Ranking the NL East, by position: First Base

I'm starting a short series of posts in which I'll briefly rank each of the NL East teams on a position-by-position basis. I'm going to be mostly using stuff from Fangraphs in doing this. It won't be an extensive analysis because I don't have hours and hours to spend on each one, but I'll try to dig up basic relevant stats and do some WAR guesstimates. For the most part, I'm only going to consider players who are expected to make each team's Opening Day roster. For each player, I'll give two numbers: the 2013 plate appearances and 2013 fWAR. (All WAR numbers discussed here are Fangraphs WAR.)

To start off, first base:

Fifth Place: Phillies: Ryan Howard (317/0.4) and Kevin Frandsen (278/0.0)

How the mighty have fallen. Howard has been the Phillies' starting first baseman for years, but his platoon splits have become so bad (>100 difference in L vs. R wRC+) that the Phillies are almost certainly going to have to platoon him this year. We all know about Howard's gaudy career numbers, and they are indeed impressive, but that was then and this is now. His last two years' worth of slash lines: .219/295/.423 and .266/.319/.465, and a total of 0.7 WAR over those last two years. Howard will be 35 in November but he's playing like a 50-year-old; he never fully recovered from his World Series ankle injury of a few years ago, and his always-indifferent defense has transitioned to horrible.

And now we come to the right-handed half of the platoon. This really should be Darin Ruf, but the Phillies foolishly signed Frandsen to a guaranteed contract, so Frandsen it will be. Here's what you need to know about Frandsen as a hitter: a career slash of .256/.316/.359, wRC+ of 82, and a total of 14 HR in 1114 PA. (The sad thing is, these numbers are still better than Howard's probable numbers against lefthanders.) Not what most teams look for in a first baseman, and he doesn't walk or get on base enough for a guy with no power. Frandsen hasn't played enough 1B for UZR to stabilize on it, but among the other positions he has played, he has generally rated as an above-average defender, so there is that. In spite of that, ZIPS and Steamer have him projected at only 0.2 WAR for 2012, and Oliver projects negative WAR. Howard's projections aren't much better, and Oliver has him at -0.6. I rate the tandem as 0.5 WAR.

Fourth Place: Mets: Ike Davis (377/-0.1) or Lucas Duda (384/0.2)

This isn't a platoon possibility since both Davis and Duda are left-handed hitters; rather it's a matter of the Mets having not yet made a decision, a problem compounded by the fact that both players are currently dealing with leg injuries and haven't played much this spring. They have other similarities too. Duda is 28 while Davis turns 27 on Saturday. They both have pronounced platoon splits, and they both rate out as average to slightly-above-average defenders at first base. (Don't be fooled by Duda's overall defense ranking; it's influenced by innings playout outfield, where he is terrible.)

They are also both regarded as having been flashes in the pan at some point. Duda slashed .292/.370/.482 for an .852 OPS and 136 wRC+ in 2011, but he's OPSed about .750 since. The much-maglined Davis has been all over the map. He had a nice rookie year with a .260/.351/.440 slash and 3.1 WAR in 2010; he was hurt for most of 2011 but did hit well and accumulate 1.3 WAR in only 149 PA. In 2012 Davis, who had previously not shown signs of being a huge slugger, hit 32 home runs (by far his career high) which helped make up for his OBP sinking to .308. And then last year the wheels came off; his power disappeared and his slugging percentage plunged to .334 as he struck out 101 times in 317 PA for a 26.8% K rate.

The Mets need to stabilize their situation and pick one. Their career slash lines are very similar. But: All four of the Fangraphs projection systems are optimistic about Davis rebounding from last year, while they all predict decline for Duda. However, the rumors this spring have had Davis and not Duda being offered up for trade; this is possibly due to Davis being thought of as a player who would benefit from a change of scenery (he's a media whipping boy in New York). Therefore I ranked the Mets based on an assumption of Duda getting the job, and accumulating 0.4 WAR. If Davis gets the job, then the Mets rank above the Marlins, and I'd expect about 0.9 WAR from him.

