Albert Pujols? Gone. Prince Fielder? Gone. Hell, even Carlos Pena is gone. Combine those three departures with that of Adrian Gonzalez last winter, and the crop of first basemen in the National League is looking very different than it did two years ago. However, there is still one elite player, and a bunch of other guys that fall into other categories. We're going to take a look at what's left, and determine just what exactly the league has left.
Cream of the Crop
Joey Votto, Reds. Votto is still one of the best players in the National League, and obviously the best first baseman in the league. His 14.2 fWAR over the last two years leads all NL first basemen, and the reigning 2010 MVP isn't just one of the best in the NL, but in all of baseball. Votto will be heading to free agency after 2013, but he'll be 30 at that point in time, and probably won't get as crazy of a deal as Fielder and Pujols. But he should still get a solid contract, if not from the Reds, then from another team that needs a first baseman.
Freddie Freeman, Braves. If you look at Freeman's puny fWAR of just 1.0, you don't see a lot here. But then you dig a little deeper, and you see that Freeman's poor UZR (which by the way, DRS doesn't agree with) slaughtered his value, and that he managed to post a .794 OPS as a 21 year-old hitting in the middle of the lineup for a borderline playoff team. Even Braves fans didn't expect what they necessarily got out of Freeman, and he should be able to make a good combination with Jason Heyward in the heart of Atlanta's order for years to come.
Brandon Belt, Giants. Oh, Brandon Belt. The Giants horribly mishandled him by giving Aubrey Huff a contract extension after 2010 when San Francisco won the World Series, with Belt knocking on the door of the majors. Belt struggled for the Giants in the majors last year with just a .718 OPS in 209 plate appearances, but down in AAA Fresno, he posted a .309/.448/.527 line in 212 plate appearances. The Giants need to find a way to get Belt's bat in the lineup before Huff's contract expires after this season, even if it means benching the high-priced veteran.
Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Rizzo was dealt from the Red Sox to the Padres before the 2011 season for another elite former NL first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez. He struggled in San Diego and its spacious Petco Park last year, with a horrendous line of .141/.281/.242 and just one home run in 153 plate appearances. However, in AAA Tucson, Rizzo raked despite never having played at AAA before, with a slash line of .331/.404/.652 and 26 homers in 413 plate appearances. Rizzo turned 22 in August, and now that he's reunited with his former bosses from Boston with the Cubs, he'll get his shot at Wrigley sooner or later, even if minor league veteran Brian LaHair will be getting the first shot at first this year for the Cubbies.
Yonder Alonso, Padres. San Diego acquired Alonso from the Reds this offseason in the Mat Latos deal. With Alonso immediately blocked in Cincinnati by Joey Votto, and his bat looking major league ready and not profiling anywhere on the diamond aside from first, a deal made sense for the Reds. After Rizzo was dealt to the Cubs, that opened the door for Alonso to be the regular at first for the Padres. He seems ready too, after an .860 OPS in AAA Louisville for the Reds last year, and a .943 OPS in a 98 plate appearance stint in the majors for Cincinnati. Petco Park will probably end up hurting his overall numbers, but he's still probably going to be a solid hand at first for San Diego.
Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks. The rise of Goldschmidt hasn't really been meteoric, but he went from starting the year in AA Mobile to finishing the year as Arizona's starter at first in the playoffs. He hit 83 career homers in the minors in just 1387 plate appearances, and added eight more in 177 plate appearances in the majors to finish off the year. His power is exceptional (career minor league slugging percentage over .600), and while he does strike out a decent bit, he makes up for it with a good abililty to take pitches, walking in 11.3% of his plate appearances in the majors last year. For a franchise that never had a cornerstone first baseman, Goldschmidt will be a solid piece for years to come for Arizona.
Gaby Sanchez, Marlins. Here's the thing about Sanchez....I put him in this category because he doesn't have a ton of service time, but he's already 28. The 2011 NL All-Star hs a career .786 OPS over 336 career games, and has racked up just 5.5 fWAR. He's not really a potentail superstar, but he's a decent league-average bat.
Ryan Howard, Phillies. Howard blew out his Achilles in the last play of the 2011 NLDS, just in time for his five year, $125 million extension to kick in. But before the injury, Howard was having one of the worst seasons of his career. His 33 homers were the second lowest total of his career (the lowest came in 2010, when he hit 31), and .834 OPS was a career low. His power also dropped off to a career low .235 ISO. Howard might not be "The Big Piece" anymore, but the Phillies are really hoping for a solid return from his injury, because if he's not effective, that contract is going to look even worse than it does right now.
Adam LaRoche, Nationals. I was not advocating Washington signing Prince Fielder this offseason because of the presence of LaRoche and his large salary on the team. He missed a good chunk of time in 2011 with a shoulder injury, and hit just three homerrs in 177 plate appearances with a line of .172/.288/.258 for the season. Washington got solid production at first out of Michael Morse last year, but are counting on LaRoche for production this year while Morse switches to left field.
Ike Davis, Mets. Davis's 2011 was a massive improvement on his rookie campaign of 2010 before injuring his ankle in May, an injury that would knock him out for the remainder of the season. In his 149 plate appearances, Davis hit seven homers and had a .926 OPS. If he's able to keep that pace for a full season, New York will be more than pleased with the production of the former first round pick.
