Unlike at catcher, most of the quality free agents at first base have already signed. We could evaluate the remaining guys, but it would be a fruitless gesture as the position was already weak to begin with. So, we will match the guys who signed with the few that haven’t to come up with a satisfactory list of impact free agents. Remember, with actual player moves, we evaluate the player’s track record in a little more detail than we do with fantasy baseball or simple player rankings.
1. Lance Berkman– Texas Rangers
The Rangers signed Berkman to a one year contract for between ten and eleven million dollars. It has an option year that will kick in if he has 550 plate appearances or more. When you look at the Berkman track record, it seems like a perfect contract. When he plays regularly, he is one of the top five or six first basemen in the league. This is particularly true when we consider that his poor 2011 fielding record occurred when he played right field.
We could graph his projections or simply come up with an aggregate and neither would be particularly relevant. Berkman is an either/or kind of guy. Either he is going to be healthy and productive or he is not. There really is no middle ground for Berkman at this point and if his last five seasons are any indication it is a 50/50 proposition. The Rangers are playing river boat gambler on this one.
2) Adam Laroche– Free Agent
Baseball is becoming more and more sophisticated and as it becomes more sophisticated we see more intelligent moves made every year. Adam Laroche wants a three year contract. As my pop always used to say, you can want in one hand and piss in the other and see which one fills up first. There is nothing in Laroche’s profile to suggest that last season was anything more than a career season.
That being said, he is not completely without value. What we see is simply a gap between where his true value is and where he thinks his value is. He is one of the better fielding first basemen in the game and I’m surprised he hasn’t gotten any nibbles out there. The problem is that he has a first round pick attached to him where any signing team (other than Washington) will have to surrender their first round pick.
3. Mark Reynolds– Cleveland Indians
Value is a fluid thing in baseball. One of the great things about the science of statistics is that it allows teams to utilize players in the most optimum way possible. Usually, we are talking match ups, player positioning on defense, and other in game situations. With Mark Reynolds the problem comes in positioning on a more global scale, In simple English, his manager needs to hide his glove and never tell Reynolds where it is at.
If Terry Francona finds someone else to play first base he actually could have a productive designated hitter in Reynolds. If you remove his fielding completely, he would have been a positive impact player in four out of the last five seasons. If we assume that an average fielder is one win better than a replacement fielder (ten runs), then Reynolds would barely register as a replacement level fielder over the past five seasons. There’s terrible and then there’s terrible. As a hitter he is surprisingly valuable in spite of his many strikeouts.
4. Carlos Pena– Houston Astros
There are numerous issues with Carlos Pena, but the primary one can be seen clearly with his TRI results. Statisticians can do many things, but we can’t completely forecast the future. What fun would it be if we could? Was 2012 simply a blip on the map for Pena or was it a predictor of things to come. Jeff Luhnow and the Astros are paying a fairly paltry sum (2.9 million) to find out the answer to that question.
Pena’s role is also a bit fluid coming into the season. The Astros have several options at first base and DH, so it is difficult at this point to determine where he will go. If we look at raw numbers it would seem most logical for him to be the first baseman. His offensive value has been zapped recently by diminishing power numbers. He has always been a swing and miss guy, but if you throw 25 to 30 home runs on the board you can accept that. If it is less than that then he becomes very marginal very quickly.
5. Carlos Lee– Free Agent
Carlos Lee is one of those players that a metric like TRI can’t fully explain. He is an accumulator who’s most important quality is his durability. TRI is a qualitative statistic. It doesn’t measure durability in any real way. Lee contributed more than 550 RBIs in his six seasons in Houston (and partial season in Miami). That comes out to more than 90 RBIs a season for the math impaired. That certainly is nothing to sneeze at.
That being said, even if you inserted him as a designated hitter, his value is limited by radically diminishing power numbers. He has always been a high contact guy and he’s even added more walks to his numbers in recent seasons. Those positives cannot outweigh the negatives of going from a 30 home run a season guy to a 10-15 home run a season guy. There are few jobs in baseball for someone that performs on that level.
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