It seems strange that one of the larger question marks for the New York Yankees heading into the 2016 season will be the state of the first base position. Mark Teixeira returns after suffering a broken leg last August, at which time he was the team's most valuable player and among the best overall players in the American League. His defense had not suffered a noticeable decline even at age 35, and his 31 home runs paced the Yankees to one of the league's best offenses. In from Triple-A stepped (swooped?) Greg Bird, who won the hearts of all Yankees fans by hitting 11 home runs in 178 plate appearances while playing manageable first base defense. Sounds like the Yankees are the richest team at first base in baseball, huh?
Unfortunately, no one knows how a 36-year-old Teixeira will react to a broken leg in the field or at the plate, and Bird played great in 178 plate appearances, but that hardly represents one-third of a season. Like the starting rotation, first base is a position of great volatility for the Yankees. They might possess two of the better offensive first basemen in baseball, or they might have an old guy who finally starts breaking down and a young guy who hasn't figured out the nuances of major league pitching.
For what it's worth, Steamer projects Teixeira for a wRC+ of 111 over 548 at bats, while it pegs Bird for 123 wRC+ over 235 plate appearances. Baseball-Reference suggests Teixeira will OPS .778, more than .100 points lower than 2015, and it has Bird down for an .810 OPS. Indeed, it is all but impossible to find a projection system that likes Teixeira's offense better than Bird's, but defense, established leadership, and overall ceiling make the former an easy choice to start 2016. However, his age and recent leg injury make it a topic worth monitoring.
In some ways, the Yankees' uncertainty at first base represents the whole American League East, the entirety of which seems to have at least a minor identity crisis 90 feet from home.
The Red Sox continue to seek a spot, mercifully within the infield this time, where Hanley Ramirez can tote his bat while doing the lowest amount of defensive damage. Last season's experiment in left field was absolutely indescribable, and the Red Sox seem to have a better option at literally every spot except first base, so Ramirez to first base is more a marriage of convenience than anything.
However, Ramirez is signed for quite a bit of money through 2018, so Boston needs to find a way to allow his search for his offense to continue. His 2014 was encouraging following his preposterous abbreviated 2013 frame, and he's only 32, so almost anything is possible from Ramirez in 2016. But the fact of the matter is that Ramirez was a train wreck both at the plate and in the field for the Red Sox last year, and a positional shift will detract from his time to focus on his offense. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS suggests he'll be about neutral defensively, though such things are just about impossible to predict, so anything is possible in terms of Ramirez's 2016 contributions. His backup is 25-year-old Travis Shaw, who hit well last year in somewhat limited at-bats (119 wRC+) but Steamer predicts he'll come back down to earth this year (100 wRC+).
Last season, Chris Davis led the majors with 47 home runs, which propelled him to a 147 wRC+ and 117 RBI. Cripes! What a year. As of today, however, Davis is no longer with the Orioles, so they are left with Mark Trumbo.
Trumbo had a decent season in 2015, splitting time between Seattle and Arizona. His OPS+ jumped after his move to the southwest from 106 to 113, and his batting average climbed back up into the .260s after remaining in the .230s for two seasons. Trumbo is a run-of-the-mill power hitter who will probably hit somewhere around .240 and pop 25 home runs over a full season, and his closest ZiPS comparison is, hilariously, Ty Wigginton, which would put Baltimore back at square one. Baltimore could really use Davis, and it is not difficult to squint and picture the success of their season depending on whether they can lure him back.
The Rays seem poised to start James Loney at first base for the fourth consecutive season despite his 2015 slate. Although he hit .280, Loney had a disappointing season at the plate in 388 plate appearances. After a successful 2013 campaign during which he hit 13 bombs and 33 doubles with a tidy .299 batting average, Loney's past two seasons seem to indicate a decline in offense sparked by a loss of power. Last year, he hit a home run about once per 100 plate appearances, which is nowhere near the acceptable threshold of an American League first baseman.
Backup Logan Morrison was acquired a couple months ago in the wonderful Boog Powell trade, and if the Rays are hoping to find power at first base, they should start with him. He hit 17 home runs last season for Seattle, though he has trouble getting on base and does not field his position very well. One would imagine the first base job is Loney's to lose, but Morrison's home runs carried him to a higher OPS than Loney in 2015, so his candidacy seems open.
Speaking of strange Seattle castoffs, the Blue Jays will carry a combination of Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello into the start of 2015, hoping that Colabello's 2015 represents progress and not an aberration. In 360 plate appearances, Colabello hit .321 at the plate with 15 home runs and 19 doubles for an amazing OPS+ of 142. He struck out quite a bit, but his power provided a huge positive for Toronto. Of course, Toronto fans hope Colabello does not turn back into a pumpkin. With Minnesota in 2013 and 2014, his only two major league seasons prior to last year, Colabello hit for an OPS+ of 74 and 85, respectively. Maybe things just clicked last season. At age 32, maybe they did not.
Justin Smoak actually hit more home runs in fewer plate appearances last season (18 in 328), but his .226 overall average, which has become a career characteristic for him, kept a cap on his effectiveness at the plate. Both Smoak and Colabello hit lefties much better than righties, so a platoon would not seem to be an option for Toronto. Baseball-Reference likes Colabello a good deal more than Smoak, whereas ZiPS projects a negligible difference behind the plate. With Edwin Encarnacion OPS-ing nearly .200 points better as a designated hitter, the Blue Jays hope Colabello's improvements will stick so they can attempt to repeat as offensive champions in 2016.