We already kicked off this year’s position-by-position breakdown of the upcoming free agent class with a look at the market’s catchers. Next up is a crop of first baseman that doesn’t feature many surefire answers for clubs hoping to bolster their production at the position.
As a qualifier, there’s no clear, healthy, starting-caliber first baseman coming off a strong season in this year’s class. Due to the lack of a defined “top of the market” option, the top tier on this breakdown will simply be the few guys who have received regular reps in recent years — even if they’re all rebound candidates for one reason or another at this point.
- C.J. Cron (31): Cron mashed four quick taters to open the season before a knee injury required surgery and ended his campaign after just 13 games. From 2018-19 between the Rays and Twins, Cron batted .253/.317/.482 with 55 round-trippers in 1059 plate appearances. There’s obvious power here, and at his best, the right-handed-hitting Cron can flat-out decimate lefties while holding his own against righties. Knee surgery was a bad break, but he’s relatively young and could still be a starting first baseman if his recovery goes well.
- Yuli Gurriel (37): Gurriel hit .298/.343/.541 through 612 plate appearances in 2019 and then faceplanted with a .232/.274/.384 slash through 230 trips to the plate in 2020. He’ll face questions about his poor 2020 season, his age and his ties to the Astros’ 2017 scandal in free agency this winter as he searches for a new club. Gurriel was a superstar in Cuba and quite productive in MLB up until the current campaign. He can also play some third base and second base, though he was exclusively a first baseman/designated hitter in 2020.
- Jake Lamb (30): Shoulder injuries destroyed the end of Lamb’s career in Arizona, but he’s looked good since being released and latching on with the A’s. Lamb hit .267/.327/.556 with four homers in 49 Oakland plate appearances, although that showing still only boosted his overall 2020 line to .196/.283/.352. Lamb swatted 59 homers as the D-backs’ everyday third baseman in 2016-17 before his shoulder troubles set in. If he’s healthy, he’s young enough to reestablish himself as an everyday option at either corner infield spot. He’ll hope for a deep postseason run to continue his turnaround at the dish.
- Justin Smoak (34): The switch-hitting Smoak was better than his low batting average made it seem at first glance in 2019, but his strikeout rate rose by 10 percent in a disastrous Brewers showing in 2020. Smoak went hitless in a brief three-game look with the Giants after being released. From 2017-19, the big slugger hit .243/.350/.470 for Toronto, but this year’s woeful .176/.250/.361 batting line won’t do him many favors in free agency.
- Ryan Zimmerman (36): Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season but made clear that he intends to play again in 2021. A persistent case of plantar fasciitis torpedoed his 2019 season and limited him to just 52 games, but Zimmerman mashed at a .289/.350/.542 clip in 899 plate appearances from 2017-18. It’s hard to envision “Mr. National” playing anywhere other than D.C. A low-cost Nationals reunion certainly makes sense.
Utility Players and Platoon Bats
- Matt Adams (32): Adams has never been able to hit lefties well, but his output against righties cratered in this year’s small sample as well (.152/.188/.261 in 48 plate appearances). He could land another minor league deal as a bench bat.
- Asdrubal Cabrera (35): Cabrera played a career-high 198 2/3 innings at first base this year, hitting .242/.305/.447 with eight dingers. He’s not a shortstop anymore, but the switch-hitter can still handle first, second and third base while providing average or better offense.
- Derek Dietrich (31): Dietrich’s transformation into a three-true-outcomes slugger continued in 2020. He hit .197/.347/.459 and saw just over half of his 75 plate appearances end with a home run (eight), walk (nine) or strikeout (21). He can also play second base, third base and the outfield corners.
- Brad Miller (31): Miller has experience at all four infield spots and in the outfield corners. He’s struggled with consistency, but he hit well in 2020 and owns a combined .247/.329/.468 line in 595 plate appearances dating back to 2018. He’s slugged 27 homers and doubles apiece in that time, tacking on four triples.
