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Twins 2018 Position Analysis: First Base

Who is Minnesota's heir apparent at first base? The answer is unclear at this moment, but should come into focus by summer's end.

As Joe Mauer approaches the finish line of an historic contract and faces an uncertain future, the question is indeed a pertinent one.
Image courtesy of Wendell Cruz, USA Today
Projected Starter: Joe Mauer
Likely Backup: Logan Morrison

Depth: Kennys Vargas, Mitch Garver, Brock Stassi
Prospects: Lewin Diaz, Brent Rooker, Zander Wiel

THE GOOD

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.

THE BAD

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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20 Comments

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Deduno Abides
Mar 06 2018 08:55 PM
Rooker could affect Dozier’s 2019 status, if it looks like he could replace Dozier’s offense at less than 5% of the cost, particularly if the Twins think Gordon could approximate much of Mauer’s offense (again, at less than 5% of the cost) and play competent MI defense. All of a sudden, $31M is available

Alternatively, if Rooker can play decent OF, he could have at least as much trade value as Steven Souza, who brought back an apparently interesting lefty starter.
    • birdwatcher, mikelink45 and gagu like this

Don't forget Sanos realistic option is 1b, or beeing Big Baby without sending him away

 

Don't forget Sanos realistic option is 1b, or beeing Big Baby without sending him away

I would hope that Sano's next position (if he cannot play 3B)is DH and that we get a more athletic first baseman who can also hit - Rooker.  

    • CUtomorrownight likes this
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theBOMisthebomb
Mar 07 2018 07:26 AM
This will be a pivotal season in Mauer's career. Especially if he has his eyes on taking a run at the Hall of Fame. Adding a Gold Glove and a World Series ring would boost Joe's HOF credentials immeasurably.

What's the consensus on Morrison with the glove at first base? Can he field the position well? Is he an asset at that position or a liability?

    • Minny505 likes this

Thanks Nick.

 

Some time this November, I see Mauer going out to dinner with his agent, Molitor, Falvey, Levine, St. Peter and maybe even Mr. Pohlad.The conversation will start with Joe telling everyone how he feels and what he would like to do in 2019.Assuming he has a good 2018 and he feels good, he will let them know he'd like to play ball for another year.  

 

His agent and Levine, who are sitting next to each other will each toss out a number.Someone will say, how bout splitting the difference.All sides will agree and Joe will sign on for another year at a salary of $10mm +/- a million or two.

 

Fast forward to November, 2019, and there will be the same dinner.Results and discussion may be different, but all will order a nice big steak at the Capitol Grille that will be paid for by Mr. Pohlad!

    • CUtomorrownight likes this
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Deduno Abides
Mar 07 2018 08:33 AM

Thanks Nick.
 
Some time this November, I see Mauer going out to dinner with his agent, Molitor, Falvey, Levine, St. Peter and maybe even Mr. Pohlad.The conversation will start with Joe telling everyone how he feels and what he would like to do in 2019.Assuming he has a good 2018 and he feels good, he will let them know he'd like to play ball for another year.  
 
His agent and Levine, who are sitting next to each other will each toss out a number.Someone will say, how bout splitting the difference.All sides will agree and Joe will sign on for another year at a salary of $10mm +/- a million or two.
 
Fast forward to November, 2019, and there will be the same dinner.Results and discussion may be different, but all will order a nice big steak at the Capitol Grille that will be paid for by Mr. Pohlad!


Joe Mauer has had a HOF career, but it appears the free market value of 3 WAR first basemen at age 30 has just been established to be five to six point five million. Being 36 will not increase that amount.
    • Danchat, kenbuddha and dbminn like this

 

 

 

Fast forward to November, 2019, and there will be the same dinner.Results and discussion may be different, but all will order a nice big steak at the Capitol Grille that will be paid for by Mr. Pohlad!

Not so fast on Mr Pohlad buying the steaks.With new tax rules, he's not able to write that off.  

 

Mr Pohlad:"Great meeting!Best of luck, Joe.Waiter, separate checks!"

    • Original Whizzinator and rdehring like this

If Joe has a year like last year, the two big factors on whether he comes back in 2019 will be:

 

1) how close the Twins are to a World Series

2) wanting to stay home with his twin girls. It has to be tough saying good bye when you're heading out on a 10 game road trip.

 

Unless the Twins are in the ALCS and just barely lose out, I think with the example set by his older brother Jake, giving up his managerial career in order to spend more time with his family, I think Joe will be done after 2018.

 

I would hope that Sano's next position (if he cannot play 3B)is DH and that we get a more athletic first baseman who can also hit - Rooker.  

Just because he's smaller doesn't mean he's more athletic.We'll find out.

