Should the St. Louis Cardinals Be Looking at First Base?
No, I’m not going there. Prince Fielder, as far as St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak is concerned, is not really an option. While he is the perfect replacement, he comes at virtually the same price as Albert Pujols received from the Los Angeles Angels, without the legacy that would have legitimized a Pujols contract had the Cardinals secured him. With all the talk surrounding Carlos Beltran, Coco Crisp and Cody Ross as fillers for the outfield, could there be other options besides Fielder to man first base allowing Lance Berkman to stay in the outfield where he belongs?
This is probably not going to be a popular post. One which may make little sense to some, but stick with me for a bit and hopefully in the end you may admit it is possible to think along these lines.
Beltran is more or less the best bat replacement available in the outfield and probably number one on the Cardinals’ list of outfielders if they can get him at the right price. I would suggest that if they fail to nab Beltran, they should not immediately look to sign Crisp or Ross. Instead, they should look at a few free agent first basemen available at reasonable costs (if they aren’t already) and slide Berkman to the outfield.
There are three legitimate first basemen available who could fill the role for one or two years and provide similar or better value than Crisp or Ross. They may even provide similar value as Beltran should his knees fail him. Two of the options are left-handed hitters and I understand that Mozeliak is looking for a right-handed bat, but due to the depth in the roster, Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny could install a rotation when a tough lefty is on the mound. The players are Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman and Derrek Lee.
Starting with Pena, no one needs to tell me he doesn’t hit for average and he strikes out too often. He’s not a great first baseman, but he is as good as Berkman is going to be. So, what does Pena provide? For as often as he strikes out, he also draws a lot of walks. He has a career .352 OBP. He has averaged 95 BB the last five seasons. He could provide some protection for Holliday in the five hole. Would Ross?
When Pena, who turns 34 in May, hits the ball he hits it a ton. His career SLG is .486. That equates to an .838 OPS for his career. He has legitimate 25-30 HR power. He hit 28 in 2011 to go along with 80 RBI. Not bad for a guy who whiffs in over 26% of his AB.
You know what you get when Pena is on your team. A streaky slugger. The Cards want pop? Pena has the most pop on the market besides Fielder. Yes, his bat against lefties is awful. But, he more or less murders right-handed pitching. If he gets 400-500 PA against righties Pena could do some damage. Even with his .228 BA in 2011, he generated a 2.8 WAR. He would not be a bad one year filler and truly he won’t get many, if any, two year offers.
Next is Casey Kotchman. He had one of his better seasons at the plate last season, but Kotchman, who will turn 29 before the season, is more known for his glove (7.6 UZR/150 for career) and a steady bat. He does not possess much power, and it is almost non-existent left-handed pitching. But his average split is .006 favoring right-handed pitchers (.269 career average against righties). So, he doesn’t disappear against lefties. His career OBP is respectable (.336) and better than Crisp (.330) and Ross (.323). In 2011, Kotchman hit .306 with 10 home runs, 48 RBI and 44 Runs in 563 PA with an .800 OPS. His production generated a 2.8 WAR, bouncing back nicely from a dismal 2010 with the Seattle Mariners. Kotchman is probably the least expensive option of the group.
I’m not very high on older free-agents, but one who may make sense to take a one year flyer on is Derrek Lee. Lee, 36, began the 2011 season with the Baltimore Orioles and never really got going. He was traded late in the season to the Pittsburgh Pirates and showed signs of life with the Bucs. Lee is a right-handed hitter who still has some power. He hit 19 homers total in 113 games in 2011. He has a career OBP of .365 and SLG of .495 for an OPS of .859 (rounded down). In the 28 games with the Pirates, Lee hit .337 with 7 HR, 16 R and 18 RBI with a .982 OPS.
Lee has been prone to injuries but who of the outfielders the Cardinals are contemplating hasn’t? Lee is an average fielder, probably better than Berkman, and certainly not worse. For whatever reason, the last two seasons after he was traded his performance in the field went south. I’m not sure if this is a coincidence, but in all other seasons Lee has done a better than average job in the field and that rang true for the teams he started 2010 and 2011 with.
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that Beltran is probably the best fit (I’ll just cringe every time he takes a quick step to cover a fly ball), so long as the Cards do not overpay him or give him more than a two/three year contract. The less time they have to devote to him the better. His knees are always going to be a problem. He skated by without major problems in 2011, but can he do it for three more seasons at $12 million per season? Is the risk worth it? Maybe, but it may be tough to compete against the American League teams after him (Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays) who can provide him time as a DH.
Crisp is great on the base paths, but he seldom gets on which adversely affects his value. Ross, is a nice player, but is he an upgrade over anyone the Cardinals already have? Once Allen Craig comes back are any of these players going to outperform him or Jon Jay besides Beltran? Probably not. But Craig is a question mark because of his surgery, thus the need for a backup plan. The Cardinals also know Berkman is one year removed from having an injury plagued season and he isn’t getting any younger.
I would strongly suggest if Beltran goes to the Red Sox, Blue Jays or elsewhere, the Cardinals should extend their search into the first base market and compare these players with the outfielders already on their radar. It may not be wise to settle on Crisp or Ross just because they play the outfield.
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