After hitting 38 homers and posting an outstanding 135 OPS+ during a breakout 2017 campaign, it looked as if Logan Morrison would be one of the most sought-after players on the free agent market this offseason.
Instead, full-squad spring training workouts are underway, we’re less than six weeks away from Opening Day, and the 30-year-old Morrison remains unsigned with no obvious suitors in sight. It always appeared that Morrison would represent the next domino to fall on the first-base market after Eric Hosmer signed, but with Hosmer waiting until mid-February to make his decision, Morrison was left in limbo as a result.
Morrison isn’t alone as a power-hitting first baseman who has struggled to find employment this winter; Lucas Duda and Mark Reynolds each hit 30 homers while posting an above-average OPS+ last year, yet both are still on the free-agent market. While he posted a subpar .193/.285/.428 slash line in 2017, Mike Napoli is coming off a 29-homer season and is still unsigned. The same goes for Adam Lind, who hit 14 home runs and posted an impressive 123 OPS+ in 301 plate appearances for the Nationals.
In baseball’s current climate, it might make sense to jump to the conclusion that numerous teams simply aren’t willing to spend money to upgrade at first base because they’re not making an legitimate effort to compete. That’s not really the case in this situation, though; in fact, some of the league’s best first basemen play on teams that aren’t exactly competitive at the moment. Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Joey Votto were already the highest-paid players on the rebuilding Tigers, White Sox, and Reds heading into this offseason, and two more rebuilding clubs — the Phillies and Padres — recently added Carlos Santana and Hosmer as their highest-paid players and the faces of their respective rebuilds. The Athletics’ and Pirates’ payrolls are both alarmingly low, yet each club features one of 2017’s most exciting rookies at first: Matt Olson in Oakland and Josh Bell in Pittsburgh. Even the Marlins, who parted ways with nearly all of their best players this winter, still have Justin Bour, coming off a season in which he hit 25 homers with a 139 OPS+, at first base.
Instead, the problem might just be that there are too many good first basemen in the league right now and that the ones who jumped to sign deals with the clubs that had openings earlier in the offseason — Santana with the Phillies, Yonder Alonso with the Indians, and Adrian Gonzalez with the Mets — made an honest assessment of the market and exercised spectacular judgment by choosing to sign quickly. With so little time remaining before the regular season, the first basemen who chose to wait out the market are now left scrambling to find opportunities.
While they’re not the only clubs that present potential fits for the aforementioned unsigned players, three teams can be held responsible above all others for the proliferation of first-base talent that remains on the free-agent market in mid-February: the Rockies, Royals, and Rays.
Colorado has navigated through the offseason with uncertainty at first base. As things stand now, they’ll be counting on 23-year-old Ryan McMahon, who posted a disappointing .544 OPS over 24 big-league plate appearances last year, or Ian Desmond, who hit just seven homers with a .701 OPS in his first season with the Rockies, to soak up playing time at first. McMahon’s inexperience and Desmond’s lack of power would certainly create incentive for the Rockies to add more depth at the position, particularly because they’re counting on Desmond to start at a corner outfield spot anyway. The fairly obvious move would be for them to re-sign Reynolds, who posted an extremely solid .839 OPS in 148 games last year, but they’ve neglected to do so to this point. Colorado seems to constantly waffle back and forth between building for the future and going all-in as Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon draw closer to free agency, and placing such lofty expectations on an unproven young player like McMahon without much of a fallback option would seem to indicate that they’re not too confident in their ability to make a playoff run. While McMahon could certainly provide a boost to the lineup if he pans out, it’s hard to see how adding a more proven veteran at this point could be a bad thing, especially if it’s a right-handed hitter like Reynolds who could form half of a platoon with McMahon.
It’s difficult to fault Kansas City for not addressing their hole at first base since they spent the whole winter trying to re-sign Hosmer, only to see him sign in San Diego over the weekend. The more troubling aspect of the situation is that they don’t seem exceptionally motivated to find an external replacement for their former franchise player. GM Dayton Moore expressed a desire to keep the Royals’ payroll tight following Hosmer’s departure, and while he left the door open to a free-agent signing, he told reporters that “the economics are very important to us.” Kansas City seems willing to give legitimate opportunities at first to longtime prospects Cheslor Cuthbert and Hunter Dozier, who are also the primary candidates for their vacant third base job, and it’s possible that non-roster invitees Frank Schwindel and Ryan O’Hearn could force themselves into the mix despite the fact that neither has played a full season at Triple-A. It just seems to be common sense that the Royals should at least see what kind of offer Morrison, a Kansas City native who told MLB Network Radio that it’d be a “dream come true” to play for his hometown team earlier this offseason, is willing to take to come home. No matter what, it’d be logical for this Royals team — which is already relying on a ton of young players and lacks depth if those players fail miserably at the big-league level — to add some veteran corner-infield depth, even if it’s a fringier player like Napoli or Lind. With the way the market looks right now, it almost surely wouldn’t strain their payroll too much to do so.
Tampa may be the team that has been most responsible for the first-base market failing to develop as expected this offseason. Though many believed that the Rays had enough young talent to push for a wild-card spot in 2018, the direction they’ve taken over the past week makes it clear that they’re placing a higher emphasis on cutting payroll than building an exceptionally competitive roster this season. They upgraded at first base over the weekend — and that wasn’t too hard to do, considering their projected starter was Brad Miller, a career middle infielder who had a .664 OPS last season — acquiring C.J. Cron from the Angels. While the 28-year-old Cron will probably end up getting the bulk of the playing time at first for Tampa Bay, he hasn’t exactly proven himself to be a dependable starter, as he posted a below-average 99 OPS+ in 2017 and has never hit more than 16 homers in a season. It’d make plenty of sense for the Rays to bring back Morrison or Duda, or any of the other available left-handed hitters to platoon with Cron, for that matter. But after they designated Corey Dickerson — one of their most valuable hitters in 2017 — for assignment to avoid paying the entirety of his $5.95 million salary while also shedding the salaries of Jake Odorizzi and Steven Souza Jr. via trade, it’s frankly kind of difficult to envision them making any effort to improve at first base unless they can get a player like Napoli or Lind to take a minor-league deal.
There are a few more spots where the remaining free agents could fit: the Angels could seek more stability than their trio of Luis Valbuena, Albert Pujols, and Chris Carter figures to provide, and the Twins could stand to upgrade at DH. If the price is right, it might make sense for teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, and Reds to add veteran backups who can provide some power off the bench, though it’s worth noting that backups limited to first base have largely disappeared in recent years as super-utility players have become more prevalent. Those types of part-time roles certainly couldn’t have been what elite power hitters like Morrison and Duda envisioned themselves filling when the offseason began, though, and it’s unfortunate to see so few opportunities available for them as Opening Day draws closer.