Earlier today, Meg Rowley introduced this year’s positional power rankings. As a quick refresher, all 30 teams are ranked based on the projected WAR from our Depth Charts. Our staff then endeavors to provide you with some illuminating commentary to put those rankings in context. We begin this year’s series with first base.
In last year’s positional rankings, Jay Jaffe wrote that first base just “ain’t what it used to be.” The diminished status of what was once one of baseball’s premier positions went unchanged in 2020. Even worse, one of the few young players near the top of those rankings, Pete Alonso, took a step back. First base has almost become baseball’s oldies station, chock-full of memories of the early hits of Albert Pujols or Joey Votto or Miguel Cabrera, but never airing their newest singles.
So what’s caused the collapse in the Q Score of the game’s first basemen? Offense is still sexy, but the truth of the matter is that home runs are cheap and plentiful. In baseball’s last full season, 135 players qualified for a batting title, and only five of them failed to finish with double-digits home runs. In 2009, there were 31 such players. There were 27 single-digit sluggers in 1999; in 1989, before the early-90s offensive explosion, there were 47. There aren’t just more home runs in baseball, they’re spread more widely among its players. Teams finding more guys who could play shortstop and hit home runs didn’t magically result in the game’s first basemen also thumping more round-trippers.
What’s more, it sometimes seems like there aren’t any actual first base prospects anymore, just prospects at other positions that teams eventually settle for playing first. The Jays haven’t totally given up on Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the hot corner, and one of the few genuine phenom first basemen to come up in recent years, Cody Bellinger, has turned out to be a dynamite center fielder instead. The Tigers have made no secret of the fact that they would prefer that last year’s number one overall pick, Spencer Torkelson, play at third, a position he didn’t even play in college. It makes one wonder whether Jim Thome and Pujols, both third basemen in the minors, would have been moved to first so quickly if they had been born later.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment that baseball fell out of love with the position, but I’d highlight November 28, 2016 as a key date in the story. That was when reports came out that the Milwaukee Brewers weren’t going to tender Chris Carter, the National League’s home run leader, a contract for the 2017 season. And no one seemed especially shocked! The AL’s home run leader, Mark Trumbo, was also a free agent that offseason and neither he nor Carter attracted significant interest in free agency. Trumbo eventually settled for going back to the Orioles in late January; Carter signed a one-year deal with the Yankees and was done as a major leaguer by midseason.
Will first basemen ever return to prominence? Not everything is cyclical after all, and I think you’d need a change in how the numbers work in baseball to make first basemen desirable again. Perhaps a deadened ball will hurt the less-impressive power hitters at some point, resulting in first basemen reemerging as the game’s princes of power. Or maybe ball or rule changes will result in more balls in play for first basemen to field, giving a top player at the position the potential to post truly significant value on defense. But for 2021 at least, look for more of the same, with lots of familiar names and only a few players who excel enough at every aspect of the game, like Freddie Freeman, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with baseball’s elites.
2021 Positional Power Rankings – 1B
At some positions, the debate over who reigns supreme is a contentious one. At first base? Not so much. Since Freddie Freeman’s explosion into the ranks of elite first basemen in 2013, he’s fallen below the four-win season mark only once (in 2015), and even then, it took a wrist injury that plagued him in the second half.
Freeman’s 2020 got off to a rough start with a symptomatic case of COVID-19, but he showed few lingering effects on the field after his recovery, setting career-bests in all three of the triple-slash stats. Summed up, Freeman’s 3.3 WAR was second among all position players, and those aforementioned career peaks resulted in a spicy little wRC+ of 187.
The sharp-eyed might see Freeman’s .366 BABIP as a possible sign of overachievement, but that number shouldn’t drop that much in 2021. Keeping Freeman’s BABIP high is his status as baseball’s number-one line-drive machine. Since 2013, his 28.3% line drive rate is more than a point ahead of second-ranked Omar Narváez. Useful, considering the league’s BABIP on line drives generally hovers around .600.
One big question looms: What happens this winter? Freeman is a free agent after the 2021 season. Ronald Acuña Jr. is the team’s franchise player, but Freeman is a significant part of the club’s history at this point, and as evidenced by this ranking, an excellent player. If he rocks the house again in 2021, he may break the recent trend of the league being wary of first basemen entering their mid-30s.
