The theory goes something like this…First base is one of the easiest positions that a major league team can fill, and fill with close to league average production. Defensively, anyone can play first because it’s the least demanding defensive position on the diamond. The throws are short and the area you have to cover is relatively small. If you can field grounders with any sort of efficiency and catch a ball thrown at you, you can probably play first base. A good example of this is when former catcher Scott Hatteberg moved to first base for the Athletics in 2002 after catching for 7 years prior with the Red Sox. He moved from a position that is harder to play (catcher) to one that is easier (first base). Albert Pujols has also made several moves in his career, all of them moving from harder positions to easier ones. He moved from 3B, to LF, and then to 1B. Players can move “up” the spectrum from harder to easier positions but will rarely move “down” the spectrum. This in essence is the theory of the defensive spectrum advanced by Bill James in the 80′s.
Theoretically, a team could take a player who may be undervalued at his position because of defensive concerns but can still hit and move him to the easier position like first base and count the rewards.
Since Will Clark and JT Snow in his Candlestick days, the Giants have struggled to produce from the first base position. Names like Lance Niekro, Damon Minor, Shea Hillenbrand, Ryan Klesko, and Rich Aurilia all illustrate the collective failure at first. Let’s take a look at the production from first base on the Giants from 2001-2007. I used OPS (OBP+SLG) as the criteria to compare the Giants’ 1B production against the league average NL 1B’s production. OPS isn’t the be-all-end-all for offensive evaluation but it serves as a pretty handy tool to evaluate a players offensive ability. Since the Giants have often platooned a couple (or even a few) guys at 1B, the combined OPS for all players playing first base for the Giants in each season was used.
For the bulk of this line graph, JT Snow was the starting 1B for the Giants. The Giants predominately used Snow in a platoon once they changed ballparks. In the three years that Snow played in Candlestick he started 157, 138, and 161 games. Once Snow made the switch to AT&T he started an average of 103 games per year. That Snow lost some of his power in the transition between parks, about 40 points slugging, might have tempted the Giants to platoon him. Snow also had always hit RHP but struggled against LHP. Snow was a borderline to above average first baseman during his Giants career but the Giants often made some bad decisions in regards to platoonmates and once Snow was gone by 2006, things really got bad.
In 2001 the top three starters at first base for the Giants were JT Snow, Andres Galarraga, and Jeff Kent. When I went through the numbers I had forgot that Kent ever played any first base for the Giants. But in 2001 he grabbed 87 ABs at first base. Other notables to start were Damon Minor, Felipe Crespo, and Edwards Guzman. If you’re like me you had forgotten that Felipe Crespo and Edwards Guzman ever existed. Snow’s AT&T struggles really started in 2001, he only hit (.239/.357/.377/.734) when playing first base. He lost almost 80 points off his slugging between 2000 and 2001. Andres Galarraga hit (.252/.320/.471/.791) when playing first base. Galaragga played closet to the league average NL first basemen that year. The league average was (.266/.351/.466/.817). When measuring by OPS, the aggregate first base production from the Giants fell way below league average production by almost 100 points.
In 2002 Galarraga went back to the Montreal Expos to play and the Giants decided to use 27 year old minor league first baseman Damon Minor as JT’s platoonmate. Minor had at times displayed fantastic power in the minors and had yet to get a chance in the majors. He did come up in 2001 with the Giants but only appeared in 10 games. In 2001 Minor hit (.308/.380/.554) in the PCL to go along with 24 home runs. Minor didn’t have the same success at the major league level. He hit (.231/.331/.446/.777) for the Giants at first base. He flashed decent power but a poor batting average. Snow got the majority of playing time but continued to struggle in AT&T and only managed a (.248/.345/.363/.708) line at first. You do not want to see your first baseman slug (.363). League average production for a National League first basemen in 2002 was (269/.358/.455/.813). The Giants combined to produce a OPS of (.730) for first base, 83 points below league average.
The Giants almost had league average production in 2003. Andres Galarraga came back to the Giants and had a good year hitting (299/.349/.487/.836). The Giants first base production lead by the Snow/Galarraga platoon OPS’d at (.811) while the league average first baseman OPS’d (.838). Snow also bounced back from his 2002 campaign, he hit (.275/.389/.422/.811).
2004, or the year JT Snow went crazy. At age 36 JT Snow had his best offensive season yet. He had career highs in BA, OBP, and SLG, that’ll sure lead to a very nice season. Snow’s line of (.326/.426/.524/.950) was incredible when you take into account his few previous years of decline from the move to AT&T. The Giants decided to, poorly in my opinion, platoon Pedro Feliz with Snow in 2004. Pedro’s line of (.247/.276/.475/.751) only helped to drag down Snow’s numbers. I think the Giants would have done better to pluck a lefty masher off the waiver wire or from the minors than give 255 AB’s to Feliz at first base. They obviously liked Pedro’s power (13 HRS in 255 AB’s at first base) but as fans grew to learn, Pedro didn’t do much else. Regardless, the Giants had league average production from first base for the first time in a few years. The Giants collectively OPS’d (.852) against the league average of (.850).
