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A way-too-early look at the 2017 first base free agent class

The Yankees have no starting first baseman for 2017, so the free agent market may be their only "sure" bet.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

By the end of last season, it seemed like the transition from Mark Teixeira to the next generation of first baseman would be relatively simple, as far as those transitions usually go. Greg Bird, filling in for Teixeira as he recovered from a freak leg fracture, hit .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) with 11 home runs in the 178 plate appearances he had with the club last year, and with that he graduated as a prospect. With Mark Teixeira returning in 2016, Bird would get some more development time in Triple-A, but the expectation was that he would go into 2017 as the favorite for the starting spot as Teixeira's contract expired.

Well, not anymore. Bird will miss all of this season due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and that pretty much quashes the idea that he'll be the overwhelming favorite to start next year. He still could be, as Brian Cashman did tell the New York Times, "The operating surgeon is optimistic that after surgery, the player will be ready and available for the 2017 season," but having doubts are only natural at this point.

While I'm sure we'd love to be as optimistic, I'm not sure I'm ready to slot him into the starting role for next year with a full year of recovery ahead of him. Even if everything goes exactly as planned, it could still take him a few months to re-acclimate to big league pitching. There could be set backs, or there could be nagging pains as he distances himself from the injury. I would also guess that the Yankees aren't going to be as optimistic either. There are few instances where the club has handed a position to a prospect without a backup plan, and I don't think Bird would be an exception. That would require the Yankees to either trade for a first basemen--which is always possible--or dip into the free agent market. Here I'll take a quick look at what the first base free agent market offers for next year, which is... interesting, to put it lightly (A full list can be found here).

Edwin Encarnacion

Despite the fact he is clearly a parrot person disguised as a baseball player, Encarnacion is the best first baseman/designated hitter on the upcoming free agent market. Since 2012, he has hit .274/.371/.549 (149 wRC+) with 151 home runs in 567 games, and he's been worth 16.3 fWAR/17.4 rWAR. Even though he's the least flawed player on the first base market, that doesn't mean there are no flaws at all. Firstly, he'll be entering his age 34 season, which is usually when most first basemen start to turn sour. He also played just 59 games at first base in 2015, so if the Yankees did want to acquire him, it would be with the tacit assumption that he would need to move to designated hitter in the foreseeable future. He is just rotten on defense. If that's at all positive, it still gives Bird a chance to win the position. He will also command a pretty sizable contract, despite his age, and that certainly doesn't jibe with the Yankees' new philosophy of moving away from older, expensive players with downside. Nonetheless, he's arguably the best pure hitter on the upcoming free agent market, and the team would likely be better in the short term because of him.

Mark Teixeira

We know this guy very well. He's injury prone, he's excellent when healthy, but he's certainly on the decline. We have no clue how he recovers from his injury this year, but all indications say he's ready for the season. We'll see how long that lasts. If he in fact does have a full season--or even something like 130 games--there's a distinct possibility the Yankees try to bring him back. He has hit .237/.331/.466 (116 wRC+) since 2012, which is the sixth best batting line of free agent first basemen in that time. It's not great, but it's not terrible, and his defense is still good enough to warrant a signing if he produces like that moving forward. It all depends on how well he performs this year, because if he plays well enough, he could command two years. That'd be out of the Yankees' wheel house, because if they do sign someone, it's probably a go-big-or-go-home scenario. While a middling performance is not what you want, it sets him up as a backup option next year. I'd rather get an All-Star caliber season and let him walk, if that's not too much to ask for.

Brandon Moss

Moss was a classic Billy Beane acquisition that miraculously worked out, as the former Red Sox prospect blossomed with the Athletics,  and he hit .254/.340/.504 with the club before being shipped to the Indians in exchange for Joey Wendle, and then to the Cardinals in exchange for Rob Kaminsky. His combined 2015 with both clubs was poor, as he had an abysmal 94 wRC+ over 526 plate appearances last year. Of course the performance can easily be attributed to the torn hip labrum he suffered a year ago, but another year removed hopefully means some recovery. It, once again, depends on how well he bounces back, but a full bounce back likely means he'll want a regular starting role, not a tryout with Bird. But as far as the options go, he is far from the worst.

Mike Napoli

He's another classic case of a pretty good player trying to bounce back. He was incredibly consistent from the beginning of his career until last season, hitting .257/.359/.491 (128 wRC+) with 25.5 fWAR from 2006 to 2014. In that span, only Teixeira was better (of these available players). Last season he hit .224/.324/.410 in 133 games, and this year he'll have the opportunity to be the starting first baseman for the Indians. He will be entering his age 35 season, so a backup role could make sense if he continues his downward decline.

The rest

The drop-off is pretty significant after Napoli. Steve Pearce's 161 wRC+ 2014 may make him a one-hit wonder. Daniel Nava has had one above-average season by fWAR in his career. Adam Lind is a strict platoon player. Mark Trumbo is also a platoon bat, and he doesn't fit Yankee Stadium whatsoever. Adam LaRoche had a no-good, rotten 2015, so bad that no one's sure how he'll recover. Chris Johnson is bad. Wilin Rosario is in Korea. Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, Justin Smoak, Sean Rodriguez, James Loney, Garrett Jones, and Michael Morse are all in the nether world of likely bad, but a couple will probably have randomly excellent 2016 seasons and then fall back to Earth. Honestly, this group probably fits the bill for what the Yankees want better than the above, which is someone who could compete with Bird early in the year, someone they wouldn't mind cutting at some point, but also someone that could hold up the position for the year.

It's still early, but these options could come to the surface come nine months from now. It'll be the first time the Yankees have no official starting first baseman since the end of 2008, and regardless of what Bird does, a backup plan is certainly necessary. While the free agent market isn't strong by any means, there's enough depth to give the club some options.