First base defense hasn’t really been sexy since Keith Hernandez was in his prime mustache years, but it’s an integral part of Matt Olson’s game. It’s the reason that Olson, despite an extremely disappointing .195/.310/.424, 103 wRC+ 2020 line, was still on pace for a roughly league-average season last year.
What keeps Olson the runner-up here is that none of the projections are overly concerned about that down offensive season. His .227 BABIP wasn’t reflected in the peripheral data, which is why all the various systems see about a 50-point bump in that department, enough to get it back to around his career average. 2019 was likely his peak, but until he proves otherwise, he’s a good bet to put up an OPS somewhere near .850 with sparkling glovework. That’ll earn him some more All-Star appearances, though it won’t be enough to unseat Freeman’s reign as king of the hill.
Meanwhile, Mitch Moreland was shockingly good in 2020, with his 0.9 WAR in just 40 games matching or exceeding his total in most full seasons. The fact that he’s entering 2021 as a backup first baseman/time-share designated hitter is a good indication that the league isn’t quite ready to believe that his late-career improvement is sustainable. In that kind of role, though, the risk is minimal for Oakland, and they have some depth here if it doesn’t work out.
Anthony Rizzo bombed in a major way in 2020, posting his worst season in the major leagues since becoming a regular upon joining the Cubs. There are real reasons to be concerned here. Rizzo is no longer in his 20s, and the combined effect of reduced exit velocities and the fact that he went from being one of the best in the league at hitting fastballs to significantly below-average should make us wonder whether his bat speed is what it once was.
It’s not all doom-and-gloom, though. Remember, we’re talking about a forgettable 60-game season, not a 162-game one, and Rizzo’s plate discipline and contact rates were still well into the above-average range. His defense remained excellent, deservedly netting him his fourth Gold Glove award. And unlike Kris Bryant and Javier Báez, the team’s other 2020 star-flops, Rizzo never looked completely lost at the plate. Still, the clock’s ticking for him to rebound, as his free agency after the season will almost certainly be his only chance to get a big payday on the open market.
If you’re going to have a bad season, it’s probably best to have it the year your team wins the World Series, as it tends to limit the finger-pointing. Max Muncy’s transition from a Ken Phelps All-Star whose best hope for fame might have been a trip to Japan or Korea to a valued starter on a championship team is one of baseball’s better underdog stories in recent years.
Will Muncy ever match his 2018-19 run, with its combined 10 WAR, again? Probably not. He’s passed the age of 30, and he racked up a lot of value those years from playing a surprisingly respectable second base to go along with his fat OPS figures. Muncy seems permanently entrenched at first, and he’s not a great there, so a three-win season might be his ceiling at this point. Helping Muncy’s case in coming years is the fact that he doesn’t have the platoon splits typical of left-handed sluggers, limiting the potential for the Dodgers or some future team to whittle away part of his job to give to a platoon buddy.
Like Olson, Muncy had a low BABIP in 2020 — a microscopic .203 in this case — that likely won’t persist into 2021. Statcast believed that Muncy underperformed his expected batting average by 41 points, and ZiPS feels about the same, at 30 points. A bounce-back season isn’t guaranteed, but it’s the way to bet, at least for now.
Pete Alonso was one of the most enjoyable sluggers to watch in 2019 as he powered his way to the all-time rookie home run record, scorching 53 dingers to break Aaron Judge’s prior high. Those power-related high jinks were fewer and farther between in 2020. Luckily for Alonso, who has to play in an unforgiving New York market, the rest of the Mets offense compensated for his off-year. Indeed, the team’s failures were of the pitching rather than run-scoring variety.
While only fifth in these rankings, there are enough unknowns surrounding just how good Alonso is that he arguably has a better chance of surging ahead and toppling Freeman than the other players above him (at least ZiPS thinks so). A decline in his batting average was always likely as he’s not a huge contact guy and his averages in the minors were merely good rather than a major component of his game.
Alonso’s ceiling will likely be determined by how much of his rookie season power returns. He still crushed a lot of balls and his exit velocity stayed very close his rookie mark. But his light shows were less consistent, such that Statcast thought his .490 slugging percentage, already a hundred-point drop from 2019, was actually nearly 40 points above where is should have been.
At 26, the Polar Bear will get ample opportunity to write some better chapters.
