MLB Spring Training 2017: The 10 First Basemen to Watch
Some of the league's most dynamic offensive players call first base home.
Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are all elite sluggers and true superstars.
You won't find any of those players on the following list, though.
Ahead, we'll take a look at the 10 first basemen who, for a variety of reasons, will be worth keeping an eye on this spring.
Whether it's a player returning from a significant injury, an up-and-coming young player ready to step into a more significant role, an impending position battle or something else altogether, the following guys enter spring training with compelling storylines.
Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates
While John Jaso and David Freese were passable as a first base platoon for the Pittsburgh Pirates last season, there's plenty of room for improvement.
Here's where the team's first basemen ranked against the rest of the league:
- BA: .252 (17th in MLB)
- OPS: .757 (18th)
- HR: 19 (24th)
- RBI: 76 (23rd)
Jaso and Freese will both return in 2017, but it's safe to say the door is wide-open for top prospect Josh Bell to seize the everyday job.
Bell already possesses an advanced approach at the plate, boasting a 9.9 percent walk rate against a 14.5 percent strikeout rate over his five minor league seasons.
The 24-year-old switch-hitter is still working to tap into his plus raw power. Unlike most first basemen, his hit tool outshines his power tool, but he has a chance to be an impact bat in the middle of the Pittsburgh lineup for years.
As long as he holds his own this spring, expect to see Bell penciled in as the starting first baseman on Opening Day.
Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Cody Bellinger treated Los Angeles Dodgers fans to a glimpse of what could be a bright future in his first extended Cactus League action last spring.
In camp as a non-roster invitee with a handful of other top prospects, Bellinger hit .393/.541/.679 with two doubles and two home runs over 37 plate appearances.
The 21-year-old didn't miss a beat making the jump from High-A to Double-A—a move that often separates the men from the boys—and he made the most of a late promotion to Triple-A, going 6-for-11 with three home runs.
A return to the minors for more seasoning seems like a foregone conclusion, but don't count him out as a potential impact player for the Dodgers in 2017.
Adrian Gonzalez is locked into the starting first base job through 2018, at which point Bellinger figures to replace him both defensively and as a key run producer in the middle of the lineup.
However, in the short term, Bellinger could be an option to help in the outfield.
He's more athletic than most first basemen and has played 53 games in the outfield as a pro, where he possesses decent range and a strong throwing arm.
Joc Pederson appears to be the only outfielder locked into a starting gig, so another strong showing this spring and slow starts from guys like Andrew Toles and Andre Ethier could present Bellinger with an opportunity earlier than expected.
Greg Bird, New York Yankees
2015 Stats (missed 2016 recovering from shoulder surgery)
With Mark Teixeira riding off into the sunset and no significant free-agent addition made at the position, all signs point to Greg Bird's becoming the New York Yankees' starting first baseman in 2017.
The 24-year-old burst onto the scene in 2015, replacing an injured Teixeira and posting an .871 OPS with 11 home runs and 31 RBI in 46 games.
A nagging shoulder injury eventually led to surgery, though, and he was sidelined for 2016.
Even after getting reps in the Arizona Fall League, Bird's health this spring will be one of the biggest storylines out of Yankees camp.
I think there will be work that has to be put in to get used to the swing again and get used to everything ... but I have no doubt in my mind that I can go out and perform this year like I want to perform. The doctor told me when he did the surgery, 'you're going to be amazed at how good this thing is going to feel when it's all said and done,' and technically it's not all said and done yet and it's already catching me off guard at times with how unbelievable it is in a lot of ways, so I'm excited.
If Bird needs extra time, Tyler Austin and Rob Refsnyder could form a viable platoon to start the season.
However, the Yankees are counting on the young slugger to carry a good chunk of the run-production responsibilities alongside Gary Sanchez and Matt Holliday, making him one of their biggest X-factors for 2017.
Ian Desmond, Colorado Rockies
The Colorado Rockies' decision to sign Ian Desmond to a five-year, $70 million deal and sacrifice their first-round pick in the process has been one of the most panned moves of the offseason.
