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SnakePit Round Table: Who's On First for the 2011 D-backs?

First-base

The Diamondbacks don’t have many potential free agents this winter, but one spot with a question-mark is first-base. There’s a mutual option for Adam LaRoche’s services in 2011, at $7.5 million, with a $1.5 million buyout if the team decides not to exercise it. This poses an interesting question for Arizona management: should they go for it or not? This, and other questions related to first-base, are the subject of this week’s SnakePit Round Table. Which I'm pleased to report, saw almost a full turnout this week - albeit with a little deadline nudging in some quarters...

IHSB: For one, Jim, this is an awesome round table. Well done on the questions. I’m excited for this one. And, as usual, punctual in replying to it because that’s how the education system in Ireland works.

Azreous: Hopefully they speak Spanish in Ireland, because your nariz es un poco marrón.

DbacksSkins: Are you saying IHSB’s nariz is a moron?

What did you think of LaRoche’s overall performance at 1B in 2010?

IHSB: We got what we paid for. A player who would give us the ability to not have to worry about who to pencil in at first base on a daily basis while Brandon Allen developed. There was some power, a few particularly hot streaks, and lots of camouflage.

soco: It was enough. He played good defense, did reasonably well at the plate, and didn’t do or say anything stupid.

emily: It worked. He didn’t detract from the team, and his defense was better than I expected.

Zephon: I was actually surprised how well LaRoche fit in with the team, chemistry wise. He gave us pretty much what we expected and paid for, so that’s a good thing.

Azreous: Compared to some other disasters we’ve seen over the past couple years (the primary culprit being one Ick-eray Yrnes-bay), LaRoche was solid enough. I’d classify just about every aspect of his game as above average — defense, hitting, clubhouse presence.

Wailord: Pretty much echoing the sentiments of the rest. He wasn’t anything absolutely amazing, but it worked out well, he probably played a tiny bit above expectations, and didn’t do anything that would classify it as an amazing deal or a bad one. Overall, I guess I was perfectly pleased with what he added to the team.

IHSB: Hmmm, I actually wonder whether or not this chain of nearly identical comments is a boatload of praise or a sort of backhanded, unintentional shot at LaRoche. It seems like the majority here labels him as "meh, I was okay with him." I don’t think you build winning teams around "meh," particularly "meh" without upside.

emily: I wouldn’t call it backhanded...at least not on my part. I did not honestly know what we were getting when we signed LaRoche, and I am very happy that he wasn’t another failed experiment.

Jim: I can’t even go with "meh", personally. The NL average at the position was .813, so the .788 OPS Adam posted is flat-out poor for a first-baseman, not even taking the hitter-friendliness of Chase into consideration. I think it’s a measure of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", after the past few years in Arizona at that position, that fans were happy enough with LaRoche.

Kishi: I was happy with LaRoche on defense, but I had some higher hopes from him at the plate, I guess. Maybe those shiny numbers he put up hitting for Atlanta last year distracted me, but his offensive production did seem below what I expected, especially coming into a park like Chase. But like I said, I was pretty happy with his glovework, so I’ll just wait until the next question for that.

IHSB: I think, offensively, I was most disappointed with LaRoche in how he ended the year. He is known for being a superstar after the ASB, and while he had blazing-hot months, there was also that insufferable stretch from September 4 to September 17 when he went 6-47 with no extra-base hits and a .304 OPS. Given the advertised post-break dominance, that was extremely disappointing.

Kishi: Oh, man, the post-break dominance. I guess I LaForgot about that. Which reminds me- the name really gave us a lot of posting potential. I think he was far better than we expected in that department.

DbacksSkins: I think LaRoche’s performance might’ve been slightly disappointing, but not necessarily bad. Sure, he was below average for a 1B, but he was also a bargain free agent signed to a one-year value-building deal. The poor late, late season performance was a surprise, but not in a good way.

There was a sharp split on how the metrics viewed his defensive ability. B-R.com had him at barely above replacement at first, while Fangraphs.com rated him significantly better. Which way do you lean?

