If asked this simple question (who’s on first for the 2014 Brewers?), I wouldn’t have a good answer. After losing Corey Hart and Matt Gamel to season ending injuries, the Brewers have struggled to find a competent, or even replacement level, first baseman this year. Opportunities were offered to a wide variety of players but no one has risen to the occasion. Leaving the Brewers future plans for the position foggier than any other.
In early July, Jeff Sullivan put the Brewers first base problem in a historical context for FanGraphs. Spoiler alert, the article’s title is “The Brewers and the Impossibly Black Hole”. To quote Sullivan,
“… through half of the season, Brewers first basemen have been the worst-hitting first basemen in more than 60 years. And they haven’t really done anything to make up for it with the glove.”
At the time of Sullivan’s article, the Brewers first basemen had combined for a .549 OPS. They now have a .614 OPS, thanks, in large part, to the nine home runs Juan Francisco swatted in July and August. Yet, a .614 OPS is still the worst in the league. In fact, by any of the major measuring sticks, the combined stats for Brewers first basemen are easily the worst in the league -
- .209 AVG
- .267 wOBA
- 64 wRC+
- (-) 4.5 WAR
For an offensively inclined position, the Brewers have found rock bottom. During the season, seven players have slipped on the first basemen’s mitt for the Crew — Juan Francisco, Yunkiesky Betancourt, Alex Gonzalez, Sean Halton, Martin Maldonado, Jonathan Lucroy, and Blake Lalli. Only two, Francisco and Lucroy, have been an above average offensive asset.
As a first baseman for the Brewers, Juan Francisco has struck out at an incredible 34.9% of his plate appearances. His .231 AVG stings but his sheer power is undeniable. His .771 OPS is above league average due to his strong .231 ISO. The power has also helped him post a solid .331 wOBA and 108 wRC+.
Though Francisco’s power is intriguing, he’s not an everyday first baseman. His splits against left-handed pitchers prove it –
If Francisco stays at first base next season, it would have to be as a part of a platoon. His splits are too extreme to ignore.
The best bat the Brewers have put at first, all season, belongs to Jonathan Lucroy. When compared to every day first basemen, Lucroy’s offensive numbers hold up well. His .798 OPS, .345 wOBA, and 118 wRC+ would slot in just outside of the top ten first basemen. In fact, Lucroy’s offensive numbers are strikingly similar to those posted by Adrian Gonzalez and Eric Hosmer this season.
Of course, while Lucroy could make an above average offensive first baseman, he’s even more valuable behind home plate. But, if no one wins the first base job outright next year, there’s a strong argument that Lucroy should play there when he’s not behind the dish. This is how the Giants have handled Buster Posey, who played 29 games at first in 2012 and has played 20 games there this season. If Lucroy is healthy, and no better first base option found, it’s hard to see why they would keep his bat out of the line-up.
So, with no clear frontrunner to start at first next season, what other options to the Brewers have?
The Gamel Factor
Since being deemed Prince Fielder’s successor in 2012, Matt Gamel has only played in 21 games for the Brewers. In seven minor league seasons, Gamel slashed .304/.376/.498 with a solid .873 OPS. In 269 major league plate appearances, from 2008 to 2012, Gamel has only managed a .229/.305/.367 slash line, resulting in a .641 OPS.
Arbitration eligible in 2014, Gamel’s injury history should make him an affordable option next season. But whether he can stay healthy, and how his reconstructed knee affects his performance, makes Gamel a risky option. After being burned by bad luck in 2012 and 2013, there’s no way the organization can put all their eggs in the Gamel basket for next season.
While far from an ideal option, the Brewers could look for help through free agency. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, here are the first basemen who will be free agents in the off-season. A (*) next to a name means that player’s contract has an option for the 2014 season.
|Current Age||2013 Salary|
Of course, the one free agent name not on this list is Corey Hart, who’s 31 and making $10M this year. (Cot’s lists Hart as a free agent OF.) The Brewers could negotiate a short-term, club friendly contract with Hart but don’t hold your breath. Hart could be quickly priced out of the Brewers comfort zone if other teams inquire about his services.
Farming Out First
Hunter Morris, the Brewers 2012 “Minor League Player of the Year”, could be another option at first base next season. Though, if the Brewers were seriously considering this, you would have expected Morris to be amongst the September call-ups. He wasn’t.
In 2013, Morris hit 24 bombs at AAA Nashville but posted the lowest batting average (.247) of his minor league career. Right now, it would appear that the Brewers intend to let the 24-year-old develop in AAA for another season.
Other Internal Options
After trotting out a third baseman, two short stops, and two catchers to play first, there’s always a chance the Brewers could continue this grand conversion experiment. Recently, Khris Davis’ emergence has people looking for ways to keep his bat in the line-up. With the outfield currently crowded, first base may be his best option to play consistently. Check out last week’s “Rounding the Bases” for a more in-depth discussion of this possibility.
Right now, there is no silver bullet to solve the Brewers crisis at first base. In my opinion, it’s the most important issue for the team to address this off-season. How the organization deals with this problem should speak volumes as to what they expect out of next year’s team.