Jonathan Bernhardt of FanRag Sports provided an interesting take on the signing, though:
Most optimistically, Desmond might be the Rockies version of what Jayson Werth was to the Nationals in 2011: a sort of coming-out signing, an announcement that Colorado is a team that’s willing to spend commensurate with the lofty economical state of baseball and commit to a yearly budget for players in the Top 10 to Top 15 teams of the league.
Desmond's addition led to brief speculation that Charlie Blackmon could be on his way out in Colorado, but no subsequent move has been made, and it's looking less likely one will occur.
That means for the second time in as many years Desmond will change positions. With Blackmon, Carlos Gonzalez and David Dahl lining up as the team's starting outfield, he'll shift to first base, where the club has a hole.
Aside from the position change and the hefty contract, Desmond will have plenty to prove after a dismal second-half performance.
The 31-year-old posted the fourth 20/20 season of his career and finished 2016 with strong overall numbers, but he had a .630 OPS with just 15 extra-base hits after the All-Star break.
The Rockies have emerged as a popular pick to be a dark-horse contender for the upcoming season. For that to happen, Desmond will need to make an impact.
Yulieski Gurriel, Houston Astros
Yulieski Gurriel is one of the most accomplished hitters ever to make the jump from playing internationally to playing stateside, joining the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.
The 32-year-old spent 15 seasons playing in Cuba and Japan, racking up a .335/.417/.580 career line with 1,585 hits, 250 home runs and 1,018 RBI.
He joined the Houston Astros on a five-year, $47.5 million deal this past July. After a few weeks of shaking off the rust in the minors, he joined the MLB roster.
The question then became where he fit defensively.
With Alex Bregman staking claim to third base—Gurriel's natural position—it appears he'll shift across the diamond to first base for the upcoming season, assuming he beats out A.J. Reed, Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez.
"Gurriel is very comfortable on the dirt at all four positions really," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told Jake Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle. "Where we haven't really explored him is in the outfield, but I think at first base he's going to be an above-average defensive first baseman and we know he's going to be able to hit. So he's a good fit for us there."
With an offseason to settle in after a whirlwind 2016, Gurriel has to be considered alongside Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi as one of the leading contenders for AL Rookie of the Year honors.
Renato Nunez, Oakland Athletics
The 2016 season was not a successful one for Oakland Athletics prospect Renato Nunez.
The 22-year-old posted mediocre numbers at best in Triple-A while watching fellow third base prospects Ryon Healy and Matt Chapman pass him on the organizational depth chart.
However, a tremendous showing in the Venezuelan Winter League has his stock once again trending up.
Nunez posted a .304/.389/.542 line with 11 home runs and 35 RBI in 45 games as the best hitter on a Tigres de Aragua team that included Marwin Gonzalez, Avisail Garcia, Hernan Perez and Eduardo Escobar.
So why include him here with the first basemen and not wait until we talk about the hot corner?
With Healy opening the season as the starting third baseman in Oakland and Chapman profiling as the best defender of the three, a shift to first base looks like an inevitability for Nunez.
In fact, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see him push Yonder Alonso for the starting first base job this spring after the incumbent ranked dead last among qualified first basemen with a .683 OPS last season.
Why the A's opted to avoid arbitration with Alonso on a one-year, $4 million deal remains something of a mystery, as he looked like a prime non-tender candidate.
At the very least, Nunez should be able to play his way into a platoon role after Alonso hit .227 against left-handed pitching.
Jurickson Profar, Texas Rangers
With Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus both coming off strong 2016 seasons, it's clear Jurickson Profar will need to find somewhere else to line up defensively after coming through the minor leagues as a middle infielder.
"The Rangers already have their middle infield," Profar told Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram. "For me right now, it's just get ready and see what happens."
A glaring hole at first base makes that the most obvious landing spot for the 23-year-old, who played 17 games at the position last season while serving in a super-utility role.
There's still a chance the Rangers could sign someone to replace the departed Mitch Moreland, and they've shown interest in veteran Mike Napoli, according to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News.