Todd Helton, Rockies. After a disastrous 2010, Helton returned from the dead to post a pretty solid 2011 campaign, hitting .286/.393/.435 in 491 plate appearances. The power he possessed early in his career is gone, but he still has fantastic command of the strike zone, and can be a decent piece at first until his contract expires after 2013, when Michael Cuddyer could take over at first for the Rockies.
Carlos Lee, Astros. Lee's behemoth contract comes to an end after this season, but after a pair of down years, Lee had a really good campaign in 2011, though one that wasn't worth his eight figure salary. He hit .275/.342/.446, and walked nearly as much as he struck out. He won't be getting $18.5 million in 2013 from another team, but he's a guy that could actually hang on for a few more years like Jim Thome has, as a DH that occasionally plays first base.
Aubrey Huff, Giants. 2010 was the best season of Huff's career, as he racked up 26 homers, an .891 OPS, and 6.0 fWAR. Then, he came back to Earth in 2011, with those numbers falling to 12 homers, a .676 OPS, and -0.6 fWAR. He's awful defensively everywhere except first base, which is the prime position of Brandon Belt. and he's making $10 million this year. Huff needs to perform at a better level than he did last year if the Giants want to go anywhere. Or, they could just bench him, but that would require to Brian Sabean to admit his contract extension was a bad move.
Lance Berkman, Cardinals. Berkman will be taking over at first base for the Cardinals this season following the departure of Albert Pujols after a fantastic 2011 season that saw him OPS .959, hit 31 homers (his highest total since 2007), and accrue 5.0 fWAR. His defensive inadequacies should be masked at first base, and if his health holds up, Berkman could be a great replacement for Pujols (though not nearly as good overall as the former MVP). But remember, injuries have been an issue for Berkman lately, missing 66 games in 2009 and 2010.
Michael Morse, Nationals. When Adam LaRoche got hurt last year, Morse took over at first base, and became a star. He had a .910 OPS and 31 homers to finally have the breakout season that many were predicting. Morse is being shifted to left field this seaon with LaRoche's return, but if he goes down again, Morse is ready to take over at first for the Nationals and hopefully replicate his outstanding 2011 season.
Daniel Murphy, Mets. Murphy split his time around the infield in 2011, getting time at first base, second base, and third base, with a majority of his time coming at first last year. He's also played left field during his career. After missing all of 2010 recovering from a knee injury, Murphy's 2011 was a fantastic year, with a .320/.362/.448 line over 423 plate appearances. His season would end early following another knee injury, and in 2012, he's penciled in as New York's primary second baseman (where both of those knee injuries occured over his career). With Ike Davis's return, Murphy won't be needed at first, but it's good for the Mets to at least have a contingency option there.
Part Time Bats
Ty Wigginton and Jim Thome, Phillies. Wigginton will take on a super utility role with the Phillies this year, but will get some playing time at first base with Ryan Howard's injury. Thome will be more of a bat off the bench who's expected to get few at bats at first, due to his limited mobility. Neither of these guys is a full-time starter at first at this point in their careers, but they should be able to hold the fort down until Howard comes back.
Jesus Guzman, Padres. Guzman had an .847 starting at first for the Padres, but with Alonso's arrival, Guzman will be pushed to more of a part-time role. He had an .892 OPS against lefties last year, and will probably get most of his playing time against southpaws.
Garrett Jones, Pirates. Jones's splits last year were startling: he had a .460 OPS against lefties, and an .808 OPS against righties. If Pittsburgh plans on starting him, they'll need a platoon partner. One option would be former top third base prospect Pedro Alvarez....who has the same deficiency against lefties that Jones has. It could be a rough year for the Pirates if they roll with Jones as their starter.
Young Question Marks
James Loney, Dodgers. Loney just hasn't been good since 2007. His power is awful, with just a .128 ISO being logged last season. His overall line was just .288/.339/.416, which is good for a middle infielder, but not a first baseman. If the Dodgers want to come close to contention, they need 20 homers from Loney. His career high is 15.
Brett Wallace, Astros. The former top prospect just hasn't hit at the major league level. He got his first full-time attempt in the majors in 2011, and OPSed just .703, with a .110 ISO. He struck out in 24% of his at bats, walked in less than 10%, and didn't do much of anything well. He looks nothing like the former top Cardinals prospect who raked with the organization before being dealt to the A's in the Matt Holliday deal in 2009. Houston is the fourth organization of his career, and it's looking like this will be the place where his career dies.
Mat Gamel, Brewers. Milwaukee still doesn't have a replacement for Prince Fielder at first, and it's generally believed that Gamel will be taking over there this season. He's no longer a young, studly prospect at 26 years-old, and in his only extended tour in the majors in 2009, he OPSed .760 in 148 plate appearances. He's spent parts of the last four seasons at AAA Nashville, and has hit well there, tallying a .310/.372/.540 line there last year with 28 homers. Milwaukee needs to find out what they've got with him, and 2012 would be the best opportunity for him and the Brewers to see what they have here.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com
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