JT Snow came back to earth with his line of (.272/.340/.364/.704), losing almost 150 points of OPS in the process. It was clear that Snow’s 2004 was a fluke. Snow’s major platoonmate, Lance Niekro, appeared to be a good candidate for future platoons. He hit (.253/.296/.476/.772) overall but destroyed left handers, posting a line of (.324/.361/.657/1.018) against south paws. Still the Giants saw their first base production slip back to under league average by almost 130 points of OPS. The next two years wouldn’t get much better.
In 2006 the Giants mostly used the three-headed platoon of Shea Hillenbrand, Lance Niekro, and Mark Sweeney. In a move that makes me scratch my head, even Jose Vizcaino somehow grabbed 27 AB’s at first base. Hillenbrand was no good, Niekro stopped hitting lefties, and Mark Sweeney didn’t add much either. This is when the Giants management truly starts to amaze me. I can understand giving Niekro a shot as a LHP-hitting platoon guy but does anyone think its a great idea to partner him with Mark Sweeney? Sweeney was coming off a nice 2005 with the Padres but it’s Mark Sweeney. In 2005 against RHP his BABIP was almost .366, he was due for a very large correction. And that’s exactly what Sweeney got in 2006, he hit only (.249/.333/.379/.712) as a first baseman. The final verdict: another below average season for the easiest position to fill on the diamond. The Giants OPS’d (.724) to the league average of (.879) … ouch.
After Snow leaving at the end of 2005 and the Hillenbrand trade back-firing in 2006, the Giants absolutely knew that coming into 2007 first base was a major issue. How did they fill the position? By signing Ryan Klesko and Rich Aurilia to platoon at the position. Klesko was hurt for all of 2006 save for 6 games and Aurilia had his best season offensively at age 34 since his monster 2001 season. I think it sounds even crazier when you type it out. On paper, crazier ideas have happened, Aurilia had hit LHP well in his career and Klesko had hit RHP well. They seemed like a potential good match. Unfortunately for the Giants, the good match part ended on the field and was left on the paper. That’s why they play the games, as they say. Klesko actually had a very nice 1st half (.295/.385/.477/.861) but his 2nd half was the complete opposite (.219/.296/.314/.610). Aurilia struggled all year with being old and injured and never looked good outside of his March. The total Giants first base production was worth a OPS of (.734), a 112 points below the league average of (.846).
Barring any trades or free agent signings, the Giants are looking to head into 2008 with a converted OF playing as their first baseman. Seriously. That’s not a joke. Stop laughing. Even though Dan Ortmeier had a good 2007 at first (.306/.329/.486/.815), it’s such a small sample size that I can’t take it seriously. Ort slugged 50 points higher in the majors than his entire minor league career. I have no question that he can play first base defensively but I don’t think he’ll be able to hit even remotely close to league average. Only the Giants would try to turn a 4/5th OF type into a starting first baseman.
Here are some options that I think the Giants should look at depending how expensive they are.
I’ll start with the most outlandish first. Adamn Dunn. He hits for power and gets on base, which is more than you can say for any Giants first basemen since bizzaro JT Snow in 2004. Don’t mind the strike outs either, Dunn would be a huge upgrade at 1st. The negative is that after 2008 Dunn is a free agent and with Scott Boras as his agent, who just looooves to test the market, it might be very difficult to get Dunn to sign a extension. Dunn will be 28 next season so he should have 4-5 years left of good baseball in him.
Richie Sexson. Sexson’s value was so low this year that he was never even claimed when he was put on waivers. He’s due $14M in ’08 and Seattle would have to eat a huge chunk of that salary for him to be movable. Sexson’s huge drop in power isn’t a good indicator for future success but if he came cheap he could be a option. Because of Sexson’s low value it might not take much to get him from the Mariners.
Eurbiel Durazo. Durazo hasn’t played in the major leagues since 2005. He’s bounced around the minors for the last couple of years and because he’s a free agent it wouldn’t cost much to bring him into spring training to compete for the job. He was invited by the A’s in 2007 to spring training but didn’t make the team. He’s currently playing in the Mexican Pacific League and has gone 15-38 with 5 HR’s. The downsides are that he’s old and injury prone but if he can still hit for power and get on base he could be valuable.
Meet your 2007 minor league baseball HR champion, Craig Brazell. He’s 27 years old and only has 38 career AB’s in the majors. He’s a free swinging masher-type that has hit 162 HR’s in 10 year minor league seasons. In 2007, he led everyone in the minors with 39 HR’s between AA and AAA (7 in AA, 32 in AAA). Why not take a chance on him? He’s no Jack Cust, doesn’t have near the OBP that Cust does, but he could be a buy low option with marginal upside.
There you have it, 2 options that might be a little tricky to grab and two options that anyone could grab if they wanted to. I’m not saying that Dunn/Sexson/Durazo/Brazell is the answer, but they should be evaluated in some context to see if they could potentially help the Giants. I still wouldn’t mind seeing Scott McClain get a chance to platoon against LHP. Just remember that someone down in the minors is waiting for a chance to be the next Jack Cust or Carlos Pena.