- Logan Morrison (33): LoMo rode big Spring Training and Summer Camp performances to a spot on the Brewers’ roster, but he struggled immensely through nine games in the Majors. Morrison bashed 38 home runs with the 2017 Rays, but a torn labrum in his hip wrecked his 2018 season with the Twins. He has yet to bounce back.
- Pablo Sandoval (34): The Panda revived his career with a quality 2018-19 showing in his return to the Giants, but the 2020 season was a disaster. The Braves rather stunningly added him to the roster in advance of the postseason, so perhaps he’ll get a late chance at showing some life. A minor league deal still seems likeliest.
- Neil Walker (35): Walker beat out several other veterans to win a bench spot in Philadelphia, but he hit .231/.244/.308 before he was cut loose earlier this month. The switch-hitter can handle all four corner spots and second base but is sure to be viewed as a bench piece if he keeps playing.
Players with 2021 Options
- Edwin Encarnacion, $12MM club option: Encarnacion was a lock for 30-plus homers from 2012-19 and belted 10 dingers in 2020 — maintaining a 30-homer pace. Unfortunately, he did so while batting just .157/.250/.377 on the whole. This year’s 29.8 percent strikeout rate was the worst of his career by a whopping seven percent. He’ll turn 38 in January.
- Todd Frazier, $5.75MM club option with $1.5MM buyout: The 2020 season was the worst of Frazier’s career at the plate, as he followed up a solid 2019 output with a lowly .236/.302/.382 slash. Frazier can play either corner infield spot and will turn 35 in February.
- Jedd Gyorko, $4.5MM club option with $1MM buyout: Gyorko, who turned 32 earlier this month, hit .248/.333/.504 with nine homers while logging more than 200 innings at first base. He can play all over the infield. His option would seem likely to be picked up in a normal winter, but the Brewers made some surprising option decisions a year ago, and with revenue losses throughout the league, perhaps they’ll feel that a similar skill set will be available more affordably elsewhere on the market. Many utility bats will be non-tendered or cut loose in the coming months.
- Howie Kendrick, $6.5MM mutual option with $2.25MM buyout: The 37-year-old Kendrick hit just .275/.320/.385 in 100 plate appearances with the Nats this year and voiced uncertainty about his future this weekend. It’s hard to see the Nats paying that price with Zimmerman also eyeing a comeback.
- Mitch Moreland, $3MM club option with $500K buyout: The 35-year-old raked with the Red Sox but saw his bat collapse upon a trade to the Padres, for whom he’s posted a dismal .203/.247/.362 slash in 73 plate appearances. It’s still a cheap price, and the Padres gave up some minor league talent to get Moreland, so perhaps he’s still in the 2021 plans.
- Daniel Murphy, $12MM mutual option with $6MM buyout: Huge buyout notwithstanding, the Rox probably won’t have much to think about here. The 35-year-old Murphy hit .236/.275/.333 in 132 trips to the plate in 2020, bringing his Rockies total to .269/.316/.426. That’s 23 percent worse than league average after weighting for his home park, per wRC+ (77).
- Anthony Rizzo, $14.5MM club option with $2MM buyout: It wasn’t a great season for Rizzo, whose .222 average was a career-low, but he kept getting on base and hitting for power. Rizzo popped up at a career-high rate and saw his exit velocity dip, but a correction on this year’s .218 BABIP still seems likely. It’d be a shock to see his option bought out, even coming off a down year at the plate.
- Carlos Santana, $17.5MM club option with $500K buyout: Santana has never walked at a clip better than this year’s 18.4 percent in a full season, but his power dropped to a career-low as well (.150 ISO). The $17MM net value would be steep for the Indians even if Santana had posted a terrific year, but this year’s .199/.349/.350 slash simplifies the decision.
- Eric Thames, $4MM mutual option with $1MM buyout: Thames mashed his way through a three-year stint with the Brewers in his return from a star turn in the KBO, but he hit just .203/.300/.317 in 140 plate appearances with the Nats this year. He’s likely to return to the market. His ability to play the outfield could help him a bit.