IHSB: Based just on the seeing-eye test, I find LaRoche to be solidly above-average at first, so probably closer to FanGraphs than B-R. Considering the fact that many players go to first because it’s the position they least butcher (see: Dunn, Adam), I find it refreshing to see someone able to make a nice diving stop, pick a bad throw out of the dirt, or make a solid throw to second amidst the turning of a double-play.

Azreous: Even though my eyes are probably worse than IHSB’s (damn parents and their crappy vision), that sounds about right to me. I still have visions of Conor Jackson throwing double play balls into center field and Chad Tracy watching helplessly as throws bounced past him at first, so it was nice to see some relatively consistent play at that position.

soco: For me I think it comes down the plays that LaRoche was able to complete that other first-basemen couldn’t in recent years for Arizona. I’m not going to worry if he was only average over the long-term, simply because we don’t and won’t have access to plus-defenders at the position unless we develop it. So if he can be average or just above, and turn those extra plays then I’m not really going to complain right now.

emily: For the time frame that we needed him (one, maybe two years), there was no reason to want above average defense over his entire career. soco is right, he made the plays we weren’t used to seeing our first-basemen make in the past.

Zephon: I think LaRoche has below average range, but was excellent at picking poor throws. My eyes tell me that he’s very slightly above average.

Kishi: (Jim and I are answering this at the same time. Google Docs is creepy sometimes.)

Jim: Hey, you’ve got a typo there... [Pause] You’re welcome! :-)

Kishi: Like I said, I was happy with LaRoche’s defense at first. I think one of the things we’ve really needed is a good glove over there to help anchor our defense in general, and he certainly fit the bill. But that’s probably something that doesn’t necessarily show up in the stats- there’s nothing (that I know of) that keeps track of a first baseman turning a teammate’s throwing error into an out. He was a very solid presence on that side of the infield, and after the past few years of our D, that’s exactly what we needed. We couldn’t have asked for much more from him.

Jim: I think he helped Mark Reynolds, with his ability to dig some of the more wayward throws out of the dirt, but LaRoche often seemed to have the range of a quayside bollard, and that may help explain the difference in numbers. Again, I think we are somewhat shell-shocked after the past few years, and are grateful simply to have a full-time player at the position. It’s been a while: our most-regular players at 1B the last two years started a mere 56 and 66 games.

DbacksSkins: Jim, you had an extra space there after the period. You’re welcome for deleting it.

Jim: Hey, what are you... Why, I oughta... Oh, never mind. Please go on.

DbacksSkins: Anyway, I would have to say that it seemed like LaRoche’s defensive value went like the opposite of the way guys like Reynolds or Upton have seemed in years past -- in contrary to those two, LaRoche didn’t seem to make many "stupid" mistakes (errors, poor digs, etc.) but didn’t have a particularly impressive range. That’s something that I would have thought FG, with its UZR-based defensive ratings, would value, rather than B-R, with its TZ-based metrics. Nonetheless, I definitely think LaRoche’s solid in-the-moment defense (if that makes any sense) was to the benefit of the rest of the infield.

Overall, Fangraphs valued LaRoche at 2.1 WAR, and B-R at 1.1 WAR. If repeated next year, the former performance would be good value for money, the latter not. So, if you had to make the decision, would you exercise LaRoche’s option for 2011?

IHSB: The decision is much more complex than this - it’s not whether or not LaRoche provides any surplus value on his contract, it’s whether or not he provides the most surplus value of all available options, which include Brandon Allen, a guy making $400k next year. As a believer in Allen’s bat and his glove at first, I think he can put up more, or at least comparable, value than LaRoche. This makes LaRoche’s option an extra $6MM that the D-backs don’t need to spend.

Zephon: As Dan said, the situation is a lot more complex than just the value of his contract. I think what happens with first base depends on what we do with Brandon Allen. I believe he’s capable of putting up LaRoche like numbers for a lot less than the actual LaRoche would cost. If we think Allen is the first basemen of the future, or at least a stop gap solution until Goldschmidt/Davidson/Borchering are ready, then picking up his option doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially in a year we’re not expected to contend. If the team believes Brandon Allen is capable in left field, then I think picking up his option makes sense, as we would have no other in house candidates to play first base.

soco: As much as I might like LaRoche, I don’t really see the point in paying $7.5 million for a year we won’t compete. If the Diamondbacks really want to believe that Allen is the first-base of the future, then might as well get him out there and see if he actually is what they think he is.

emily: If we aren’t going to contend, it’s not worth $7.5 mil. That’s all.

