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Mets 2017 First Base Options

One of the biggest issues with the 2017 Mets was the production they received from first base.  The precipitous drop in production was a major factor in why the 2016 Mets scored fewer runs than the 2015 Mets.  Remember, the 2015 Mets once infamously had John Mayberry, Jr. and Eric Campbell hitting in the middle of the lineup.  With that in mind, getting improved production out of first base needs to be a priority for the Mets this offseason.  Here is what should be available for the Mets this offseason:

INTERNAL FIRST BASEMAN

Lucas Duda

Duda is exactly the player the Mets need to revive their offense in 2017.  From 2014-2015, Duda hit .249/.350/.483 while averaging 28 homers and 82 RBI.  He is a home run threat in the middle of your order, and he is the classic slugging first baseman.

The issue with Duda is no one knows if he is healthy.  In 2015, he went on the disabled list with a herniated disc in his lower back.  In 2016, he suffered a stress fracture in his lower back, and he took longer than expected to return from the injury.  While he tried admirably to try to play in the Wild Card Game, he just wasn’t ready.  For the season, he only played in 47 games hitting .229/.302/.412 with seven homers and 23 RBI.

While all indications are Duda is completely healthy, it is unknown whether he can withstand the rigors of a 162 game schedule.  It is also unknown whether he can return to form after suffering back injuries in consecutive seasons.  At the moment, it is anticipated he will earn approximately $7 million in arbitration.  For the production we know he is capable of producing, that is a steep bargain.  Not knowing if he can produce, $7 million could be an expensive gamble, especially in light of Wright’s situation.

Dominic Smith

Smith is coming off a terrific year in AA where he finally began to fulfill some of the offensive potential he has by hitting for more power in the second half of the season.  He is a a highly regarded prospect who is already a slick defender at first base.  Still, he is just 21 years old, and he has yet to have an at-bat above AAA.  He is not ready to be the Opening Day first baseman, and it is quite possible he may not be ready to play in the majors next year.

PLAYERS CHANGING POSITIONS

David Wright

Time and again, people state Wright should just move across the diamond and play first base.  Saying that presents a clear misunderstanding of the first base position and how taxing it would be on Wright.

Other than catcher, first base is the most demanding physical position for a player.  At first base, a player is constantly stretching, turning, and twisting in the hopes of getting a throw from one of his infielders that much quicker to turn a close play into an out.  With a runner on first, the first baseman has to spring off the bag and into his defensive position as the pitcher delivers the ball.  Like a third baseman, he charges the bunts and dives for balls down the line.  According to Dr. Walter P. Jacobsen, DO, a neurosurgeon, these activities that are high impact and require twisting are activities that should be avoided.  These activities are more prevalent at first than third base.

Even assuming this was incorrect, that Wright was better suited to first base, when is he going to get the opportunity to transition there?  Wright had season ending cervical fusion surgery, and presumably, he is going to need to spend most of his time in the offseason rehabbing and figuring out yet another pregame routine that will permit him to play in as many games as possible.  As such, there is no time for him to learn first base.

Jay Bruce

Without or without Cespedes’ return, the Mets are going to have a glut of everyday caliber outfielders, and one of them may need to find a new home.  That new home could be on another team or at another position.  With UZR and DRS rating Bruce was the Mets worst outfielder, he would be the likely candidate to move to first base.

The one caution is Bruce has only played three games there in his major league career, and all three of those games were two years ago.  Even accounting for that, Bruce may have the athleticism to adapt to first base and succeed there on the major league level.  It is also a way to keep him and his 30 home run caliber bat in the lineup every day while also allowing Curtis Granderson, another Mets right fielder who can hit 30 home runs, in the lineup everyday.

Still, before moving someone over to first base, Mike Piazza should always be a caution to Mets fans that not just anyone can move over there.  It is a difficult position that requires hard work in the offseason.  If this is the plan, the Mets need to implement it sooner rather than later.