    • ashburyjohn and Ben Noble like this

A year ago, I was pretty resigned to Sano moving to 1B next year or 2020.After watching the still athletic and mobile Mauer play the position last year, I'm now resigned to Sano simply being a DH by 2020.Which is sad, b/c he is also very athletic, but at 275 pounds he simply doesn't move well enough to be good at any defensive position.Mauer saved a ton of runs with his defense and I don't see Sano putting in the work, or even having the desire, to be that kind of defender.

 

If Joe has a year like last year, the two big factors on whether he comes back in 2019 will be:

 

1) how close the Twins are to a World Series

2) wanting to stay home with his twin girls. It has to be tough saying good bye when you're heading out on a 10 game road trip.

 

Unless the Twins are in the ALCS and just barely lose out, I think with the example set by his older brother Jake, giving up his managerial career in order to spend more time with his family, I think Joe will be done after 2018.

I've said this for about 3 years.He has those twin daughters at home and more money than any of us can even fathom.

I agree with sentiment that Sano will be a full time DH.

However, I don't see Sano as someone who is here long-term for a few reasons:

1) There is a lot of young talent on this team. A lot of guys that are on the same schedule, service-time wise, that could earn significant contracts. Buxton, Berrios, Kepler, Rosario, Polanco.....possibly even Gibson if he puts together a full season in 2018 like the second half of 2017. The Twins will not make the financial investment it would take to secure all of those players while still fielding all other positions.

IMO, Buxton and Berrios should be the two at the top of the list. High character, proven work-ethic, elite tools, coachability. They will command big-time deals. Sano, unless he absolutely cannot stay healthy, will likely also command a large deal. There will be an odd man out of those three when the bell tolls.

2). There is so much uncertainty in regards to the dreaded "rod."

3). I'm not sure Sano is making any new fans in the front office. Not finding results when it comes to dropping weight (which some people just can't do short of extreme low-calorie diets which can be dangerous and wouldn't help, it doesn't necessarily mean for lack of effort). The media coverage of the sexual harrasment, and Minnesota always seeming to be on the cutting edge of SJWism (not declaring an opinion, just an observation). Ongoing observable media fueds about his weight. Things just keep popping up, and none of them ever seem to do the Twins my PR favors.

4). I don't know why, maybe it's all of his home run and breaking record talk coming off as self-oriented, but I get the feeling he's the most likely of the three to want to test free agency or seek relocation (due to scandal, or pursuit of warmer climate, any number of things).

Then, considering Falvine seem pretty economically savvy, they won't let him walk via free agency, and they'll want to get the most value out of him, because he's a potentially extremely valuable ball-player.

Conclusion: There is a very high likelihood, IMO, that Sano will get traded in the near future (2018 off-season or when Rooker is ready?), and this is a problem someone else will have to deal with.
    • Original Whizzinator likes this
Mauer would be vastly overpaid, compared to other first baseman, at more than around six to eight million. Plus, the team has good replacement in Morrison and maybe Sano, already in the roster. From an in the field perspective, it is hard to see them bringing him back without more hitting.

I do like the depth this year a lot. If Rooker moves off of first, I don't love the prospects as much as others. But, first basemen seem findable....
This needs to be it for Joe. Just can't have a first baseman hit around 10 HR and only drive in 65 runs or so. He needs to go after this year.

Not many players these days spend their entire career for one club. Joe seems like the type of guy who would appreciate/value doing so. I would put my money on one of two outcomes after this year: retiring or taking a cheap one year contract for one last WS run. 6'6" guys usually don't play into their late 30's either. 

Thanks Nick.

Some time this November, I see Mauer going out to dinner with his agent, Molitor, Falvey, Levine, St. Peter and maybe even Mr. Pohlad. The conversation will start with Joe telling everyone how he feels and what he would like to do in 2019. Assuming he has a good 2018 and he feels good, he will let them know he'd like to play ball for another year.

His agent and Levine, who are sitting next to each other will each toss out a number. Someone will say, how bout splitting the difference. All sides will agree and Joe will sign on for another year at a salary of $10mm +/- a million or two.

Fast forward to November, 2019, and there will be the same dinner. Results and discussion may be different, but all will order a nice big steak at the Capitol Grille that will be paid for by Mr. Pohlad!

if LoMo and his 38 home runs in 2017 signed for 6.5 mil, what on earth makes you think Levine would agree to 10 for Mauer?

https://www.fangraph...ngs-first-base/

 

Joe below median, and 25+% below the top ten players in runs created. 

 

https://www.fangraph...ngs-first-base/

 

Joe below median, and 25+% below the top ten players in runs created. 

Is that from last year or how he's predicted to be this year?

 

I think Mauer is firmly in that third tier of first baseman now but another .390 obp year is good enough with the rest of the offense around him.

Projections.


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