Azreous: The chances of us competing in 2011, or even breaking .500 in my opinion, are pretty slim. So to me, the options are even more clear-cut than all that. If you’re happy with LaRoche’s production and are interesting in keeping Allen in left, you extend LaRoche, not just pick up the option. If not, you jettison him and find a cheaper, short-term replacement.

Wailord: if we were in a position where we were looking to take the NL West title next year, I’d probably be in favor of it. However, if we have a young player in Allen that’s obviously making significantly less, I don’t know if there’s any reason to blow money on someone who won’t really affect the outcome of the season, especially if we’ve got someone that can play the position on the roster already.

Kishi: I probably wouldn’t. I think LaRoche did well, gave us what we needed, but next season, I think we’re probably better off putting the money into the bullpen and either letting Allen play first base- my vague recollections say he looked pretty good there when he played in 2009- or picking up a cheap replacement.

Jim: No. As noted, his output wasn’t up to much, and add in that it’s not as if LaRoche will be the missing piece that will push us into contention for 2011. If the team wants to spend $7.5 million, taking three bucks off every ticket at Chase would be a much more worthwhile investment. Actually, giving it to me to spend on hookers and blow, would be too. Oops. Did I say that out loud?

IHSB: LOLZ!!!

DbacksSkins: Countdown until Jim gets fired by SBN in 3...2...

No, but seriously, I’m not sure LaRoche is worth the $6.5M for next year, but I certainly wouldn’t mind signing him for maybe 3 or 4 years at perhaps $4M/yr -- lock down 1B for the near future for cheaply and keep BA in LF for a few seasons, and I’m certainly operating on the assumption that LaRoche would have a better season next year than he did this year. Unfortunately, they’re both lefties, which makes this decision slightly less cut & dry.

However, the marginal value LaRoche provides over BA (probably) is not worth the $6.1M difference.

Oh -- and guest roundtabler jinnah just mentioned that his value provided in possible puns is well above replacement level.

And if you were LaRoche, would you want to come back at $7.5m, or try the free-agent market instead?

IHSB: The first base market is loaded - if I’m LaRoche, I’m hoping to try again in 2011.

Zephon: If I’m LaRoche I would love to have the team pick up my option. I would be surprised if he could manage to make more money than 7.5m in free agency.

soco: I’d hope to stay.

emily: Definitely try to stay.

Azreous: Awful lot of big names in the free-agent market this offseason. But I might be interested in trying to get a multiple-year deal anyway, considering my age and productivity. Maybe something like three years, $18 million. Whether that means staying or not, I don’t know.

Wailord: I’d love to stay, if anything because it’s much more comfortable to play a season with a crew that you’ve come to know well instead of one where you’re the new guy.

IHSB: Wailord makes a good point - particularly since LaRoche is a) really soft-spoken and b) been moving around a lot. Hard to imagine him wanting to keep moving around all over the place.

Kishi: I’d stay.

Jim: What’s not to like? Playing in a nice, hitter-friendly park, in a low-pressure environment, with no media glare and little in the way of expectations? Not sure if the hunting in Arizona is any good: my brother-in-law goes off every now and again, so I assume there are some animals available. [Unless he’s a Minuteman...] Anyway, worst-case scenario for Adam: he exercises the option, we decline it, and he walks away with $1.5 million.

DbacksSkins: Oh, Jim. There you go with the extra spaces again.

I think it makes infinitely more sense for LaRoche for him to stay here, pretty much for all the reasons previously mentioned. I don’t think he’s likely to make $7.5M on the open market. I can’t really figure out a good reason why he wouldn’t, unless 1. his agent is stupid, or 2. he’s counting on some dumb team like the Royals or Astros or Mets to overpay for him.

And Jim, hunting in Arizona can be fantastic -- several types of deer, antelope, elk, large predators, wild turkey, etc. -- if you’re a resident. Not so much for squirrels, though...

If the answer to either of the above questions is no, who do you think should be our everyday 1B? Jack Magruder suggested making a run at Paul Konerko instead. Any interest in him, or others among the available 2011 free-agents?

