Starter: Mark Reynolds
Backup: Juan Francisco/Lyle Overbay
AAA Depth: Sean Halton, Jason Rogers, Hunter Morris
The future: Nick Delmonico, Garrett Cooper, Nick Ramirez
Just a few years removed from the days when Prince Fielder was the starter, backup, and future (sorry, Mat Gamel) at first base for the Brewers, there is now no shortage of names in the mix at each category. As a result, there is very little clarity to the first base picture.
After running through Francisco, Gamel, Halton, Corey Hart, Brooks Conrad, Taylor Green, George Kottaras, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado, Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, Cody Ransom, Blake Lalli, Alex Gonzalez, and Yuniesky Betancourt (holy replacement level, Batman!) over the past two seasons at first, the Brewers brought back Francisco and signed Reynolds and Overbay to minor league deals this off-season. Now, less than three weeks until Opening Day, those three have emerged as the most likely candidates for the job. Likely, two of the three will make the roster, forming a possible platoon.
Reynolds signed a team-friendly minor league deal worth a base of $2 million with the all-but-guarantee of making the big league roster. The lone right-handed option of the three names in contention, it’s likely he will form a left/right platoon at first. With Reynolds, you know what you’re going to get: lots of strikeouts and lots of home runs. He led the league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons from 2008-2011, but also hit 141 home runs during that stretch, the fifth-most of any hitter in baseball. Since 2008, he leads all hitters in strikeouts. If Overbay was to make the club alongside Reynolds, it’s likely late-game defensive substitutions would be commonplace because he’s not exactly slick with the glove, posting a career UZR of -18.5 in 251 games at first. While Reynolds has one spot all but solidified, Francisco and Overbay are the two competing to split time with Reynolds at first.
Francisco, much like Reynolds, hits lots of homers and strikes out a lot. Acquired in a trade with Atlanta last June, the 26 year-old Francisco hit .227/.296/.422 with 18 homers and a 35.8 K%. Toward the end of last season, Francisco worked with Brewers coaches to reduce his big pre-swing leg kick in order to reduce strikeouts and help with hitting breaking pitches, all the while maintaining his (semi?) Herculean power. The upside with Francisco is there and that often creates the two views on Francisco: 1) He strikes out way too much and can’t play defense; and 2) The Juan Francisco Bandwagon, a branch of the Fans of Juan Francisco Association.
Overbay, the fan-favorite with Milwaukee in 2004 and 2005, has declined greatly since his first stint with the team. His power against right-handed pitching, which is what he’d be facing with Reynolds on the team, is significantly less than what Francisco offers. At the plate, he’s at this point no better with less potential than Francisco. Defensively, he’s shown his value to the Brewers this spring. Where Francisco and Reynolds struggle, Overbay would be used defensively over both.
After those three, it doesn’t get any clearer. Hunter Morris, the 2012 Brewers minor league hitter of the year, struggled in AAA last season and hasn’t been impressive this spring, either, with two hits in 16 at-bats. The high hopes for Morris entering 2013 have turned more into questions than anything. At 25, his time to develop isn’t over, but if he fails to make any improvements in the minors this season, his potential to hit big league pitching effectively will be in question. Here’s to hoping 2014 is good to Morris.
Halton appeared in 42 games for Milwaukee last season, hitting .238/.291/.396 with 4 homers in 111 plate appearances. He’s the unlucky product of an organizational logjam at first base. As the only one besides Reynolds, Francisco, and Overbay with major league experience, he’s next up in the pecking order, but would need something to happen to get significant playing time this season.
Jason Rogers has been a pleasant surprise for the Brewers after being drafted in the 32nd round in 2010. After an experiment in left field didn’t work out, he’s back to his original position. Through all levels in the minors, he’s hit the ball well. Last season, in 549 plate appearances, he posted a .814 OPS with 22 homers, 87 RBI, 10.7 BB%, and 15.7 K%, earning a chance to play in the heralded Arizona Fall League. There, he posted an impressive .891 OPS. His time hasn’t come yet, but he’ll almost certainly get his shot somewhere down the road.
It doesn’t end there!
Nick Delmonico was acquired from the Orioles in return for Francisco Rodriguez last summer. MLB.com ranks him as the fifth-highest prospect in the organization. His value is in his bat, and projections are that he will be able to hit at any level. Currently, he’s posted at third base, but played around the infield before coming a professional. It’s not out of the picture that he moves over to first if third base doesn’t seem to best suit him. Garrett Cooper and Nick Ramirez are both high-round draft picks that the Brewers would like to see develop in the lower levels–likely AA for Ramirez and low or high A for Cooper. The book is still open on both players going forward.
Best Case Scenario: The Brewers get incredible value from their first basemen, combining for 40 homers and avoiding any injuries that would force inexperienced players into action. Reynolds, in a hitter’s ballpark, regains the stroke that hit 44 homers just five years ago and works his OBP back up to his career mark of .327. The lottery ticket that is Juan Francisco pays off, as he reduces strikeouts and, more importantly, hits more line drives and improves on off-speed pitches. Much like with Carlos Gomez, the Brewers patience on his raw talent pays dividends as he hits 20 homers. In the minors, Hunter Morris improves on his .247 average and .310 OBP and presents his case for the future.
Worst Case Scenario: The rotation of first basemen from the past two seasons carries over. Injuries and lack of production from their current options force the Brewers into playing young, inexperienced players at first. Reynolds can’t find his old form from his time in Arizona. Francisco either doesn’t develop or the Brewers trade him away before he even gets a chance. Overbay makes the big league roster, just to hit below the Mendoza Line and contribute less defensively than what was expected. Another year goes by and the organizational outlook at first only gets cloudier.
Most Likely Scenario: Brewers first basemen lead the league in strikeouts, but also hit 35 homers and provide solid value considering their contracts. Reynolds tallies the most plate appearances of the group, hitting 15-20 homers. We probably won’t know whether the Brewers choose Francisco or Overbay until the roster in finalized.
Reynolds PECOTA projection: .219/.321/436
Reynolds ZiPS projection: .234/.335/.474
Overbay PECOTA projection: .233/.313/.374
Overbay ZiPS projection: .245/.300/.401
Francisco PECOTA projection: .253/.296/.456
Francisco ZiPS projection: .246/.295/.465
This week on Disciples of Uecker:
3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position