There aren’t many top first basemen available this year. Last year’s free agent class was led by Mark Teixeira, who was the top free agent according to the Elias rankings that determine pick compensation allocation for teams which sign multiple Type A free agents. Teixeira’s new team, the Yankees, signed three: Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
The two former free agents are unmatched in this year’s class. This year’s class will be defined, for better or worse, by reclamation projects. Russell Branyan and Carlos Delgado have already been listed under the designated hitter category for free agents.
*Note: Players with options will be kept off the list unless their options are projected as unexercised. No arbitration-eligible players will be included unless they are projected as non-tender free agents. Ages represent age on June 30, 2010
1. Adam LaRoche, 30 years old
For a guy who boasts career numbers of .274/.343/.491, LaRoche moved around a lot last season. After being traded to the Pirates in a deal that brought Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge to Atlanta, LaRoche played two seasons with the Pirates before being dealt to the Red Sox, and eventually back to the Braves.
Upon his return to Atlanta, LaRoche caught fire. In the 57 games he played with the Braves this year he hit .325/.401/.557 in 212 plate appearances, and hit pretty well in the pitcher-friendly confines of Turner Field for all of 2009. LaRoche is an average defensive first baseman, so he isn’t an embarrassment at the position.
2. Nick Johnson, 31 years old
Johnson has been a tease since entering the majors. Once a top prospect with the Yankees, projected as a power hitter who would walk a ton, Johnson has only fulfilled on the latter description. At 6-3, 236 lbs, a .114 ISO would generally disqualify a first baseman from contention for any type of free agent haul.
But Johnson is two years removed from a season where he hit 46 doubles, 23 home runs, and walked 110 times in 628 plate appearances. In 2008 his season was shortened by injury, but if counted, he’s posted an OBP over .400 for four straight seasons. Health is the biggest concern for Johnson, but when healthy, he plays a pretty good first base also.
3. Hank Blalock, 29 years old
Once a third baseman, Blalock has fallen victim to a common issue that plagues third basemen, his body has started to break down. Blalock was a tremendous offensive third baseman, boasting a .269/.329/.465 line for his career from the left-handed batter’s box.
But in the past three seasons Blalock has missed 240 of a possible 486 games. He played only one game at third base in 2009, and hasn’t played more than 39 games at the position since 2006, when he played 122 games. In 1005 plate appearances in those three seasons though, he’s posted an ISO over .220 each season.
4. Aubrey Huff, 33 years old
In the three years Huff has spent in Baltimore, he’s sandwiched one really great year between two pretty nondescript years. His .304/.360/.552 line in 2008 was pretty stellar, the other two years are considerably worse. Huff has only had one other season comparable to his 2008 season, his 2004 season with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays when he was 27 years old.
But while years will certainly rob Huff of some of his lateral range and fielding ability, there could be reason to believe that he can still improve at first base. Huff was originally a third baseman, and saw his most action in a single season this year at the position. Even if he can’t stick at first, he’s a good buy-low designated hitter candidate on a short-term contract.
5. Eric Hinske, 32 years old
Like Huff and Blalock, Hinske came to the majors as a third baseman. But despite winning the Rookie of the Year award at the position in 2002 with the Toronto Blue Jays. He played over 1,000 innings at third in each of his first three seasons, and hasn’t played more than 265 since.
However, Hinske has a positive UZR/150 at first base in 1,366.2 career innings, and when given significant plate appearances, is generally an acceptable hitter. In all but one season (2004) when Hinske has posted an ISO over .190, and over .200 in two of those seasons.
Casey is a super-sophomore at Green River Community College, where he retired from his post as Editor-in-Chief at the school’s newspaper. He’s a featured columnist for the Seattle Mariners and Seattle Seahawks at Bleacher Report. He does a sports radio show on www.kgrg.com, his college’s radio station on Saturdays from 7-10 PM PST. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.