IHSB: We have to give Allen a shot at the everyday first base gig at some point, right? Giving him the left field slot is too risky in my opinion, and I really feel that he can be an above-average everyday first baseman. He’s got nice power and he takes a ton of walks. There are holes in his swing, but he’ll post healthy OBP and wOBA totals.

Zephon: Basically +1 on everything that Dan said. I think Allen has proven that he deserves a shot next year to play every day, be it at first base or in left field. If we put him at first base, then we need to sign or trade for an outfielder to fill the gaping hole in left field. If we put him in left field, we’ll still need a first basemen. Personally, I’d like to see us sign a guy like Xavier Nady who can play both first base and left field. Although I’m interested in us signing a guy like Carlos Pena or Paul Konerko to play first base, or Werth/Crawford for left field, the team is just not going to shell out money for those kinds of players. I’ll save what i have to say about left field for the actual left field roundtable, but needless to say, I think if we want to compete next year, we HAVE to get rid of the swirling vortex of suck.

soco: I don’t see the point in trying to commit big money to a one year guy for year we’ll probably see another 90 losses. We’re not going to get someone cheaper than Allen.

Azreous: I’d be particularly wary of Konerko, who vastly exceeded expectations this year and will only be a year older in 2011. Not that I wouldn’t want him on the roster, but I suspect he’s going to command an even higher price than LaRoche, and maybe 10x as much as Allen would make to hold the fort until 2012 and beyond.

Wailord: As I said, I really don’t believe we need to go out and make a splash in the free agent market when the money will not effectively change the outcome of the season. Even though it’s oversimplified and not entirely true, it essentially looks like wasted money to me. Why not wait until we think we can contend, then use the saved money to see what needs addressing then?

Kishi: No question in my mind, I want to see Allen out there. We’ve got so many other things we need to spend money on, why not bring up the in-house option?

Jim: The problem with using Allen at 1B, is that it simply opens up another hole, this one in left-field. Will that one be easier to fill? Not apparently from an internal source. Is the market for free-agents there any better? Hard to say. Probably a bit, on the basis that most outfielders can play LF.

Konerko is a type A free-agent, so would lead to us losing our second-round draft pick [our first is protected], but there seems to be plenty of other possibilities. I’d settle for someone who could give us league-average performance at a reasonable price, but those are two that are kinda mutually exclusive. If you cross out those with a lower OPS than LaRoche, most of the rest e.g. Aubrey Huff, Adam Dunn, Konerko, wouldn’t be cheap.

IHSB: Left field was a hole long before Brandon Allen was considered to fill it. I just don’t trust the experiment enough to give him the everyday gig there. For what it’s worth, though, the outfield market is actually worse than the 1B market. We may end up scouring non-tender candidates and giving guys like Collin Cowgill an outside shot at a platoon role. In the end, though, I want Allen at first. Though, to be fair, if any year is a good year to continue an experiment like that, it’s probably 2011 for the D-backs...

DbacksSkins: I don’t think it makes any sense to get anyone expensive in a year we’re unlikely to compete, unless we could get them for unusually and strangely cheaply.

If you want to bring LaRoche back, does it make sense to pay so much money in a year when we seem unlikely to contend? Should we be looking at a longer-term contract than one year? If so, what would you offer?

soco: I guess I’ve gotten ahead of myself and answered this already, but no I don’t think it makes sense to pay big money in a down year.

Zephon: I don’t really think it makes sense resigning him either, unless you think Allen can cut it in left field. If that’s the case, then it does make sense to pay that much money, because quite honestly, there’d be no other candidates for first base. So I guess the only way I’m okay with picking up LaRoche’s option is if we’re going into the year with Brandon Allen as the every day left fielder.

Azreous: Exactly. The only way the team can afford to invest in something like that is if Allen (or someone else, like Not Gerardo Parra) is the long-term solution in left. And by long-term solution, I’m hoping for something more than a warm body. Something like actual production. I mentioned this earlier, but if LaRoche is coming back, it has to be because the organization wants him around for a while. I wouldn’t mind something like two years, $11 million, maybe 3/$17. But I don’t see that happening, and I certainly don’t see the point of a one-year option.

