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Tampa Bay's first base depth for 2015

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

James Loney will be the Rays first baseman in 2015, barring an unexpected move by the team. or an injury. But while Loney should be the first baseman, it would not be the off-season if we did not investigate the depth at every position, and the disaster plans that follow.

The likeliest candidates that could man first base next season include two players on the 40-man roster, two signed to a minor-league deals, and in case of fire, an organizational soldier, and an acquisition possibility (that should feel obligated to name any and all of his present or future children Ruben Amaro, Jr.) make first base a position of depth for Tampa Bay.

All six candidates bat left-handed, which spoils hours (ok minutes) of platoon match-up fun, but we shouldn't let that pesky fact get in the way of looking at all the Rays' options.

James Loney

2014: 155 games, 27 doubles, 9 home runs, .290/.336/.380, 109 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR

2015 Steamer Projections: 143 games, 29 doubles, 11 home runs, .271/.325/.386. 106 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR

Loney, the incumbent and presumed favorite, has two years and $18.33 million remaining on the three year contract he signed before last season. Entering his age-31 season, Loney has played nearly 1,200 games at first base.

A model of at-least-above-average consistency throughout his nine-year career, Loney has played at least 150 games six times, hit between 9-15 home runs in seven seasons, compiled at least 40 extra base hits in five seasons, and owns a career 106 wRC+. In other words, with Loney the Rays know they can pencil in an everyday player with above league average production. Whether that makes him an ideal first baseman is debatable.

Signed for his defensive prowess and his bat's ability to hit for singles in the cavernous Trop, Fangraphs ranked him as the third worst defensive first baseman among the 18 qualified players in 2014. This was a significant drop from 2012-2013, when Fangraphs ranked him among the five best.

It is for that reason we are having this debate. Loney is not the prototypical first baseman from an offensive perspective, so to earn his keep he must excel on defense, as the Rays implicitly think he will.

Is he worth maintaining on the roster for $18.33M over the next two years? His contract has a $7 million AAV but was backloaded. Trading him at some point could have created serious savings for the Rays, in a year when many contracts were heading out the door, yet they didn't. It's still a possibility, though an unlikely one, as the Rays might have in house options that could salve the loss of Loney.

John Jaso

2014 season (Oakland) : 99 games, 18 doubles, 9 home runs, .264/.337/.430, 121 wRC+,  1.5 fWAR

2015 Steamer Proections: 94 games, 19 doubles, 9 home runs, .246/.334/.382, 111 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR

Jaso is currently ranked second on the Rays' first-base depth chart, according to MLB.com, even if that role realistically belongs to one of the bench infielders with range, like Logan Forsythe.

The former Rays catcher, now converting away from the position due to concussion concerns, has played two career games at first (one for the A's in 2013, one for the Rays in 2010). We do not have a reasonable grasp of how he might perform at the position defensively, but his bat would certainly pair well with the likes of Forsythe for a competitive bat among major league first basemen.

In three seasons since leaving Tampa, Jaso has averaged 92 games played and 25 extra base hits, with a 126 OPS+ and a batting line of .270/.372/.425. Entering his age-31 season and having never played more than 109 games in a season, Jaso seems best suited as a stud reserve C/1B/DH who plays in 90-105 games. He has five career innings at first base, but the transition to the position is not uncommon for catchers.

Juan Francisco

2014 season (Toronto): 106 games, 16 doubles, 16 home runs, .220/.291/.456, .237 ISO, 106 wRC+

2015 Steamer Projections: .222/.284/.415, .193 ISO, 92 wRC+

After agreeing to a minor-league contract, Francisco is joining his third AL East organization since last April. The youngest of the group (he will turn 28 in June), Francisco has been a third baseman primarily, but has played 87 games at first.

Francisco's .236 ISO in 2014 and career .213 ISO indicate a player who could provide some power for the Rays. The same goes for his tremendous career 20.9% home run to fly ball ratio (Fangraphs considers 20% "excellent").

Francisco hit a combined 34 home runs in 2013-2014, and posted a career-best 106 wRC+ last season. He did this despite platooning with the Braves and Brewers in 2013, and the Blue Jays in 2014. Francisco represents solid power at little money, which are commodities the Rays cannot dismiss easily.

And man, watching that kind of sheer power would be fun, much like Jason Bartlett in 2008.

Juan FrancisGOAT -- Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Allan Dykstra

2014 season (AAA-Mets): 117 games, .280/.426/.504, 19.1% BB-rate, 22.1% K-rate, .224 ISO, 145 wRC+

2015 Steamer Projections: .209/.323/.357, 13.5% BB-rate, 26.3% K-rate, .148 ISO, 100 wRC+

The soon to be 28 year-old Dykstra, a non-roster invitee to spring training, has never played in the big leagues. A former first-round pick of the Padres, he spent 2014 with the Mets Triple-A Las Vegas 51's, where he produced at a very high level in 117 games: 84 walks, 23 doubles, 16 home, .289/.426/.504, 145 wRC+. It was the first time in his seven season career that he played above Double-A.

