Who’s On First? Answer Will Take Some Time
This spring in Port Charlotte, the Tampa Bay Rays are looking to find the perfect mix at first base and have a host of candidates to choose from. Even after the dust settles at the end of March, the playing time is going to remain fluid and all eyes will be in Durham on another first baseman who could claim title as the everyday guy at the position.
- In 2018, Rays first baseman combined to hit .228/.315/.413 (.728 OPS) with 23 homers and 84 RBI. The .728 OPS ranked 11th in the American League at the positon.
- C.J. Cron started 61 games, Jake Bauers (73), Brad Miller, Daniel Robertson (1), and Ji-Man Choi (1).
- Brad Miller was jettisoned mid-season to the Milwaukee Brewers for Ji-Man Choi who impressed the brass by hitting .269/.370/.506 with eight homers spanning 189 plate appearances after being acquired.
- Over the winter the Rays non-tendered C.J. Cron who had an impressive season batting .253/.323/.493 with 30 homers and 74 RBI.
- In a somewhat surprising move, the Rays also traded Jake Bauers to the Cleveland Indians for infielder Yandy Diaz and reliever Cole Sulser. They also sent $5MM to the Seattle Mariners in the deal to help facilitate a Carlos Santana for Edwin Encarnacion swap.
- Bauers, one of the Rays highly rated prospects, struggled with his first taste of big league ball batting .201/.316/.384 while striking out 104 times in 388 plate appearances.
- This spring the Rays are allowing Ji-Man Choi to show that he can handle the rigors of first base. In 121 big league games he’s only made 22 starts while appearing in 36 games at first. He is very familiar with the position making 324 starts and 329 appearances in parts of eight minor league seasons.
- Thus far this spring, Choi is proving adept at handling the defensive duties at first base and is batting .389/.538/.611 spanning 26 plate appearances.
- Brandon Lowe, a natural second baseman, added outfield to his skillset last summer in Durham and later with the Rays. In 100 games split between the Doulbe-A Montgomery Biscuits and the Triple-A Durham Bulls he hit .297/.391/.558 with 22 homers in 445 plate appearances.
- After he joined the Rays he hit .233/.324/.450 in 43 games adding in six homers in 148 plate appearances. After starting his big league career 0-for-19 he impressed batting .273/.353/.527.
- He started 24 games at second base, seven in left field, and five in right field. The Rays are going to be looking for ways to get his bat into the lineup. Tampa Bay hopes that he proves to be an adequate defender at first base, despite standing just 5-foot, 10-inches tall, and they can plug him into their lineup.
- Lowe hasn’t been tested a lot at first base but does not seem overwhelmed by the defensive duties. With the bat he’s hitting .462/.500/.885 spanning 28 plate appearances.
- The Rays had hoped to get a longer look at Yandy Diaz at first base this spring but a prolonged injury to Matt Duffy has kept Diaz at third base most of the spring.
- In 88 big league games with the Cleveland Indians, Diaz has made six starts at first base while making 42 starts at second base and one in left field. In his Cuban and minor league career he has made 10 starts at first base.
- Similar to Brandon Lowe, the Rays will be looking for ways to get Diaz’s bat into the lineup. Last season with the Indians he appeared in 39 games and hit .312/.375/.422 spanning 120 plate appearances. He only struck out 19 times while drawing 11 walks.
- We’ve seen very little of Diaz over at first base due to covering for Duffy at third base. He hasn’t shown a lot with the bat either hitting just .217/.333/.391 spanning 27 plate appearances.
- While the Rays will balance the position with Choi, Diaz, and Lowe (pronounced like cow), it’s another Lowe (pronounced like low) that many eyes will be on.
- Nate Lowe will open the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls. Last season, the former 13th round pick crushed three levels of the minor leagues batting a combined .330/.416/.568 with 27 home runs and 102 runs driven in. He finished the year with the Triple-A Durham Bulls batting .267/.327/.460 spanning 110 plate appearances.
- His natural position is first base making 264 starts in parts of three minor league seasons.
- Lowe, like Diaz, has struggled with the bat this spring batting just .107/.138/.357 spanning 29 plate appearances.
It will be fun to watch how the position is handled early in the season. Will defensive lapses lead to more negative value than positive contributions from the bat?
If so, does this lead to a quick change with Nate Lowe getting an opportunity sooner in the season than later?
It’s just one of the questions that the Rays will take with them even after leaving Port Charlotte at the end of Spring Training.