The Tampa Bay Rays currently have several players on their 40-man roster capable of playing first base.
However, the majority of the projected playing time for the upcoming season is currently slated to be given to the duo of Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi. Is that the end of the story? Not if the Rays continue emphasizing positional versatility on the roster.
Mike Brosseau can play the position when called upon, as can Yoshi Tsutsugo, who played first base at times during his career in Japan. Then there are players waiting in the wings for their opportunities, such as Kevin Padlo, finally healthy after dealing with an unspecified illness last Spring.
Meanwhile, among the non-roster invitees in camp, there is only one player who is a natural first baseman and that is Dalton Kelly, whom the Rays acquired for Richie Shaffer and Taylor Motter in November, 2016 along with Andrew Kittredge and Dylan Thompson. Kelly was the Durham Bulls primary first baseman at the end of the 2019 season.
While several players will certainly get looks at the first base position during the spring, it is Ji-Man Choi’s position to lose. Serving as the Rays primary first baseman during the pandemic-afflicted season, Choi hit .230/.331/.410 with 3 HR and registering 103 wRC+ over 145 plate appearances, accruing 0.3 fWAR.
Although he can be fun to watch, with his acrobatic web-gem splits, Choi is a below average defender at first base. During his time with the Rays, Choi has accumulated exactly 0 Defensive Runs Saved or DRS over 1140 innings at the position. So it’s up to his offensive production to keep Choi in the starting lineup.
Otherwise, Yandy Diaz could see more time at first base. Diaz reverted back to his extreme groundball tendencies during the 2020 season, but still found a way to be successful as he finished the season with a 138 wRC+ over 138 plate appearances.
However, Diaz is also a question mark with the glove with poor ratings at third base and just average capabilities at first base.
Mike Brosseau is the third man in line and he has quietly been earning consideration as a starter over his brief big league career thus for the Rays with a 128 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR over 88 games. During the 2020 season, he played a grand total of 61 innings at first base and produced 2 DRS, which was more than Diaz and Choi combined.
This Spring we may see Kevin Cash also use Yoshi Tsutsugo and possibly Brandon Lowe at first base as well, just to explore the possibilities of those two expanding their versatility and opening up more playing time for others on the Rays packed roster. Lowe does have some time at first base in the Majors, playing just one inning there this past season and 38 innings during the 2019 campaign.
Since the start of the 2019 season, Ji-Man Choi by and far has the most innings played at first base among the current Rays with a total of 1,119 2⁄3 innings completed there. Yandy Diaz is second with just 170 1⁄3 innings, then Brosseau with 64 innings, followed lastly by Brandon Lowe with 39 innings played at first base.
Then there is Dalton Kelly, the only non-roster invitee in camp whose primary position is first base. Kelly was originally drafted in 2015 in the 38th round by the Seattle Mariners before eventually getting dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays. He finished the 2019 season as the primary first baseman for the Durham Bulls, hitting .283/.369/.422 over 298 plate appearances in Triple-A.
As of now, it is likely that the Rays will be rolling with a combination of Yandy Diaz and Ji-Man Choi at first base. But they have a range of options to fill that slot as the season progresses.