Commentary

A whole lot of uncertainty at first base

16 teams will begin next year with a different 1B than the one they opened with in '10

Originally Published: December 17, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

On April 26, first baseman Ryan Howard signed a five-year extension worth $125 million, a deal that part of the baseball world hailed as another sign of a dynastic future for the Philadelphia Phillies, and an even greater part of the baseball world called an overpay with dangerous ramifications. Every day since, first base has been a point of discussion, confusion and contention. Is it a loaded position, a position undergoing a change, or is it both?

Ryan Howard
AP Photo/David J. PhillipIt was an extremely difficult end to the 2010 season for Ryan Howard.

With eight days to go until Christmas, fairly late in the free-agent game, eight teams don't have, or aren't comfortable with, a first baseman, an alarmingly high number given the production that first base is supposed to bring each season. Three of the five teams in the AL East, supposedly the best division in the game, don't have a first baseman (the Jays might play Jose Bautista there, but he might be needed more at third base or the outfield). Eventually, free-agent first basemen Derrek Lee and Adam LaRoche will find jobs, but it hasn't been easy.

Sixteen teams will open next season with a different everyday first baseman than the one they opened with last year, which seems like a lot of turnover for a position that is supposed to be set year-to-year. Yet as teams scuffle to find a first baseman for 2011, arguably the three best hitters in 2010 were first baseman: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and National League Most Valuable Player Joey Votto, plus Paul Konerko, who was among the top 10.

It was an eventful year for first basemen. The Howard signing led to speculation about the next contract for Pujols, who can be a free agent at the end of the 2011 season. Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox said last summer that if Howard is worth $25 million a year, then Pujols is worth $50 million.' Preliminary negotiations with the Cardinals and Pujols began at the winter meetings, and a logical person would acknowledge that there's no way the Cardinals will let him get away, but significant progress has to be made soon, and for the Cardinals sake, he had better be signed by Opening Day or they risk allowing him to get to free agency. One way or another, Pujols seems likely to be the first $30 million-a-year player.

Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, also a free agent after the 2011 season, will be watching the negotiations with Pujols carefully. Fielder is not in Pujols' class as a player or in his salary scale, but he likely will be in the $20 million-per-year range, which is going to be too rich for the Milwaukee Brewers. By Opening Day, he likely will be dealt, but that will take some time. The Brewers are looking for lots of good young pitching in return, and teams are more hesitant than ever to deal that.

In the deal of the offseason so far, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez was traded from the San Diego Padres to the Boston Red Sox, a deal which had been rumored for more than a year, but still wasn't completed with a contract extension. The framework for a new contract is in place, and eventually a deal in the seven-year, $154 million range will be reached. That will mean that another first baseman, Kevin Youkilis, will return to third base for the Red Sox.

Two other star first basemen will return next year from bizarre injuries. The Los Angeles Angels' Kendry Morales broke his leg when he landed awkwardly after leaping into a pile of teammates at home plate after a walk-off grand slam on May 29, a slam that ruined the season for the Angels. The Minnesota Twins' Justin Morneau didn't play after July 7 after suffering a concussion when he was kneed in the head while sliding into second base. Morneau, a candidate for the AL MVP when he was hurt, says he will be ready when spring training arrives. Morales says he also will be. Their teams have little shot at the playoffs without them.

Justin Morneau
Morneau

Kendry Morales
Morales

Morales and Morneau missing a great deal of time last year might be a reason for it, but the numbers by major league first basemen took a tumble last year. In 2009, first basemen batted .277, had an OPS of .845, averaged 28 home runs and 101 RBIs. In 2010, first basemen fell to .263, had an OPS of .800 and averaged 25 homers and 91 RBIs. One first baseman who took a fall was Carlos Pena, who batted .204 against right-handed pitching, matching the lowest average (with Joe Simpson in 1981) by a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching in the past 35 years, yet Pena still signed a one-year, $10 million deal with the Cubs last week.

Maybe the numbers were down for first basemen due to the injuries, or maybe 2010 was the latest Year of the Pitcher, and offensive numbers were down everywhere. But as the game becomes more oriented to pitching and defense, maybe there isn't the same emphasis on putting some big guy at first base to hit home runs (the Braves might end up playing Martin Prado at first base in 2011). And maybe we will have to wait a few years for Ike Davis, Justin Smoak, Brett Wallace, Mitch Moreland and other young first basemen to develop.

As the year closes, and teams continue to look for first basemen via free agency or trade, who are the most interesting first-time players on this year's Hall of Fame ballot? First basemen Rafael Palmeiro and Jeff Bagwell. Palmeiro is one of four players in history with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray are the others), but given his connection to performance-enhancing drugs, chances are he won't get more than 25 percent of the vote, same as another first baseman on the ballot, Mark McGwire, in 2007. Bagwell is one of only 23 players in history (the others are Hall of Famers, or will be Hall of Famers) with a career average of at least .297, at least 1,500 runs scored and at least 1,500 RBIs. It will be fascinating to see what vote total he receives in his first year on the ballot.

There are only 18 pure first basemen in the Hall of Fame, not as many as we originally thought. Lou Gehrig is, by far, the greatest first baseman ever, but Pujols is on his way to becoming the second best, if not the best. We're pretty confident saying that, but with the way the position has changed in the past year, we're not confident making too many predictions about first basemen these days. After watching Ryan Howard struggle badly in the postseason, and taking a called third strike to end the Phillies' season, that debate about his contract rages even more than it did nine months ago.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.