Michael Conforto

None other than Keith Hernandez believes Conforto should be playing first base with him saying, “He more than likely is going to end up at first base, though it’s unlikely he’ll be anything more than average there.”  (nj.com).  While it is far from a ringing endorsement, it is notable when Hernandez, the best defensive first baseman in major league history, states you should play his position.

For his part, Conforto is open to the possibility saying, “I took some reps in college over at first base just for emergency-type situations. I think that’s something that’s very, very interesting, something I’d be open to, obviously. I just want to help the team.”  (New York Post).

Moving Conforto there means you won’t have to displace a veteran like Bruce.  However, it does create a few problems.  First, choosing to move Conforto over Bruce also means choosing to move the better defensive outfielder out of the outfield.  Second, moving Conforto there could become a potential barrier to Smith or Peter Alonso at first base in the upcoming seasons.  Third, having Conforto change positions to the infield could be yet another obstacle in the young player’s development.

For a myriad of reasons ranging from a wrist injury to uneven playing time to him just falling into slumps like any other player, the 2016 season was a lost one for Conforto.  He went from the Mets top hitting prospect to a young player Terry Collins entrusted to little more than pinch hitting duty down the stretch.  It is quite possible the best thing for him is for the Mets to pick a position in the outfield and let him stay there and allow him to work with Kevin Long to get back to what worked well for him.

EXPENSIVE OPTIONS

Miguel Cabrera

Tigers GM Al Avila has already announced the Tigers are looking to get younger and shed some payroll this offseason.  With that in mind, the Tigers have a number of interesting trade candidates making big money like Cabrera.

At 33, Cabrera had another terrific season hitting .316/.393/.563 with 38 homers and 108 RBI.  Should Cespedes depart this offseason, Cabrera would more than replace Cespedes in the lineup.  However, the Mets chances of obtaining Cabrera are unlikely due to the cost.  First, it is going to take a huge haul of players to obtain them, and in the past, the Mets have shown unwillingness to move one of their big pitchers like Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, or Steven Matz.  Given Cabrera’s production, it is likely the Tigers ask for one of these players and/or a big prospect like Smith, Amed Rosario, or both.

Even if there was a middle ground on players the Mets deemed acceptable, it is hard to imagine them adding Cabrera’s contract.  Cabrera still has seven years $132 million left on his deal.  The contract carries through to his age 40 season, and there are two vesting options at the back end of the deal for $30 million a piece.  If Cabrera does not age well, this contract would become the type of albatross Sandy Alderson typically avoids.

Justin Turner

Bringing back Turner would be a page out of the Todd Zeile handbook.  While Turner has not played regularly at first base, he has shown the ability to play over there, and his bat may help the Mets improve in 2016.

Moreover, Turner may need to move to first base to lengthen his career.  Over the past few seasons, he has had knee issues, and he may not be well suited for the third base position in the time of the modern shift era that requires a third baseman to cover more ground than they did a decade or so ago.

There does remain some issues for Turner.  First and foremost is the aforementioned knee issues.  Second, Turner took off when he played in his hometown.  There is no telling if he would struggle playing on the east coast again.  Third, he regressed from an on base perspective this year.  In 2014 and 2015, Turner was a player who had a .384 on base percentage with a .492 slugging.  This year, Turner’s OBP dropped to .339 even while his slugging percentage stayed in the same vicinity (.493).  This might have been a product of his knee issues or it could have been a product of him swinging for the fences more as evidenced by his career high 27 homers.

In either event, Turner is not the safest choice, especially when you are asking him to play out of position.  These fears become magnified when you consider Turner will likely received a qualifying offer, and he will likely get a big contract offer from someone, including but not limited to the Dodgers, to play third base.

THE DESIGNATED HITTERS

Edwin Encarnacion

Encarnacion may prove to be the biggest power bat on the free agent market.  He is coming off a year that saw him hit .263/.357/.529 with 42 homers and a league leading 127 RBI.  Over the past three seasons, Encarnacion is hitting .269/.361/.544 while averaging 38 homers and 112 RBI.

