You can contort yourself into a pretzel trying to talk yourself into James Loney, and believe me, I’ve tried. “He’s a great defender! He’s not so bad against righty pitchers! Much of the NL doesn’t have anything great at first base either! He’s hitting .500 over his last ten at-bats!” …and so on. Yet despite suggestions that he may be “turning it around”, his OPS on the morning of June 15 stands at .690. It was .690 on April 22, and it was .689 on May 19. He may be doing it in more of a “kinda bad, then kinda better” fashion than just straight consistently mediocre, but the end result is still the same: of the 27 first basemen in baseball who have played enough to qualified for the batting title, his .289 wOBA ranks 25th, ahead of only one-year wonder Casey Kotchman and whatever the hell Valley Fever & a busted ankle did to Ike Davis.
Considering this is coming on the back of approximately four years of similar mediocrity save for his inexplicable end to 2011, it should come as no surprise that the rumor mill is starting to fire up:
@fronzie_bear Ellis will be back this season, so no reason to go crazy looking for a second baseman. Dodgers are asking about possible 1Bmen
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) June 15, 2012
Everyone’s asking about everyone at this time of year, with the trading deadline already beginning to sneak up on us, so this falls under the usual category of “news that’s not really news in any sort of way.” Still, it’s not hard to see the Dodgers looking at first base as their biggest problem area, given that if Juan Uribe crashes and burns again at third, Jerry Hairston & Elian Herrera can team up to step in as needed. Juan Rivera is hardly a viable alternative at first, and no one thinks that Scott Van Slyke or Jerry Sands are ready to return to take the bulk of the work.
So if improvement is coming, short of the ghost of Lou Gehrig returning to wear a Loney skin suit like he did late last year, it’s coming from outside the organization. Who are we looking at? Unfortunately, between the second wild card keeping more teams in the race and a few guys who aren’t obvious improvements, the pickings could be slim. We’ll see my potential preferred choice, Paul Konerko, come to town with the White Sox this weekend, but barring an enormous collapse the first-place Sox aren’t likely to be selling.
That leaves us with a few possibilities…
Bryan LaHair, Cubs
The dreadful Cubs are clearly going to sell anything they can to get talent back into the system, and have top first base prospect Anthony Rizzo mashing in Triple-A and ready to go. With the reported interest the Dodgers have in pitcher Ryan Dempster, there’s potentially a natural discussion point here for a larger deal. LaHair’s story is pretty well known at this point, as after years of tearing apart the minors, he made a great impression in a September cup of coffee last year and then was red-hot early this year, currently sitting behind only Joey Votto & Konerko in 1B wOBA.
I’m somewhat concerned about whether he was an early season mirage, however, because since the Dodgers went to Wrigley on May 4, LaHair is hitting only .250/.331/.426, and he’s not regarded as a great defensive first baseman. He also has one of the most extreme career platoon splits I’ve ever seen, where he’s basically a Hall of Famer against righties (in, admittedly, not the largest sample size) but is legitimately worse than Loney is against lefties. That would be a small complication, since in that case Loney really couldn’t even be retained as a lefty defensive replacement as he might be with some others, though that’s not enough of an issue to prevent a deal. His short track record, huge split, and potential return to earth all trouble me somewhat, though anyone who can hit righties like that and still has years of team control is absolutely an upgrade on Loney. The real question is, do we want Ned Colletti on the phone with Theo Epstein & Jed Hoyer?
Carlos Lee, Astros
I feel like Lee has been rumored to be a potential Loney replacement for about three years now, but as he finally reaches the end of his absurd 6/$100m contract while the Astros are clearly in rebuilding mode, now may be the time we actually see him move. (He does have a no-trade clause to 14 unknown teams, which reportedly includes most of the West Coast clubs, though anything can be negotiated.) The first thing that struck me about Lee is that in 207 plate appearances this season, he’s whiffed just ten times. While he’s never been a big strikeout guy (or a big walk guy), that’s wildly out of line with his career norms. As he ages – he turns 36 in a few days – he’s not really anything like the big-time power bat he once was when he was hitting 24 or more homers every single year from 2000-2010, though the common refrain once again is that his .297/.348/.411 line is still better than Loney’s.
