Twins 2018 Position Analysis: First Base
Image courtesy of Wendell Cruz, USA TodayProjected Starter: Joe Mauer
Likely Backup: Logan Morrison
Depth: Kennys Vargas, Mitch Garver, Brock Stassi
Prospects: Lewin Diaz, Brent Rooker, Zander Wiel
Mauer! It feels awesome to be able to once again apply that descriptor. After toiling in mediocrity for three seasons following his concussion-driven shift to first base, the six-time All-Star shook off a rough April and reverted to vintage form.
From May 1st through the end of the 2017 season, Mauer hit .319/.402/.443. From 2010 through 2013, his post-MVP career at catcher, he hit .317/.400/.447. Basically the same guy.
While less valuable at first than behind the plate, that production is still very useful, especially in a power-laden lineup like Minnesota's. Mauer was never going to be the prototypical slugging first baseman but last year he was a highly valuable contributor from the position in his own right.
As long as that continues, he'll be a welcome fixture. Mauer is in line for his fifth consecutive Opening Day start at first base. He grabbed the torch from Justin Morneau, who had rattled off eight in a row. It's been a long time since that real estate has been primarily occupied by anybody other than the M&M boys (or, M&M&M if you want to add Mientkiewicz).
Could Logan Morrison be next in the long and proud lineage of M's at first base?
The surprise addition is set to step in for Minnesota mainly as a DH, but made 119 starts at first for the Rays last year and certainly is capable defensively. Mauer is, of course, several notches above "capable" with the glove, so he's the preferred option to have on the field at this time.
If Morrison dramatically outperforms Mauer at the plate (he edged him in OPS by almost 70 points last year), it will be interesting to see how things play out next offseason, when the latter is a 35-year-old free agent, and the former a 31-year-old with an $8 million option for 2019.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Regardless of what happens down the road, the Twins are quite fortunate to have both players on hand for now. Morrison can frequently fill in at first, helping keep the veteran starter fresh throughout the summer, and he's a strong backup plan should Mauer miss any significant time.
There is widespread belief that eventually Brent Rooker, the 2017 draft pick recently ranked as Twins Daily's No. 7 prospect, will become the next entrenched inhabitant at first base. His advanced college bat caught on quickly in the pros, and it's not unthinkable he could be approaching MLB-ready by year's end. Lewin Diaz, though further off, is another future possibility.
The organization seems to have a pretty good road map laid out at the position, with Morrison's flexible contract helping out in the short term.
This much is clear: Mauer needs to prove this year he's still the team's best option going forward. The starting job will not simply be handed back to him 2019.
Even though he returned to hitting at essentially the highest level one could expect, Mauer still was not a standout offensive first baseman in 2017. While his .349 wOBA was tops since switching positions, he still ranked 18th out of 28 qualified big-leaguers at his new home.
That's the tough thing. With his lack of power, any age-related decline for Mauer in terms of plate vision or bat speed could send him hurtling back toward the lowest ranks of productivity. And while they'll likely have other options, realistically it is going to take a while for the Twins to turn away from their longtime franchise centerpiece as a regular.
In a nutshell, that's the foreseeable downside here. Mauer was mostly a non-factor in the lineup from 2014 through 2016, and similar output would be tougher to stomach on a (hopefully) contending team with (hopefully) appealing alternatives.
In the event Mauer gets hurt or merits replacement, theoretically the Twins could plug Morrison in at first base and revert to their original DH plan: Robbie Grossman plus a rotation of others like Miguel Sano and Eduardo Escobar.
Kennys Vargas was also part of that original plan but if everyone's healthy he has no path to a 25-man roster spot. He's out of options and someone is all but certain to take a gamble on his switch-hitting power bat once he lands on waivers.
Since the start of 2016, Vargas has launched 21 home runs in 440 MLB plate appearances (about two-thirds of a season's worth) with a very respectable .788 OPS. He's not an easy loss but the Twins aren't going to carry a second-string DH, knowing they'll need to get Sano semi-regular at-bats there also.
I'd like to think there's some non-contender willing to trot Vargas out at first base or DH for 600 plate appearances to see if he could become a cheap and serviceable slugger in the middle of its lineup for a few years. However, Vargas may need to go mash in Korea for a bit to open that window.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Mauer had a good season, punctuated by a very strong finish, and is heading into a new campaign with palpable momentum for the first time in years.
In Morrison, the Twins have also added last year's No. 11 finisher in WAR among MLB first basemen. So, they're looking quite healthy in terms of immediate depth.
Rooker and Diaz give them a pair of quality pipeline pieces at the position. And any number of other marginal defenders throughout the system could ultimately land there.
Minnesota may be on the verge of transition at first base, but the uncertainty – at a position that's seen ridiculous stability over the past couple of decades – is more intriguing than foreboding.
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