Welcome to TOC's offseason primers! We haven't officially reached the offseason yet, but it's never too early to look at the best players on the free agent market. Today, we take a look at the best free agent first basemen available.
Are you looking for a franchise first baseman? After the massive contracts (that are already looking bad, mind you) handed out to Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder over the last few winters, we're probably going to see a bit of a dropoff in dollars allocated to first basemen this winter as more and more teams are rolling with young players as opposed to veterans.
1. Mike Napoli. 2013 worked out almost perfectly for Napoli. After agreeing to a three-year deal with the Red Sox last winter, concerns about his hip pushed that deal down to just one year, but incentives pushed the value up to $13 million. Napoli improved his slash stats across the board in 2013 compared to 2012, and he stayed healthy as well, aside from a bout with plantar fasciitis. He might be able to do better than the three years, $39 million that Boston offered him last winter, especially with the Red Sox likely involved in the bidding to retain his services.
2. Corey Hart. So it's come to this – the second best first baseman on the free agent market is a guy who didn't play an inning in 2013. Hart missed all of the 2013 season following microfracture surgery (and the resulting complications) on his right knee. But in 2012, Hart hit .270/.334/.507 with 30 homers and seemed primed for another step forward in 2013. Obviously, that didn't happen, and the Brewers went through a never-ending cycle of warm bodies at first base thanks to Hart's knee surgery. I'd assume he'll return to Milwaukee on a one-year incentive-laden deal, but some team could get a steal if they offered him a little bit of a higher base.
3. James Loney. The Rays bought low on Loney in 2013, and that worked out extremely well for them as he hit .299/.348/.430 in 598 plate appearances. Loney will be 30 in May, and will likely end up making more than the $2 million he made in 2013 next season. But teams need to be aware that in the second half, Loney hit just .276/.322/.378, thanks in part to a 30 point BABIP drop and some variance in his walk and strikeout rates. Remember Casey Kotchman in 2012 after his stellar 2011 with the Rays? Caveat emptor.
4. Kendrys Morales. Morales isn't a first baseman, but since we're not doing rankings for designated hitters, we're throwing him in this pool (which honestly, needs some names to fill out the list). Morales had a typical year for him in 2013, which isn't a bad thing – .277/.336/.449 with 23 homers, roughly even platoon splits, and solid yet unspectacular strikeout and walk rates. But here's why the switch-hitting 30-year old doesn't rank any higher on the list – his price. Morales is apparently delusional about his value on the market, and intends to decline the one-year qualifying offer (for roughly $14 million) that the Mariners will be extending him. Any team that wants to sign him is going to need to forfeit a draft pick, likely a first rounder since the protected top ten teams in the 2014 draft order don't seem like they'd be jumping at the bit for Morales. No one else on this list has really set their value yet – except for Morales, who wants to be paid like an elite hitter.
5. Justin Morneau. Again, it's come to this – a guy who is strictly a platoon player at this point in his career is the fifth-best free agent first baseman. Morneau hit .259/.323/.411 this past season with the Twins and Pirates, but against lefties, Morneau was useless. In 178 plate appearances against southpaws, he struck out 43 times, walked only seven times, homered just twice, and hit a ghastly .207/.247/.278. If a team signs him to be their every day first baseman expecting him to be the Morneau of old, they'll end up disappointed. But if a team hands him a couple million and doesn't let him face lefties at all, it could work out pretty well for them.
6. Mark Reynolds. He's a DH, and should probably burn every glove he owns. But Reynolds' bat wasn't even much of a saving grace in 2013 after he hit .220/.306/.393 with 21 homers and 154 strikeouts in 504 plate appearances. His isolated power was a career worst .173 this year, comparable to guys like Morales, Todd Frazier, and Ian Desmond – all of whom contributed value aside from their power to their teams. Reynolds made $6 million this past year, and he'll be lucky to get a guaranteed $2 million this year considering how his skills eroded.
7. Carlos Pena. He hit .207/.321/.346, will be 36 in May, was released by the Astros in July, posted a career-high groundball rate of nearly 50% this year, and is strictly a platoon bat at this point as he can't hit lefties at all. Yet, he's the seventh-best free agent first baseman out there.
8. Lyle Overbay. .240/.295/.393 for the season, and he logged just over 1000 innings at first for the Yankees in 2013. He's yet another first baseman who can't hit left-handers, but Overbay comes with the lovely caveat that away from Yankee Stadium, he hit just .208/.254/.375 against righties. He was atrocious in every situation in 2013 – except at home against right-handers. I think teams are smart enough to realize that Overbay isn't the answer for any first base woes they may have.
9. Casey McGehee. McGehee spent 2013 in Japan, where he hit .289/.371/.512 with 29 doubles and 27 homers for Rakuten. As a comparison, Rakuten teammate Andruw Jones hit .239/.386/.439 with 15 doubles and 21 homers. Given the state of the rest of the first base crop on the free agent market, McGehee's decision to explore a return to America seems like a wise one. Maybe that .217/.284/.358 campaign in 2012 with the Pirates and Yankees has been forgotten about by now.
10. Paul Konerko. Konerko's career is likely over. He told the White Sox he was still on the fence about whether or not he wanted to return for the 2014, and Chicago's signing of Jose Dariel Abreu has likely pushed Konerko towards retirement. But if he wants to come back, it probably won't be with the White Sox, who now have Abreu to play first base and Adam Dunn to DH. While Konerko hit an ugly .243/.313/.355 in 2013, the swift dropoff came out of nowhere. Konerko still had solid strikeout and walk rates, a nearly 25% line drive percentage, and he also hit left-handers very well in a small sample, slashing .313/.398/.525 in 113 plate appearances. If he does want to come back, it wouldn't be a bad move for a team to give him a spot as a platoon guy..maybe even pairing him with one of the aforementioned players that can't hit left-handers. Imagine a Konerko/Morneau platoon – former AL Central rivals combining to make an uber-first baseman!