Who is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.? I don’t mean literally — he’s quite famous after all — but entering the third season of his major league career, it’s still hard to say how much, if at all, we should lower the very high ceiling we all thought he had as a prospect. The improved conditioning this winter can’t hurt, and while it pays to be skeptical of spring training’s endless string of “best shape of his life” stories, I certainly feel better about Vladito having lost 40 pounds than I would if he had reported to camp having gained 40!
To repeat what I’ve said elsewhere, I think some observers are putting the “mild disappointment” label on Guerrero too quickly. We’re still talking about a player who just turned 22, an age when lots of hitters are still honing their craft in the minors. Doing a backward minor-league translation, I get a .288/.370/.526 line for Vlad in a theoretical 2020 Triple-A season, which everyone would be excited to see from a 21-year-old!
I’m usually an advocate of playing a guy at the toughest defensive position he can decently handle, but in this case, I think the Jays are right to prioritize Vlad at first base while still hopefully giving him enough of a look at third to possibly change lanes later on. The potential for him to be a special offensive player is real enough that seeing if he can be that force, even just at first, is the most important thing; the question of position can sort itself out later. In any event, with the signing of Marcus Semien, and Cavan Biggio’s corresponding move to third, the Jays are much less desperate for help at the hot corner than they were last season.
Recalling the torrent of offense he put up in his 118-game debut with the Yankees, big Luke Voit did it again in another seasonal chunk. Voit’s 22 round-trippers ended up leading the league, an awe-inspiring number even if he may not have kept up the 59-homer pace over a full campaign.
If you came out of hibernation having missed 2020 (congrats!), and I told you that Voit lost nearly half his 2019 walk rate and 80 points of BABIP, you’d probably incorrectly assume that he struggled. Always a player to rack up enough barrels to start his own distillery, Voit leveraged that ability to its fullest by being more aggressive at the plate and becoming more of a pull-hitter than in the past. In doing so, he accomplished something that’s quite difficult to achieve: while offering at more pitches, he also improved his contact rate.
After 2020, Voit enters this season with a firm grip on the position, with someone like Jay Bruce (if he makes the roster) likely only getting significant at-bats if some unhappy disaster should strike. Voit’s a late-bloomer, so he’s not a long-term play, but 2021 should still be a fun season if his new approach keeps bearing fruit.
There may be some mild grumbling that Rhys Hoskins hasn’t developed into a star after the hot start to his career, but since returning to first after an ill-fated turn cosplaying as an outfielder, he’s established himself as a solidly B+ starter at the position. Hoskins isn’t going to win any Gold Gloves and will likely finish most seasons with a batting average under .250, but he’ll hit enough bombs and draw enough walks to stay a very good cleanup hitter for the next half-decade or so. I’ll invoke what I call the Gregg Jefferies Rule here: you should never be disappointed that a player is merely good.
The one real concern with Hoskins is whether there will be any lingering effects from last year’s UCL tear, the result of an unfortunate September collision between his arm and Corey Dickerson. The injury was to his non-throwing arm and required a less significant procedure than Tommy John surgery. The Phillies have still been careful with him, bringing him around slowly, but at this point, it’s more something to keep in the back of your mind than actively worry about.
I’m actually surprised that Paul Goldschmidt came out this low after bouncing back from a relatively weak 2019 to hit .304/.417/.466 with a 146 wRC+ in his second season in St. Louis. Freeman may be at the top of our Depth Charts, but let’s not forget that if you go back to 2013, Goldschmidt is the only first baseman to edge out the reigning National League MVP in total WAR.
There are a few reasons for the computer-based pessimism. A 60-game sprint is simply going to be less predictive than a 162-gamer marathon, and Goldy’s power didn’t return in 2020. He’ll turn 34 before the season ends, and while plenty of players stay productive through their 30s, once they get to 33 or 34, you really start to see the rate of star-attrition pick up considerably. Just to illustrate that downside risk, Goldschmidt’s 2021 ZiPS 10th percentile wRC+ is 100, a good bit lower than the 110 the system forecast in the same percentile range going into 2020, and this despite him coming off a much superior season.
Even if his days as the apex predator at first are over, I expect the Cardinals will be perfectly content for Goldschmidt to just be an above-average player. That’s kind of how St. Louis rolls: they win their 85-90 games a year with a deep roster of above-average guys rather than relying on their stars to power them into the playoffs.
