Bruisers: The First Basemen of the American League
First base is stacked with sluggers, there's no arguing that.
But not all sluggers are created equal. From Barton to Youkilis, there's quite a difference in the caliber of play one gathers from the position.
By my admittedly fuzzy research, there are at the very least four tiers of players at the position.
Tier One: Mark Teixeira
All three of these players are a cut above the rest. Everything they bring to the table is a plus for the position. Their ability to hit for power and average are both assets, not detriments to their game. Their glove work is also a step above the average lumbering first baseman.
Mark Teixeira is the best of the best however, with sterling defense, tremendous power AND plus average. He certainly deserved the contract he received last offseason.
Tier One: Miguel Cabrera
Next in line is Miguel Cabrera, who after experiencing something of a down year (.887 OPS), returned to career norms by posting a .324 batting average, and a near .400 OBP.
Along with the offensive gains, he continued making progress around the bag, showcasing improved range and refined instincts on the field.
Character issues notwithstanding, Cabrera stands to become one of the better players in a long time with so many years ahead of him at age 27.
Tier One: Kevin Youkilis
I dislike Kevin Youkilis, if only because he's on the Red Sox, and seems to argue a bit much when he's called out on strikes. However, there's no arguing that he's a fantastic baseball player.
While he's not particularly "sexy" in any one facet of the game, his tremendous on base skills, improving power, and great defense certainly deserve to be considered on par with the very best at his position.
There's no doubt in my mind that, if he had been healthy for the entire season, he'd have eclipsed his numbers from 2008.
Tier Two: Kendry Morales
While not the top flight options the first tier provided, this quartet of players represents solidly above average first basemen who're just a step down from the best.
Kendry Morales was certainly a pleasant surprise last year, and considering the way the Angels had jerked him around earlier, it's a wonder he realized his potential at all.
He has a tremendous ability to make solid contact on balls, and hit them a long way in the process. He was also a competent defender at first, adequately replacing Mark Teixeira for a fraction of the cost.
What remains to be seen though, is if he can sustain his high 18 percent HR/FB percentage at the major league level.
Tier Two: Justin Morneau
Let me get it out of the way right now: I think Justin Morneau is criminally overrated. Besides a somewhat undeserving MVP award derived from a high RBI total and a compelling comeback story, his career offense is strictly middle-of-the-pack in terms of first basemen.
Even though his 2009 was bogged down by a stress fracture in his back, his past performances have often been lagging behind the true leaders of the pack. That isn't to say that Morneau isn't a really good player, just not the great one that some people make him out to be.
Tier Two: Carlos Pena
To this point, all of the players listed have been pretty consistent contributors in the categories first-sackers are expected to produce in.
This changed with Carlos Pena.
Pena generates enough wind to power Tampa Bay itself. His .227 average last year was dreadful, to say the very least. But what his .310 ISOp (isolated power) says is that there aren't a whole lot of players with more power than Pena.
After hitting his 39th homer on September 1, there's no reason to doubt that 40+ jacks are a distinct possibility. He's another slick fielder, and that just adds to his value.
If it wasn't for his Kingman-esque average, he'd be in the top tier, without a doubt.
Tier Two: Billy Butler
Not many people know about Billy Butler, and for good reason—he's not only overshadowed by Zack Greinke, but as a consequence of playing in Kansas City.
His tremendous potential started to show in 2009, hitting .301 with 73 XBH, 51 of which where doubles.
With another year closer to his physical prime, some of those doubles should surely become homers. Until then, he's a step below the rest.
Tier Three: Paul Konerko
This is where the players, while not stars by any stretch of the imagination, are still serviceable, everyday players. Flaws are evident, but not a big enough deal to take away from playing time.
Paul Konerko has been a good player for a very long time, and he's starting to wind down a very successful career. While he's no longer a threat for 35+ homers, he's good for an OPS in the area of .840.
His true value lies in his durability, consistency, and the valuable part he plays in the White Sox clubhouse.
Tier Three: Lyle Overbay
For someone as middling as Lyle Overbay, people still manage to underrate him. His reputation as a stupendous fielder is well deserved, but he receives little credit for what he does with the bat.
Overbay also possesses a good ability to reach base, and is a good gap-to-gap hitter, if not a power threat.
If not for playing in impotent lineups for a good part of his career, Overbay would have better counting numbers.
On an unrelated note, he also seems to be the whitest man alive.
Tier Three: Russell Branyan
Then there's The Muscle.
After 11 seasons fighting tooth and nail for playing time of any sort, the Seattle Mariners handed him the job outright, and he proceeded to put up one of the better power seasons of 2009. Had he not missed the last few months of the season, Branyan would have certainly eclipsed 40 homers, and perhaps guaranteed a multi-year contract.
Alas, this was not to be, as a balky back kept him out of action for 45 games. As such, he was without a job until well into February, and this time, he's gone home to Cleveland.
His seventh team in the last four seasons, Russell hopes to finally give himself some security.
Tier Four: Casey Kotchman
Welcome to the dregs. The very bottom of the barrel. These four fellows are wholly outclassed by their positional peers, and it shows.
Casey Kotchman, believe it or not, has more going for him than the three to follow, for the most part. He's a proficient fielder, with a good line-drive swing, in a park that's friendly to lefties of that type.
After making his way through three cities in the past two seasons, Casey looks to go to bat for an extended engagement in Seattle.
At this point in time, he looks to be on the right side of a platoon arrangement with Ryan Garko, which may very well maximize the value of the two players.
Tier Four: Daric Barton
Daric Barton is exactly the sort of player Billy Beane likes. His discipline at the plate is second-to-none for such a young player, and he possesses the ability to hit strong line drives into the gap.
His power is certainly lacking in comparison to other first basemen, but he has the potential for a .400+ OBP in the near future. He looks like a very good No. 2 hitter in the making.
Tier Four: Chris Davis
That's how often Chris Davis struck out for every at bat recorded.
Words cannot describe the complete and utter lack of discipline that plagues Davis' game. His BB/K ratio would make Dave Kingman himself blush, and even then he'd say "You might want to cut down on the strikeouts, man."
That's not to say he's without upside. After his return from Oklahoma City, he hit over .300, and he is a passable fielder at first. He'll still be nothing more than a borderline starter if he can't make more contact, however.
Tier Four: Whoever is playing for the Baltimore Orioles
Seriously. When your choices are between Garret Atkins (.226/.308/.342), Ty Wigginton (.274/.314/.400), and Michael Aubrey (.289/.326/.500 in 90 at bats), there's one thing to draw from that:
Run away. Far, far away.