Comparatively, first base was a position of relative stability for the Tampa Bay Rays. Carlos Pena made the vast majority of the starts there over the course of the year, with Jeff Keppinger as the primary backup. Here is how the Rays fared at first base this past season.
After a one year exile to the Chicago Cubs, Pena returned to the Rays with a bang, going 3-5 with a home run and five RBI on Opening Day. He hit another home run in the opening series, and continued his hot hitting through April, producing a .286/.412/.488 slash line with four home runs and thirteen RBI. Towards the end of the year, Pena began hitting more to the opposite field, finally taking what the defense would give him as opposed to being a dead pull hitter as he always had been.
Keppinger acquitted himself fairly well at first base when he received more opportunities there later in the season. Despite having not made an appearance at first base since 2008, Keppinger was just below league average defensively, which, considering he posted a .325/.367/.439 batting line with nine home runs, was acceptable. The strategy of Keppinger starting at first for his offense, then moving elsewhere in the infield so that Pena could come in defensively, worked out well for the Rays.
Following his hot start offensively, Pena cooled off dramatically. He continued to hit the occasional home run and draw walks; however, the end result was atrocious. Pena ended the year with a .197/.330/.354 batting line, placing him last amongst qualified first basemen in batting average and slugging. While he walked 82 times, he also had 182 strikeouts, by far the most at the position. As a team, the Rays were dead last in batting average, second to last in slugging, and 19th in on base percentage. In an attempt to kickstart Pena’s season, Joe Maddon briefly had him leading off when Desmond Jennings was injured. As novel a concept as it was, the tactic simply did not work, as Pena batted only .171 as a leadoff hitter.
A major factor into the signing of Carlos Pena this offseason appeared to be his excellent glovework. While the Rays only had eight errors all season from their first basemen, they were below average in total chances, showing a lack of range. Pena himself was almost exactly average in range factor per nine innings, and and was below average with his range factor per game, coming in at 8.35 compared to a league average of 9.22. Rays first basemen was also a -7 in Total Zone Runs, which is also below average (average being 0). While the Rays caught the ball well at first, the overall inability to be average in making plays is a bit disappointing, considering Pena’s defensive reputation.
Looking Forward to 2013:
Pena was signed to a one year, $7.25Million contract this offseason, making him the second highest paid player on the team for 2012. Meanwhile Keppinger received a one year, $1.525Million dollar deal, and is likely in line for a bump in salary. Both are free agents this offseason, but may have different markets. Keppinger is likely someone the Rays will attempt to resign, while Pena is likely to be allowed to leave unless he agrees to return at a substantially reduced rate.
Amongst the available free agents at first base, the two best are probably Lance Berkman and Adam LaRoche, two players that are likely out of the Rays price range. Rumor has it that the Rays would be interested in James Loney, who is entering the market at age 29. However, Loney has done little to show that he can be a useful first baseman for any team that has designs of contending. While he may produce more hits and a higher batting average than Pena did, those numbers would be relatively hollow. He is also average to below average defensively, and would not provide an upgrade there. While there is a market for first basemen with virtually no power, they need to hit in the .300 range and provide excellent defense, which is something Loney is seemingly incapable of doing.
As such, the Rays may be better off looking within their organization for their next first baseman. After a relatively slow start to his minor league career, Henry Wrigley has put together three solid years, displaying solid power with a batting average between .270 and .283. Leslie Anderson, the erstwhile Cuban prospect who has remained in the minors since signing his four year $1.725Million contract, may also get a long look during Spring Training as either a first baseman or an option as a backup outfielder. Should neither of these options pan out, then the Rays may look into a low priced free agent, along the lines of former Ray Casey Kotchman.
While the Rays may not be able to get a definitive upgrade at first base this offseason, they do have options available. If it comes down to it, they may even be able to bring Pena back at a reduced rate to hold the position for one last year.