As we begin our look at the potential first base free agent pool, it is notable that perhaps the best one has already been signed. Jose Abreu signed a six-year deal with the White Sox. The Cuban is 26 years old, is defensively limited to first base and is said to have plus-power. It remains to be seen how his plate discipline and power will translate to the American game. The White Sox had considerable success with Cuban players Jose Contreras, Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo. Then when you consider the success of other recent Cuban position players like Kendrys Morales, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, the likelihood Abreu is a legitimate MLB everyday player is pretty high. While each player has their own individual skills and talents, there have been some commonalities amongst this group in terms of plate approach. Generally speaking, they are fairly aggressive hitters who walk less than 10% of the time. While not OBP machines, these Cuban hitters have not been strikeout machines either. Even the least successful of this group – Dayan Viciedo, has a career 21.5% strikeout rate, which is not an egregious mark and has made him a career .264 hitter. As of right now, I would utilize Cespedes (minus the speed) and Morales as my baseline for valuing Abreu for next year, though I will also note that he has a swing and power potential that has been compared to current MLB studs like Miguel Cabrera. I would suspect bidding for him ends up being somewhat risk adverse and will probably peter out in the high teens to low-twenties in AL-only leagues. That would put him at around the value range of Morales albeit with higher upside.
Speaking of Morales, Kendrys produced the following lines:
2012: 22 HR 61 R 73 RBI 0 SB
2013: 23 HR 64 R 80 RBI 0 SB
Looks like a model of consistency, right? Well, not quite. 2013 was accomplished over 22 more games and 135 more plate appearances. Still, Morales was actually a better hitter in 2013, making more contact and getting on base more frequently, setting the stage for a solid 2014 follow-up as a 30-year- old. Power production remains a concern though. The knee-jerk reaction would be to say park factors caused the power outage and while this may be somewhat true, the difference between Anaheim and Safeco in 2013 in home runs had them both almost on par. In fact, Morales' HR/FB numbers varied only by 0.3% and in favor of at home. The switch-hitter has hit fly balls 32.5% or less each of the past three seasons, making a return to the 25-plus HR level far less likely. So although Morales still has some productivity left within his skill set, he should not be viewed as an upper echelon first baseman.
Corey Hart missed all of the 2013 season due to a knee injury. Odds are the soon to be 32-year-old will re-up with the Brewers, but a player who hit no fewer than 26 home runs in any of his three previous seasons is likely to draw interest. Hart has done a good job of making contact for most of his career, allowing him to hit for decent average despite wielding a right-handed bat. His 2012 campaign, despite the 30 HR output, did raise some red flags as Hart produced the most extreme strikeout rate of his career. If the plate approach does not return towards career norms and his wheels are not fully recovered from surgery, it may be difficult for Hart to keep his batting average around his career .276 mark.
Mike Napoli, who turned 32 yesterday, almost didn’t sign with the Red Sox due to contract issues and was instead forced to sign a $5M incentive-laden deal. In the end, he wound up earning most of, if not all of those incentives, proving he was indeed quite healthy. Napoli is what he is: an all or nothing hitter who walks often and strikes out about a third of the time. His .259 batting average was spurred by a .367 BABIP. In other words, keep 2012 and 2010 in your memory as that level of regression is quite possible. Draft for his power with the expectation of having to make up for his batting average elsewhere and you won’t be disappointed.
Adam Lind bounced back nicely from a lost 2012 season with a very similar season to his 2011 and 2010 campaigns. The lefty has a $7M option with a $2M buyout and at that price is likely to be brought back for one more year as a 1B/DH. However, his difficulties against lefties (.219/.261/.342 for his career will continue to limit his playing time.
Paul Konerko could return to the White Sox for one more year, but the Jose Abreu signing casts a cloud over that. Entering 2013, Konerko’s skills and power remained rock steady until he suffered a back injury which robbed him of his power and ruined his season. Konerko’s plate approach actually remained intact and a rebound is a possibility, but given the tendency of back injuries to recur and the fact that Konerko will turn 38 before the start of the season makes him both a risky selection and a potential bargain.
Justin Morneau, 32, has not produced as a top tier first baseman since 2010 and arguably not since 2009 from a power perspective. The lefty did manage to recover from post-concussion syndrome but is now more of a mid-tier sub-$20, if not sub-$15 purchase in single-league formats. Morneau still makes fairly good contact but has not been reliable in the batting average department unless his power is functioning at a higher level. Morneau’s power, even before the concussion, had been trending downwards and has done so for four straight seasons. That leaves him as a .260s to .270s hitter at best with mid to high-teens per season HR power, in other words a corner infielder possibility. It will be interesting to see if Morneau is even given offers as an everyday player this offseason.
The Rays found an effective, but low-cost option in James Loney to be their 2013 starting first baseman. The 29-year-old, however, has long since peaked as a good contact hitter with gap power. Sadly, Loney is more likely to regress than improve after posting a career high 30% line-drive rate without any other changes to his game.
Other First Basemen on the Market, but unlikely to receive everyday jobs: Lyle Overbay (failed to compile even a .300 OBP. More of a bat off the bench now), Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds (actually is not all that different from Mike Napoli, but has not hit above .221 since 2009) and Lance Berkman (may retire).