This offseason, the Rays will have to work on filling a major need at first base. At this point, it seems like their most likely avenues of plugging up that hole will be through free agency or a trade. But the Rays have two first basemen in their system who spent time at Triple-A last season and played well but didn’t even get a look in the major leagues last September and haven’t been considered at all as options for the Rays’ first base job in 2013: Henry Wrigley and Leslie Anderson. What are the Rays thinking?
Wrigley, 26, is not just being held back in Triple-A but is actually a minor league free agent now that could very well sign elsewhere. This after Wrigley put up big numbers in 126 games in 2012 primarily at Triple-A Durham, posting a .282/.331/.489 line with 37 doubles, 20 homers, and 79 RBI in 517 plate appearances. He’s not the biggest power guy, but couldn’t he be a solid first baseman who hits for a decent average and slams 15-20 home runs? The chances of that happening are much lower than you’d expect just from those numbers. A major issue is that Wrigley struck out 103 times in 2012 while walking just 36 times. Why was that? It was a combination of holes in his swing, especially as he sold out for power and below-average pitch recognition. All of those would be exposed at the Triple-A level. But why is it such a big deal if Wrigley isn’t the best OBP guy if he hits .260 with 15 homers? It’s not like the Rays have anyone who can do better than that at first base on their big league roster right now? The serious problem is not just Wrigley’s strikeout to walk ratio but the fact that his patience impedes him from a major power threat at the big league level. Wrigley extremely overaggressive within the zone in 2012. Why is that so bad? Didn’t he hit 37 doubles and 20 homers? The difference between Triple-A and the big leagues is that big league pitchers are going to have much better fastball command. If you swing at every fastball that looks like it’s going to be a strike, at Triple-A you’re going to get quite a few mistakes and when you have as much power as Wrigley, you’ll be able to rack up extra-base hits. But in the big leagues, Wrigley’s long, all-or-nothing swing at fastball after fastball will lead to pop-ups and weak groundballs and his power wouldn’t surface nearly as often.
In 2012, just 32 qualifying big leaguers had strikeout to walk ratio as bad as Wrigley’s. 15 of those 32 hit at least 20 home runs. Going down the list, we can take out the players who have far more power than Wrigley because they’re not comparables for him: Mark Trumbo, B.J. Upton, Chris Davis, Corey Hart, Adam Jones, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Moustakas, Garrett Jones, Nelson Cruz, Pedro Alvarez, and Dayan Viciedo. Those players are all big power bats. Who does that leave? Ian Desmond, Alex Rios, Colby Rasmus, and Cody Ross. Desmond managed just an 84 OPS+, 16% below league average adjusted to ballpark, with 18 homers between 2010 and 2011 because of his extreme lack of patience before finally breaking out in 2012. Same story with Rios as he put up just an 85 OPS+ although with 51 homers from 2009 through 2011. Rasmus? Even with his 23-homer season, his OPS+ was just 85. I’ll concede that Cody Ross is a very good player, but even he hit just 14 homers in both 2010 and 2011. He’s the exception. But even looking back at the players we took out before because they’re known for their power, basically all of them are enigmatic in one way or another. (I could go player by player, but I can presume you want this article to end eventually. You can ask in the comments for that if you would like.) You also don’t have a single elite player on that list with the possible exception of Adam Jones (and maybe Moustakas in a year or two, but his patience is what’s holding him back right now). Looking at the stats, what’s a reasonable best-case scenario for Wrigley moving forward? He’s a first baseman with an 85 OPS+ and 15 homers. Carlos Pena had a horrific 2012 for the Rays. Do you know what his OPS+ was? 94. By the way, Wrigley is a sub-par defender at first. Great. Wrigley is a Quad-A player all the way. His realistic potential is a decent power bat off the bench. If the Rays can’t find a first baseman with more potential than him, they’re in serious trouble.
Now to Leslie Anderson. Anderson is first off not a prospect anymore considering he’ll turn 31 in March. But put that aside- the Rays just need productive bats in their lineup right now regardless of age. In 2012 at Durham, Anderson posted a .309/.355/.450 line with 21 doubles, 14 homers, 56 RBI, and (we’ll give it away earlier this time) a 56-26 strikeout to walk ratio in 116 games and 482 plate appearances. The good news is that Anderson is a good pure hitter who makes contact like there’s no tomorrow, managing the fifth-highest contact rate in the International League according to Minor League Central minimum 450 plate appearances and the second-lowest strikeout rate. The bad news: he has no power and no patience. Anderson’s pitch recognition skills are actually solid as he swung at just 8.1% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2012 compared to the 10.6% league average according to MLC, but he also swung at 76.9% of pitches within the zone compared to the 70.0% league average. Anderson was supposed to have big-time power coming over from Cuba. His refusal to improve his patience to wait for pitches to drive are the reason his power has never really materialized. Anderson’s ISO was just .141 in 2012, barely above league average, and in the big leagues, his quality of contact will only trend downward. He might hit a solid .275 or .280 if he was given a chance in the big leagues, but with very few walks and double-digit homers if he was lucky and more likely 5-8 longballs. That doesn’t cut it for a first baseman by any measure.
Just because players can succeed at Triple-A doesn’t mean that their talents will translate to the big leagues in the slightest. Wrigley and Anderson have the ability to make the major leagues and may even get a handful of at-bats for the Rays next season. But depending on either one of them as a starting first baseman for any period of time is a losing proposition no matter how you slice it. The Rays will find a first baseman this offseason with the ability to provide them with solid production. Unfortunately, that first baseman is not already within their system.