrys Morales, Angels (6 votes)
Bryan LaHair, Cubs (5 votes)
Gaby Sanchez, Marlins (1 vote)
Matt Joyce, Rays (Right Field) (2 votes)
Luke Scott, Rays (Designated Hitter) (1 vote)
Other (2 votes)
138 total votes