The Rays cannot survive paying premium prices for talent. However, the team faces a dearth of internal talent at first base. Looking beyond 2011, the Rays appear likely to face another offseason struggle at first base, looking again for diamonds in the rough.
In 2007, the team lucked into Carlos Pena, who played the first bag for several solid seasons. This year, the team got Casey Kotchman, who has played well early, but has been undeniably lucky. Moreover, it appears Kotchman's contract, which initially started as a minor league contract, is done after this year (anyone please chime in if you know more).
A strong season from Kotchman -- like what he has had thus far -- would result in a strong free agent contract (upwards of $5M, but maybe less than $12M). If Kotchman struggles through the end of the season, then he will not command the market, but also would not be the long term solution at first. Either way, Kotchman in 2012 seems unlikely.
The Rays also have Dan Johnson, who has lost nearly all his playing time to the hot-hitting Kotchman of late. Johnson, already 31 years old, has the opposite problems of Kotchman. Kotch is 28 right now, but has a terminating contract; Johnson has a favorable contract (he's under team control for the next two years), but is likely well past his prime -- on top of not being really cold right now.
So let's explore some of the options.
- Extend Kotchman: The Rays could try to get Kotch to sign a team-friendly extension if they think the present incarnation is the real deal. This could possibly head-off the payday he might otherwise get in the free agent market. Who knows? Kotchman is from Tampa Bay, maybe he's willing to spend a year or two on the cheap in his home state?
Of course, this necessitates a strong season from Kotchman. As I've noted above, he's playing above his head right now. When he normalizes, the Rays will know what they really have on their hands. Hopefully it will be a solid, all-around first baseman.
- Go with DanJo: Dan Johnson is earning $1M this season, and after being relegated to the LHP platoon role, it seems unlikely he'd get a significant raise in his Arb 2 season. That means he might start earning $2M or so next year, but it seems unlikely he'd be making anything near Kotchman's salary.
Nonetheless, the contract's not the issue; the performance is. If DanJo cannot get hot at some point this season (and if he cannot get playing time, it is hard to imagine how he could get hot), then the Rays may just cut ties with him altogether.
- Dumpster Dive: The Rays could again look for some free agent first base talent in the 2011 off season. Of course, I kind of feel like we have said that about our DH position every year since 2008. It is not as easy as saying: Let's go get a zombie first baseman!
The truth is every other team in the league is planning the same or similar designs. This year, we finally got our zombie DH (Manny Ramirez, peace be upon him), but still could not wrangle the likes of Russell Branyan or Jim Thome. And even when we do sign the big name we want, sometimes it turns out to be Pat Burrell.
Maybe the Rays get lucky and find Carlos Pena 2.0 -- a cheap first baseman who plays like a perennial All-Star. Casey Kotchman has been a great find, but no certainly Pena. No matter what, though, this path is more difficult than it seems.
- Pilfer Triple-A: Just because a player is in Triple-A, it doesn't mean said player is Quad-A. There is a tedious balance between players who can torture only AAA pitchers, and high-quality players stuck in loaded franchises. Consider the case of recently demoted Kila Ka'aihue, who now hides behind Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer on the Royals DH/1B depth chart. Kila's little service time (his first arbitration year won't be until 2014) and relative youth (at 27 years, he's a few months younger than Kotch) make him a highly viable long term candidate for first.
Also a possibility: The young Cuban Yonder Alonso sits firmly stuck in Triple-A behind the Reds' dominant first baseman Joey Votto. Yonder brings with him both the prestige and contract of a 7th overall draft pick, though, so prying him from the Reds might necessitate a higher price. Also, he already be earning $1.4M in 2012, so he's not the most cost effective 24-year-old.
Nonetheless, options exist here.