The Meat Market: First Basemen

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Last offseason was an awful year for free agent first basemen. At 39 years old, Rafael Palmeiro was the biggest name and most desirable player in the bunch, and at the time I generously described the rest of the group as “relatively deep in mediocrity.” This year is a totally different story, as there are not only several big names available, there are a few relatively attractive mid-level guys on the market as well.

The headliners are Carlos Delgado and Richie Sexson, who are both coming off of disappointing years for two very different reasons. After leading the American League in OPS and RBIs on his way to a second-place MVP finish in 2003, Delgado got off to a very slow start this season. He hit a respectable .265/.367/.494 in April, but then fell apart in May, hitting just .194/.313/.344 before going down with a rib cage injury that kept him out for all of June. When he returned in early July, Delgado was hitting just .227/.338/.415 on the year.

Once he got back into the lineup, however, Delgado was his old self, hitting .305/.408/.625 with 22 homers, 16 doubles and 63 RBIs after the All-Star break; nearly identical to the .302/.426/.593 he hit in 2003. The strong second half brought his overall numbers up to .269/.372/.535, which is not far off his career marks of .282/.392/.556. Delgado will be 33 next year and missing 34 games this season is a concern, but he’s in tremendous shape and his outstanding work after the All-Star break suggests he’s still capable of being a major force in the middle of some team’s lineup.

In fact, I think Delgado enters free agency as a very underrated player. Even with his struggles during the first half this year, he hit .284/.403/.561 combined over the past three years and hasn’t had an OPS below .900 since he was a 25-year-old in 1997. If healthy — and Delgado missed a total of only 30 games from 1999-2003 — he is one of the elite hitters in all of baseball. And for someone who has been paid $68 million for the past four seasons, he’s gotten very little hype and attention compared to some of the other available free agents. I think it’s very likely a team will sign Delgado for a discount this offseason while committing to him for a relatively short period of time, and end up with a perennial MVP candidate.

Meanwhile, Sexson was traded to the Diamondbacks by the Brewers last offseason because of his impending free agency, but is now a major question mark. Sexson dislocated his shoulder on a check swing on April 28, missed about three weeks of action, came back to the lineup on May 21, and then aggravated the same injury in his second game back. That was the last game he played, as Sexson had season-ending surgery and finished the year hitting .233/.337/.578 in just 23 games for Arizona, who gave up Lyle Overbay, among others, to get him.

According to most of what I’ve heard, the Diamondbacks are making an effort to re-sign Sexson, but what they’re offering says a lot about the concerns over his injury. While he could reasonably have expected to sign a long-term, six- or seven-year deal as a free agent before the injury, Arizona is now reportedly offering Sexson a three-year deal that isn’t even fully guaranteed. I expect Sexson to shop around and I’d be surprised if he re-signs with the Diamondbacks unless they significantly increase the length of their offer.

With that said, if I were running a team in need of a slugging first baseman, I would target Delgado and not Sexson. At 30, Sexson is just three years younger than Delgado, he’s never had the sort of MVP-caliber seasons that Delgado has had, and he didn’t strike me as a player who would age particularly well, even before the shoulder injury.

Take a look at how they compare using Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) since Sexson became an everyday player in 1999:

YEAR      DELGADO     SEXSON
1999        58.8       17.2
2000       114.3       29.2
2001        62.4       44.6
2002        62.6       47.4
2003        83.3       58.7
2004        42.8        6.6

Sexson has never been better than Delgado, and even ignoring this season, there are several instances where it wasn’t even especially close. I wouldn’t feel very comfortable handing out a long-term deal to either player, but I’d ink Delgado for a few years and pretty big money without much problem, and I can’t say the same about Sexson. It will be very interesting to see how the contracts they eventually receive compare.

Once you get past Delgado and Sexson, the next tier of free agent first baseman is essentially just short-term stopgaps with various flaws. John Olerud had a lot of nice things said about him after he replaced Jason Giambi with the Yankees, but he hit just .280/.367/.396 in pinstripes, after hitting .245/.354/.360 with Seattle. It added up to .259/.359/.374 in 127 total games, which is pretty brutal for a first baseman who will be 36 years old in 2005. Still, for a team looking for a cheap, one-year fill at first base, Olerud will give you good defense and a solid on-base percentage, although his power is nearly non-existent at this point (he slugged .422 from 2002-04).

The Devil Rays declined his $8-million option for 2005, so Tino Martinez is another former Yankee first baseman on the market. After a couple of sub par years in St. Louis, Martinez joined Tampa Bay in 2004 and had a bounce back season, hitting .262/.362/.461 in 138 games. Those numbers aren’t great and Martinez will be 37 in 2005, but it was probably his best season since 1998. After hitting .207/.294/.342 and .235/.323/.346 against left-handed pitching in 2002 and 2003, respectively, Martinez showed that he still has the ability to handle southpaws, hitting .246/.356/.500 against them this season. However, he’s likely best suited for a platoon role at this point in his career, having hit .276/.357/.453 against righties over the past three years.

After Olerud and Martinez, all that’s left of the free agent first basemen is role players. My personal favorite, Julio Franco, continued to defy the rules of what we know about baseball players aging, hitting .309/.378/.441 in 361 plate appearances with Atlanta. Franco will be 46 next year (yes, forty-six), but he can still get the job done, particularly versus lefties, hitting .339/.411/.474 against them since 2002. In addition to being a great story, Franco would be an excellent platoon partner for a left-handed-hitting first baseman or designated hitter, and is a great bench bat.

The rest of the first base bargain bin includes Tony Clark, David Segui, Travis Lee, Brad Fullmer, Wil Cordero and Greg Colbrunn. Of that group, Fullmer is the most interesting guy, although he’s more of a designated hitter than a first baseman. Fullmer missed over half of the season with a knee injury and hit just .233/.310/.442 when he played, but he has a long history of success against right-handed pitching. Combined over the last three years he hit .281/.360/.510 against righties and just .248/.283/.426 against lefties.

I’d be surprised if Fullmer got more than a one-year deal for minimal money, but he was a big part of Anaheim’s World Series team in 2002 and hit .295/.340/.558 with 32 homers and 104 RBIs for the Blue Jays as recently as 2000. He’s also a career .279/.336/.486 hitter over eight years, including .290/.350/.506 in over 2,500 plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Considering what he’ll probably cost, Fullmer would be a better bet than at least a dozen starting first basemen/designated hitters in 2005, and a Fullmer-Franco platoon could do a lot of damage.

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