Entering his seventh season in the majors, it still feels like we haven’t gotten the bonkers-power season Miguel Sanó looked to have in him as a prospect. It would be a gross miscarriage of justice to label him a bust, but he’s still in search of his first three-win or 40-homer season. A lot of that is due to regular trips to the Injured List, the result being that he’s also never played 120 games in a major league season. Some of it is also because he never really developed defensively at third base. That, at least, is no longer an issue, as Joe Mauer’s retirement opened up a spot for Sanó at the cold corner.
Sanó was nearly as awkward at first as he looked at times at third, but the raw power, the trait that made him such a tantalizing prospect, remains intact. In terms of exit velocity, he trailed just Fernando Tatis Jr. in 2020, and 13 homers in 50 games is nothing to scoff at. But he’s not a well-rounded player otherwise, so he could literally hit 50 home runs without being a star. A healthy Sanó should compete for the home run record, but it’s probably time to move off the idea that he’s ever going to be a truly elite player. He’ll still help the Twins win games, though.
Ji-Man Choi is a limited player, but if there’s one thing the Rays are good at, it’s finding uses for guys who are able to do a few things very well. Choi is strictly a platoon player at this point, and given that the Rays are genuine contenders, the franchise has a very deep depth chart, and he’ll be 30 this season, there’s little point in sending him up to the plate against southpaws. In the past, throwing a lefty hitter into the deep end has worked for guys like Ryan Klesko and Shawn Green, but Choi doesn’t have the same upside potential here despite his flirtation with switch-hitting last year.
Choi’s frequent platoon-mate will be Yandy Díaz, who should get nearly a full slate of plate appearances splitting his time between first and third in 2021, though he and the others listed here will likely see more early action than originally expected with the news that Choi likely won’t be ready for Opening Day. Díaz reverted to the “hit grounders but hit them really, really hard” approach that he has had success with in the past, so don’t expect much in the way of home run upside. As a patient hitter who waits for his opportunities, his on-base percentage will likely always make him playable even if he’s slugging .350.
|Tommy La Stella||35||.275||.344||.413||.324||0.1||-0.0||-0.3||0.0|
After a long, slow decline typical of a player his age, Brandon Belt had a shocking resurgence in 2020, setting career-highs for a variety of stats at the age of 32. It would be unreasonable to expect a repeat of his .356 BABIP, but it’s definitely worth noting that the bump in power (he posted a .591 slugging) came with a sudden increase in his exit velocity stats.
Belt’s never been a power guy and he’s one of the few quality first basemen in modern baseball to not have a single 20-homer season in the books. Part of that is due to Oracle Park’s dimensions, but Belt’s bread-and-butter has been getting on base and playing solid defense. The new-found oomph is a positive sign, and if he can maintain it in 2021, it may help counteract the natural aging process for a few years.
Until he does it again, though, it’s hard to say for sure that Belt will be that much better than the average first baseman. The smart money for now is that he maintains some of the improved power, but the batting average ends up much closer to .250 than a repeat of his .309 2020 line, before continuing its slow trudge downwards.
José Abreu hits baseballs very, very hard. He does it when he’s an ordinary player and when he’s a good player, and, when everything else melds together beautifully, he does it when he’s an MVP. I personally would have voted for José Ramírez for MVP had I been a voter last season, but that’s in no way to say that Abreu’s win was a Dante Bichette-in-1995 situation.
If Abreu can repeat his .317/.370/.617 line from last season, he’ll quickly blast to the top of the list, but that result is by no means guaranteed. Before 2021, he looked to be on the typical decline path for a slugger entering his mid-30s, and those middling seasons were of the full-length variety. Even in his best years, he had a very high whiff percentage against breaking stuff, though woe be unto any pitcher who throws Abreu a curve he does connect with!
A slight drag on the team’s ranking here is the presence of Andrew Vaughn. Don’t get me wrong, Vaughn’s a legitimate prospect, checking in at No. 14 on this year’s Top 100. But he’s also a player who has all of 55 minor league games under his belt, and Fall Instructional League isn’t a substitute for the minor leagues’ competitive environment. He’s a disciplined hitter and may exceed the projections, but it’s dangerous to simply assume that will be the case. He’s been solid in the spring, but it’s still wait-and-see right now.
