WTNYSeptember 20, 2005
First Hole to Patch
By Bryan Smith

This year baseball's MVP voting will be dominated by the game's traditionally most offensive position. Big surprise. For years, the first base/DH spot has been a pitcher's worst nightmare, and it is hardly a shock to see the likes of Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee and David Ortiz keeping up that notion. It has now become nothing short of an expectation that every organization should have positive production from those spots.

That expectation will likely be responsible for a substantial forthcoming raise for Paul Konerko. The hot-and-cold White Sox slugger is the best first base has to offer from a weak winter class. This is why the time is now for the Devil Rays to trade Aubrey Huff, and the Brewers to deal Lyle Overbay. For once, demand seems to be greater than supply.

Suddenly, huge markets in New York (the Mets), Boston and Baltimore will be on the prowl for a corner bat. This happening has organizations -- like Tampa and Milwaukee -- looking internally to find first basemen, which would allow the exit for an established name at little cost to the team's production.

Prince Fielder is the rare prospect that will allow such a thing. Despite Overbay's .290/.380/.465ish line as a Brewer, the club's faith in Fielder paves Overbay's exit. This is a faith that has been building since Prince dominated the Midwest League as a teenager. Since then, however, Fielder hasn't quite met the high bar that has been set.

So, we must ask, have we been overrating Prince as a product of his top ten draft status, family lineage and 2003 season? My answer: no.

Simply put, Prince Fielder is a very streaky player. Few prospects impressed their brass during the first few weeks of camp than Fielder. All this banter created expectations for Fielder, far too high, and immediately, his play regressed. After slugging home runs in bunches during Spring Training's beginning, few players did less in the late stages to instill confidence from their managers than Fielder. A year, minimum, spent at AAA would build consistency. Or so the Brewers hoped.

Consistency, it did not build. However, Fielder continued to be the offensive threat he was in the past this year, coming back from a horrible beginning. On May 16, Prince was hitting just .226 with a .316 slugging at Milwaukee's newest AAA affiliate. Two of his three home runs in those 38 games were among the first two, as Fielder would go on to stop hitting for extra bases. Plenty of people were concerned, and the Fielder-is-overrated chants grew louder and louder.

However, as he constantly does, Fielder then threw us for a loop. In his 245 at-bats since May 16, Fielder has collected 80 hits, for an astounding .327 average. Forty-three of those eighty hits were of the extra-base variety, giving him an insane .706 slugging during that time. Throw in a good number of walks, and we can say Fielder ended his season in a .330/.420/.700 fashion. Trade Overbay...now.

Few situations contrast Fielder's as dramatically as the one in Philadelphia. Where Milwaukee hosts a battle of unproven prospect versus inexpensive veteran, the Phillies have both a validated prospect (Ryan Howard) as well as a very expensive Jim Thome. While both players would likely be able to co-exist on a roster together in the AL, the current situation is problematic.

Sure, Howard doesn't walk a ton and has some god-forsaken contact skills. However, his power is better than Thome's at this point in time, and Ryan consistently tends to produce solid batting averages. The only real issue is one of dollars and cents, as Thome's contract all-but-guaranteed a retirement as a Phillie. Ed Wade is beginning to regret that decision, however, there is little he can do about it. It is not likely that a team will pay big for Thome unless the Phillies eat considerable dollars off his contract, a move that is unlikely to see ownership make.

So, that leaves Phillies fans hoping for one of three scenarios. First of all, retirement from Jim Thome. This is very unlikely, considering Thome's career path, and would mean that his current injury is much worse than previously thought. Second, that Ryan Howard can make bundles on the open market. Are the Red Sox willing to give up Hanley Ramirez, Jon Lester and Kevin Youkilis for Howard? Doubtfully, but it is worth shopping him around to see. In this scenario, all you need is one sucker to make it happen.

