Who can help fill the void at first base for the Brewers in 2012?
The Milwaukee Brewers will have a gaping hole at first base after Prince Fielder hits free agency in the offseason. While Fielder has compiled tremendous numbers in his career and specifically this season, fans need to realize it has been a nice ride. The Brewers will go on without Prince.
Nobody short of Albert Pujols or Lance Berkman could come close to Fielder’s production at first base. Replacing Prince Fielder just is not likely to happen.
But considering the Brewers still have Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke for one more year, the decision they make at first base will be near the top of the offseason to-do list.
Which direction will they turn?
Let’s analyze what the Brewers will want in a first baseman and the free agents who will likely be available.
The Brewers have some flexibility. While the 2011 Brewers have the luxury of a powerful Rickie Weeks leading off, the 2012 Brewers could see Weeks in a more run-producing spot. If that is the case, the Brewers will not necessarily need a power bat.
It is my contention that the Brewers will seek someone more in the Ron Roenicke-mold of player. With Roenicke previously serving as bench coach under Mike Scioscia, it is conceivable he may prefer someone with great defense and a high on-base percentage.
Also high on the priority list would be someone who is left-handed (as Fielder and Nyjer Morgan are the only current left-handed hitters in the everyday lineup) and potentially inexpensive.
While the Brewers will have some financial flexibility, they have other priorities for their money as well. Raises to current players will cost the Brewers around $20 million. Finding a new shortstop and offering extensions to Marcum and/or Greinke also headline that list.
Prince Fielder—unlikely to re-sign
Albert Pujols–likely to re-sign with St. Louis
Russell Branyan—part-time player
Jorge Cantu—poor offense and defense
Ross Gload—part-time player
Ryan Doumit—career offensive numbers do not make up enough for poor defense
Eric Hinske—likely to re-sign with Atlanta
Mark Kotsay—part-time player
Derrek Lee—2000-2009 seasons are great, but the last two were awful
Xavier Nady—part-time player
Lyle Overbay—at age 34, very much on the decline
Nick Swisher—likely to re-sign with New York
David Ortiz—offense would be great, but aging body would be worse than Fielder defensively
Conor Jackson—promising from 2006-2008, but the past few years have not been kind
By process of elimination, that leaves Berkman, Cuddyer, Johnson, Hawpe, Kotchman and Pena as options to further analyze.
Berkman has regained his form this year. He is an offensive juggernaut to the tune of .292, 23 home runs and 62 runs batted in. Even though he is 36 years old and signed a one-year deal worth $8 million last year, he will get a longer deal and a large sum of money from someone.
Berkman is also a Type B free agent at the present time and will require compensation. Such a price tag seems to pale in comparison to what he could do on the field, though. The Brewers offense would not miss a beat with a healthy Berkman at first base.
Will he want to stay with St. Louis and continue to play the outfield? Can St. Louis give him a multi-year deal to play the outfield with his poor defense and still re-sign Pujols to play first base? They have some tough decisions to make this offseason with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Berkman and Pujols.
The lone right-handed hitter on this list is here because he is a special player. Not only is Cuddyer a great clubhouse leader, but he is versatile. This would be beneficial if the Brewers have a prospect who is ready for first base or could work out a trade in-season to better their team.
His career numbers are relatively solid but unspectacular. His average is .272 with a .344 on-base percentage. He has averaged just under 20 home runs per year over his career.
For these reasons, he may desire to re-sign with the Minnesota Twins. He loves the organization, and they love him. The only question that remains is: Can they pay him? Will the Brewers want to pay him if his defense at first base is marginal? Are the Brewers willing to give up a first-round draft pick to sign him?
He currently ranks as a Type A free agent.
Nick Johnson was once a productive player, as shown by his career on-base percentage of .401. He also had a little power as well.
Multiple wrist surgeries have set him back, and he is now trying to prove healthy in the Cleveland Indians minor league system.
He has a club option of $2.75 million in 2012, which complicates matters. If healthy, the Indians are likely to pick the option. If unhealthy, why would the Brewers want him?
Brad Hawpe has good range and a cannon for an arm. He used to play right field, but switched to first to fill a need for the San Diego Padres.
The question regarding Hawpe is: Which hitter are you going to get? Hawpe has four seasons of 20 or more home runs but has failed to come close to those numbers since leaving Coors Field in Colorado.
Leaving San Diego's gigantic ballpark would help to some degree, but Hawpe just is not showing signs of being the hitter he once was.
Kotchman is still only 28 years old and was once a highly regarded prospect. So highly regarded that he was traded, along with minor league pitcher Stephen Marek, for Mark Teixeira in 2008.
At the time, Kotchman was known for his outstanding contact skills at the plate and stellar defense. His power was assumed to be developing as he was still so young.
Despite the continued absence of power, Kotchman is still the same player he was billed to be. He is having a great year, hitting .343 and getting on base at a rate of .401. He has also shown he can right left-handed pitching nearly as well as right-handed pitching, so a platoon would not be necessary.
With such a productive year, the Rays may try to re-sign him. Playing for a winning team in the Tampa Bay Rays with Joe Maddon as the manager certainly could entice him to stay. However, a multi-year deal may interest him, as he has moved around a lot. He is making $0.75 million this season.
How Carlos Pena received a bigger contract than Lance Berkman this year is beyond me. Pena is making $10 million this year and is performing about as expected.
He plays average defense, hits home runs, and strikes out...a lot. His splits versus left-handed pitchers this year are so alarming that he would definitely need a platoon partner next year.
To me, he is a last-resort option.
They could look from within.
Mat Gamel is out of options and has been moved to first base this year. He will make the team next year, but how will he perform? In limited major-league activity, he has not produced like he has at the minor-league level. In such an important season, will the Brewers entrust first base to someone who is unproven?
The Brewers could get really creative and look to move Ryan Braun or Corey Hart to first base. Braun could end up playing first base towards the latter part of his contract anyway, and Hart came through the minor leagues as a first baseman. Neither player is a particularly good defensive outfielder.
Either of those scenarios would allow the Brewers to look for an outfielder from within the organization or from the free-agent pool.
Potential free agent outfielders who could be attractive are: Jason Kubel, Raul Ibanez (on a one-year deal,) Johnny Damon, Mark DeRosa, Josh Willingham, Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, David DeJesus and Jeff Francoeur.
If the Brewers do look for a free agent, I think they look towards someone inexpensive, left-handed, with good defense and with a good on-base percentage. In that line of thought, I like Casey Kotchman.
He is still young enough to have several productive seasons, gets on base at a nice rate and plays excellent defense. He will not be expensive to sign and will not cost a draft pick through compensation.
The Brewers are still likely to go with prospect Mat Gamel, but they might want an insurance policy in such a critical year.