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First Base Issues

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Did anyone else uncomfortably chuckle at the picture Woodrum fanposted yesterday? In a free agent market where the demand outpaces the supply at nearly every position, the Rays current have but one first baseman on the roster in Russ Canzler and he has but five plate appearances in his major league career less than a year removed from being a six year minor league free agent in the Cubs' organization.

There are but seven true first basemen on the open market right now: Russell Branyan, Prince Fielder, Casey Kotchman, Derrek Lee, Lyle Overbay, Albert Pujols, and Prince Fielder. Since this is real baseball and not fantasy baseball, Rays fans can cross Pujols and Fielder off the list which leaves five names on the list. A review of current depth charts around the league show four other teams in somewhat similar situations as the Rays (Indians, Cubs, Brewers, Pirates) and a few others potentially looking for an upgrade (Nationals, Astros, Mariners).

What is a fiscally responsible team like the Rays to do in such a situation?

It is a hot topic that has come up in the Rays Tank yesterday as the merits of trading for Justin Smoak or Yonder Alonso. It was a topic the other day when Tommy Rancel explored the idea of Matt Joyce playing first base (more on that later), and Whelk is leading a conversation in a fanpost about the run value of a good first baseman.

Once you take off the big bats from the top of the first base free agent list, the pickings are slim with the remaining five players that have at least 200 career games at first base. Here are those five players' OPS, OPS+, WAR (via B-Ref) over the past three season as well as their ages for the upcoming season:

Russell Branyan 1079 .817 122 3.9 36
Casey Kotchman 1451 .718 99 2.9 29
Derrek Lee 1718 .844 122 7.1 36
Lyle Overbay 1547 .760 104 5.1 35
Carlos Pena 1758 .814 120 5.2 34

It is important to remember that Andrew Friedman has signed just two free agent deals that guaranteed multiple years and those contracts went to Troy Percival and Pat Burrell and while two contracts is a small sample size, adding a first baseman on a multi-year contract seems unlikely. The good news is all of the players above have signed one-year deals in the past so all of them past that criteria but Lee's production stands out from the crowd. Last season, he signed a one-year deal with the Orioles for $7.25M and played poorly before being traded to Pittsburgh where he bounced back quite nicely in his return to the National League and hit .337/.398/.584 over his last 113 plate appearances of the 2011 season. His production over the past three seasons along with the thin market will likely guarantee another one-year deal will not be too much of a drop-off dollar value wise from what he made last season. As nice as it would be to have Carlos Pena back in a Rays' uniform, his 2011 season was right in line with what he did in 2008 and 2009 in years and he has made at least $6M each of the last four seasons. The one-year "soft landing" that he wanted in Chicago worked well to recapture his value but he and agent Scott Boras were clearly hoping to turn that into Pena's last multi-year deal of his career as he turns 34 in 2012. That leaves Branyan, Kotchman, and Overbay.

The first two are known entities to the fanbase as both players have been here in recent years and the only thing the two have in common are that they both swing the bat from the left side of the plate. Russell the Muscle lost one-third of the 2010 season to a herniated disc and 2011 was a lost season while splitting time between Arizona and Los Angeles. Kotchman rediscovered his batting stroke last season and at his age, should also be able to command a multi-year deal from a team looking for a defensive-minded first baseman to help anchor down an infield. That could happen here in Tampa Bay, but it could also happen in Cleveland now that 4/5ths of their starting rotation are groundball pitchers and Matt LaPorta is not a strong defender. Then there is Overbay who wore out the gaps in Rogers Centre while hitting the occasional home run but did neither while splitting time between the Pirates and Diamondbacks last season .

Realistically, the free agent options the Rays could entertain are re-signing Kotchman to a multi-year deal, or taking a flyer on Overbay on a one-year deal as they did last season with Kotchman. The speculation of moving Joyce would appear to be an internal option if the market takes an unexpected turn as it did last year when the Rays were shopping for middle relief help. There is also the option of sliding someone down the defensive spectrum a bit, such as Wilson Betemit who is a free agent and does have 65 games and 389 innings of experience at first base in his career. Betemit recently turned 30 years old and over 922 plate appearances since 2009, he has a .798 OPS, a 114 OPS+, and a 2.1 WAR.