If Texas doesn't add anyone, Profar will compete with Joey Gallo and Ryan Rua for the starting job on Opening Day.
Gallo has a more classic first base profile with some of the best raw power in the sport, but he would benefit from more time in Triple-A as he works to cut down his prolific strikeout rate.
As for Rua, he's a useful player with a decent bat and valuable versatility, but he doesn't offer the same upside as the other two.
That leaves Profar—once considered by Baseball America and numerous other outlets to be the No. 1 prospect the game.
Will this be the year he justifies that hype?
Rowdy Tellez, Toronto Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays have an awful lot of power to replace after Edwin Encarnacion left in free agency and Jose Bautista likely follows suit.
Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce have been the club's notable offseason additions. Both are capable of solid production, but those signings are more of a Band-Aid than a long-term solution.
However, part of that long-term solution could be 6'4", 220-pound prospect Rowdy Tellez.
The 21-year-old sported a stellar 12.3 percent walk rate last season while continuing to tap into his plus raw power, slugging 29 doubles and 23 home runs in a full campaign with Double-A New Hampshire.
He'll need to continue hitting to carve out an MLB role as a first base-only prospect, and he has all the tools to do just that.
MLB.com's Prospect Watch offered the following scouting report:
The left-handed hitter's swing is compact and explosive and he knows how to use the whole field to hit. He's quick enough to turn on good velocity but also has the strength and barrel control to drive the ball out of the park the other way. His approach and plate discipline have both improved as he's moved up the ladder, and he's not afraid to hit when behind the in count.
He'll head back to the minors to start the 2017 season, and he may not see Toronto until 2018, but expect the Blue Jays to give him a long look this spring.
Eric Thames, Milwaukee Brewers
It's a common occurrence for an MLB journeyman to migrate to Japan or Korea in search of more money or guaranteed playing time when the opportunities stateside run dry.
However, it's not often those players return to MLB prominence.
Cecil Fielder is perhaps the last, best example we have of a player taking that route to MLB success.
He spent his age-25 season in Japan after playing the first four campaigns of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays. He then returned to the majors a year later with the Detroit Tigers and promptly authored the first 50-homer season the league had seen in over a decade.
Now Eric Thames will look to follow in his footsteps after signing a three-year, $16 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Thames hit .250/.296/.431 with 21 home runs in 684 plate appearances with the Blue Jays and Mariners before joining the NC Dinos in 2014 for his age-27 season.
His three years in the KBO were spectacular:
- 2014: .343 BA, 1.111 OPS, 37 HR, 121 RBI, 95 R, 11 SB
- 2015: .381 BA, 1.288 OPS, 47 HR, 140 RBI, 130 R, 40 SB (MVP)
- 2016: .317 BA, 1.101 OPS, 40 HR, 118 RBI, 117 R, 13 SB
The rebuilding Brewers and Thames are a perfect fit.
The 30-year-old gets to make his triumphant return in a low-pressure environment, while the Brewers could strike gold on a low-risk deal.
Dan Vogelbach, Seattle Mariners
Dan Vogelbach is out from behind the immense roadblock that is Anthony Rizzo.
The 24-year-old had looked like an obvious trade chip for years, and the Chicago Cubs finally pulled the trigger last summer when they sent him to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Mike Montgomery.
With Adam Lind's likely free-agent departure, Vogelbach appears to have a clear path to the starting first base job, or at least the bigger piece of a platoon with Danny Valencia.
Power has always been the carrying tool for Vogelbach, and he flashed as much as ever last season when he slugged a career-best 23 home runs at Triple-A.
He's not your typical all-or-nothing slugger, though.
With nearly as many walks (160) as strikeouts (163) over the past two seasons and a career .391 on-base percentage over six minor league campaigns, he has an MLB-ready approach.
Vogelbach should see plenty of RBI opportunities in a stacked Seattle lineup, and he could be a dark-horse contender for Rookie of the Year honors as one of the few AL rookies with a clear path to an everyday job.