First base is another position in which the AL Central has an embarrassment of riches, not least with the Tigers addition of Prince Fielder to a 9 year $180 million deal this off-season. Question marks surround Paul Konerko’s continuing production as he reaches senior citizen status, super-stud Eric Hosmer’s first full season in the Bigs and Twins cornerstone Justin Morneau’s return from two injury ridden seasons.
1. Prince Fielder – Tigers
The Tigers certainly made the biggest splash in the AL Central this off-season. No sooner had the division been thrown open by the season-ending injury to Victor Martinez then the Tigers locked up Fielder to a 9 year deal (big gulp of anxiety for the 2013 season). Fielder’s abilities are well documented; here is what we all have to fear over the next decade. Through 7 seasons Fielder’s slash line is .282/.390/.540. He averages 37 HR, 106 RBI and despite not being a particularly good defensive 1B, the production he brings renders this fact unimportant. In my blind optimism I contended to my friend Joe that ‘Fielder might see a power decline in a pitchers ballpark like Comerica', Joe’s simple humbling reply, ‘it doesn’t really matter when you hit the ball 475 feet every time’, obviously an exaggeration, but point well made. Fielder is the cream of the central crop and should feast on a division that has a lot of sub-par pitching.
2. Paul Konerko – White Sox
This was the toughest call to make in this category, Konerko, or Hosmer. Ultimately, despite Hosmer’s huge upside, I went with experience and consistency. Despite turning 36 in March, Konerko has been the cornerstone of the White Sox franchise for years, putting up outstanding numbers year after year. Konerko is an annual lock to put up 30 HR and 100 RBI, with an average around .280 to boot. Konerko also walks more than average, strikes out less than average and is a solid defensive 1B, with the type of leadership qualities a franchise like the White Sox, with weakness throughout their organization really needs. Expect Konerko to put up at least one more Konerko-like season to cap off an outstanding big-league career.
3. Eric Hosmer – Royals
Hosmer was subject to a ton of hype before his May call-up for the Royals and did not disappoint. The 3rd overall pick of the 2008 draft is going to be challenging Fielder for positional supremacy for years to come. The only reason he isn’t ranked above Konerko is that 2012 will be his first full big-league season; an excellent first full big league season will push him over the top. Hosmer put up consistently outstanding numbers in his prolonged MLB coming out party, averaging a HR every 27.5 ABs (league average every 36.4), while contributing a .293/.334/.465 line with 19 HR and even swiping 14 bags. If Hosmer can walk a little more and maintain his excellent SO%, he should improve across the board in an increasingly potent Royals hitting lineup. Simply put, if Hosmer continues to develop at the same rate, the Royals will have an all-star caliber 1B who contributes in all 5 offensive categories for the foreseeable future.
4. Justin Morneau – Twins
Looking at Morneau’s career since his innocuous injury prior to the 2010 all-star break (a season in which he was putting up all-star caliber numbers) is a travesty. Since then Morneau managed just 69 big league games and has put up numbers not reflective of his huge talent. One more concussion related setback might call it a career for Morneau, who recently admitted ‘I don’t think there will be a career if this (concussion) is something I’m dealing with (for the long-term)’. That would be a real travesty.
There is no way to predict what Morneau will contribute to the Twins this season. In an ideal situation the Twins would get 120-130 games rotating Morneau between 1B and DH. If he ever manages a return to his typical career form his slash line, glove, excellent BB% and SO% make him one of the elite 1B in baseball. This spring is it for Morneau as question marks hang over not only his season, but his career in the game.
5. Casey Kotchman – Indians
The Indians brought in veteran journeyman Casey Kotchman this off-season coming off a one year stint with the Tampa Bay Rays to add depth at a position which belonged to Matt LaPorta in 2011. LaPorta and Kotchman will likely platoon at 1B this season with Santana also seeing some time to rest his body from catching. Kotchman had a good season with the Rays hitting .306 and getting on base at an excellent .378 clip over 148 games in Tampa Bay. Kotchman improved his SO rate and drew more walks in 2011, but above all else is the premier defensive 1B in the division, with an Rfield of 25 over 10 big league seasons. Indians fans can pick their poison at 1B – LaPorta with a little more pop, or Kotchman, defensively sound and a high OBP, either option is decidedly mediocre compared to the rest of the division.