Carlos Santana has had a great run at first since ditching the tools of ignorance in 2015, and has been a positive at the position defensively and with the bat. 2019 represented something of a comeback season for Santana after a one-year trip to the National League, but 2020 was a much less pleasant experience. For the first time in his major league career, Santana failed to put up .750 OPS, with his .699 representing more than a 200-point drop from the year prior.
I’m not so worried about the .199 batting average. Even falling short of the Mendoza line, Santana avoided outs at an above-average pace, thanks to his legendarily parsimonious approach at the plate. I’m fairly confident in him rebounding to somewhere in his usual .230-.250 range. No, what worries me is the missing power. His exit velocity numbers were down, and the .150 isolated power was a career-low. Turning 35 a week into the season, he’s at an age where these kinds of declines are hard to recover from. It would take a major collapse for Santana not to be Kansas City’s best option at first, but he’s a lot less exciting as a starter if he’s only slugging .400.
And there’s really no Plan B for the Royals if Santana doesn’t work out or suffers an injury. Ryan O’Hearn’s exciting cameo in 2018 was completely out-of-sync with his minor league performance before and major league performance since, and Hunter Dozier’s currently being counted on at third base, the position where he’s actually interesting.
It has been nearly 20(!) years since the Marlins traded Derrek Lee to the Cubs, and first base has been a revolving door ever since. Nine teams got a 120 wRC+ from their first basemen in 2020; the Marlins haven’t had their first basemen pass that threshold since 2006. Indeed, they’ve combined for at least a 110 wRC+ only once (2017) in the last decade.
2020 was better than most, and both Jesús Aguilar and Garrett Cooper acquitted themselves well at the position, with Lewin Díaz’s .152/.200/.212 line there the primary reason Fish first basemen only combined for a 107 wRC+ last season. Neither Aguilar nor Cooper are world-beaters, but they staunched the organization’s bleeding at the position and will be the primaries again in 2021. The lack of a designated hitter in the National League this time around probably hurts the Marlins more than most NL teams. There’s no obvious path to getting Cooper 500 plate appearances without jettisoning Corey Dickerson or the newly signed Adam Duvall, and as there’s no natural Aguilar/Cooper platoon arrangement here, Aguilar will get the bulk of the playing time. Cooper’s a good enough option that if Aguilar struggles as in 2019, the Marlins will likely turn to him as Plan B fairly quickly.
Renato Núñez has basically one trick: hitting for power. Fortunately for him, that’s a good skill to have if you can only pick one. There’s certainly no indication that Núñez will be anyone’s long-term first baseman, as he had to settle for a non-roster invitation and is considered far from a guarantee to even make the team. One thing that hurts his quest for a roster spot is the lack of any kind of platoon split; a slugger who mashes lefties can eke out opportunities in a Wes Helms or Ron Coomer-type role.
Jeimer Candelario’s most valuable at third base, but he’ll likely get playing time both there and here. It’s good for him to get experience at first given that the Tigers have the notion of trying Spencer Torkelson a third when the time comes.
Miguel Cabrera will mainly stay at designated hitter, but the Tigers haven’t shown much of an inclination for benching the steeply declining veteran, so he’ll likely see time here in interleague games. Miggy can no longer turn on fastballs with any consistency, so I don’t think there’s much hope for anything close to a return to form.
This winter, no transaction inspired a bigger gap between the excitement of the headlines and my personal feelings than the trade that saw Josh Bell head to DC as part of Pittsburgh’s latest salary purge. Bell’s not a terrible player by any means, but more than two-thirds of his career value (67.6%) came in a two month period at the start of the 2019 season. Outside of those two months, he’s a .251/.344/.435 hitter whose best position is designated hitter. While a repeat of his embarrassing .226/.305/.364 triple-slash is probably unlikely, he’s also unlikely to push Washington towards a return to the playoffs.
This year, the Nats enter the season with fewer alternatives if Bell does struggle like he did in 2020. Eric Thames and Howie Kendrick are gone and Ryan Zimmerman looked about done in 2019, and that was before fully opting-out of 2020. There’s also no big bat in the minors to serve as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option; 34-year-old Brandon Snyder is arguably the team’s best option on the farm.