Betemit had a career season in 2010 for Kansas City hitting .297 with a .511 slugging percentage in just 315 at bats. He enjoyed an outlier season hitting left-handed pitching from the right side at a .312 clip, but has traditionally been very poor hitting from the right side with a .684 career OPS against lefties in 472 plate appearances. Betemit's value is mostly tied up in his bat as he is not the defender Kotchman or Overbay is, but his bat has the highest upside of the three. Over the last two seasons, he has a .371 wOBA in 490 plate appearances against right-handed pitching which is just two points below what Adrian Beltre has done in the same time frame and ten points better than Chipper Jones and Alex Gordon. He signed a minor league deal with the Royals in 2010 and signed a one-year deal at $1M last season to avoid arbitration last season. Betemit has also never made more than $1.3M in his career while playing for six different organizations before the age of 30.

If none of those scenarios are to the Rays' liking, there is always the trade market.

There was also some Twitter discussion last night between Rancel, site alumnus Jake Larsen, and Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus/ESPN. In her SweetSpot column over on ESPN earlier this week, she opined ways for the Rays to improve and specifically addressed the first base situation.

Kotchman was less an actual incumbent and more like the temp you thank and then let loose. So the Rays are now in the position to explore their options and find something better. They won't get in on the Prince-Albert sweepstakes, but they might find Carlos Pena amenable now that he's found that the market isn't going to give him a huge long-term contract. But even that's fairly unlikely. Minor league professional hitter Russ Canzler shows up atop the depth charts for the time being after hitting .314/.401/.530 for Triple-A Durham; he could be part of a platoon if the Rays find a lefty-batting partner.

Likely solution: The Rays understand that their alternatives are fairly interchangeable, just as they were last year when they settled for Kotchman and Dan Johnson. There's always the opportunity to see if the A's would part with any of their collection of semi-interesting alternatives, because they'll have to pick from among Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, and Daric Barton. A Barton/Canzler platoon would be typical of the organization's ability to make do with less.

Allen and Carter are extreme unknowns whose power potential is as big as the holes in their swing that have led to contact problems throughout their careers. Then there is Barton who is a younger version of Kotchman coming off the same type of season Kotchman had in Seattle in 2010. While Kotchman had cloudy eyes to blame, Barton had a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that ended his season in mid-July and can help explain why Barton struggled to hit with any power at all last season. Barton is an excellent defender with a career .362 OBP who led the American League in walks in 2010 and is still just 26 years old. Kahrl mentioned the logjam at first without even mentioning the recently-acquired Kila Ka'aihue which only further clouds the situation Oakland has at the hot-corner.

The acquisition of a new first baseman comes down to a handful of possible outcomes. If the team will not guarantee multiple years, it likely limits their market to the bottom end of what is already a thin talent pool. If they value the defense from the hot corner, the optimal solution is to re-sign Kotchman or make a trade for Barton. The team may also value more offensive production from the position after watching Kotchman drive in just 12 percent of the baserunners on base last season when the league average was 15 percent. If so, Betemit becomes the most realistic option on the free agent market while Alonso would be the best option on the trade market. The organization and the fanbase can also always hold out hope that Pena or Lee would consider taking an affordable one-year deal for a chance at helping the Rays return to the post-season for the fourth time in five seasons.

The odds of Ben Zobrist opening the season as the first baseman are about the same as Sam Fuld serving as the DH on opening day. The winter meetings may provide some clarity to the market as clubs begin to sign deals or make trades while all huddled in the Hilton Anatole in Dallas but the situation is going to require Friedman and company to find yet another way of doing business because they are playing a game of musical chairs with several other clubs for a position that has limited available talent.