2010 in Arizona: First-base

I'm pleased to report my digestive system is no longer participating in a Michael Bay remake of Krakatoa, East of Java. That's probably for the best, since our first-base situation is enough by itself to make me feel queasy. The past season was like the noted Abbott and Costello sketch for Diamondbacks fans: don't like who's starting first-base today? Come back tomorrow, you'll probably be happier. While we didn't quite have the most number of players at the position in the majors [the Cardinals used nine, though that was mostly LaRussa's late-inning shuffling: Phat Albert started at 1B 157 times], it certainly was the most unstable position on the field for Arizona, with seven different names appearing in the starting line-up.

This continues a decade-long trend: not since our inaugural season in 1998, has the same player started even 130 games at first-base, and in the past two seasons, the highs have been just 67 and 57 starts, by Conor Jackson and Chad Tracy respectively. [Today's trivia: name the most-frequent 1B for Arizona each season. Answer at the end of the article] After the jump, we'll take a look at what happened in 2010, and see whether there's hope for things to be any more stable in the upcoming season.

2009 Performance
1. Chad Tracy - 56 starts .237/.306/.389
2. Brandon Allen - 29 starts .202/.284/.385
3. Josh Whitesell - 28 starts .194/.346/.287
4. Mark Reynolds - 24 starts .260/.349/.543
5. Tony Clark - 14 starts .182/.295/.424

It's hard to say how much the numbers above are skewed by the absence of Conor Jackson. He had been a regular there in the previous three seasons, but his shift to left-field would likely have continued last season,  given the ongoing failings of Eric Byrnes. However, his absence for the bulk of the season made the dearth of alternatives for Arizona at the position all the more apparent. Overall, first-base produced a line of .228/.321/.396, an OPS of just .717, dead-last in the National League.

Initially, it was Tony Clark and Chad Tracy who split time at the position, but Josh Whitesell was called up just before the managerial switch in early May. Much was expected of him, having hit .328 with 26 homers the previous year in Tucson, but he proved to be a damp squib. Though not helped by a freakishly-low BABIP, he hit only .107 in May and struggled to get his BA above the Uecker line the rest of the way. Some attempts to play Reynolds at first were made: though effective offensively (he hit .323 there), his defense was poor, and the experiment was all but abandoned after the All-Star break

Brandon Allen, acquired from the White Sox in the Tony Peña trade, was the final great hope, getting the bulk of the starts after the middle of August. However, despite similarly-impressive numbers at Triple-A to Whitesell, he struggled equally as much against major-league pitching - left-handers, in particular, gave both prospects fits. This, and a poor performance by Allen in the Arizona Fall League, meant that the Diamondbacks ended the season with just as big a question-mark at first-base as they'd had at any point in the year.


Top Free Agents
Name Age 2009 Sal. 2009 OPS+
Russell Branyan
34 $1.4m 128
Nick Johnson
32 $5.5m 122
Adam LaRoche
30 $7.05m 122
Hank Blalock
29
$6.2m 86
Carlos Delgado
37 $12m 141
Chance of AZ free-agent activity: high.

 


2010 Depth-chart and Projections

  1. Adam LaRoche - .266/.341/.472
  2. Conor Jackson - .266/.342/.425
  3. Brandon Allen - .247/.309/.427
  4. Josh Whitesell - .238/.341/.385

We've already seen, courtesy of the Snyder-Overbay talks, that Arizona are not happy with the current candidates for first-base next season. As a result, it seems likely that they will spend some, albeit a minority, of their war-chest (currently estimated at between $10-14 million) on acquiring a more experienced bat at this position - probably one that can deal with left-handed pitching better than Allen or Whitesell have shown themselves to date. Fernando Tatis is an interesting name recently suggested there by Reynolds rapper, who could offer some position flexibility. The alternative at the moment would be to bring Jackson back from left-field to play the position against LHP - I note that he split his time in the Dominican Winter League between the two positions.

However, this decision would pose a couple of problems in turn. Jackson's defense at 1B is notably worse than in RF, and we'd then also be faced with the job of replacing CoJack in left. The most likely candidates there are Gerardo Parra, who is simlarly vexed by left-handers, and Eric Byrnes, who may not even be with the club. I would rather see Jackson left in left (as it were...) and the team go after someone who can platoon with Allen at 1B. That said, the names available as free agents all have issues of one kind or another e.g. Johnson's injury issues, Branyan would be another left-hander, and my assessment of likely activity as "high" also includes the chances of activitiy not directly involving the signing of a free-agent.

The major trading-chip in this area remains Chris Snyder, and I still think the team will look to move him between now and Opening Day. Even if this is not directly for a first-baseman, the salary relief we'd obtain as a result means we can perhaps then take on a player earning more than we could perhaps otherwise afford (whether at first or another spot, such as in the rotation). As a starting point, the six teams to get the lowest 2009 OPS from their catchers were (in descending order): Milwaukee, Houston, Seattle, Toronto, Tampa, Detroit. Might be a good starting point for shopping Snyder.

We will be interested to follow the development of Allen and Whitesell in 2010 - particularly the former, since it's worth remembering, despite his struggles, that he will still be 23 until February. Only 16 position players in the National League that age or younger got 100 PAs last season [three in AZ, who also had Justin Upton and Gerardo Parra], so there should be no rush to judgement. Allen's playing time will likely be determined both by subsequent moves, and how his own splits develop. If he can learn to hit left-handed pitching, and his overall numbers approach those he posted in the minors, he should be primed for the starting spot in 2011. Those are both mighty-big "ifs", however.

[Update] Josh Whitesell was non-tendered and as a result became a free-agent. The Diamondbacks apparently even tried to sell Whitesell to Japan, but had no luck there; it's clear that Arizona saw no potential of him helping the team in the foreseeable future.

[Update] The signing of Adam LaRoche obviously throws all the above into chaos. He will now be the everyday player at first, with Jackson probably giving him the odd day off against tough lefties. Allen can continue his development down in Triple-A, and frankly, that's probably for the best.

[Trivia answer. Here are the most-frequent starters at 1B each season for Arizona. 1998-99, Travis Lee; 2000, Greg Colbrunn; 2001-02, Mark Grace; 2003, Lyle Overbay; 2004, Shea Hillenbrand; 2005, Chad Tracy; 2006-08, Conor Jackson; 2009, Tracy]

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