While he is another left-handed hitting candidate, his consistent minor league track record of hitting for power (career .195 ISO) and getting on-base (career .406 OBP), make him a player to watch in Port Charlotte this Spring.

His defense doesn't have great reports, and his lack of a promotion at this stage are troubling, but he has first round draft choice pedigree. However, there's not advantage in the bloodline. Dykstra is not related to former Mets and Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra.

Cameron Seitzer

2014 season (AA-Rays): 123 games, .242/.328/.396, 10.2% BB-rate, 17.1% K-rate, .153 ISO, 102 wRC+

2015 Steamer Projections: .220/.287/.324, 7.9% BB-rate, 20.2% K-rate, .104 ISO, 78 wRC+

Son of current hitting coach and 13-year Major League infielder Kevin Seitzer, Cameron was Tampa Bay's 11th round pick out of the University of Oklahoma* in 2011.

Seitzer's OPS and wRC+ declined for the third consecutive season, after posting a .904 OPS and 144 wRC+ at Rookie League Princeton in 2011. He did, however, hit more home runs (14) than he did in 2012-2013 combined (10). Seitzer is coming off two full seasons at Double-A Montgomery, in which he produced 73 extra-base hits and a line of .256/.355/.377.

He has yet to play a game above Double-A, but has shown a propensity for extra-base hits (88 doubles over the past three seasons) and getting aboard (career .371 OBP, a walk-ratio that has never been below 10.2%). Already 25, though, he appears to be minor league depth, at least for the moment. In spite of poor results in 2013, he got a long look in Spring Training last off-season, and his promotion to Triple-A this season should make him part of the conversation, even as the last man on the depth chart.

*I saw Seitzer play in person at the 2010 Cape Cod Baseball League All-Star Game at Fenway Park.

Ryan Howard

2014 season (Philadelphia): 153 games, 18 doubles, 23 home runs, .223/.310/.380, 93 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR

2015 Steamer Projections: 129 games, 14 doubles, 14 home runs, .224/.305/.398, 95 wRC+, -0.6 fWAR

Now for some first base(less) speculation.

If you listen to sports radio, reports are rampant that the Phillies and Rays are talking a deal for Howard, who is due $25 million in both 2015 and 2016, with a $10 million team buyout in 2017. Obviously, the Phillies would have to take on a substantial portion of that money, and maybe throw in a few $5-dollar footlongs.

Howard has played just three career games at Tropicana Field, so there's not much there to investigate, abd his well-documented production decline has been nearly a half-decade in the making. In 2014, however, he still hit 23 home run and produced decent numbers in the second half of the season (.327 OBP, .317 wOBA, 101 wRC+). His home run to fly ball ratio (16.1%) also increased from 2013, and Steamer projects his 2015 ISO to increase from a career low in 2014 (his first full season below .200 ISO).

For the purposes of this conversation, though, the question remains: can Howard play first base? Despite playing 141 games there last season, he is entering his age-35 season, and was one of the two qualified first baseman ranked lower than Loney by Fangraphs.

It might go without saying, but it seems unwise to put him Howard and his surgically repaired left knee in the field for an American League team. A healthy Howard not burdened by playing the field every night could prove worth the gamble, though, even if it means shifting Jaso to first base.

Since the beginning of the 2012 season, Howard's and Loney's numbers have been remarkably similar from an OPS perspective, but for very different reasons. Loney has the average (.282 AVG from 2012-2014), while Howard has the power (.412 SLG from 2012-2014). Taking a step back yields the following results.

Player

Games

PA

EXBH

AVG

OBP

SLP

OPS+

Loney

457

1,714

108

.282

.329

.380

101

Howard

304

1,257

100

.233

.309

.412

98

There is still life in Howard's bat, however hidden it might be, and provided the Phillies take on the right amount of money there could be something to unlock if the front office is still unhappy with the first base depth down the road.

Conclusion

Of the six players above, each brings pluses and minuses to the table. Loney might not be an All-Star, but he has produced 82 extra base hits and a 111 OPS+ in his two seasons with Tampa Bay.

The power of Francisco and (maybe) Howard is enticing, as is Jaso's super-sub skills, but they are either held back by age or relative inexperience at the position.

The minor league options have produced some intriguing numbers, but the fact that neither has reached the big leagues at their respective ages is reason enough not to get too excited.

Entering spring training, the Rays have a plethora of potential bodies to put at first-base, and at least one fall back plan easily obtainable on the market. Who do you want manning first base in 2015?