The first base position gone through an interesting in valuation over the past decade. More teams have grown to realize that so many of them appear to be a dime a dozen, as it's arguably the least stressful position on the defensive spectrum, and pure mashers at the plate often find their home at first. So that means when these players begin their decline on offense, it really saps away how much they bring to the table. That's how Mark Texieira has changed from the best first baseman in the division just a couple years ago to maybe the worst. Can a healthy Tex even approach his counterparts' production though?
Likely starting first baseman: Edwin Encarnacion
2014: 128 G, .268/.354/.547, 27 2B, 34 HR, 150 wRC+, 3.6 WAR
A few years ago, Jose Bautista stunned the baseball world by coming out of seemingly nowhere to smash a Toronto record 54 homers in 2010. If that had never happened though, the common fan would be far more aware of the existence of Edwin Encarncion. Like Joey Bats, Encarnacion was a relative unknown, though he did find considerably more success as a home run threat with the Reds in his younger years. However, after averaging about 18 homers a year from 2006-11, Encarnacion slugged 42 bombs in 2012, immediately becoming one of the biggest power threats in the league. He also exercised more plate discipline than ever before, and posted a .280/.384/.557, 150 wRC+ season.
Since his breakout, the now-32-year-old has been nothing but solid for the Blue Jays. Over the past two years, he's hit .270/.363/.540 with 56 doubles and 70 homers in 270 games. He's no Tex on defense, but his bat his so potent that it hardly matters. That Bautista/Encarnacion double threat is an absolutely devastating combination for pitchers to face, and the addition of third baseman Josh Donaldson is only going to make it more menacing. Encarnacion has missed some time since 2012 with a quad strain and scar tissue in his wrist, and back soreness has limited him to three games this spring. The Blue Jays expect him to be ready for Opening Day though, and at this point, about 35 dingers per year are the norm from The Artist Formerly Known as E5. Watch out.
Likely starting first baseman: Chris Davis
2014: 127 G, .196/.300/.404, 16 2B, 26 HR, 94 wRC+, 1.8 WAR
Davis's nightmare 2014 has been discussed ad nauseum, so I'm not going to try to add any fresh #takes on it. The bottom line is just that it was an utter disaster and an extremely disappointing follow-up season to a breakout year like his 2013. He's gone from someone who Scott Boras was planning on designing his next huge contract around to a complete unknown. Davis will be a free agent after the 2015 campaign, and he has a lot to prove following a season riddled by long slumps and suspension. Unlike Teixeira, Davis can at least be somewhat reliably counted on for health however, as he's played at least 125 games in each of the past three seasons.
The questions are inescapable for Davis. With his exemption for Adderall now in effect again, can he recover? Does his ugly .242 BABIP from 2014 mean that a return to the norm is almost inevitable, or was that just a result of superior defensive shifting? Can he even approach his 33-homer, 121 wRC+ 2012 form? Should the O's be more concerned with getting 2014 surprise Steve Pearce at-bats at first base? Is Davis even remotely playable against lefties? The list goes on and on. Davis's ceiling is sky-high, as his 2013 demonstrated, but his 2014 showed that his floor is about as ugly as imaginable. Unfortunately, I don't think he'll be nearly that bad again, and Davis, who is still just 29, will probably be a pain in the ass for Yankees fans all season. Even a slumping Davis is liable to destroy a bad pitch at any time.
Likely starting first baseman: James Loney
2014: 155 G, .290/.336/.380, 27 2B, 9 HR, 109 wRC+, 1.5 WAR
Since Loney came aboard in 2013, the Rays have ranked just about league-average among first basemen, and that fits Loney just about right. He's an excellent defensive player whose offense has started more than his fair share of rallies, even with underwhelming power. Some eyebrows were raised when the Rays re-signed him to a three-year, $21 million deal after 2013, but that's really not much money in today's market.
Loney only turned 30 last year, so he's a good bet to hold down the fort in Tampa for a few years. He's done a nice job turning his career around from the miserable 2012 that got him exiled from the Dodgers to the ugly 2012 Red Sox. Furthermore, few players in the game have been healthier than Loney, who has averaged 156 games per year since 2006. Reliable production is more than Teixeira can offer at this point, so Loney has the edge here. He also gets bonus points for absolutely pulverizing the Yankees over his career: .351/.397/.511 with 16 extra base hits in 45 games. Kindly stop that, Yankees pitching.
Likely starting first baseman: Mike Napoli
2014: 119 G, .248/.370/.419, 20 2B, 17 HR, 124 wRC+, 3.2 WAR
Man, Napoli has had an unusual nine-year career in the pros. However, there is one constant that has remained true despite the questions about his position and his health. The man can hit. Even last year, when he battled finger problems and fatigue caused by a sleep disorder, he posted solid numbers. Napoli underwent a painful procedure to remedy the disorder in the off-season, so the 33-year-old appears ready for another fine year at the plate.
In spring training, Napoli has gone through some ankle soreness, but I don't think a sudden decline is coming from him. The power is still there, and he should nicely hold down first base in Boston for another year before hitting the free agent market again. Sure, he's not as good against righties and he's missed some time over the past few years, but he's still managed to play in at least 100 games every year since 2009. Also, the spiraling Allan Craig is still amusingly on this roster without much of a position given Boston's crowded outfield/first base/DH situation, so he might get some reps at first when Napoli needs a day off. That's not a great backup plan, so if the Yankees are lucky, maybe that will happen a few times when they play Boston. Unfortunately, Napoli is quite easily the second-best first baseman in the division, so I don't expect that to happen much.
Likely starting first baseman: Mark Teixeira
2014: 123 G, .216/.313/.398, 14 2B, 22 HR, 100 wRC+, 1.0 WAR
It's easy to forget just how awesome a player Teixeira used to be. When the Yankees signed him to that monster eight-year, $180 million deal prior to 2009, he was one of the game's most potent sluggers, and he lived up to that name in his debut season. Tex was runner-up for AL MVP in the Yankees' championship '09 season, and despite a small decline in production, he hit .252/.353/.487 with 62 doubles, 72 homers, and a 122 OPS+ from 2010 to 2011. Even his 2012 was just fine, though the calf strain he suffered late in the year was a small sign of what was to come.
From Tex's rookie year in 2003 through 2011, he averaged a remarkable 153 games per season. Then, that freak wrist injury occurred during spring training of 2013 and he only played 15 games. It was evident that he never seemed truly 100 percent healthy in 2014, either, as a number of injuries limited him to 123 games and he dealt with wrist inflammation at various points throughout the year. Sure, it was just as many games as he played in 2012, but his offense was only league-average. There was also his abysmal second half, when he hit a cringe-inducing .179/.271/.302 in 50 games.
This spring we've heard familiar reassurances from Tex that everything is okay. He's in the best shape of his life. He has improved health thanks to a gluten-free diet. He's gunning for that 30 homer/100 RBI plateau again. He feels like a kid again. (But what of his baby wrist???) Yada yada yada. The best the Yankees can do is cross their fingers and hope for the best. The coming of Greg Bird is almost in sight.