When the Rays signed former Mariners first baseman Casey Kotchman to a minor league deal this week, it seemed like an odd gesture. After all, Kotchman was spectacularly miserable last year. I’ve been trying to prune my writing of adverbs, but when a first baseman hits .217/.280/.336, it really deserves something with an "ly" at the end. Using the simple expedient of comparing OPS to the league average, Kotchman was one of the five worst first basemen since World War II, along with Pete Runnels ’57, Enos Cabell ’82, Dan Meyer ’78, and Pete Rose ’83, or maybe Mickey Vernon ’48 if you consider Cabell a third baseman that year—he split time between the two infield corners while hitting .261/.284/.323.
Kotchman looks like a sad alternative for a team that just recently had aspirations to a pennant, but he was a good hitter once—literally once—in 2007, is a good fielder, and the Rays don’t have any great plans for first base anyway, with Dan Johnson and Ben Zobrist mixing it up at the position. Give Kotchman a trial and maybe he surprises you.
Human insurance policies and upside gambles like Kotchman are all that’s left on the free-agent market. Retirees outnumber viable alternatives on the list of catchers. There are some vaguely functional second basemen, such as David Eckstein and Felipe Lopez, but the former is an aging player with a limited bat and the latter apparently doesn’t always feel like playing. Hector Luna has a bit of pop for a utility man, but isn’t really a shortstop. No doubt someone will take one more chance on Orlando Cabrera, but he’s 36, his defense isn’t what it was 10 years ago, and although folks seem to think of him as a good hitter for a shortstop, and he has been at times; over the past five years he’s hit. 283/.328/.384 (.263/.303/.354 last year), which is good by the standards of Cesar Izturis or Ronny Cedeno. However, that doesn’t do much to put runs on the board, especially when you combine it with declining D. There is also a passable first base platoon/chiropractic project to be constructed of Russell Branyan and old Mike Sweeney.
There are a few outfielders of interest remaining. At 26, Lastings Milledge has long since shed the top prospect sheen he had earned as a Met; he doesn’t do anything particularly well, not by the standards of a corner outfielder. Scott Podsednik will get a job before Laynce Nix, but the ex-Red has actually been quite useful the last couple of years as a left-handed reserve with some pop who provides excellent defense in the corners. Nix isn’t someone you want to see playing too often; he’s an impatient hitter and he gets hurt. Still, if the Yankees are carry a fifth outfielder to go with Andruw Jones instead of a second utility infielder, the 30-year-old Nix would be a better choice than Colin Curtis or Greg Golson.
And, hey, if anyone wants to throw Nick Johnson an NRI, the guy is still breathing. Can’t vouch for much more than that, though, and after getting burned last year, I’m not sure I would want to even if I were his personal physician.