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Evaluating the Free Agent Class: First Base (Part One)

Potential First Base Free Agents

Hank Blalock – Texas Rangers
Russell Branyan – Seattle Mariners
Carlos Delgado – New York Mets
Jason Giambi – Colorado Rockies
Ross Gload – Florida Marlins
Aubrey Huff – Detroit Tigers
Nick Johnson – Florida Marlins
Adam LaRoche – Atlanta Braves
Robb Quinlan – Los Angeles Angels
Matt Stairs – Philadelphia Phillies
Mike Sweeney – Seattle Mariners
Jim Thome – Los Angeles Dodgers
Chad Tracy – Arizona Diamondbacks

Not the most awe-inspiring class, is it? Suffice to say any team really seeking to add impact first basemen to their lineup will likely do it via trade (Prince Fielder?). Afterall the average age of this group is over 34 with only Hank Blalock and Chad Tracy starting next season under 30 at 29 years of age. In other words this group is in mid-prime years at best and post-prime at worst. This is not an upside group other than saying "if he can stay healthy or if they give him full time playing time he can do xyz…". That said, most of the players in this group are still rosterable in single-league style leagues and a few even in mixed.

Hank Blalock played just one game at third base this season and will only qualify at first base in most every league next season. The Rangers have Chris Davis and Justin Smoak to play this position and DH amongst other outfield options as well, so Blalock is almost certain to no longer be playing in Arlington in 2010. On the good side he reestablished his power stroke hitting 25 home runs. Unfortunately that is where the good news ends. I remember him as a prospect when his minor league numbers indicated he was a potential .300 hitter and batting champ who would draw more walks than strikeouts and show good power. Instead his power is now the result of a conscious effort to hit for power hitting fly-balls over 44|PERCENT| of the time while forgoing patience with a disturbing three-year trend that put his walk-rate at 5.2|PERCENT|. While seeking more power his strikeout rates escalated to over 20|PERCENT|.  The one silver lighting is that his .254 BABIP compared to his career .299 mark suggests he can regain some form, but one has to be very skeptical of that as long as he ignores the concept of having plate discipline. His struggles against left-handers also continue as he managed to hit just .221 against them and managed to hit just .247 against them from 2006 to 2008. It will be surprising for a team to consider him an everyday player next season, but a wise team might be able to extract some value from him if utilized in a platoon role.

.251 with 31 home runs marks a career year for Russell Branyan. Quite frankly, given the opportunity, there is no reason why he could not repeat it. He is the same player he has always been – walking over 10|PERCENT| of the time and striking out well over 30|PERCENT|, but still managing a not-exciting, but usable .340's OBP. He is still a pure power hitter who hits fly-balls over 50|PERCENT| of the time and has consistently convert over 20|PERCENT| of his fly-balls into home runs. Given his approach, as we saw this season quite vividly from his .300+ start to his massive slumps, his batting average is prone to the widest of fluctuations. The Mariners have Mike Carp ready for the Majors and a sub-par defensive second basemen who hits over 20 home runs in Jose Lopez so the need for Branyan, besides possibly at DH, may not be there. It is quite possible that he may never get the opportunity to get this many plate appearances again despite having the ability to repeat or come close to repeating it.

Carlos Delgado is a huge question mark given he is 37 and coming back from a hip injury. Yet the Mets need power (dead last in the Majors with just 95 this season) and given the available options and the return of the front office, might go with loyalty and the mindset of "better the devil you know".  Prior to the injury  it should be noted that Delgado started the season exactly where he left off in 2008 walking 10 to 11|PERCENT| of the time, striking out just over 20|PERCENT| and posting a .223 ISO.  The Mets other options simply have not produced offensively and they cannot justify utilizing them again in 2010, so someone will be brought in. Other players have had surgeries similar to Delgado and have been able to make it back to the playing field, so it is possible he could be a decent bargain in 2010.

Jason Giambi is ending his 2009 season as primarily a pinch-hitter. He struggled with the A's offensively and then with injuries. He will be 39 when the season starts, still draws a tremendous number of walks, still has some power and is still hitting fly-balls over 50|PERCENT| of the time. He has not been counted upon to hit for average in seven seasons and has established a .250's BABIP as what is to be expected of him. If he returns, it will be as a platoon DH at best.

Ross Gload's career high in plate appearances is 418 –s t last season while with Kansas City. While no power hitter, he is noted for his defense and his ability to make contact – striking out under 13|PERCENT| of the time for his career while hitting line-drives 20|PERCENT| of the time. This makes him an ideal pinch-hitter, a role he has been utilized to great extent over his career. In other words, Gload has enough skills to be used as a starter over the short-term, but as a player with limited power and not a great OBP guy - .328 for his career, his current role is his best. Many teams will be interested in his services in 2010, but if he eclipses 250 plate appearances again something has gone drastically wrong with that team's plans.

After 2008 it looked like Aubrey Huff was back, making contact while hitting fly-balls over 40|PERCENT| of the time. Well the truth is the latter part of that was a fluke. Huff is mid 30|PERCENT| of the time fly-ball hitter who hits groundballs over 40|PERCENT| of the time and despite continuing to make consistent contact, striking out under 17|PERCENT| of the time this season he is simply not a great line-drive hitter, doing so just 18|PERCENT| of the time over his career and disappointingly just over 15|PERCENT| of the time this season – thus the .262 BABIP. So the good news here is that his skill set of drawing walks and making contact remains unchanged, so a bounce back at least in batting average is quite likely for 2010. My recommendation, however, is not to pay for more than the high-teens in home runs from him. It is quite likely he could eclipse 20 given the playing time, but for a player who no longer has all that interesting multiple-position eligibility, there is no reason to be considering paying an extra buck given the inconsistency of his career as a whole.

We'll take a look at the rest of the first base free agent class next time.