I was kind of disappointed that the Diamondbacks didn’t take a longer look at Kevin Cron, only giving him a handful of scattered at-bats in 2019 and ’20. He’s off to the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Nippon Professional Baseball, leaving Christian Walker as the unchallenged incumbent at the position. Walker’s story is a good one. He’s a guy who appeared to be headed down the organizational player career route before getting a full-time job at age 28. Walker should post an OPS somewhere near .800, a .250 batting average and 20-25 home runs; that’s fine from a stopgap but not particularly inspiring. He’s probably a year or two from becoming more of a role player, but it’s still a nice little career for a guy who didn’t get a shot until well past any pretense of prospect status.
Pavin Smith appeared to be the first baseman-in-waiting when he was drafted in the first round in 2017, but he’s shown little of the power you would expect from a legitimate prospect at the position. ZiPS gives Smith a projection that maxes out at .257/.332/.429 in a few years, not enough to push out Walker, let alone be a legitimate starter at first.
I was very close to putting Keston Hiura on my breakout hitters list. Indeed, he was one of the final cuts as I trimmed the list down to eight. It’s weird seeing him this low after he exploded into the majors in 2019 with a .303/.368/.570 line in half a season. But his contact rate declined to terrifying levels in 2020, and his 20.4% swinging strike rate was the second-worst in the majors after Luis Robert. And unlike Robert, Hiura didn’t compensate for the helicopter routine by being a deserving Gold Glove recipient in center field. The Brewers were right to give him every opportunity to succeed at second, but he ranged at the position a little worse than a confused Roomba.
Playing first, Hiura will have the luxury of focusing on his offense, which will always have to carry his game. It’s dangerous to focus too much on spring training stats, but the fact that he’s struck out in nearly half of his at-bats isn’t a particularly auspicious sign.
If Hiura struggles, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that the Brewers let him try to work out his struggles against Triple-A pitching, giving a clearer path to Large Adult Son Daniel Vogelbach. Vogelbach has little star potential, but he doesn’t exactly hit soft grounders. Power-hitting lefties can bloom in Miller Par…err…American Family Field and I wouldn’t be surprised if Milwaukee keeps him around until they see if the designated hitter becomes universal in 2022.
Farewell, Mitch Moreland Memorial Roster Spot. After years of the Red Sox looking at first, shrugging, and bringing back Moreland, they’ve finally got another route as they sort of retool the roster. First up is Bobby Dalbec, who hit .263/.359/.600 in 2020 with eight homers in just 23 games. Dalbec’s done enough to deserve a longer look, but when making projections, one has to remember that the year before, he barely maintained an .800 OPS while facing Double- and Triple-A pitchers.
In a season that was overflowing with them, Michael Chavis was one of the team’s bigger letdowns last year. Chavis burst onto the scene in 2019, hitting .290/.389/.570 in his first month in the majors, but has done little to match that level of excitement or performance since. Last year, he was in contention for the starting job at second with Jose Peraza, but continued poor contact numbers have dropped him almost completely off the team’s radar. With Enrique Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez on the roster, injuries to Franchy Cordero and Danny Santana might be the only thing preventing Chavis from playing most of the year for Triple-A Worcester.
Until 2020, Yuli Gurriel made a regular habit of eviscerating his preseason projections. That streak ended last year as he slumped to a .232/.274/.384 line, which, as with other Astros who had poor seasons, resulted in whispers about trash cans and the like.
In Gurriel’s case, I’m not convinced that this was actually a factor. After all, when did he ever need to be cajoled into swinging? Gurriel’s plate discipline in his good years was a feast of oxymorons, a player who swings at bad pitches but doesn’t strike out much, who hits bad pitches but still makes good contact; a high batting average player who frequently starts behind in the count.
Gurriel’s come as close to breaking ZiPS as any hitter I can think of, which is perhaps best highlighted by the fact that going from a 132 wRC+ season to a 79 wRC+ one, all while being a year closer to 40, has resulted in his projection only dropping by 13 points of wRC+, the smallest dip for a player whose performance fell off anywhere near as much as Gurriel’s. That makes me especially sad that we didn’t get this Gurriel in his prime. I’m fascinated by players who appear immune to either conventional or mathematical wisdom.
C.J. Cron’s skill set is a fairly narrow one, but he does one thing incredibly well: throw him something low and inside, and he’s going to golf it into the stands using his best Bryson DeChambeau imitation. His nearly .400 isolated power on those pitches is right up there with Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton. Add Cron to Coors Field, a paradise for the “grip it and rip it” gods, and you won’t get a star, but you will hopefully get a fun player to watch. This year isn’t a great one to be a Rockies fan, but Cron could provide at least some excitement to this moribund team.
