Let's start with the facts: the Rays would like to acquire a young first baseman this offseason. Ideally, this first baseman would be under team control for a number of years down the road, and would have valuable offensive upside as well. I say "ideally" because those sort of players can be difficult and costly to acquire, so it may be that the Rays end up settling for a less-than-perfect player -- someone with upside, but also with some question marks about their future.
As the free agent and trade markets have continued to settle, it looks like there are only a handful of teams out there that have an attractive young first baseman blocked by established talent: the Marlins (LoMo), Mets (Duda), and Padres (Rizzo, Blanks). The Marlins seem more and more loathe to unload Logan Morrison, though, as they want to make a run at the playoffs in 2012 and he's a valuable offensive player. The Mets could potentially unload Lucas Duda, as they desperately need pitching (and cheap, team controlled pitching at that), but Duda is cheap too and could always fit in the outfield somewhere. They don't need to make a deal.
The San Diego Padres, though....now there's an interesting team. The Padres have a glut of young first basemen after acquiring Yonder Alonso from the Reds, so it looks like they have instantly jumped to the top of the list of potential trade partners for the Rays.
In particular, the Padres have two first baseman that are worth looking at: Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Blanks.
Originally selected by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round of the 2007 draft, Rizzo has "rizzen" through the minor league ranks to become a top first base prospect. He was the key piece of the deal that sent Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox, and he was rated as the 75th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to last season. Yes, that put him only two slots behind #73 Yonder Alonso.
But Rizzo and Alonso have since seen their stocks move in opposite directions. Alonso put up a .373 wOBA down in Triple-A, and then flourished in a brief stint in the majors at the end of the season (98 PA, .409 wOBA). Meanwhile, Rizzo crushed Triple-A pitching (.433 wOBA, .320 ISO), but couldn't get the handle on the majors in a midseason tryout (153 PA, .248 wOBA) and got re-demoted to the minors.
Don't go too ga-ga over Rizzo's Triple-A numbers; the league he was playing in notoriously inflates offense. But at the same time, it's difficult to ignore that he's a got a heck of a powerful bat (61 XBH in Triple-A in 2011) and he deserves another chance to prove himself in the majors (especially considering he's just 22 years old).
So when discussing Rizzo's trade value, we should assume that it's slightly less than Alonso's trade value. Both prospects were rated about the same going into 2011, and both players dominated in Triple-A. But Rizzo's struggles in the majors raised some question marks -- Does he strike out too much? Can he adjust? -- and the Padres now have limited leverage due to their depth at first base. He could be a bargain, relatively speaking.
The Cubs have already expressed lots of interest in Rizzo, though, and they appear to be trying to work out a deal for him that centers on Matt Garza. They appear to be the one thorn in the Rays' side, so I'm hoping the Padres decide they want a cheaper pitcher that will be under team control for longer.
Anthony Rizzo may be the latest "first baseman of the future" tossed aside by the Padres, but he's by no means the first. Kyle Blanks was selected low in the 2004 draft (42nd round), but he displayed a considerable amount of power in the minors and was rated the Padres' top prospect back in 2009. He was only 22 years old then, but although he was given a couple opportunities in 2009-2011, he was never able to translate his success in the minors to the majors. After posting a strikeout rate above 30% in 300 plate appearances in the majors between 2009 and 2010, the Padres "replaced" Blanks by acquiring Anthony Rizzo from the Red Sox.
Blanks has primarily played in the outfield since 2009, but he was originally a first baseman. His power is still prodigious -- he has a .205 ISO at the major league level -- and he showed some signs of getting his strikeout rate under control last season (27% strikeout rate). He'll never hit for a high average, but his plate discipline and power could conceivably make up for that.
While not as attractive a player as Rizzo, Blanks would still make for an intriguing buy low option for the Rays. He would be cheaper to acquire, but he still has the upside to be a powerful, successful first baseman. He also has a bit more defensive flexibility than Rizzo, as he was around average in his stints in the outfield. Since Blanks is older and has been in the majors longer, though, he only has one more season of cost control left before entering arbitration.
Obviously I'd prefer for the Rays to target Rizzo, but if he doesn't happen, Blanks is far from a bad backup option. If nothing else, he would be quite cheap to acquire.