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Position Battles: First Base

Who's on first?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It's the question of the Spring. Mark Topkin touched upon it last week. We at DRB have been tossing it around  pretty much constantly since Logan Morrison was acquired back in November. Heck, most fans of the team have been asking ever since Richie Shaffer decided to put on a power display in Durham and force his way onto the active roster.

Who will be the Rays starting first baseman?  And does James Loney have a role?

While we often think of spring training as the time to answer some of these questions, it is by no means an ideal way to analyze a player's ability and value. Remember the 2011 Grapefruit League season in which Elliott Johnson slashed .341/.449/.463?  Yeah, neither do we.

Nonetheless, this year, the Rays are packed with more depth than ever, with several starting spots up for grabs. There are at least three players vying for the catcher's spot.  But first base and left field would be the main prizes, with whoever loses out likely at these positions to see time at DH.

Today we look at the battle for first base. You have the incumbent James Loney, followed by the off-season trade acquisition of Logan Morrison, and free agent signee, Steve Pearce. There's also a distant possibility of Richie Shaffer sneaking into the mix.

Below is each player's ZiPS projections for the upcoming season.

James Loney .275 .319 .368 .299 .093 11.6% 6.2% 13 0.0
Logan Morrison .241 .315 .391 .310 .150 16.4% 9.0% 7 0.0
Steve Pearce .238 .318 .423 .324 .185 21.4% 8.7% 11 1.0
Richie Shaffer .212 .278 .387 .290 .175 33.0% 5.0% 18 0.8

Based on offensive production alone, the obvious choice is Pearce. However, first base isn't an offense only position and Pearce may be better suited to be the team's DH. Looking at Fangraphs' DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), In just 212 innings (equivalent of about 24 games), Pearce had -2 DRS putting him in the bottom 14% of the league. However, that doesn't even make his the worst at that category, as Morrison put up -7 DRS, putting him in the bottom 2% of all first baseman last season.

Loney meanwhile, finished in the same percentile as Pearce. Loney, usually an extremely sure handed first baseman, turned in his worst season yet in terms of DRS and a possible worrying sign is that the number has been trending down since 2011 (11, 6, 4, -1, -2). Shaffer for his part, had -1 DRS in just 75 innings manning the bag.

Switching over to Baseball Prospectus, and looking at FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average), we see that the league averaged 0.06. Loney put up 1.1 FRAA, putting him in the top 36%, ahead of his competition. Shaffer finished almost right in the middle of the pack, in a SSS, putting up -0.2 FRAA, and Morrison put up a lowly -5.4 FRAA, placing him the bottom 11%. Pearce for his part, put up 0.2, but wasn't classified as a first baseman so it's not meaningful for purposes of comparison.

So, looking at the material above, Pearce seems to be the logical choice as he's projected to have the best offensive season and he'll put up passable defense at first.

Now, he likely won't be the team's only first baseman, but he would serve on the wrong side of a platoon, unless Morrison or Loney sit against certain righties. With Loney's contract, it'd be hard to justify keeping on the bench, making it more likely he isn't with the team come Opening Day.

My final prediction,

  • Steve Pearce is close to being the everyday first baseman
  • Logan Morrison will be a bench bat, splitting time between the outfield, first base, and DH'ing, getting occasinal starts against tough RHP
  • James Loney is either traded or let go by the start of the season.
  • Richie Shaffer is the Bulls Opening Day first baseman