There is great news in first base comparisons! Due to relative weakness elsewhere, Ike Davis’ strong performance to begin 2011, and real uncertainty about Ryan Howard, the Mets project to have the best first baseman in the National League East in 2012.
1. New York Mets: Ike Davis was on his way to one of the best seasons any Met first baseman ever had last year. Through 36 games, his excellent fielding and .302/.383/.543 batting line was worth about 2.5 wins, meaning a full year of such production was a 10-win year. Of course, there are multiple reasons to at least expect lesser production in 2012. For one thing, the leg injury that ended his 2011 season after just 36 games was rehabilitated, not fixed through surgery, so it is unknown how much it will affect him in 2012. For another, he was diagnosed this spring with Valley Fever, which requires ample rest and could sap him of strength over a long season. There’s the fact that 36 games isn’t much of a sample size, and his production the year before, while still strong, was far below that. Nevertheless, the projection systems have him right around .271/.357/.460 that is his career line to date, and if he provides that with plus defense, that should be tops in the division.
2. Atlanta Braves: Just behind Davis is Freddie Freeman, who is at a similar point in his career. There’s an argument to be made for Freeman ahead of Davis, given that Freeman played 157 games last year and projects about the same as Davis offensively. But by defensive measures, Freeman was just awful at first base last year. Between that and the fact that he seems to have a significant lower ceiling than Davis, I’ve placed him here. But he’s a perfectly acceptable first baseman.
2A. Florida Marlins: The same is true for Gaby Sanchez, who projects to be a similar offensive player to Freeman, just with a bit less power. Sanchez, however, is a plus defensive first baseman, so he’s essentially tied with Freeman. The trio of first basemen so far are all young, and how the three of them develop will be fascinating over the next several years.
4. Philadelphia Phillies: Here’s a dirty little secret: Ryan Howard wouldn’t be the obvious choice atop this list even if the slugger were healthy. His offensive trend has been down for years, his line last year just .253/.346/.488 despite a park made for him, and outside of home runs against righties, his offensive game is severely limited. Now add in an unknown return time from a severe achilles injury, the fact that his defense, poor before the injury, isn’t a good bet to get better with more limited mobility, and Howard lands here, behind three capable, but hardly spectacular first basemen. The good news? He’ll get paid significantly more than the three of them put together, and that’s likely to be true for years, given his five-year, $125 million contract extension that starts… now.
5. Washington Nationals: The Nationals hope that Adam LaRoche gives them more in the second year of his two-year, $16 million contract. Year one was an injury-marred disaster, .172/.288/.258 over 43 games. But the shoulder injury, suffered last spring, that ruined his performance, has now been corrected with surgery. Interestingly, LaRoche’s three years prior to that were models of consistency- and that consistent level, roughly .270/.340/.480, would place him right around the same spot as Davis and Freeman. Along with plus defense, that gives him a legitimate chance at being best in the division at this position. The ratings, 1-5, are that close.