Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Why the O's don't have to overpay for a first baseman

Let's take a look at three players' career stats:

Player A: .271/.339/.488, .351 wOBA
Player B: .282/.367/.498, .371 wOBA
Player C: .268/.354/.503, .365 wOBA

Player A doesn't get on base as much as the other two and also hits for slightly less power. Player B and Player C are pretty close, with B getting on base more and C hitting for a bit more power. Again, this comparison is just based on hitting and doesn't bring in other factors like age, fielding, etc., but if you had to choose, it would likely be in this order: B, then C, then A.

Player A is Adam LaRoche, Player B is Derrek Lee, and Player C is Luke Scott. In terms of overall production (not just hitting), they're not all on equal footing. Scott hasn't played much first base in his career and has played more left field and DH. Lee and LaRoche, meanwhile, are both exclusively first basemen. Also, Scott is 32, LaRoche is 31, and Lee is 35.

Now, obviously, the reasons why the Orioles are in the running for a first baseman are: 1) the Garrett Atkins experiment worked out horribly last season; 2) they don't really have any young first base prospects (outside of maybe Nolan Reimold, though he's never played the position at the major league level) who can fill the role; and 3) they're looking for an upgrade at the position, even if it's just for a year or two. And, really, if the O's end up signing Lee or LaRoche to a one-year deal, that's fine. But if they really did extend a three-year deal to LaRoche or are even considering it, I do have a problem with that. Lee is apparently seeking a one-year deal, which seems reasonable even if that deal ends up costing $7-$8 million -- something in that range. But what puts LaRoche in the three-year range? He's definitely an improvement over who the O's have had at first base the last few seasons, but that doesn't mean the O's should overpay for a non-elite first baseman who's already in his 30s. It would be hard to classify that type of signing as anything other than a desperate move.

Last season, Lee (2.1) and LaRoche (2.0) ranked 15th and 16th, respectively, out of all first basemen in WAR. (Ty Wigginton (0.3) ranked 22nd.) Picking either one up would make the O's better, sure, but it's not like it would greatly transform the team. Is it really worth it to sign someone like LaRoche to a multi-year deal just to gain possibly a couple of wins? Maybe, maybe not, though I'd vote no.

Buck Showalter has apparently made it known that he'd like to have a proven first baseman manning that position this year. That would mean that he'd welcome Lee or LaRoche to Baltimore -- as most fans would -- with open arms. I'm for that move, too, as long as the price is right. Why should the O's overpay when the only other two teams that seemingly are in the running are the Nationals and Padres? Baltimore and Washington seem like the two likely landing spots for Lee and LaRoche, not just because they may have the biggest needs at the position, but because they can probably spend a little more than San Diego.

At the trade deadline last year, the O's made the curious decision to not trade either Wigginton or Scott. Scott is still in Baltimore, but Wigginton bolted for Colorado. With Scott still around, the O's do have someone who can fill in at the position, if necessary. In his career, Scott has only played a total of 29 games at first, so it's not like he's completely comfortable playing the position. However, his hitting would likely make up for some subpar fielding, if he's able to improve enough to get to that level in the field.

Playing Scott at first isn't an ideal fall-back plan, but it does give the O's at least an option to go with if Lee or LaRoche decide to sign elsewhere. Signing a DH like Jim Thome or Vladimir Guerrero may even be better for the team offensively, though playing Scott at first would be a defensive risk.

So, basically, if the O's don't sign Lee or LaRoche, it may hurt the team a little, but probably not a whole lot. Remember, we're talking about a 35-year-old Derrek Lee and Adam LaRoche. It's not the end of the world if the O's don't meet either player's contract demands.

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