The future of first base

Who’s on first? The 2012 MLB season is just 23 games old, and it seems as if Indians fans would love to answer that question with anyone other than Casey Kotchman.

It was not supposed to be this way. Kotchman, the Indians big free agent signing (take note of the sarcasm), was supposed to fill one of the Indians’ glaring holes from the 2011 season. On paper, it seemed to be a pretty nice fit. Kotchman would provide the Indians with plus-defense while also hitting at a pretty decent clip. He might not have been the best solution to the team’s first base predicament, but he certainly was not the worst either.

Or so we thought.

23 games into the season Kotchman currently ranks 21 out of 21 Major League qualified first basemen with his batting average of .162. Overall, the left-handed hitter has a line of .162/.253/.257. In other words, he is the worst hitting first baseman in all of the Major Leagues.

Take a look at that line again (I know it hurts but just force yourself).

There is a sharp difference between that line and the one that Kotchman recorded last year as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays (.306/.378/.422). There is even a noticeable difference between that line and the poor one that Kotchman recorded two years ago with the Los Angeles Angels (.218/.284/.287). Now that line was poor, but even it pales in comparison to Kotchman’s current performance at the plate.

Still, it is important to remember that the season is still young. There is plenty of time for Kotchman to recover his 2011 form. But what if Kotchman and his struggles persist? The Indians need to at least be thinking of a backup plan.

Regardless of whether Kotchman solves his problems this season, first base will still be a question mark for the Indians for the foreseeable future. Tribe fans might not consider first base to be as dire a situation as the team’s outfield, but it is a concern nonetheless. Thus, short term and long term answers need to be considered, especially if Kotchman is still hitting below .200 come June 1st.

What kind of internal answers do the Indians have? Take a look.

Matt LaPorta, Age 27, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

In the last week or so, there has been a strong, public outcry for the promotion of Matt LaPorta to the big league club. His numbers certainly suggest that he is a worthy candidate as the right-handed hitter has been raking at Class AAA Columbus with a line of .371/.447/.742 to go along with nine home runs and 20 RBIs. That gives LaPorta an OPS of 1.188!?!?!? I know, crazy stuff. Even Indians Prospect Insider editor Jim Pete has changed his tune and indicated that he believes LaPorta should eventually be called up in a recent “Around the Farm.” However, if LaPorta has a Major League future, it likely lies in the outfield. His defensive work at first base last year for the Indians was poor at best as evidenced by his UZR/150 of -8.6. Clearly, LaPorta was not setting the world on fire with his glove, and that likely would not change. Plus, who knows if LaPorta has really figured out Major League pitching. Sure his numbers are quite gaudy, but he has always hit in the minors; he has a career line of .304/.395/.581. All things considered, if and when LaPorta makes it back to the Indians, he should probably stick to the outfield.

Shelley Duncan, Age 32, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

While Duncan still technically shares the Indians’ starting left field spot along with Johnny Damon, a move to first base might not be the worst thing for the Indians’ right-handed slugger. While Duncan is neither a defensive wizard in left field or at first base, his defense might be more passable at the not-so-hot corner. Plus, if Grady Sizemore returns in June as planned, this would ensure that Duncan maintains a roster spot. Duncan is far from a perfect Major League player, but what you see is what you get. He may be best suited for a platoon role, but as a starter, he is likely to give a team about a .235 average along with 20 home runs or so. Right now, those numbers look quite appeasing compared to Kotchman’s performance at the plate.

Jack Hannahan, Age 32, Bats: Left, Throws: Right

This is where my vote goes. We all know the defensive wizardry that Hannahan possesses. I have no doubts that his glove would translate well from third base to first base. Also, consider the slight chance that Hannahan might have finally figured out Major League pitching. So far, he has a line of .290/.375/.406 and has delivered many clutch hits for the Tribe. Plus, this would allow the Indians to recall Lonnie Chisenhall from Class AAA. While Matt LaPorta has received the most acclaim for his contributions at Columbus, Chisenhall has almost been equally as dominant. The left-handed hitter currently owns a .326/.351/.562 line. That is a bat I would like to have in Cleveland and moving Hannahan to first base would allow for this to happen.

Beau Mills, Age 25, Bats: Left, Throws: Right

The forgotten Beau Mills. I have to be honest, I have a soft spot for Beau Mills. First and foremost, the name just sounds like a Major League hitter. Say it once. “Beau Mills.” It just rolls off the tongue. Can you think of a better name for a Major League slugger? I sure cannot. Mills has become somewhat lost in the shuffle at Columbus because of the presence of LaPorta and Russ Canzler. The 13th overall pick of the 2007 Draft, the clock is now ticking on Mills. He currently has a .273/.319/.545 line at Columbus to go along with three home runs and eight RBIs. While he is not likely an immediate answer to the first base dilemma, the Indians would be wise to give him a look this season, perhaps after September call-ups. Mills is not nearly the prospect that he once was, but he still might be worthy of a chance.

Russ Canzler, Age 26, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Dogged with the organizational player tag, Russ Canzler could still be a potential stopgap option for the Indians at first base. In the majority of his games played (22 games) this year at Columbus, he has gotten time at first base (14 games), and he has a .286/.330/.337 line. The batting average is nice, but the plate discipline has been poor as Canzler has struck out 29 times compared to just seven walks. That has to change before he can even be considered as a Major League option at first base.

Chun-Hsiu Chen, Age 23, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

If Chun-Hsiu Chen is to become the Indians first baseman, it will not be this season. Unlike the other players mentioned, Chen is still a ways away. The right-handed hitter is currently at Class AA Akron and has a .303/.374/.382 line. Chen converted from catcher to first base during the offseason and so far, the results have been encouraging. Chen might get a chance to eventually become the Indians first baseman of the future, but two things need to change. He must improve his plate discipline, which has been a problem for him since last season. Chen has 24 strikeouts compared to 10 walks this year, and he had 122 strikeouts compared to just 43 walks last season. Secondly, he must rediscover his power stroke that he had previously displayed. Chen hit 16 home runs in 2011, but he has been homerless thus far during the 2012 campaign.

Jesus Aguilar, Age 21, Bats: Right, Throws: Right

Perhaps the most popular name on the list, Aguilar will not turn 22 until June 30 of this year. Currently at High-A Carolina, Aguilar has been impressive with a .333/.400/.586 line to go along with five home runs and 14 RBIs. He still needs to improve on his plate discipline (21 strikeouts compared to 9 walks this year), but he has the power stroke to make it as a Major League first baseman. He is a few years away, but his future is very bright. If there is a silver lining in regards to the Indians and their first baseman dilemma, consider this. Yes, the situation seems pretty bleak right now, but if Indians fans can just hold out a little longer, Aguilar could potentially become the hulking, slugging first baseman that the team has desperately been seeking. I realize that is like asking a child to wait for Christmas, but if everything works out right, Aguilar will hopefully ensure that a column like this never has to be written again. That is, at least until he is eligible for free agency…

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