You could make a case that the most inefficient long-term investments over the past decade have been made with first basemen, because of longstanding conventional wisdom that players at this position could remain effective for longer since less defensive rigor is required at this spot. That thinking seems to be disappearing, with front offices veering and making significant adjustments in how they spend on first basemen in recent years.
Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are all-time great hitters, slam-dunk first-ballot Baseball Hall of Famers who should be picked unanimously, but the back end of their careers — and of those of other first basemen — could get very ugly.
Pujols hit 23 homers and drove in 101 runs last season, but his production relative to the rest of the league was rough: He had an Adjusted OPS+ of 81, well below league average, and the Angels owe him $124 million, or more than twice as much money as the highest-paid free-agent first basemen over the past two winters. Pujols will turn 38 later this month, and while there is an expectation with the Angels’ organization that a surgery-free offseason and weight loss will help him perform in 2018, the management of this issue — respectfully handling the decline of a great player — might be the front office’s greatest challenge in the years ahead.
Cabrera batted .249 last season as he struggled with back issues that might hamper him for the rest of his career, and he is owed $184 million over the next six years. He will be 35 years old in April.
Joey Votto, 34, also is owed a lot of money for a lot more years — $157 million over the next six seasons (including a $7 million buyout on a 2024 team option) — and he continues to be an elite player and might be for the foreseeable future because of his historic ability to reach base. But Adrian Gonzalez’s long-term deal, initially signed with the Red Sox and later assumed in a trade with the Dodgers, did not end well for L.A. Gonzalez battled injury last season and was supplanted by Cody Bellinger, and after a trade with Atlanta, the 35-year-old Gonzalez was released before this, the final year of his seven-year, $154 million deal.
Since Cabrera signed his extension — with a chorus of rival executives questioning the sanity and the timing of the contract, given that Cabrera wasn’t eligible for free agency for 18 more months after his deal was finalized — the contracts for first basemen seem to reflect the larger evolution of thought in the industry about how to invest in the position, and in any free-agent position player already in the middle of their respective careers.
The notable deals among first basemen in the aftermath of Cabrera’s contract:
• The San Diego Padres signed the 26-year-old Wil Myers to a six-year, $83 million deal that was widely panned within the industry at the time it went down, and one year into the deal, San Diego is considering moving Myers back to the outfield.
If each of those teams could have do-overs on those contracts, they probably would, especially in light of how teams prefer to spend on younger players. From ESPN Stats & Information researcher Sarah Langs, the number of contracts of four-plus years signed in the offseason for players who would be 30 years or older the following Opening Days:
2017: None, so far.
(In contrast, Anthony Rizzo signed his team-friendly seven-year, $41 million contract — with two option years — at age 23 in 2013, when he didn’t have much leverage.)
With fewer older first basemen signing very long-term deals, more and more veterans have returned to the market annually — think Mike Napoli, who has bounced from the Red Sox to the Indians to the Rangers and is a free agent again. And teams have been choosing to sign first baseman to short-term deals. The Boston Red Sox giving Mitch Moreland a two-year, $13 million deal this winter, for example, or the Indians signing Yonder Alonso to a two-year deal for $16 million. Carlos Santana is at the top of the market this winter, getting a three-year, $60 million deal with the Phillies — exactly the same as Edwin Encarnacion’s contract with Cleveland last winter.
This is the trend that free agent Eric Hosmer and agent Scott Boras are swimming against this winter. With that as the backdrop, our list of the top 10 first basemen in baseball, based on the input from evaluators and ESPN researchers Paul Hembekides, Mark Simon and Langs.