Finally, the most likely happening is that the Phillies have to find a way to make the two co-exist. Thome will have to be understanding that like Jeff Bagwell in Houston, he is simply slowly being fazed out of the playing rotation. Conversely, Ryan Howard must be able to hit the ball with the same gusto as this year, despite possibly not playing on an everyday basis. Lots of "if"s for the Phillies, but surely, two sluggers are better than zero.

If anything, you can bet Ryan Howard wishes he was playing for a different organization, namely the Los Angeles Angels. It is that organization that believed so much in their top first base prospect, that they benched an eight-figure, aging center fielder to give him a spot. On top of that, they also re-moved a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman to the outfield so Casey Kotchman could begin playing consistently.

OK, ok, so maybe it wasn't all for Kotchman. Maybe Steve Finley's OPS is to blame. But really, was there a simpler solution to finding Kotchman a spot? This was a player that probably was ready in Spring Training, though his preliminary play would hardly have convinced you so. Casey's overall AAA numbers, .289/.372/.441, are all brought down significantly by a terrible beginning, notably a .198 average in the month of April.

Unlike both Fielder and Howard, Kotchman does not profile to be a future Home Run Derby participant. While his power at the Major League level has been both greater than Fielder's and more prodigious than any of his previous minor league spots, it's likely that Casey will return to his days of having fly balls find the gap in 2006. Still, it will be hard to imagine the Angels having a problem with this, considering Kotchman's fantastic plate discipline, bat control, and contact skills.

While good, however, not even Kotchman can match Conor Jackson in terms of contact. While Ryan Howard has struck out about 33% of the time at the Major League level, both Casey and Conor were around 10% at AAA. Jackson made it just under, striking out 32 times in 333 at-bats, likely one reason for his .354 batting average.

Like Kotchman, if anything, the power will be Jackson's problem. He only hit eight home runs this year at the Coors Field that is Tuscon Electric Park. Instead, about 80% of Conor's extra-base hits were doubles, and scouts aren't sold that they will begin to go over the fence. Jackson also lacks the athleticism of your typical doubles-first slugger -- like Kotchman or Mark Grace -- and will not win any Gold Gloves at first.

Still, the Diamondbacks have shown quite a bit of faith in their former first-round pick. The club moved Chad Tracy -- another first baseman that could be history this offseason -- to the outfield in July, during a pennant race, to make room for Jackson's bat in the lineup. After that experiment failed, the team continued to tout Conor as their first baseman of the future. However, the club also re-signed Tony Clark to an extension following his career season, meaning Jackson will be broken in slowly, in a way different than the rest.

If all eligible, these four would likely be among the top five first base prospects in baseball. However, neither Howard nor Kotchman will still be on lists, leaving us with a slightly less Major League ready crowd. Here is my top five, along with projected Opening Day assignments in 2006:

1. Prince Fielder (MIL) - ML
2. Daric Barton (OAK) - AA
3. Wes Bankston (TB) - AAA
4. Justin Huber (KC) - AAA
5. Michael Aubrey (CLE) - AA

Of the players we did not talk about, Huber is the only one who may find a starting spot in April of 2006. Bankston's presence allows for the exit of Aubrey Huff on a long-term plan, but the big first baseman is probably not ready as of yet. Daric Barton will make Scott Hatteberg's move to the front office painless, whenever the A's deem his power refined enough for a call-up. Finally, Michael Aubrey -- once deemed a poor man's Casey Kotchman -- followed in the Angel's footsteps, losing almost an entire year to injury.

Other players I like among the first base crop include Mark Trumbo, Joey Votto, Brian Dopirak and James Loney. All have their flaws at this time, but given a few adjustments, could make a Major League splash. And history will tell us that if they make any sort of long-term splash, if anything, it will be a result of a MVP-caliber bat.


what about Ryan Shealy?

Also consider the plight of Adrian Gonzalez, stuck behind Teixeira in Texas. He's got too good a glove to banish to DH. I think he would fit in well with the youth movement in Tampa, given Upton's error woes, having a good glove at first should be a prioirity.