If Cron had a guarantee to grab the first base job, the Rockies’ depth chart would move up into the mid-teens. Holding back the projection are Ryan McMahon, whose path to major league relevance will require him playing a tougher position than first, and Greg Bird, who showed power in his Yankees debut several years ago but has been hampered by injuries since.
If the Orioles are smart, Ryan Mountcastle will finish the 2021 season with twice the number of plate appearances as his depth chart projection. Now 24, Mountcastle finally made his major league debut last year, and it was a good one, though he’ll be hard-pressed to match his .398 BABIP in 2021. Even if some regression toward the mean is likely, he’s the only one of the top four players on this list to have a future with Baltimore, and it’s time to give him the job and see what he can do with a full season to work at it.
Getting Mountcastle a full allocation of at-bats doesn’t require benching Trey Mancini, who is returning from a recent battle with colon cancer, which he was diagnosed with almost exactly a year ago; there’s plenty of opportunity for Mancini, never a defensive star, at designated hitter. What it will require is the team finally cutting the cord on the Chris Davis experience. The Orioles keep talking about reducing his playing time, but that was the move to make four years ago; after three years of some of the worst play that anybody has seen in the majors, Davis’ time in Baltimore ought to be over. It’s not unusual for a team to make the ill-conceived decision to play a veteran just because they’re paying him a lot of money, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a team play a former star who has fallen so far that letting him take the field feels almost unkind.
The major-league track record of first base prospects whose primary skill is drawing walks is a decidedly spotty one, and so far, Jake Bauers does not look like the exception. Bauers displayed solid plate discipline at a very young age in the minors, which naturally interested analytics-friendly Cleveland. Still, he’s shown no further development since he was acquired from Tampa Bay in the Carlos Santana/Yandy Díaz three-team trade. He made the team’s 60-man roster last season, but even with Santana struggling, he didn’t make it into a single game in 2020. With Santana gone, the team’s no longer experimenting with Bauers in the outfield, but his presence on the depth chart at this point is most likely because he’s out of options.
Even more confusing than the lack of power development from Bauers is Josh Naylor’s tepid thump. Always on the radar for his power upside, Naylor is only a .439 career slugger in the minors and has never combined to hit 20 homers in any season so far. He’ll likely get the bulk of his playing time in right field, but with Bauers not very good and the team apparently not yet committed to Bobby Bradley, he’ll see time at first.
In what seems to be a pattern for the franchise’s options at the position, Bradley is yet another highly regarded prospect who just hasn’t inspired much fear in the hearts of minor league pitchers. 2019 was his best minor league season yet, featuring a scintillating .567 slugging percentage, but he struggled in his shot of espresso in Cleveland. In a tight 2020 division, he didn’t make an appearance, a similar predicament to Bauers’. I think Cleveland’s best option right now is to roll with Bradley and see what he can do.
Where most of the teams down in this range have rather uncertain situations, what’s going on with the Reds is crystal clear: the first base job is Joey Votto’s as long as he’s under contract with the team. An inveterate tinkerer when it comes to his swing, he’s come back from numerous reversals and injuries in recent years, but he’ll be 38 before the end of the season and is nearing the end of his string. His power’s basically gone at this point, limiting the value of his legendary ability to wait out pitchers until he gets the offering he wants to drive. Votto’s plate discipline will ensure that his on-base percentage stays robust enough to keep him from ever falling anywhere near Chris Davis-like levels, but the days when he can be one of the offense’s primary drivers are likely gone. There’s no real Plan B here, so expect Votto to get 600 plate appearances unless he’s injured, come hell or high water.
The Angels have been incredibly reluctant to begin phasing Albert Pujols out of the lineup, but with the future Hall of Famer entering the final season of his contract and unlikely to pass any more significant career milestones, they’ve slowly started the process of moving on.
