Wednesday, February 11, 2009

NL East Preview, Week 2. 1st Base

The NL East is stacked with talented first basemen. Each player has several strengths, and a few weaknesses. Leading the gifted bunch is the big man, Ryan Howard.

Howard is a perennial MVP candidate each year, putting up monster power numbers and often carrying the team through the stretch run in September. He has developed into the marquee home run hitter in Major League Baseball. After winning the rookie of the year award is 2005, he became just the second player in MLB history, first since Cal Ripken Jr., to win the MVP award the following year, by taking the crown in 2006. The stats speak for themselves; he hit 58 home runs in 2006, 47 in 07 and 48 in 08. He also drove in an average of 144 runs each of those years. He is prone to entering long streaks, as all power hitters are. While he has carried the team on his back, he has also struggled over long periods of time, and is prone to a large number of strikeouts. Still, at the end of a long season, his production numbers always even out. His largest inconsistencies lie in his defense, strikeouts and batting average. Howard is putting in extra work this offseason to improve his defense and put the ball in play more consistently. All things aside, Howard is still one of the best players in MLB, and is easily the best first baseman in the division. Greg Dobbs fills in nicely as Howard’s backup, and even Chase Utley has played a few games at first base for the Phillies since 2004.

Carlos Delgado ranks second, but barely. If his 2007 campaign was simply a fluke, the ranking is more than justified. But if Delgado fails to repeat last year’s effort, he will not live up to the hype. Delgado has been a long time star in the league, but in 2007, just his second year with New York, he hit just .258 with 24 home runs and less than 90 runs batted in. He rebounded amazingly in 2008, hitting .271 with 38 home runs and 115 runs batted in. He has made just eight errors each year, over the last three seasons. He is aging, at 36, and it is difficult to foresee exactly what production the Mets are going to get from Delgado. He is not nearly as strikeout prone as Howard, and plays a solid first base, whether he is producing at the plate or not. Former Phillie Marlon Anderson is listed as Delgado’s backup, and has been one of the better pinch-hitters in baseball the last few seasons. Delgado is remarkably resilient, and should be in the lineup producing on a daily basis.

The much improved Washington Nationals place third, with veteran Nick Johnson. After returning from an injury in 2008, which kept him out the entire 2007 season, he struggled in his 109 at bats, hitting just .220 with five home runs and 20 knocked in. Johnson is now healthy and ready to return as one of the better first baseman in baseball. He hit .290 in 2006, with 23 home runs and 77 RBI. Johnson has had a consistent bat and a great glove throughout his career. He is healthy and ready to go, but the only question is whether or not he can return to his previous solid form. Ronnie Belliard is now listed as Washington’s backup at first and second base, and should be an excellent backup should Johnson get hurt or struggle. Belliard has struggled with inconsistency as well, but has a great power swing and is a solid player. Either way, Washington should be set at first base.

Casey Kotchman of Atlanta edges out Florida for the fourth spot. After starting his career in 2004, Kotchman played for the Angels until being traded to Atlanta last season. After the trade Kotchman hit just .237 with two home runs and 20 RBI. His 2008 numbers aren't bad though, as he hit .287 with 12 long balls and drove in 54 for Anaheim prior to being relocated. He puts the ball in play about as well as anyone, plays a tremendous first base, and had a respectable .269 career average. Kotchman will come into his own in Atlanta in 2009, and continue to play at a high level. Most of his time spent in Atlanta in 2008 came after the Braves had all but been eliminated from postseason contention, and had to play in meaningless games. The Braves have improved themselves heading in 2009, which should give Kotchman a boost in his play out of the gate. Martin Prado is a very solid backup for Atlanta, hitting .320 last year.

Florida is the most difficult team to rank at this position, because of the uncertainty. The promising youngster Gaby Sanchez is listed atop Florida’s depth chart. Sanchez was promoted for a cup of coffee last season, hitting .375 in just eight at bats. In AA last year, he hit .314 with 17 home runs and 92 RBI. He has talent and potential but is impossible to rank ahead of any of his competitors, as he has no Major League experience. The Marlins are in a puzzling situation; it seems clear that Jorge Cantu should be Florida’s first baseman, and Dallas McPherson should be given an opportunity at third. Cantu went through an offensive resurgence last season at third base, but struggled mightily in the field. His defensive struggles prompted Florida to move him to first base on several occasions to bring a defensive replacement in for third. McPherson, meanwhile, excelled in the minors in 2008, hitting .275 with 42 home runs and 98 runs batted in. He is not a great third baseman, but is an improvement over Cantu. Cantu did play much better at first base than he did at third. Should Florida move Cantu to first, Florida could have a very good run producer at the position. As it turns out, they may already have one in Sanchez. Only time will tell.

Be sure to see Rich's 1st base breakdown at his new and improved blog!

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