Leading up to February 19th where the Rays pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training I will be posting articles about the Rays projected starters and primary backups, position by position. To kick off the series this first article is focusing on first base.
Projected starter – Carlos Peña
Peña is a former first round draft pick and top 100 prospect. He had his breakout season in 2004 with the Tigers but got off to a slow start in 2005 and was eventually sent down to AAA where he ended up staying for most of the season.
He didn’t really recover from that until 2007 where he landed with the Rays and ended up having the best season of his career. It earned him the first of a couple of big awards the last couple of seasons. In 2007 he won the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award and Silver Slugger, in 2008 he won the AL Gold Glove Award and in 2009 he made it onto the All-star team.
He adds a veteran presence to the clubhouse and has been very consistent at 1st base the past three seasons. After pitchers and catchers the 1st baseman touches the ball more than anybody else on the team and having a player you trust at that position is invaluable to any defense.
2009R is Peña’s rank among 1st basemen in 2009.
Overall his numbers are pretty good. He was the team’s leading home run hitter in 2009. Typical for a power hitter he doesn’t have a high average and strikes out a lot but when he does hit the ball he is very effective. But he can’t let his average drop any further.
As mentioned, the most important trait for a 1st baseman defensively is to be a player who your teammates trust. 10 errors in a full season as a starter is pretty good. The zone rating indicates that not only is Peña reliable when catching the ball from his teammates but in 2009 he was the best 1st baseman in the league at fielding the balls that was hit towards him.
This is the final year of Peña’s contract with the Rays and he is set to make $10.125 mio. making him the most expensive player on the team. Unfortunately that makes it very unlikely that the Rays will be able to sign a new contract with him at the end of the year and makes him obvious trade bait. Unfortunately there aren’t any hot 1st base prospects in AAA ready to take his place.
Backup – Willy Aybar
Aybar is the type of player Maddon really loves, a super utility infielder. He is not a starter at any position but still managed to get more than 50 starts in 2009 playing at both 1B, 2B and 3B. At this point he is listed as the primary backup at all three of those positions.
He came to the Rays in a trade in 2008 after having been out of baseball in 2007, struggling with alcohol and drug addictions and a hand injury while he was with the Braves organization. It would seem like he got his life straightened out though as I don’t remember hearing of any significant off field issues since he came to the Rays.
Comparing Aybar’s stats to Peña’s, Aybar has got a much better average and doesn’t strike out nearly as much as Peña. However he lacks some of Peñas power to hit home runs and hit for extra bases as evidenced by his significantly lower slugging percentage.
Fielding Statistics at 1st base:
The sample size of Aybar’s fielding stats from 1st base is so small that you can’t really draw conclusions from it. The low amount of starts is a credit to Peña and how many games he has been able to play.
I’m not completely convinced yet that Aybar would be ready to step in as a full-time starter at 1B. Besides, he is probably even more valuable in his current role, backing up three different positions.
The key will be what happens with Peña. If he is traded we hopefully get another 1st baseman in return, or a utility player to take over Aybar’s role as he steps in to be the starter. But if the team starts out strong and it looks like they will be able to make another run at the playoffs, Peña is hopefully sticking around. If that turns out to be the case I feel very confident about the situation. Especially if he can get his average up a little bit.