Of all the things that didn't go quite right for the 2013 Orioles, first base wasn't one of them. Chris Davis had a monstrous breakout year; amazing what a flattened swing and an increase in patience will do for a guy with an impressive raw power skill. But the AL East in general is no place for first base slouches; the top three first basemen in the AL (as measured by WAR) all came from the East, even though Davis led them all.
Unlike many other positions in the AL East, the teams head into 2014 with the same five intended first basemen as they started 2013. So let's start with a look at how they all fared last year:
Two obvious points jump out from last year's statistics alone. First, Chris Davis is a beast. Second, of course, Mark Teixeira's injuries loom large over his recent production.
Our other authors doing this series have been looking at the projection models in detail for each player. I prefer to avoid any projection about how many games a player will play, or what their exact slash line will be, because to be honest, I think it's mostly noise. But looking at the various systems in the aggregate, they seem to be saying several things that aren't at all unreasonable:
- Chris Davis and James Loney are likely to revert a bit from their 2013 breakout years, back toward their career numbers.
- Edwin Encarnacion is going to continue to be very good.
- Mike Napoli and Mark Teixeira are going to continue into their decline years, the latter more sharply than the former.
So, how should we handicap the A.L. East first basemen heading into 2014?
1) Chris Davis
I don't think this is too homerish (pun intended) of a call at all. Davis's breakout 2013 didn't have any fluky statistical hallmarks of mere luck, and watching his approach at the plate, it was easy to see that he had developed a nice, flat swing, and went through extended periods where he could lay off of the garbage pitches -- fixing two of his biggest weaknesses. It's still not likely that he'll repeat his 2013 performance completely -- there just aren't many hitters like that in the league today -- but settling somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 years would still look like a 40-homer, .900 OPS kind of guy, and that should easily pace the A.L. East.
2) Edwin Encarnacion
Of the myriad things that went horribly awry for the 2013 Blue Jays, Encarnacion was not one of them. Before a premature shutdown due to a minor (or nonexistent) injury, Encarnacion was cranking out a quality 40-homer season, looking just like a contending team's first baseman, on a very-much-not-contending Jays squad. If anyone is going to surpass Davis's offense in 2014, this is probably the guy to pick. His defense has been nothing to write home about, but it's not atrocious enough to relegate him to full-time DH duty (and it's not like 1B is where you expect defensive wizardry).
3) Mike Napoli
Napoli had another nice campaign in 2013, racking up a 129 OPS+ and holding down a perfectly adequate first base. Napoli has never posted an OPS+ below 100 (league average) in his career, and at 32 he's only just exiting his prime years. The only thing looming large is a known hip condition that knocked Napoli's salary down a peg during his contract negotiations last offseason. Orioles fans know all too well that hip degeneration can be sudden and career-ending, but if Napoli plays out 2014, steady production is a good bet.
4) James Loney
After struggling for years in Los Angeles and then floundering in a brief stint Boston, Loney had one of the most unexpected 2013 breakouts I can think of, posting tidy offensive stats on a Rays squad that often struggled to score runs otherwise. And like Davis, Loney's statistics don't point to luck (his Fangraphs WAR, which emphasizes peripheral statistics like HR/FB and LD%, was the same as his Baseball Reference WAR, which emphasizes actual outcomes). However, Loney has a much longer history of major league struggle than Davis (he's two years older and has played almost twice as many games as Davis). Even if the breakout year wasn't "lucky," it still screams of a fluke to me, and I can't reasonably expect a repeat.
5) Mark Teixeira
Remember how mad Orioles fans got when Teixeira chose not to sign with Baltimore? Welp, now Teixeira is 32, with an OPS+ that's declined for five straight seasons, and he played in 15 games last year. And the Yankees are still on the hook to pay him almost $70 million for the next three years. Oh, and the 2013 injury that kept him off the field was a wrist injury, an injury notorious for sapping a player's power even in his comeback year (right, Nick Markakis?). Teixeira might play a whole year again, and his defense will certainly help to stabilize the Yankees' fortunes, but it's hard to count on anything huge from his bat, even in that bandbox in the Bronx.
So, that's it -- my not-entirely-bold prediction that first base is one place where the Orioles shouldn't need to worry about pacing their division rivals. Sound off in the comments with your thoughts on the 2014 fates of the A.L. East first basemen.