Orioles Approach to Free Agency: First Base
We continue this series with a look at the available options in free agency at first base. You can find the intro to this series here, and the catcher preview here. There are a few interesting options in free agency at the first base position. Here’s a list of who’s available this offseason at the position. Again, ages are in parentheses.
Lance Berkman (36)
Eric Hinske (35)
Aubrey Huff (36)
Travis Ishikawa (29)
Casey Kotchman (30)
Adam LaRoche (33) Received qualifying offer
Carlos Lee (37)
James Loney (29)
Casey McGehee (30)
Mike Napoli (31)
Lyle Overbay (36)
Carlos Pena (35)
Juan Rivera (34)
Nick Swisher (32) Received qualifying offer
Ty Wigginton (35)
Kevin Youkilis (34)
The Orioles have a decision to make on Mark Reynolds. The team has until November 30 to extend him an arbitration offer if they decide they want to keep him. Should they extend him arbitration, it doesn’t mean that they’ll actually end up going to arbitration with him. They’ll still have until early February to work out a contract. Assuming they extend him an offer, 2013 is the last year that the team will control his rights. After the season, he’ll be a free agent regardless of the decision they make now (obviously unless they sign him to a multi-year contract.) If they don’t extend an arbitration offer to him by November 30, he’ll immediately become a free agent. Part of the decision to either keep Reynolds or let him go depends on who the team could get to replace him. Let’s take a look at who the Orioles could sign on the free agent market if they chose to go that route.
Out of the group listed above, the likely starting players are Adam LaRoche, Carlos Lee, James Loney, Mike Napoli, Nick Swisher and Kevin Youkilis. LaRoche and Swisher both received qualifying offers from their previous clubs, forcing the clubs signing them to forfeit their first round picks. Though this is the first year under the new CBA, in the past when a team had to forfeit their first round pick to sign a player, that caused the player’s value to be depressed. A similar effect could come into play this year.
LaRoche is very likely to resign with the Nationals after the season he had for them. He set a career high with 33 home runs and a .361 wOBA. He was legitimately very good this season while posting 3.8 WAR. If he doesn’t resign with the Nationals, he’s probably due for a contract in the 2/$24m range. If he wasn’t attached to a qualifying offer, I’d be much more interested in the Orioles obtaining his services.
Carlos Lee is probably at the end of the road. The 36 year old posted just 0.3 WAR for the season and was a replacement level player in 81 games with the Marlins. This is exactly the kind of player that the Orioles should not be interested in. An older player on the downside of his career who is fading quickly. The Orioles shouldn’t even give his agent a phone call to check his price tag.
James Loney just never developed as the Dodgers hoped. He was supposed to be a line drive hitting machine with a good glove at first base. Instead, he performed below replacement level in 2012. Nothing to see here.
We talked about Mike Napoli in the catcher free agency preview. I’d argue that he’d be better served playing first base than catcher. Napoli has deservedly earned a stellar reputation as a hitter, but not so much as a defender. He’s considered below average at catcher and first base, but the defensive metrics actually rate him about average at first. He’s played about 1,000 innings at first base over the past few years, and in those 1,000 innings he’s a scratch defender according to DRS. Small sample size, but the defensive metrics like him better than Mark Reynolds at first. We all know that he can hit for power as well as get on base. I think he would be a good target for the Orioles who would immediately upgrade the middle of the lineup, while being able to catch on the days that Wieters needs a day off. A backup first baseman is surely going to be a better hitter than a backup catcher, so the lineup would be improved on those days too.
I predicted earlier that Napoli would command a contract in the range of 3/$30m. I’d be in favor of the Orioles trying to sign Napoli prior to the November 30 deadline to tender Reynolds a contract. I think Napoli provides a clear upgrade over Reynolds and won’t cost a significantly larger amount of money. He’s got power, the ability to get on base (13.4% BB rate the last 2 seasons) and recently got Lasik surgery to fix his vision. The surgery by no means guarantees his success next season, but it certainly won’t hurt if he’s able to see better. If the O’s sign the Rangers slugger, we should all be comfortable letting Reynolds go.
The Yankees are not expected to bring back Nick Swisher this offseason. In all likelihood, he’ll turn down his qualifying offer and test the free agent market. Swisher has been a very productive player during his tenure with the Orioles hated rival posting almost 4 WAR in each of the last 3 seasons. He also provides positional flexibility with the ability to play the outfield as well as first base. The 32 year old switch hitter has a career 13.3% walk rate allowing him to post a career .361 OBP. If he didn’t come attached to the loss of a first round draft pick, I’d be much more interested in him. It has been rumored that Swisher will command a $100 million contract this offseason, but I disagree. I think he’ll end up in the 4/$64m range. Even at that price, I think the Orioles will and should pass.
With a myriad of health problems, Kevin Youkilis has had a hard time staying on the field over the last few seasons. The last time he played more than 122 games was 2009. The team that signs Youkilis shouldn’t expect more than 110-120 games out of him in 2013. He’s been a decent hitter when he’s been able to get onto the field, but as you’d expect for an aging veteran his defense has been trending in the wrong direction. He’s primarily been a third baseman over his career, but has the ability to place first as well. With the way his body has been breaking down the last few years, I expect the Orioles to have very little interest in bringing in Youkilis.
Two other players that probably couldn’t be counted on to play every day are also available in Lance Berkman and Carlos Pena. Berkman may retire if he doesn’t find interest on the market for his services. Pena has always been able to draw a walk and hit home runs but his days as a productive regular may be at an end. He’ll be 35 in May of next season. I don’t anticipate the Orioles having interest in either one of them.
Looking at the first base market compared to other positions, there are actually some very interesting names available. Swisher, Napoli, and LaRoche headline the market. Clearly, the Orioles decision at first base depends on what they decide to do with Mark Reynolds. If the team decides to bring him back, they won’t be interested in this market at all. If they don’t, I expect the team to be interested in Napoli and possibly LaRoche. We haven’t seen many free agents sign with a new team to this point, but the Orioles should make their best offers to any potential first baseman they want to sign prior to November 30. If they are able to upgrade from Reynolds, they can then non-tender him and not have to pay him the $9 million or so he’ll command in arbitration.
I think the O’s should make their best offer to Mike Napoli now and try to bring him in to be the club’s first baseman and part time catcher. Doing that also frees up a roster spot since the team no longer has to carry a normal back up catcher. By signing Napoli, the club will be able to upgrade two spots for a minimal incremental cost and will take a major step toward upgrading the roster for 2013.