Rangers Review: First Base

The year started with Mark Teixeira entrenched at first base, but with the vaguest swirl of rumors about his future. As always, he started very slowly, the first couple of weeks were terrible. By mid-April though, he had begun hitting, and was swinging the bat well until he got injured in early June. For a month the Rangers went with Brad Wilkerson at first, and he actually proved to be pretty decent, although a few fielding plays showed his inexperience at first. Teixeira came back in early July, with the trade rumors swirling strongly. Not only does he have Scott Boras as his agent, meaning he is more likely to look at free agency, but rumors for years had him wanting to play in his hometown of Baltimore, or for the Yankees, or in Atlanta, where he went to college. Finally, after weeks of speculation, the trade went through, just before the deadline, when Tex was traded to Atlanta (along with Ron Mahay) for a huge pile of prospects. The general consensus was that Atlanta had won the trade short-term, but the Rangers would win long-term if some of those prospects came through. As it was, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the key piece, and he mostly slotted into Tex’s place at first, although generally regarded as a catcher. By the end of the year, Salty was playing much more behind the plate, and the Rangers were shuffling bodies in and out of first, with Wilkerson and Frank Catalanotto spending much time there.

Mark Teixeira summary: Money can’t buy you love. He had a rough final half-year in Texas, spending time on the DL, struggling at the start, but by the time he was traded he was booming, and continued to do so in Atlanta. Reportedly turned down a $120 million contract offer from Tom Hicks, which just shows how much he wanted to get out of Arlington. Had an argument with Ron Washington about how to hit, which is funny because as the saying goes, the only thing Ron Washington knows about hitting is that he can’t. Teixeira is a bat that can carry a team, and if the Rangers were to contend any time soon, he would have been a key part. As it is, the Rangers actually performed a little better while he was out injured, but that’s just a statistical anomaly caused by the pitchers pitching better, not by anything Tex did or didn’t do. He was well-loved in Texas, and will be sorely missed. But not as much as he would if the Rangers were closer to contention.

Brad Wilkerson summary: He’s a free agent, and I don’t know if he will be back or not. He hasn’t shown much since coming over in the Soriano trade, certainly not as much as expected. He’s spent a lot of time injured (this year he spent three weeks on the DL in May/June), and when he’s been fit he hasn’t hit. He fell out of favor for a while, but came back and played a lot of first when Tex was injured and then again after he was traded. There have been flashes of what Wilkerson can do with the bat, including a three home run game, but he didn’t run like he used to and didn’t field well either (at least, that was my perception, but his Range was above average at every position he played, which surprises me). Maybe it’s the injuries, but given that he is now 30 and is likely to have more injuries and decline more with the bat, I would consider him borderline to return. If you get him for the right amount of money (and by that I mean in line with what he has done, not what you hope he might do), bring him back. If not, there are plenty of players just like him available for less – just look at what happened with Marlon Byrd this year for an example. He can fill in at first and in the corner outfield spots, but there are a lot of fourth outfielders available for minimum salary.

Frank Catalanotto summary: Cat played 14 games at first, 12 of them in September as the team needed someone to fill in at first and he was given a short trial there, presumably looking at him as a possibility for next year. Cat is signed for two more years, while Wilkerson is a potential free agent, so the team may be thinking of letting Wilkerson go and keeping Cat at first. Curiously enough, in 10 of those last 12 games he was removed late in the game, replaced by Wilkerson for defensive purposes. Cat’s defense (in a very small sample size) was league average at first (in Range Factor), whereas Tex had been surprisingly just a little above average and Wilkerson was quite a bit above. As for hitting, both Catalanotto and Wilkerson had a 101 OPS+, and their other numbers were pretty similar – Wilkerson had 20 HRs to Cat’s 11, but Wilkerson also struck out 70 times more than Cat in almost the same number of at-bats. Cat doesn’t bring the power you want at first, and he’s also three years older than Wilkerson. If they go with Cat, they’re probably settling for the lesser of two very similar ballplayers.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia summary: Covered in-depth in the Catchers review, although he played slightly more at first than at catcher. Hit much better as a catcher than as a first baseman (almost 300 points of OPS better). Not likely to be back in the mix at first, especially if the Rangers go outside the organization to get a first baseman, as he will be spending much more time catching.

Others: Ramon Vazquez got in a few games at first, mostly while Tex was out injured. Matt Kata played there a couple of times too. Both will be covered in more depth at their primary positions.

Minor leagues summary: The cupboard is pretty bare when it comes to first base in the minors, too. Nate Gold is a good prospect, having hit 26 HRs at AAA, but he’s already 27 so can’t be a very good prospect, or he’d have been up in the bigs by now. Emerson Frostad was a little below average at AA. Jim Fasano got time in at AA and High-A, did decently but spent a lot of time DHing, which is worrying for someone who’s only 23. Freddie Thon played most at first at High-A and was below average offensively. Mauro Gomez got the bulk of the time at first at Low-A, and performed pretty well with 21 homers. His 115 strikeouts (vs 23 walks) is a red flag though. It seems like we’ve heard of Ian Gac for years, and yet he’s still only short-season rookie ball, and a little old to be there, but he did hit 17 HRs and perform okay otherwise. Michael Ortiz was good in rookie ball.

2008: This position is up for grabs, and the question is whether it is going to be a fill-in like converted outfielders Wilkerson or Catalanotto, someone trying to find a position like Jason Botts, someone from the minors (not much there, will Nate Gold get a shot?), or looking outside the organization. Adam Dunn has been rumored over and over, would the Rangers take all those strikeouts, and what would he cost in trade and contract? Given the state of first base at all levels, this is one of the positions most likely to receive a lot of attention, either via trade or a big free agent splash.

2009 and beyond: Depends on if they dip into free agency. There doesn’t look like much in the minor leagues right now to get excited about, and there’s certainly nothing at the big league level. There is no easy replacement for Teixeira, but since the Rangers will not seriously contend until 2009 at the earliest, they have time to look around, see what they have, and don’t rush into any foolish contracts for too much money. At worst they should be trying some of their minor leaguers, or someone like Wilkerson, rather than trying to spend the $100 million they didn’t give to Tex. It’s more likely they’ll give some over the hill free agent a ton of money for several years, and watch them slowly decline. Given that there are no decent free agent first basemen this year, anything they do will surely be wasted money.

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