The Rays were pleasantly surprised by the production they received at first base after Dan Johnson grounded and popped his way out to a near full win below replacement to the start the year. Casey Kotchman, a local to the Tampa Bay area, provided nearly three wins above replacement after replacing the incumbent Dan Johnson.
Most of us know the story by now of how Kotchman underwent an offseason procedure to remove puss from his tear ducts and clear up his vision. He said, before the procedure, that "it was kind of like looking through a dirty windshield wiper." Kotchman went on to have his best offensive season according to wRC+ by posting a 125, meaning he hit 25% better than the league average.
Kotchman is now a free agent and will more than likely cost multiple years and at least $4M per season. Not a bad deal if you believe the production is for real, especially since he had four straight seasons of falling UZR totals ending with a negative total in 2010. He bounced back to produce a positive 1.6 last year but he may not be the elite defensive first baseman we all thought he was.
The free agent market for first basemen is top heavy with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder leading the way. The Rays have zero shot at signing them and will look through the bargain bin like they did last year.
Carlos Pena is a name that I would love to see back in a Rays uniform but the term bargain is not attached to him since the Rays struck gold with him in 2007.
Derrek Lee is intriguing but only if he never has to play against tough righties and is on a one year deal for $1.5M or less. I, for some reason, think he will get more elsewhere.
No thanks Jorge Cantu, Brad Hawpe, Ross Gload, Xavier Nady, Eric Hinske, and Lyle Overbay. Your services are not welcome here. Nick Johnson is always an intriguing name but relying on him to get healthy and stay healthy is akin to relying on my 401k to bounce back from it's injuries. Not happening.
Of the available free agents out there that can be had on a minor league deal or for near league minimum that are out there, I would probably only offer Russell Branyan a deal. Yes, I do have a ridiculous man crush on this player but it's not a bad idea on a low risk contract.
Branyan had his fewest plate appearances in 2011 since the 1999 season and most of his PAs can be attributed to pinch hitting and the occasional spot start. He never got a fair opportunity to play and his numbers were simply bad.
But, there is value here as long as he is healthy. His defense at first is actually really good. He has a +5.8 UZR in 1609.2 innings over the past three seasons at first. He has also maintained his good patience at the plate with his 10th straight year of posting at least a 10% walk rate. It was 12.3% last year.
Sure, he only hit 5 homeruns last year but he hit 68 over his previous 939 at-bats. I believe the power is still there and he may be a bargain this offseason. But, he has never been able to hit lefties and strikes out a lot. I wouldn't mind the Rays signing him but it cannot be him alone.
The best option is to find a trade partner and there seem to be options out there.
Yonder Alonso is blocked by the great Joey Votto and the Reds desperately need pitching, something the Rays have a surplus of.
Brandon Belt is a name that I would love to see in a Rays uniform but pitching is not necessarily the weakness of the San Francisco Giants. Is B.J. Upton and Alex Cobb or Jeff Niemann enough to get Belt? Too much to give up for Belt? Is there even a potential deal to make with the Giants?
The Rays could call the Oakland Athletics who have Brandon Allen and Daric Barton but is there any real interest there? Same with the Diamondbacks. Does Juan Miranda make any sense? I think Branyan is a better option.
The best best, for the Rays, is to pray that another Casey Kotchman and Carlos Pena bargain fall in our lap or to start trading some of our pitching for a young first baseman who is currently blocked. I would love to see Brandon Belt and Russell Branyan in the Rays organization next year but Yonder Alonso may be our best option and I can live with that.
Who do you want to realistically see on first for the Rays in 2012?