The first candidate to replace Pujols is Jared Walsh, who hit nine homers and slugged .646 in 32 games for the Angels last year, a shot that he earned by posting a 1.109 OPS for Triple-A Salt Lake back before minor league baseball was torn asunder. My colleague Jake Mailhot considered Walsh at greater length last September, but to make a long story short, Walsh worked on a more compact swing in 2020 and improved his contact rate significantly from his Angels debut and time in the minors. It does worry me that he outperformed his xSLG by more than 100 points, meaning that his power burst wasn’t quite as extreme as it appeared to be. The projections see Walsh as a low-OBP first baseman with decent power, but with the team short on other options, he’ll get plenty of chances this year to prove that 2020 is repeatable.
A lot the Padres have done the past few years has worked out marvelously, but the one glaring exception is the eight-year blockbuster deal they inked Eric Hosmer to. Hosmer spent his first two years in San Diego mostly hitting hard grounders into the dirt, and finished both seasons below replacement level.
2020, however, did show signs of a change in his approach at the plate. In 2018 and ’19, the average launch angle on a Hosmer hit was -1.5 degrees, making him one of only two hitters in baseball with 250 plate appearances to post a negative average launch angle (the other was Wilson Ramos). He worked on getting more loft last year, and his average launch angle jumped to nearly nine degrees, enough to boost his isolated power to over .200, the only time in his career he’s hit that mark. If he can keep it up, he might shatter this projection. But it’s worth noting that as the season went on, Hosmer experienced considerable backsliding. On August 15, his average angle was 16 degrees; that dropped to six degrees the rest of the way, and his groundball rate rose for the rest of the season.
It’s improbable that the Padres would bench Hosmer, even if he fully reverts to his earlier form, but there are options if he should miss time with an injury.
The nearly 50/50 split on the depth charts between Ronald Guzmán and Nate Lowe reflects uncertainty more than a true timeshare, as both players hit left-handed, making a traditional platoon difficult. Guzmán looks like a player who should be hitting for power, but his exit velocity numbers have been underwhelming. The Rangers were prepared for him not to hit southpaws, but he also hasn’t exactly burned righties, posting a .249/.331/.452 line against them. Whether or not he ends up the starter at first, he’ll likely make the team; Guzmán is out of options, and the Rangers are desperate for any offense.
Nate Lowe strikes out a lot, but his problem in the majors has actually been passivity more than reckless aggression; his contact and swinging-strike rate have been around average for the majors as a whole. When he does get his pitch, he’s shown he can leverage his power: When he hit a ball between eight and 32 degrees, he was a top-10 player in batting average over 2019 and 2020, hitting .732 while slugging 1.446.
The Rangers have enough holes on the depth chart that they can likely give a lot of playing time to both Guzmán and Lowe and see who works out.
ZiPS has long been a grump about Evan White, projecting him for a .227/.275/.376 line coming into the 2020 season. As you might imagine, White actually hitting .176/.252/.346 didn’t exactly do anything to improve ZiPS’ outlook. Steamer and THE BAT are more optimistic about Seattle’s first baseman, but neither see him as anything but a bottom-tier performer at the position.
One thing that White did excel at last year was hitting for power, and he was among the elite in exit velocity and barrel percentage despite an OPS short of .600. He literally swung and miss at half the changeups and curveballs thrown to him in 2020. White’s too young to throw in the towel on, and it feels like he has some of the raw tools of a first baseman who can earn his keep offensively, but he’s nowhere near where he needs to be. I wonder how much he was hurt by the lack of a 2020 minor league season. He’s one hitter who I really thought should have been working on his approach against Triple-A pitchers, and I applaud the Mariners for giving him ample opportunity rather than leave him sitting out a season. Still, his contact issues were downright ugly at times.
Colin Moran hit for surprising power in 2020, but he’s the starting first baseman for the Pirates this year for two reasons: he doesn’t cost much and the Bucs already have Ke’Bryan Hayes to play third.
One change for Moran in 2021 is a platoon-mate in Todd Frazier, necessary given Moran’s .636 OPS against lefties during his major league career. It won’t be nearly enough to make the Pirates an interesting team this season, but it will at least be marginally helpful to have Moran platooning. Frazier’s in the twilight of his career, but he can still mash lefties a bit and I’m more comfortable with him backing up Hayes at third than Moran.
ZiPS actually thinks Phillip Evans is the most talented first baseman on Pittsburgh’s roster, but that’s more of a reflection of the state of the team after trading off most of its marketable talent. Still, Evans made significant plate discipline strides for the Iowa Cubs in 2019 and was successful with the Pirates in a very small sample in 2020, so the team might as well get a look at him failing better options.