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

Taking a peek at the rest of this off-season's first base class, it brings us to:

Nick Johnson who is probably the best pure hitter in this class, but his ability to obtain a multi-year contract may be stymied by his injury history. But I'm curious, just how warranted is this concern? Looking at his injury history we find:

Bruised Left Wrist – 2002
Fractured right Hand – 2003
Strained Lower Back – 2004
Bruised heel – 2005
Fractured femur -  2007
Right Wrist ligament torn – 2008
Hamstring strain – 2009

Interestingly the only injuries that are the recurring kind are his hamstring that occurred this year and the few weeks he spent on the DL back in 2004 due to a back strain. Otherwise, the rest of these injuries are more of the fluke/bad-luck non-long term career threatening types. Yes, he took a heck of a long time to return from the broken leg, but he has been able to come back every time showing plenty of hitting skill. He ended up hitting .291 while walking almost 18|PERCENT| of the time and striking out just over 18|PERCENT| of the time while hitting line drives 22|PERCENT| of the time as compared to his career 22|PERCENT| mark. In other words, this is still the skill set of a legitimate .300 hitter/.400 OBP player.  The one area of weakness was his ability to turn his fly balls into home runs which he did at just 6|PERCENT| of the time. It should be noted that his fly-ball rate dropped 4|PERCENT| from 2008 his 34|PERCENT| rate this season was his career norm. So while it may be tough for teams to justify a long-term deal for a 31-year old player who has topped 400 at-bats only three times in his career, it may be worthwhile to offer him a high salary for one or two years with plenty of playing time incentives.

Adam LaRoche  is perhaps the other free agent first basemen with a high profile and this soon to be 30-year old at least has durability on his side as well as five straight seasons of no fewer than 20 home runs and at least a .270 batting average for each of the past four seasons. LaRoche is an excellent buy for stability's sake as someone who walks 10 to 11|PERCENT| of the time, but due to striking out around 25|PERCENT| of the time, really cannot be expected to go much beyond that .270 range, but at least as a hitter who continues to consistently display 40|PERCENT| of the time fly-ball tendencies, you can at least count on the power production.

Robb Quinlan was once a decent prospect in the Angels system but has long since been passed over as a full-time player, instead filling in at first and third when players are injured and as a pinch hitter. To date the most plate appearances he has received in a single season remains 244 back in 2006. He has never been a great on-base player, but is a good contact hitter who has struck out less than 17|PERCENT| of the time making him well suited for a pinch-hitting role. Unfortunately, as a component of his contact-making skills, he is also not a power hitter and instead has hit ground-balls approximately 50|PERCENT| of the time over his career including a career high 55|PERCENT| of the time this past season. He will most likely end up signing a minor league contract this off-season and once again be utilized in a back-up role.

Matt Stairs is miscast as a National League player given his defensive limitations and not surprisingly ended up with by far the fewer plate appearances of his career with just 129, his fewest since 1995.  Of course as someone who will turn 42 before the start of next season, how many at-bats are you going to give someone of his age especially when you have Ryan Howard at first and an outfield of Werth, Victorino, and Ibanez, who was terrifyingly hot for the first half and then acquiring a versatile player like Ben Francisco did not help him to garner many at-bats in the second half either. Still, Stairs walked over 18|PERCENT| of the time and had an OBP of .357 despite hitting just .194 in his limited opportunities. If Stairs does not decide to just hang it up, an AL only team looking for some power at DH from the left-hand side would be foolish not to consider him as an option given how little it will likely take to sign him now.

Mike Sweeney is past his salad days, but did at least show some signs of his former self by striking out less than 13|PERCENT| of the time and  hitting fly-balls nearly 44|PERCENT| of the time and hitting a legitimate .289. Sweeney's chronic back issues are actually for more troublesome than Johnson's injury history ever has been and it has cost him what should have been several full seasons and a few more seasons to feather his cap. In his prime he was a legitimate .300 20+ HR threat because of this combination, but if he wants to play again he will once again have to seek a minor league contract.

Jim Thome is no longer a player who takes the field and needs to get back to the AL if he wants to be utilized like Matt Stairs was this past season. While Thome did suffer through reduced playing time once moving to the Dodgers and be utilized almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter, he continues to do what he does well – walking over 17|PERCENT| of the time and turning fly-balls into home runs – 26.4|PERCENT| of the time. He also continues to strikeout over 30|PERCENT| of the time which is likely to render his batting average into the .240's at best. The one concern is a drop-off in fly-balls hit to 36|PERCENT| compared to 42|PERCENT| the previous season. He has also become increasingly more of a ground-ball hitter in recent seasons posting 40|PERCENT| ground-ball rates 4 times over the past five seasons and this change may have been the final straw for him putting up decent batitng averages in his past. At 39 years of age is easy to say his best seasons are behind him, but like with Matt Stairs, there is still value in his power and on-base skill. It will just take a team with a need at DH to get him that opportunity. As it stands – The Angels, Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Mariners, Rangers, and perhaps even the White Sox, could all perhaps be interested parties.

Chad Tracy at 29 is one of the youngest free agent first basemen and of course has third base and outfield experience to boot, but like many of the players on this list his best position is DH. Another strike against him is the fact that he has not shown signs of being a capable everyday player since 2006. At the very least he did show plate discipline and contact making skill with a 9|PERCENT| walk rate and 16|PERCENT| strikeout rate. A .251 BABIP and 18|PERCENT| line-drive rate helped to suppress what perhaps could have been a better overall season. On the encouraging side, he is still a fly-ball hitter who did so nearly 48|PERCENT| of the time this season, but turned just 7.5|PERCENT| of his fly-balls into home runs which means either he is upper cutting and getting too under the ball or his power has been reduced to the warning track or perhaps both. Still, he has age on his side and the same discipline at the plate he showed during his best seasons, so there is a remote chance he could rebound, but is unlikely any team is going to be all that willing to give him the at-bats to prove it.