Previewing the 2022-23 free-agent class: First basemen
As the offseason approaches, MLBTR is taking a position-by-position look at the upcoming free agent class. Today, we’ll focus on first base, a group with a few well-regarded veterans coming off quality seasons at the top.
Top of the Class
- José Abreu (36*)
Abreu is coming off arguably the best season of any impending free agent first baseman. Even as he’s gotten into his mid-30s, he remains one of the better hitters in the game. Abreu carries a .304/.377/.445 line over 652 plate appearances, and he’s tied for the American League lead with 176 hits. He only has 15 home runs and is almost certain to finish with the lowest home run total of his nine-year MLB career, but he’s collected 36 doubles. Abreu also hasn’t lost much, if any, bat speed. His 92.1 MPH average exit velocity and 51.7% hard contact rate are both in line with the best marks of his career and near the top of the league overall. He’s hitting a few more ground-balls than before, but there’s no indication his physical abilities are dwindling.
Even heading into his age-36 season, Abreu will be one of the better offensive players on the market. Over the past three years, he owns a .289/.365/.489 line, ranking 14th in on-base percentage and 26th in slugging among 118 qualified hitters. He’s tough to strike out, has posted slightly above-average walk rates in each of the past two years and still has excellent batted ball metrics. He also hasn’t gone on the injured list in four seasons and has drawn plaudits for his clubhouse leadership in Chicago. The only real concern with Abreu is his age, but there’s already proof of concept he can remain productive beyond his prime-aged years. The White Sox issued him a qualifying offer back in 2019, meaning he’ll be ineligible to receive one this offseason.
- Josh Bell (30)
Bell has shown the ability to carry a lineup at his best. He hit 37 home runs with a .277/.367/.569 line for the Pirates in 2019, and he mashed at a .301/.384/.493 clip over 437 plate appearances with the Nationals earlier this season. Yet he’s also been prone to extended down stretches, and he’s headed towards free agency amidst a sharp downturn in production. Since the Padres landed him at the trade deadline, he’s hitting .191/.310/.280 with only a trio of homers in 45 games. He also had a rough 2020 season and started slowly last year before catching fire in the second half.
Even with some inconsistency, there’s a lot to like about Bell. His overall .265/.355/.452 line dating back to the start of 2021 is a fair bit better than the .254/.331/.440 league mark for first basemen. Bell is a switch-hitter with excellent plate discipline, and he consistently draws walks in over 10% of his plate appearances. He has three 25-homer seasons on his resume and typically rates near the top of the league in average exit velocity and hard contact percentage, although his batted ball metrics this season have been right around league average. Bell has shown a promising combination of power and patience in years past, and he’s not a prototypical strikeout-prone slugger. His 15.6% strikeout rate this season is nearly seven points lower than the league mark. He looks like an impact bat when everything’s clicking, but he’ll hit the market coming off a rough couple months. Because of the midseason trade, Bell is ineligible to receive a qualifying offer.
- Trey Mancini (31)
Mancini made an incredible comeback from a battle with colon cancer that cost him the entire 2020 season. He’s hit at a slightly above-average level in each of the following two years, compiling 39 total home runs with a .251/.326/.418 line. Mancini’s production in each of the last two years has been roughly the same: average strikeout and walk rates with slightly better than par batted ball metrics and power output. Mancini’s over-the-fence pop was down during his first few months with the Orioles this season, but that’s certainly in part due to the changing dimensions at Camden Yards that weren’t friendly to right-handed hitters. Mancini is more a solid hitter than an impact one, with his .291/.364/.535 showing in 2019 looking increasingly like an outlier. He does most things well, though, and he was a beloved clubhouse and community presence in Baltimore. Mancini probably wouldn’t have received a qualifying offer regardless, but a midseason trade to the Astros officially took that off the table.
Veterans Coming Off Down Years
- Yuli Gurriel (39)
Gurriel is a season removed from winning the American League batting title with a .319/.383/.462 showing in 2021. Unfortunately, he’s followed that up with a woeful .238/.283/.357 line over 558 plate appearances. Gurriel has been one of the least productive everyday players in the big leagues, and he’s now posted below-average showings in two of the past three seasons. Now past his 38th birthday, it seems he’s nearing or past the point where he’ll be a productive big leaguer. That also looked to be the case in 2020, though, and he responded with an excellent ’21 campaign. He’ll get another chance to do the same this winter, but there aren’t many positives to take away from his 2022 performance.
- Carlos Santana (37)
One of the game’s best on-base hitters at his peak, Santana has seen his production dip over the past three years. He had well below-average numbers in 2020-21 but has bounced back somewhat this season, compiling a .194/.311/.378 line in 473 plate appearances between the Royals and Mariners. The sub-Mendoza line batting average is an obvious eyesore, but Santana’s overall hitting checks in at league average, by measure of wRC+. That’s largely thanks to his extremely patient approach, which has allowed him to work a walk in 14.2% of his plate appearances even as his results on batted balls have plummeted. Santana is probably miscast as a regular at this stage of his career, but he’s gotten significant run between first base and designated hitter with two teams this year thanks to his plate discipline.
- Brandon Belt (35)
Like Gurriel, Belt was one of the better first basemen in 2021. A .274/.378/.597 showing earned him an $18.4M qualifying offer from the Giants, which he accepted. The left-handed hitter didn’t come close to replicating that production this season, with his year largely derailed by knee problems. Belt hit .213/.326/.350 over 298 plate appearances while battling injury, and he underwent season-ending surgery on his right knee earlier this month. Indications are the surgery went well and he’s going to be ready for Spring Training. When healthy, Belt is capable of anchoring a lineup. Yet he’s battled plenty of injuries in recent years, and this trip to the market comes on the heels of a season diminished by knee issues.