Third Place: Marlins: Garrett Jones (440/-0.2) and Jeff Baker (175/0.4)

Honestly, when I started this writeup and had not looked at the numbers yet, I expected to rank the Marlins last at 1B. The Marlins, having traded away Jeffrey Loria's scapegoat Logan Morrison, will have to resort to a platoon to produce above zero WAR at this position. Lefthanded-hitting Garrett Jones was signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh; his career slash line shows that he has some power but doesn't get on base much. But: batting strictly against righthanded pitching, he's actually pretty good; he has a career slash of .271/.337/.489, OPS of .826, and wRC+ of 124 against RHP. It will be critical for the Marlins to strictly limit his exposure to LHP. You don't even want to know; it's that ugly.

The righthander in the platoon is the veteran Baker. His injury-limited season with the Rangers last year saw only 175 PA, but he did accumulate a moderately positive WAR with those few trips to the plate. He's a player who through his career has consistently maintained a high BABIP, with a career number of .329. But throughout his career he has struggled to stay healthy; he's topped 250 PA in a year only once. He will be 33 in June; he's not much of a power hitter, and some of his better prior years were based on unsustanably high contact percentages.

Both Jones and Baker strike out a lot and don't take many walks. And UZR rates both of them as poor defenders at first base. Baker once regularly played 2B and was moderately well regarded there, but that was about five years ago. The Fangraphs projections have both players at close to zero WAR for 2014, but it doesn't appear that either of them takes the platoon arrangement into account. Still, I'll be surprised if the platoon jointly manages 1.0 WAR; 0.7 might be realistic.

Second Place: Nationals: Adam LaRoche (590/0.6)

Here we get to the two teams who have stable situations at 1B and are at least a notch above the rest of the division at this position. Our old pal Rochy put up a rather meh season in 2013 after a really good season in 2012. Compare slashes: 2012 .271/.343/.510, 2013 .237/.332/.403. Where did those 103 points of slugging go? Well, it's kind of odd: his home runs declined from 33 to 20, but he has put up much better slugginmg numbers in past seasons with HR numbers in the 20-25 range. But his doubles declined from 35 – near his career average – to 19, a career low for any year in which he played a full season. I honestly can't think of any way this can indicate a trend, so I'm writing it off as a statistical fluke that will regress back towards the mean. The 33 HR he is unlikely to repeat as he's reached 30 only one other time in his career, but mid-20s is a realistic expectation.

And the meager 0.6 WAR from last year, after 3.4 the year before, itself looks like a bit of a fluke driven to an extent by an upset in UZR. We know that fielding metrics are subject to year-to-year fluctuations. For most of his career, LaRoche has graded out as an average-to-slightly-above-average defender per UZR, and if we put an average number back in, his WAR comes back up some. Steamer projects him for .251/.335/.441 and 1.5 WAR for 2015; ZIPS has slightly lower slash numbers all around and 1.1 WAR. I'll split the difference and project him for 1.3 WAR.

First Place: Braves: Freddie Freeman (629/4.8)

As you can see, Freeman won the NL East 1B WAR crown going away last year, posting a slash line of .319/.396/.501, adding up to an OPS of .897 and a wRC+ of 150. All of these numbers were career highs. Can he do that again? Maybe. He will play most of 2014 at age 24, turning 25 in September, and he appears to still have room to improve. As he gets bigger and stronger, his yearly home run totals should go from low 20s to around 30, hopefully without harming his K rate which is very reasonable for a power hitter (19.2% last year). And he'll take a walk, having walked in 10.5% of plate appearances last year. That's a useful skill to have in the rather free-swinging Braves lineup.

Can he post 4.8 WAR again? That might be expecting just a tad much, but WAR can fluctuate some from year to year. Steamer, ZIPS, and Oliver all project him at around 3.5 WAR for 2014; Oliver, usually the most pessimistic system, actually projects the highest at 3.7, and I'll go with that.

This FanPost does not express the views or opinions of Talking Chop.

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