As we move on from the catching position, let’s look at another position that is just as foggy if not more so: first Base. For years Tampa has struggled to find a long-term first basemen–although whether this is to poor development of the position from the minors or lack of Tampa spending money there is up for debate. For now let’s take a look at the position.
James Loney- What a great find Loney turned out to be as he Loney hit to a .299/.348/.430 line in 598 plate appearances. 13 home runs, 75 RBI, strong defense at 1B, and it only cost the Rays $2 million. Don’t expect him to come back for that kind of deal as Loney is expected to receive a significant offer in what is considered a down-year for free agent first basemen. The Rays could give a multi-year deal for Loney a look, but with money tied up in other positions, including options on Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar that are likely to be picked up, I don’t expect Loney back in a Rays uniform in 2013. Considering how players like Casey Kotchman and Jeff Keppinger having fallen apart after leaving Tampa Bay, that may be a good thing.
Sean Rodriguez- Sean Rodriguez started 17 games at first base for the Rays in 2013 while appearing at a host of other positions as well. Not a first baseman by trade, first base was the latest extension of Rodriguez’s versatility as he plays whatever position necessary for Joe Maddon to get get him into the lineup. This offseason will be Rodriguez’s second chance at arbitration after the Rays avoided a hearing with him last year by signing him to a $1 million contract. He will receive a slight raise for that after a solid season. In 2013, S-Rod hit to a .246/.320/.385 line in 222 plate appearances, with most of them coming vs. LHP. Sean doesn’t hit enough to play first base regularly, and his most likely role at the position is still a defensive replacement or once a while starter.
Luke Scott- 2013 was a case of “same song, different lyrics” as Luke struggled to stay healthy with two 15-day DL stints from back and calf stiffness. When he was on the field, he had his moments but finished with just a decent .241/.326/.415 line (108 OPS+), mostly vs. RHP. It might not be fair to ask Luke to play first base, a position he only appeared at the position 5 times in 2013, and even if you did, could he stay healthy? Scott is more suited to DH now, and even that has been insufficient to keep him on the field. Scott is a free agent now and after losing his playing time to Delmon Young near the end of the season, he is unlikely to return to the Rays next season.
Vince Belnome- The primary first baseman for Durham in 2013, Belnome had an excellent season for the Bulls as he put up a .300/.408/.446 line with 35 doubles, 8 homers, and 67 RBI. The bad news is that he’ll be 26 in March, doesn’t have the chops for any defensive position (he appeared at 1B, 2B, and 3B for Durham) and is more of an offensive minded utility-type player. Belnome is going to have to continue to prove himself to earn such a role with his power and bat speed lacking and his plate discipline being his only standout trait
Free Agents Options
Carlos Pena- Don’t call it a comeback…because he is not coming back.
Mark Reynolds- Possibly one of the few players in the major leagues with legitimate game power to all fields, Reynolds will be hitting free agency for the second time after a one-year deal with the Indians went sour. After a hot April, in which Reynolds hit 8 bombs while contributing to a .301/.368/.651 line, he was not good the rest of the year as his old strikeout tendencies came back to haunt him. Eventually, the Indians released him and he was picked up by the Yankees to be one of the many third basemen to play for them last season. His contract last year was for $6 million and might receive similar offers. Could his extremely high strikeout rate be ignored to help bring some legitimate power to Tampa Bay?
Corey Hart- Hart missed all of 2013 while recovering from surgery on his knees for the second time in two years. Given the severity of his knees he might no longer be an option for a team in the outfielder, but could play first base and Tampa can offer him the designated hitter pot as well. Hart has indicated that he would take a discount to stay in Milwaukee but the Brewers have not had discussions about it yet. He made $10M last year in what was the final year of his extension signed in 2010. A career .276/.334/.491 hitter with no real platoon split and the ability to hit for power should make Hart one of the more attractive free agents. The question is how much and how long will he sign for? I would imagine a 1-year deal would be in the cards as he would look to establish his free-agency again after another year, and if teams are scared enough by his injuries that his price stays low, the Rays could pounce
Kendrys Morales- A player that was highly speculated to possibly be an acquisition at the trade deadline for the Rays, could he join head to Tampa Bay in the offseason? The Rays could give him first base/DH duties, he wouldn’t cst as much as some of the other players on the market, and he has averaged 27 home runs a year since his debut in 2006, what’s not to like? Oh yeah…. this, Tampa Bay will not give up a draft pick for Morales and while not be the most expensive player on the market, he will still get a large enough offer.
Justin Morneau- As we have mentioned before on the site, Justin Morneau could be a prime candidate to wear a Rays uniform in 2014. While it is never a good idea to pay a player based on his past accomplishments, Morneau’s track record is as good as any player on the market and his upside if he could recapture just a fraction of that glory hard to ignore. After missing most of 2010 and 2011 with injuries, Morneau has only missed 15 games due to injury the past two seasons. He isn’t quite the player he used to be–you have to go back to 2009 for his last 20-homer season–but he has remained a strong regular on the whole and his power may have another hurrah or two left in it. Morneau is already 32 though, and after making $14M the past two seasons, you have to wonder what kind of offers he will get. Morneau’s name recognition is certainly higher than the Rays’ recent first baseman, but his talent level could warrant a bigger contract than players Loney and Keppinger. The Rays will not break the bank for Morneau, but if the price stays reasonable, you have to think the Rays will be involved.
Overall, Tampa Bay might have to spend some money at first base this offseason. The system is not producing an option there for this season (although the Rays have to hope Richie Shaffer can turn it around), and there is no true James Loney-type player who could be signed at an extremely team-friendly price. A position that has had three different starters since 2010 (Kotchman, Pena, Loney), it would be nice for some stability at the spot for multiple years but will likely be another player on a one-year deal. Will the Rays be willing to take a risk on a player like Morneau or Hart or will we see them reach further into the bargain bin to piece together first base again?