Is Chris Davis the best first baseman in the American League East? Two seasons ago he certainly was, when he crushed 53 home runs and came in third place in the AL MVP voting. Last year, not so much. If you give him credit for bouncing back at full health, which he says that he is, then on paper he could well be the best in the division at his position once again, or even one of the best first basemen in the league.
Of course, baseball games are not played on paper. Still, it's always interesting to look at the paper and get an idea of who has what kind of team. Starting today and for the next two weeks, Camden Chat will be comparing the Orioles to their division opponents at each position on the diamond to figure out who has the edge in the division. These will be their opponents for nearly half of the team's games.
First up is first base. Check back later today for second base, with more coming on subsequent days.
The chart for each player includes 2014 MLB statistics of the following: games, plate appearances, AVG/OBP/SLG, walks, doubles, homers, RBI, innings played at first (Inn) and errors. Also included are the 2015 ZiPS projections for each player, which, while not prophecy, provides an interesting baseline for discussion. ZiPS data comes from Fangraphs.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
It's not even a sure thing who will be the Jays first baseman at this late date. Incumbent Edwin Encarnacion, who himself only played less than half of Jays games at first last season, is currently suffering from an ailing back and there are questions about whether he will be able to play in the field at all or whether he'll be limited to being a designated hitter.
In the meantime, there's a competition in spring training among Smoak, Danny Valencia, and Daric Barton. Encarnacion has certainly been a fearsome hitter in recent years. None of these other names are anything fearsome. The Jays will be hoping for a bounce-back year from any one of that non-Encarnacion trio, whichever one ends up winning the job.
Perhaps the Jays will get lucky, either with Encarnacion's health allowing him to play in the field or with one of these other three pulling out a surprising season. If not, this position that's typically a premium power slot on most teams will be a gaping hole for Toronto.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
At one time, when the Orioles were looking to cash in by trading Erik Bedard to some unsuspecting team, one of the teams rumored to be in that chase was the Dodgers. Loney was among the names to drool over, as if Orioles fans could just pick out names from that farm system and they would automatically become Orioles. That was a long time ago and the Bedard trade that the O's ended up making has worked out okay.
Loney is soon to be 31 and he possessed a sub-Markakian slugging percentage in the 2014 season. He is a dependable performer in that he's played at least 155 games in six of the last seven seasons, with the other season being one where he played 144 games. He has a good defensive reputation, although with first basemen, who ever knows how much that's worth? To the Rays, it's worth $7 million a year, a non-trivial amount for that franchise.
The Rays won't have the uncertainty of the Jays at this position, but there's not a very high ceiling to the certainty they do have, either.
NEW YORK YANKEES
The switch-hitting Teixeira is less than two years removed from wrist surgery that caused him to play in only 15 games in the 2013 season. That surgery probably has a lot to do with why his 2014 campaign saw him put up career lows in all three batting line categories. You know what they say about power hitters and wrist injuries. That said, Teixeira's plate discipline allowed him to have non-horrendous value despite an abysmal batting average, and 22 home runs is still respectable, though that too was a career low for Teixeira in a full season of work.
What can the world expect from Teixeira this year? The ZiPS projection likes him to bounce back somewhat at the plate, even if it doesn't like him to stay healthy overall. Even with that plate projection, all of the AVG/OBP/SLG numbers it projects would still have been career lows for a full season for Teixeira prior to 2014. The Yankees were probably hoping for better when they committed to paying him $23,125,000 for his age 35 season.
Maybe they knew and they didn't care? What's a couple hundred million dollars to the Steinbrenner clan? Teixeira was AL MVP runner-up in 2009 - he had a great season, though he probably didn't deserve to be quite that high up in the voting - and the Yankees won the World Series that year. Flags fly forever, but they don't help you win any more flags six years later.
Teixeira is going to get the vast majority of the reps, if he's healthy enough to play, but it's a big question mark how much he'll contribute at the plate.
Unrelated to any on-field performance by Teixeira, I would like to share with you this work of genius:
BOSTON RED SOX
Just look at that on-base percentage. Sheesh. Napoli would have led the Orioles in walks last year by 16 over the closest competition, despite having nearly 200 fewer plate appearances than three different O's players. The 33-year-old Napoli has been the most consistent player of this bunch in recent years, the only one who's been good in every year.
Does the end approach for him? The end approaches for us all, when you get down to it. That .419 slugging percentage was a career low, though ZiPS likes him for an uptick. There's also whatever hip condition led to the Red Sox voiding the first contract they gave Napoli prior to 2013, though of course after he helped them win a World Series they turned around and gave him another $32 million for two more years.
Napoli has a tendency to miss some time. He's played 119 games or fewer in three of the past four seasons and has never played more than 140 games in a single year in his whole career. The Angels once traded him for Vernon Wells. That was not a good decision.
Of the division first basemen, Napoli has the highest floor. His ceiling isn't too shabby either, much as it pains me to say it.
Of all of the players named here, Davis is the only one we already know with 100% certainty will not play in 162 games, because he's suspended for game #1. By year's end that won't matter, if Davis' oblique is healthy. He missed time last year with that injury - an injury that worked out for the O's in the long run as it allowed them to keep Steve Pearce's services - and has blamed his poor performance on having to compensate for that injury lingering even after he returned.
It's a big if. There was certainly something off about Davis last year, though he managed to hit 26 home runs even with all of that going on. Where he was really hurting was in his batting average, with a .286 from 2013 plummeting to the .196 of 2014. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which was .335 and .336 in his first two full years in Baltimore, fell to .242, and that's not explained entirely by the shift, because teams didn't just suddenly start shifting Davis in 2014.
Davis has the best ZiPS projection of any of his division competitors. He really only needs to return to his 2012 season performance to be the best first baseman in the division, although if Encarnacion's healthy enough for the field in Toronto, that would be a bit tighter of a contest. Davis could well be better than that under the watchful eye of new Orioles hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, who worked with Davis when Davis was obliterating his way through the Texas minor league system.
The sky is the limit for Davis, though we won't have any idea what's going to happen until the games start counting. Maybe the opposite field power he's had on display in spring will carry over to the regular season.
When you get down to it, would you take any of these other four guys over 2015 Davis? Perhaps the Red Sox would stick with their guy they've already got, but at least three teams would surely rather have Davis over their own first basemen. Most teams in baseball would probably say the same.
They'll all have their chance to bid for Davis' services after this season. Next year, the Orioles will probably be one of those teams with a giant question mark on the lineup card at first base. For now, Davis belongs to the Orioles, who I think will be happy to have him at the $12 million salary he's going to make this year. Who doesn't love home runs?