We’ve reached the point of the season where roughly half the league is closing the book on 2021 postseason hopes and beginning to look toward the future. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at this year’s upcoming free-agent class in some more depth. MLBTR’s Darragh McDonald kicked things off over the weekend by previewing the upcoming class of catchers, and we’ll move onto first base today.
Before diving in, it’s worth briefly highlighting a few notable free agents who could technically be considered options at first base but will likely line up elsewhere. Kris Bryant has 212 innings at the position, including 92 this year. Eduardo Escobar had never played there prior to being acquired by the Brewers, but Milwaukee has given him 80 innings at first. The Red Sox have given Kyle Schwarber 35 frames at first base since acquiring him. Mark Canha played 537 innings there for the A’s back in 2015 but has just 203 innings there since — and only 11 in 2020-21.
It wouldn’t be an outright shock to see any of the bunch signed with the idea of a more permanent move to first base, but for the purposes of this series, they’ll all be discussed at greater length in future position previews.
Freddie Freeman (32 years old next season): The obvious top name on the market, most onlookers expected that Freeman, the reigning NL MVP, would have signed an extension with the Braves by now. A return to Atlanta still seems the most probable outcome, even though it’s taken longer than anticipated. That said, Freeman is on the cusp of at least entertaining interest from the game’s other 29 clubs. Freeman got out to slow start in 2021 (especially by his lofty standards), batting .195/.326/.407 through his first 31 games. In 116 games since that time, he’s mashed at a .327/.407/.536 rate with 23 home runs, 20 doubles and three triples. By measure of wRC+, Freeman has been at least 32 percent better than the average big league hitter each season dating back to 2013. He just wrapped up an eight-year, $135MM contract, and despite the fact that he’ll play next year at 32 years of age, he has a chance to approach or even exceed that guarantee on a shorter deal this time around. Freeman is a no-doubt qualifying offer recipient, barring an extension between now and the point at which QOs are due.
Anthony Rizzo (32): Rizzo’s bat has dropped off since his 2014-19 peak, though he’s been more productive in 2021 than he was in a career-worst 2020 season. He’s walking at a solid but still-diminished 9.6 percent clip and is still a tough strikeout at 15 percent — albeit not as tough as he once was. Rizzo has seen 13.4 percent of his fly-balls go for home runs this year — his lowest mark since 2013. Overall, he’s batting .249/.345/.439 — good for a 112 wRC+ (or 12 percent better than league-average production). Rizzo reportedly rejected a five-year, $70MM extension offer from the Cubs back in Spring Training and is now poised to reach the open market for the first time in his career. He’s ineligible to receive a qualifying offer after being traded from the Cubs to the Yankees midseason.
Brandon Belt (34): Belt’s bat looked to be on the decline from 2018-19, but he’s been better than ever from 2020-21. Over his past 142 games/531 plate appearances, Belt is raking at a .276/.384/.580 clip with 35 long balls, 26 doubles and three triples. He’s sporting a career-worst 28.4 percent strikeout rate in 2021, but he’s also connected on a career-high 26 home runs while maintaining a characteristically strong 12.9 percent walk rate. Belt entered the 2020 season with a career 88.1 mph average exit velocity and 9.8 percent barrel rate, per Statcast. In 2020-21, those numbers jumped to 89.7 mph and 16.8 percent, respectively. He’s a qualifying offer candidate himself, although not a slam-dunk to the extent of Freeman.
C.J. Cron (32): Colorado’s minor league deal for Cron paid off nicely, and while the team opted against moving him at the deadline (as was the case with nearly every Rockies trade chip), both sides have expressed interest in extending the relationship. It’s easy to see why the Rox would want to keep Cron around after he’s posted a .267/.366/.520 batting line with 27 long balls — just three off his career-best mark from 2018. As usual, Cron has crushed lefties and been solid against righties. He’s been more productive at Coors Field than on the road, but Cron has always been a better hitter at home and has been productive in the past with several other clubs. Perhaps most encouraging is that after walking at a 5.5 percent clip through his first 673 MLB games, Cron has walked at a 12.1 percent rate in 547 plate appearances dating back to his injury-shortened 2020 season. Cron’s prior OBP woes have contributed to him effectively being non-tendered on a couple of occasions, but his newfound plate discipline should serve him well in free agency. It’d be a surprise for the Rockies to issue a QO, but they march to the beat of their own drum, to say the least.
Utility Players and Platoon Bats
- Asdrubal Cabrera (36): Cabrera has been used exclusively at the infield corners since 2020, with the exception of a single inning at shortstop in Arizona this year, but he played second regularly as recently as 2018-19. The veteran switch-hitter has surprisingly gone hitless in 22 plate appearances since being claimed by the Reds, but he batted .244/.324/.392 in 321 plate appearances with the D-backs earlier this year.
- Todd Frazier (36): Frazier spent some time with the Pirates early in 2021 but went just 3-for-35 before being released. He served as the starting third baseman for Team USA in the Olympics this year. Frazier smacked 21 home runs as recently as 2019 with the Mets and had a huge Spring Training in 2021, but his output during the 2020-21 seasons was well below his career standards.
