With the season suddenly around the corner, let’s continue our preseason run through the AL East by position by looking at the cold corner. While the division lacks a modern-day Lou Gehrig, Jason Giambi, David Ortiz, or even a Chris Davis, every AL East opening day starter at first base projects to be a solid starter at the very least.
5. Bobby Dalbec, Boston Red Sox
With just 92 career major league plate appearances, Bobby Dalbec has a long way to go to establish himself as a quality option at first base. So far, he’s been better than advertised as the Red Sox’s third-ranked prospect and the final member MLB’s top 100, currently holding a career .959 OPS. In 2020, he mashed fastballs, a promising sign for any young hitter looking to present repeatable success in the majors. Every great professional hitter mashes fastballs for strikes, so Dalbec has proven to a certain degree that he’s capable of doing at least that.
However, with a 42.2% strikeout rate across his only season to date, he’ll never maximize his offensive potential. The .337 ISO that buoyed his .600 slugging carries a whiff of unsustainability, granted MLB’s leader in 2020 ISO was Juan Soto at .347 and Dalbec’s average exit velocity was only slightly above league average. He’s proven himself enough to know he’s not a bust, but he’ll only be a stud if he can replicate the fastball hitting and reduce the frequency at which he strikes out.
4. Ryan Mountcastle, Baltimore Orioles
Rated as slightly superior to Dalbec, the Orioles’ 5th, and 90th overall ranked prospect got off to a solid start to his career in 2020, albeit not quite as hot as Dalbec’s. In nearly 50 more at-bats, Mountcastle fell slightly short of Dalbec’s .959 OPS with a mark of .878. While the power numbers so far don’t quite measure up to Dalbec’s, his strikeout rate is just more than half of Dalbec’s, suggesting Mountcastle’s more ready to take on a full-time workload without suffering a season-derailing slump.
On the flip side, he outperformed his expected stats by a good margin, including a wOBA better than his xwOBA by almost 50 points. Without even a full season’s worth of at-bats between the two of them and similar overall values, choosing between Mountcastle and Dalbec is essentially a coin flip. However, with the slight edge in consistency, pedigree, and sample size, early money should be on Mountcastle.*
*It’s worth noting that Trey Mancini (who hit 35 homers in 2019) could end up spending some time at first in Baltimore after battling cancer in 2020, but since DH and the outfield are also distinct possibilities, we went with Mountcastle for this ranking.
3. Ji-Man Choi, Tampa Bay Rays
When he wasn’t facing Gerrit Cole, Ji-Man Choi’s wasn’t actually very good in 2020. Against Cole, Choi has more hits than against any other pitcher (including postseason), and more than twice the RBI than he’s plated against any other arm. After his rocket to left-center in Game One of the ALDS, Choi became just the fourth player in the majors to take Cole deep four times. Of Choi’s three regular season homers, two came against Cole, and he recorded extra base hits off of Cole’s fastball, slider and change. Across their careers against each other, Choi has rocked Cole to the tune of a .671 wOBA in 25 plate appearances, a number so high it looks like a bad OPS. For reference, Juan Soto’s .470 wOBA led all hitters in 2020.
Against the league as a whole, Choi was incomprehensibly one of the worst hitters in baseball last season. While he slightly outperformed his peripherals, his .267 xwOBA placed him in the league’s eighth percentile. He hit the ball slightly harder than average and consistently walks at an elite clip, but was unable to find barrels nearly as consistently as he had in years past. With a demonstrated ability to hit the game’s best pitching and better seasons than 2020 under his belt, Choi’s strong candidate for a bounce-back 2021 season.
2. Vladimir Guererro Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
While he’s relatively underwhelmed across his first two seasons in the majors compared to the astronomical hype, he’s hit the ball as hard as almost anyone in the majors, and he’s still only 21. The raw tools, at least offensively, that made him the game’s top-rated prospect and a home run derby runner-up are absolutely still there. He even walks more and strikes out a lot less than the typical all-or-nothing hitter, positive signs for a young player with Ruthian raw power. Still, a .778 OPS keeps him a couple hundred points away from a legitimate chance at being a perennial MVP candidate or earning the title of the best hitter in baseball, which unreasonably high league-wide expectations had him cracked up to be.
1. Luke Voit, New York Yankees
At first base in 2020, the Yankees held a larger performance gap over their divisional opponents than at any other position. Coming off of a season as a borderline MVP candidate and the MLB’s home run leader, Luke Voit’s already far surpassed any of the Yankees’ wildest dreams for his potential value to the club when they traded Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos for him in the summer of 2018.
Now a central facet of the Bombers’ lineup, the Yankees will need him to reproduce the uber-elite power he’s posted over the past two-and-a-half seasons if they want to repeat as the American League leaders in runs scored. Somewhat concerningly, Voit’s out-homered his expected home run total of the past two seasons by almost seven bombs. While he struck out less than ever in 2020, he also walked less than ever, leading to the greatest batted ball stats of his career, but only a slightly superior wOBA and xWOBA to the previous year.
That being said, splitting hairs between Voit’s 2019 and 2020 campaigns still has him as one of the game’s ten-or-so best first basemen. Further, as long as he’s wearing pinstripes in half of his games, his offensive statistics should continue to benefit from the hitter-friendly confines located in the Bronx.