- Brandon Drury (30)
Drury will probably draw interest from teams looking for help all around the infield. He’s played mostly third base this season but also logged 25+ games at each of second and first base. A minor league signee by the Reds last winter, Drury has elevated his stock with a career showing in 2022. He mashed at a .274/.335/.520 clip with 20 homers in 385 plate appearances with Cincinnati. The Reds flipped him to the Padres at the trade deadline. He’s tailed off in San Diego, posting a meager .265 on-base percentage but collecting another eight round-trippers in 37 games. Drury looked to be in journeyman territory at this time last year, but his .261/.316/.501 cumulative line this season should get him a multi-year deal.
- Donovan Solano (35)
Drury’s former teammate in Cincinnati, Solano plays a similar bat-first utility role. He’s worked mostly as a designated hitter this year, but he’s played frequently at the corner infield spots and second base as well. He’s hitting .292/.343/.397 over 280 plate appearances, his fourth straight above-average offensive year since reemerging late in his career as a member of the Giants. A glove-first second baseman early in his career with the Marlins, he’s compensated for declining defensive marks by hitting .280 or better in four consecutive seasons. Solano doesn’t walk much or have a ton of power, but his high-average game is atypical in today’s offensive environment. As with Drury, teams aren’t going to view him as an everyday option at first base, but he’s a good addition to a bench who can cover multiple spots on the infield.
- Jesús Aguilar (33)
Aguilar hit 35 home runs a few seasons ago, and he was still an above-average hitter with the Marlins between 2020-21. The 2022 season has been a struggle, as he hit .236/.286/.388 over 456 plate appearances with the Fish and was released late last month. He hooked on with the Orioles but hasn’t contributed much in 12 games in Baltimore. Aguilar could be looking at a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite this winter.
- Colin Moran (30)
A regular for a few seasons with the Pirates, Moran was on and off the Reds roster this year. He hit only .211/.305/.376 with five homers in 128 MLB plate appearances and posted slightly below-average numbers in Triple-A. Cincinnati released him earlier this month.
A longtime minor leaguer, Schwindel had a fantastic second half to the 2021 campaign. Getting his first extended MLB action with the Cubs, he hit .342/.389/.613 over 56 games. Chicago gave him an opportunity to see if he could emerge as a late-blooming regular, but he hit .229/.277/.358 in 292 trips to the plate this season. The Cubs released Schwindel last week.
- Yoshi Tsutsugo (30)
Tsutsugo caught on with the Pirates late in 2021 and had a great final month. That earned him a $4M contract to return to Pittsburgh, but he stumbled to a .171/.249/.229 line with only two homers in 193 plate appearances. The Bucs released him in August, and he signed a minor league deal with the Blue Jays. He’s hitting well in Triple-A overall but striking out a third of the time there, and he hasn’t gotten a big league call from Toronto. Whether the Jays eventually add him to the MLB roster or not, he’ll be a free agent at year’s end.
- Anthony Rizzo (33), $16M player option
Rizzo signed a two-year, $32M guarantee with the Yankees last offseason. That deal afforded him an opt-out chance after this year, and there’s a solid case for Rizzo to take it following his best season since 2019. He’s connected on 32 home runs and slugged .492. Rizzo’s .223 batting average is among the worst of his career, but that’s largely due to a personal-worst .212 average on balls in play. A pull hitter who has been shifted on over 84% of his at-bats this season, per Statcast, he’s likely to be among the top beneficiaries of the forthcoming shift limitations. Even a slight uptick in his ball in play results could help Rizzo regain his peak form, since he’s still hitting the ball hard and is difficult to strike out.
The longtime Cub has a strong defensive reputation, although his public metrics have dipped over the past couple seasons. He’s also widely regarded as an excellent clubhouse presence and team leader. If Rizzo triggers his opt-out clause, the Yankees would have the ability to make him a qualifying offer.
- Eric Hosmer (33), can opt out of final three years and $39M remaining on his contract
There’s little intrigue with Hosmer’s opt-out decision. He’ll certainly opt in to the final $39M on his deal (almost all of which will be paid by the Padres) to return to the Red Sox. Hosmer has a .267/.333/.381 line with eight homers in 414 plate appearances this season.
- Wil Myers (32), $20M team option with $1M buyout
The Padres will obviously buy Myers out, likely ending an eight-year run in the organization. Aside from a monster showing during the shortened 2020 campaign, the right-handed hitter has been a slightly above-average hitter for most of his time in San Diego. This season’s .255/.306/.379 showing across 265 plate appearances is his worst as a Padre, and he’s been limited to a situational role — primarily between the corner outfield and first base. Myers has some power and is a serviceable defender in the corners. He’s likely to land a big league deal but is probably miscast as an everyday player.
- Miguel Sanó (30), $14M team option with $3M buyout
Sanó’s time with the Twins is probably nearing its end, as Minnesota is certain to buy out his 2023 option. The burly slugger has almost as much raw power as anyone in the sport, but his production has been inconsistent because of his huge strikeout totals. Sanó played in only 20 games this season because of left knee issues and hit terribly when on the field.
Note: Albert Pujols is playing on a one-year contract with the Cardinals and will technically qualify for free agency at season’s end. He has started 18 games at first base, but he’s already announced he’ll retire after the 2022 campaign.
* Player age for 2023 season
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