The 2017 MLB postseason is underway. The Tampa Bay Rays thought they had a chance to participate in it. Instead, they’re watching it from home, trying to figure out how to not be in this position for a fifth straight season at this time next year.
Five First Baseman Candidates for the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have a challenging off-season ahead of them. They have several important players set to become free agents. Constantly among MLB’s lowest payrolls, they’re going to have trouble outbidding other teams to retain their services. Keep in mind the Rays need to improve next season, too, not just tread water.
Pending free agents include right-handed pitcher Tommy Hunter, who was one of Tampa Bay’s few consistently reliable relievers throughout the season (despite some ill-timed home runs allowed). Fellow righties Steve Cishek and Sergio Romo, who came over in late July and helped stabilize a shaky bullpen (unfortunately, the offense fell apart over the final two months, making the job done to repair the bullpen all for naught), are also going to be free agents. The Rays are also going to lose a big piece of their rotation in Alex Cobb.
However, the Rays can return almost the exact same group of position players next year if they want to. Except, that is, at first base and designated hitter. Logan Morrison and trade deadline rental Lucas Duda are both set to be free agents. They both hit 30 home runs this season. Morrison’s 38 were the third most ever by a Ray in a single season (behind Carlos Pena‘s 46 in 2007 and 39 in 2009), and he was Tampa Bay’s best hitter this year. Morrison was a free agent last year, too, but after an extremely up-and-down 2016, he found little interest in his services in free agency, and ended up returning to the Rays on a one-year deal. After his breakout 2017, though, he’ll likely be able to find himself a nice contract elsewhere this time that Tampa Bay won’t be willing to match.
Duda, meanwhile, was a pretty extreme case of all-or-nothing as a Ray. He hit just .175, but with 13 home runs in only 52 games. Nearly half of his 30 hits were homers. He does have a longer track record of being a successful hitter than Morrison, though, so it’s still possible there will be offers out there for him that are too rich for the Rays.
It’s also possible the Rays won’t have much interest in retaining Duda anyways. Tampa Bay ranked 14th in the American League in runs this season with 694, scoring just one more than the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. That was despite hitting 228 home runs, good for sixth in the AL. It’s been a similar story for the Rays for a few years now. In 2016, they also ranked 14th in the AL in runs despite hitting the fourth most home runs. In 2015, they ranked 14th in runs and eighth in home runs.
For the Rays to break out of their recent cycle of mediocrity, they need to diversify their lineup and figure out how to score in other ways. They were too left-handed and too reliant on home runs, which is exactly what Duda is. Of course, it’s not that home runs are bad, they’re great! Even the best home run hitters, though, only average a homer every three or four games. So you need to score in other ways, too.
So, with all that in mind, let’s take a look at some options the budget-conscious Rays could replace Morrison and Duda with, and try to find the best fits. I’m not going to waste any time talking about guys like Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana or J.D. Martinez, as they will all be well out of Tampa Bay’s price range.
124 games, .193/.285/.428, 29 home runs, 66 RBI, 81 WRC+, -0.5 fWAR
Napoli was basically a right-handed hitting Duda for the Texas Rangers this season. Hitting right-handed is really the only thing he has going for him here. That said, though, Napoli didn’t even fare particularly well against lefties this year, hitting .196/.283/.467 against them. Perhaps Napoli isn’t a bad buy-low option after a bad year. He has a long history of being a good hitter, and he’s usually smoked left-handers in his career. His career line against lefties is .270/.379/.513. Still, Napoli does nothing to address the Rays’ need of scoring in ways besides home runs.
142 games, .266/.365/.501, 28 home runs, 67 RBI, 132 WRC+, 2.4 fWAR
Like Morrison, Alonso enjoyed a breakout 2017 season with the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners. He was even an All-Star for the first time. A left-handed hitter who struggles mightily against southpaws, though, Alonso doesn’t address Tampa Bay’s need to improve against lefties. He also might be too expensive — having posted similar numbers in their breakout years, it seems like Morrison and Alonso should be in line for similar contracts this offseason.
149 games, .246/.326/.443, 22 home runs, 79 RBI, 98 WRC+, 0.9 fWAR
Moreland is another left-handed hitter who won’t help much against lefties. Having had another Mitch Moreland-esque season, he should probably be in line for another contract around the one-year, $5.5 million deal he signed with the Boston Red Sox last off-season. He’s affordable and serviceable, but there’s really nothing exciting about him.
130 games, .256/.314/.411, 15 home runs, 66 RBI, 95 WRC+, -0.4 fWAR
For his career, Valencia is a .313/.370/.493 hitter against lefties. He wasn’t quite as good for the Mariners this year, but still hit a solid .264/.356/.448 against southpaws. Valencia is exactly the kind of affordable lefty-masher the Rays should target. Also, he’s a Rays killer, and it would just help them if they didn’t have to face him anymore. In a June series in Seattle, Valencia recorded a hit in nine straight at-bats against them. With the A’s in 2016, he had a three-homer game against the Rays.
(Triple-A) 132 games, .263/.368/.412, 13 home runs, 63 RBI, 120 WRC+
Bauers was a 19-year-old who hadn’t played above Single-A when the Rays acquired him from the San Diego Padres after the 2014 season as part of the Wil Myers trade. Since then, he’s progressed nicely through the Rays organization. In fact, he’s now MLB.com’s fifth-ranked Rays prospect. Still just 21, he fared well in his first taste of Triple-A this year, and that was after impressing the Rays in spring training. Bauers got 43 plate appearances over 17 Grapefruit League games with the Rays, and hit .371/.465/.857 with four home runs and 13 RBI. Bauers, though, is unlikely to be Tampa Bay’s Opening Day first baseman next year. The Rays will likely want to keep him in the minors long enough so that he won’t use up a year of service time next year, and probably even past the super two eligibility date.
So, at the very least, the Rays will need a stopgap at first base to begin next season. What else the Rays should do about their situation at first and DH seems less clear. A lot of it will depend on what the market sets the prices at for other players. Keep in mind, Hosmer and Santana are going to be at the top of the list for teams looking for a first baseman. After they’ve signed, how much of a market is there going to be left for the likes of Morrison, Duda, Napoli, Alonso, Moreland and Valencia?
Something that’s also been made clear is that a lot of first basemen rely on power as their primary source of offense, and don’t provide a ton in the way of speed and contact. For a team whose only clear holes are at first base and DH (or first base and left field, if they move Corey Dickerson back to DH), and for a team that’s looking to figure out how to score in ways besides home runs, that’s not ideal. The Rays are going to have to get creative this off-season to really improve and diversify their offense for 2018.
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