- Marwin Gonzalez (33): Released by the Red Sox after an ugly .202/.281/.285 showing in 271 plate appearances, Gonzalez has returned to Houston and connected on more homers (three) in 22 plate appearances than he hit during his entire time with Boston (two). He’s batted just .239/.309/.380 in 1507 plate appearances since a career year with the 2017 Astros.
- Jake Lamb (31): Lamb briefly turned back the clock in a late-season stint with the A’s in 2020, hitting .267/.327/.566 with three homers in 49 plate appearances. He’s hitting just .200/.313/.379 in 166 tries this season, however, and hasn’t looked the same since shoulder surgery derailed his career. Lamb hit .248/.345/.498 with 59 homers from 2016-17 with the D-backs, but it’s been a long time now since he was consistently productive.
- Brad Miller (32): Miller has played all four corner positions and second base with the Phillies this year while batting .228/.320/.462 with 19 homers in 344 plate appearances. It’s his third straight year with above-average OPS+ and wRC+ marks. He strikes out too often to hit for a particularly high average, but Miller has power and can play nearly anywhere on the diamond, making him a nice bench piece for any contender.
- Mitch Moreland (36): Moreland has hit for some power but is in the midst of his worst offensive campaign since 2016. He’s batted .225/.286/.415 in Oakland — a large departure from the .265/.342/.551 output he posted through 152 plate appearances in 2020. Moreland has a track record of solid defensive marks at first base, but the A’s have used him primarily as a designated hitter in 2021. Moreland’s longstanding struggles against left-handed pitching have continued in 2021.
- Albert Pujols (42): It feels odd to sandwich a future Hall of Famer in the middle of this list. Pujols has been a better hitter with the Dodgers than he was with the Angels, but his overall output is still only a bit above-average. He’s absolutely tattooing lefties at a .305/.348/.633 clip but has posted an awful .175/.230/.263 slash against right-handed pitching. He’d be helped out substantially if the NL implements the DH, but he looks primarily like a bench bat/part-time DH against southpaws at this point.
- Pablo Sandoval (35): The Panda’s resurgence with the 2019 Giants was a fun story, but he’s batted just .197/.294/.299 in 180 plate appearances between the Giants and Braves since that time. The Indians acquired him as a financial counterbalance in the deadline trade that sent Eddie Rosario to Atlanta, but Cleveland released Sandoval that same day.
- Danny Santana (31): Santana is batting just .181/.252/.345 in 127 plate appearances. He enjoyed big offensive performances as a rookie with the Twins in 2013 and slugged 28 homers for the Rangers in 2019 — but he’s never managed a wRC+ better than 60 in any of his other six big league seasons. It’s been a bizarre career for Santana, who has obvious power and speed, but is a career .255/.296/.413 hitter (85 wRC+).
- Travis Shaw (32): Shaw’s Milwaukee reunion didn’t work out too well, has posted just a .191/.279/.337 line there before being cut loose. His second reunion, a return to the Red Sox, has been excellent. It’s only 40 plate appearances, but Shaw has hit .257/.333/.600 with three round-trippers. He hasn’t had an above-average full season since 2018, but this late surge with the Sox ought to intrigue a few clubs.
- Yoshi Tsutsugo (30): Shaw’s late rebound might be impressive, but it’s got nothing on Tsutsugo. The former NPB star has erupted with a .306/.394/.682 showing in 99 plate appearances since joining the Pirates. It doesn’t undo the disappointing production he delivered with the Rays and Dodgers from 2020-21, but it’s certainly intriguing given that he was one of Japan’s top power hitters not long ago. If you’re looking for a low-cost upside play at first or in the outfield corners, Tsutsugo is an interesting option.
- Ryan Zimmerman (37): Mr. National is still hitting for power, with 14 dingers in 258 plate appearances, but his .244/.283/.475 slash pales in comparison to his peak. If he comes back for a 17th big league season, one would imagine it’d only be to return to the Nats.
Players with 2022 Options
Yuli Gurriel (38): I’ll be the first to admit that I scratched my head when the Astros jumped the market to extend Gurriel just as the postseason was about to begin in 2020. That one-year extension, which contains a club option for 2022, couldn’t have gone any better. Last year’s disappointing .232/.274/.384 slash is a distant memory, and with Gurriel turning in a huge .317/.383/.463 showing in 2021, next year’s $8MM option is a no-brainer to be picked up.
Wilmer Flores (30): Flores is hitting .259/.321/.470 in 617 plate appearances since signing with the Giants. He can play first, second and third base competently, and he mashes left-handed pitching. A $3.5MM club option should be an easy “yes” for the Giants.
Matt Carpenter (36): Carpenter’s option is every bit as easy a call as the other two in this section — albeit for the opposite reason. His $18.5MM club option comes with a $2MM buyout, and the Cards are sure to take the buyout after the former MVP candidate has batted just .180/.314/.299 over the past two seasons. Carpenter recently said he hopes to continue playing, but it might be time for a fresh start elsewhere for the lifelong Cardinal.
Jurickson Profar (29): The Padres’ three-year, $21MM deal for Profar was fairly surprising even before the revelation that the contract came with a pair of opt-out clauses. Profar has batted just .235/.335/.336 in 381 plate appearances this year, making it quite difficult to see him turning down a guaranteed two years and $14MM from the Friars. That’s especially true given that he could always pocket next year’s $6.5MM salary and opt out post-2022 if he has a big season.