Wailord: Already mentioned it a few times above - no, I don’t think it makes any sense, even if I like LaRoche.

Kishi: If we did bring back LaRoche, I can only imagine it’d be with an extension, where we’re keeping him around for maybe three years or so, but at less than the $7.5 million we’d be paying next year.

Jim: To some extent, the answer depends on what we see when looking at our farm system. We’ll get into that a bit later, but these seems no immediate prospect knocking on the door, and . we need someone playing the position. On that basis, if we don’t think it’s Allen [and the amount of playing time we gave at 1B last season suggests not], I suppose LaRoche is as good a player as any to fill the spot. Azreous’s $11m/two years seems about right, but Adam might prefer one year and try for a tighter free-agent market in 2012.

DbacksSkins: Oh, Jim. You and your periods.

Like soco, I’ve already mentioned what I’d be willing to do to sign LaRoche longer term, although I don’t know that he’d be anywhere close to content with that. I don’t like the idea of the one year option, as I think we’d be overpaying, but I’d be willing to swallow the extra payroll next year in exchange for another year or two or three at what would likely be below market. There’s something to be said for Adam’s financial security, too.

Alternatives and back-ups at 1B. This year, it was mostly Rusty Ryal, with a sprinkling of Brandon Allen. Would you be happy with that again in 2011, or do we need new blood?

IHSB: I would like to see someone else other than Ryal. If Ryal could hack it defensively at second base, he’s a more valuable piece, but I’m not seeing it. A nice hard-work story, but not a guy I’m relying on off of the bench in 2011. I’m not sure who we could find out there as a backup first baseman option, but given the state of the market I imagine that it might be possible to find someone worthwhile.

soco: Don’t really have any confidence in Rusty, but I’m not sure who else should be there.

Zephon: I like Rusty Ryal. Just not at first base. We could really use a cheap backup at the corners next year.

Wailord: No one big, but it wouldn’t hurt to get some cheap backups and see if anything happens to stick.

Jim: I didn’t mind Ryal; he did a lot better as a starter than off the bench. If the team feels the need to go after someone with the dreaded "veteran presence", I wouldn’t mind too much, and a RHB for the corner infield would be the best spot, if Allen is used at 1B. But that really shouldn’t be an enormous priority, and we can wait to see what shakes out of the available talent-pool.

DbacksSkins: I’d be just fine, honestly, with Allen and Ryal next year, but, like Josh Byrnes this year (with KJ and LaRoche), I think we should be aware of bargain basement options as well.

Down on the farm [mostly for Wes and Dan]. What have we got coming up through the minor-league system? What sort of gap do we need to cover before help arrives from there?

IHSB: Nothing in the near future. Sean Coughlin couldn’t find his power after a series of hand injuries, and while it may come back (power does reappear after a year in some cases), that can’t be counted on. We’re waiting for Paul Goldschmidt and possibly Matt Davidson, Bobby Borchering, and Marc Krauss if some or any of them has to move to first base. I think that Allen can bridge the gap quite effectively, though, and we could possibly flip him right as he hits arbitration to remain cost-effective.

Zephon: As Dan said, there’s no one in the immediate future. We already have a stopgap solution in Brandon Allen. Paul Goldschmidt is probably our top first base prospect(unless you count Davidson/Borchering as first base prospects), and he’ll be in Mobile next year. That would put him at least a year away from impacting the majors, and he’d have to absolutely set the league on fire to move up his ETA. But there is a minute chance that we may even end up seeing him next year (Injuries+Ineffectiveness+Goldschmidt doing well, a la Mark Reynolds in 2007). Very very unlikely, but it’s possible.

If Goldschmidt doesn’t pan out, we’re waiting for a guy like Borchering, Davidson, Krauss, or a Ryan Wheeler to move to first base.

DbacksSkins: That’s all assuming Goldschmidt doesn’t suffer a severe competition shock once he hits Mobile, that’s assuming Krauss doesn’t flame out, that’s assuming Wheeler bounces back.

I’ll be bullish on Goldschmidt and say he gets a pretty good chance to win the job in 2012 out of Spring Training. Allen should easily be able to capably fill in until then. I’m assuming Borchering and Davidson won’t be available for the bigs until mid-to-late 2012 at the soonest.