There are two issues with Encarnacion.  First, much of his stats have been generated as a result of him hitting in the Rogers Centre, which is a hitter’s park.  In his career, Encarnacion has hit .272/.360/.535 there.  Last year, on the road, Encarnaction was a .246/.342/.492 hitter on the road.  While it is a drop-off, the Mets would gladly take Encarnacion’s road production from their first base position next year.

Therein lies the real problem with Encarnacion.  He’s a DH.  Encarnacion has not played more than half a season at first base in his entire career.  In his last five years with the Blue Jays, he has split his time between first and DH.  While advanced metrics like UZR and DRS rate him to be an average first baseman, it is unknown whether he could withstand the rigors of playing in the field everyday.  Those concerns are amplified for a player that will turn 34 next year, will command a large contract, and will most likely recent a qualifying offer.

Carlos Santana

Seemingly, from the moment Santana came up to the Cleveland Indians as a catcher, the team has sought a position for him.  He has proven his best position is DH.

Santana is coming off a terrific year that saw him hit ..259/.366/.498 with 34 homers and 87 RBI.  Those were the highest home run and RBI totals of his career.  In his six full seasons with the Indians, Santana has averaged 24 homers and 81 RBI.  With his on base skills and his switch hitting ability, Santana would be a welcome addition to the Mets lineup.  However, like Encarnacion, the real question is whether he can be an everyday first baseman.

Like Encarnaction, he rates as average when he does play there.  Unlike Encarnacion, he played almost a full season there in 2015.  Moreover, he is four years younger than Encarnacion.  So while both may receive qualifying offers and large contract offers on the free agent market, Santana may prove to be the better bet for the Mets should they look to upgrade the first base position in free agency.

QUESTIONABLE OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION

James Loney

The best thing you can say about Loney in 2016 was he was a definitive upgrade over the Mets internal options like Campbell.  Unfortunately, Loney showed little that would entice the Mets to bring him back next season.  Loney finished the year hitting .257/.287/.369 with five homers and 18 RBI in 63 games after the All Star Break.  He also showed he had limited range and an inability to stretch far for throws made to first.  While he was an improvement over what the Mets had in 2016, the Mets are simply going to have to do better than him in 2017.

Mike Napoli

The Cleveland Indians took a one year flier on Napoli this offseason, and it has been a boon for them as Napoli has been a major contributor for a team now playing in the World Series.  Still, there is caution for Napoli, who has a history of hip problems, and whose numbers were not great this season.

In 150 games, Napoli hit .239/.335/.465 with 34 homers and 101 RBI.  In 2015, Napoli bounced around, and he hit .224/.324/.410 with 18 homers and 50 RBI in 133 games.  With Napoli turning 35 next year, it is hard to believe he will have another strong campaign.  Furthermore, the last thing this Mets offense needs is another low OBP guy who is seemingly all or nothing at the plate.

Adam Lind

For a few seasons, Lind had proven himself to be a good on base player who may not have the traditional power you typically want from the first base position.  In 2016, Lind played for the Mariners, and his production fell off a cliff.  In 126 games, Lind hit .239/.286/.431 with 20 homers and 58 RBI.  Historically, Lind has also struggled to hit left-handed pitching.  Lind is more of a buy-low candidate in the event there are no better options than he is an upgrade you would seek on the free agent market.

BEST CHOICE

Ultimately, it may behoove the Mets to bring back Duda for one more season.  If he produces at his normal levels, he will be exactly what this offense needs.  Better yet, if he produces at that level, the Mets could give him a qualifying offer next offseason thereby helping them gain a first round draft pick in the process (assuming no changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement).  Furthermore, with Duda, the Mets have a nice bridge to Smith should he take another leap this year and prove himself ready to contribute at the major league level ahead of schedule.

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