Oddly, the righty Lee hasn’t really had much of a platoon split over his career, being only very slightly better against lefties (.364 wOBA) in parts of 14 seasons than righties (.354). That’s gone completely pear-shaped this year, as he’s crushing righties and doing nothing against lefties, but I’m of course not going to let 44 PA against lefties take more precedence than the previous 13 years. He’s somewhat of an inexperienced first baseman, having made 119 of his 140 career starts at the position over the last two seasons, and is clearly a downgrade from Loney there. Considering his age, impending free agency, and money left on his contract, he’s unlikely to require much of a return in talent.
Justin Morneau, Twins
I don’t really think that the Twins are likely to trade their longtime star, but given that even despite their recent hot streak they still have the fewest wins in the American League, anything is possible, especially since Morneau is unlikely to be a part of the next good Minnesota team. Morneau is still owed approximately $23m through next year on an $80m extension he signed prior to 2008, but he hardly resembles the player who was the 2006 MVP and an All-Star in each of the four following seasons. His entire career has been sidetracked by concussion problems, though he also had cleanup surgeries to his wrist, foot, and knee last fall, plus a stint on the DL last month with continuing wrist soreness.
When he’s played this year, he’s been a shadow of his former self; well, sort of:
He feasted on right-handed pitching immediately. His 1.070 OPS against righties is fifth best in the major leagues. What left-handers do to Morneau more than balances that out.
Of the 168 hitters who qualify for the batting title, Morneau ranks 168th in batting average (.097), 168th in on-base percentage (.123) and 163rd in slugging percentage (.210) against lefties. He’s swinging more against them than anybody but Hamilton and Delmon Young, and he’s missing those swings at a baseball-worst 50 percent clip. Though he has hit two home runs, in 62 at-bats against lefties, he has just one line drive – and it was caught.
“I just can’t hit lefties,” Morneau said. “That’s what’s killing me.”
Morneau only just turned 31 last month, and the fact that he’s able to hit righties so well after all of his health concerns is encouraging. He’s also very expensive and potentially one concussion away from seeing his career end, so it’s hard to see him as a perfect fit. Still, it was only 2010 where he was hitting a monstrous .345/.437/.618 before being injured, and his performance against righties gives you some hope he’ll figure out the lefties again. Then again, “being better than James Loney” isn’t a high bar to clear.
Kevin Youkilis, Red Sox
I looked at Youkilis a few weeks ago and noted at the time that I liked his ability to play third as well as first. Though his recent injury history was more than a little concerning, he had looked good in a small sample after coming off the disabled list. Things haven’t gone well for Youkilis since then, hitting just .219/.315/.359 over the last month while one scout reported “for what he costs, he can’t do anything”. That, clearly, is not great, though it might have the benefit of driving his price downward. Unless he turns it around and soon, he no longer seems like an optimal fit, though I have a hard time believing that a guy who had a .373 OBP last year is suddenly useless. At the very least, his track record makes me confident that he could still be better than Loney and/or Uribe”, though only for the right price.
There are other teams who won’t be contending this year, like the Rockies, Padres, Mariners, & Athletics, but Todd Helton, Yonder Alonso, & Justin Smoak aren’t fits for a variety of reasons. (Oakland has started five players at first base and is now down to outfield bust Brandon Moss, so they’ll be of no help either.) As we feared over the winter, the second wild card really looks like it’s going to destroy the trade market, since so few teams will be obvious sellers, and of course, bad teams have less to sell anyway.
Yet while there’s only a few flawed options out there, this hardly seems like the kind of season where the Dodgers will be conservative in attempting to upgrade, and I just can’t see them riding Loney every day down the stretch. As some teams start to struggle over the next few weeks, perhaps new options will become available, but there’s just not that perfect fit. The Dodgers are going to have to take a chance on a flawed option to replace Loney, and that brings with it risk. Of the options we see here? Well, it’s almost too early to say, because much can change between now and July 31, and obviously the cost in talent going the other way is paramount in evaluating any deal. For now, I’d really like Youkilis to start performing; if not, then taking a chance on Morneau could be intriguing, and packaging LaHair with Dempster would also give you a low-cost option for the next few years; I don’t see Lee as a huge upgrade.
Which do you prefer, or are there other options?