Previewing The 2023-24 Free Agent Class: First Base

With the regular season winding down, a number of teams (and their fanbases) are already starting to turn their attention towards the offseason. Identifying free agent targets is a big part of that prep work, so it’s worth taking an early look at the players who’ll be available on the open market.

Over the coming weeks, MLBTR will go around the diamond to preview the free agent class. Anthony Franco already took a look at the catching market, and next up will be a rundown of the first base options available this winter.

Note: only players who have been on an MLB roster in 2023 are included for this exercise. Ages listed are for the 2024 season.

Potential Everyday Options

Bellinger will be looked at as an outfielder first and foremost, but the general lack of quality bats could lead teams with first base vacancies to consider him as well. The Cubs have given Bellinger 302 innings at the position this season (with positive defensive ratings to show for it), and the recent promotion of top center field prospect prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong could mean even more time there for Bellinger in the final few weeks.

Non-tendered by the Dodgers last year, Bellinger has enjoyed a hugely successful rebound with the Cubs. In 479 plate appearances, the former NL MVP has posted a huge .318/.361/.551 batting line with 25 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a career-low 15.9% strikeout rate. He’s walking at the lowest rate of his career (6.7%) and chasing balls out of the strike zone far more than he did at his peak. However, he’s also sporting career-high contact rates on pitches off the plate (72.3%) and pitches within the strike zone (86.9%).

Bellinger’s ability to the play the outfield is valuable enough that it’s hard to imagine a team signing him to play exclusively first base, but teams are more willing than ever to move players around the diamond based on matchups. Bellinger has hit so well — even with lackluster quality-of-contact marks on Statcast — that teams will likely be willing to move some pieces around just to get his bat in the lineup.

Candelario has primarily played third base this season, and he’s drawn quality marks for his glovework there. The Cubs have given him ample run at first base since acquiring him, however. And as with Bellinger, some teams may simply want to sign the bat — even if it means playing Candelario at a less-demanding position on the defensive spectrum.

The last two weeks have seen Candelario fall into his most prolonged slump of the season. He’s gone just 5-for-52 over his past 17 games. That’s taken a bit of the shine off an otherwise excellent rebound season, but the switch-hitter was batting .272/.355/.495 as recently as Aug. 23 and still sports a comfortably above-average .253/.338/.473 slash (118 wRC+) overall this season.

Although Candelario’s 2022 season was rough enough to get him non-tendered by the Tigers, he’s bounced back in a big way and now has three well above-average offensive seasons in the past four years. This will likely be his second season with at least three wins above replacement in the past three years, and Candelario was on pace to easily eclipse that mark in the shortened 2020 season as well.

Hoskins would likely have been one of the top power bats on the market with a healthy 2023 season, but things of course did not pan out that way. The 30-year-old followed last season’s six postseason home runs with a huge spring training … but saw his platform free-agent year end before it began when he suffered a torn ACL just a week before the season began.

While he doesn’t quite match Khris Davis levels of freakish consistency, Hoskins batted exactly .246 or .247 and belted between 27 and 34 home runs in four of the five seasons from 2018-22. He hit .241/.350/.483 with 130 home runs, a hefty 13.2% walk rate and a 24.1% strikeout rate that’s higher than average but also a good bit lower than many sluggers of this ilk tend to produce.

As one would expect, the righty-swinging Hoskins is better against left-handers than against right-handers, but he’s posted considerably better-than-average OBP and power numbers against each. There’ll surely be some various, creative contract structures discussed. We’ve seen fellow Scott Boras clients take various paths in recent years; Bellinger signed a straight one-year deal with the Cubs after a down season, whereas Michael Conforto inked a two-year, $36MM deal with a conditional opt-out (contingent on reach 350 plate appearances) after he, like Hoskins in 2023, missed the entire 2022 season due to injury.

He isn’t a great defensive first baseman, but a healthy Hoskins might be the best pure slugger not named Shohei Ohtani in this winter’s free-agent class.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to call Santana a potential everyday option when he’ll turn 38 next year and is wrapping up a below-average offensive season on the whole. But the Pirates and Brewers have both given him plenty of playing time, and Santana still grades out as a strong defensive option at his position. He’s still drawing walks at a 10.4% clip and has never posted a walk rate south of 10%. He’s currently sitting on 19 home runs, which would be his third straight season with exactly that total.

Santana’s .251 average on balls in play looks like a product of poor luck at first glance, but he’s hit a whopping 26 infield flies this season. He’s long been prone to pop-ups, which helps to explain his career .258 BABIP. Still, even if there’s no reason to expect a rapid turnaround on his luck on balls in play, Santana is a good defensive first baseman who walks enough to post close to an average OBP and who clearly still has 20-homer pop. A contender might not plug him in at first base, but if a rebuilding team looking for a veteran to flip at the deadline — just as the Pirates did this season — could view him as a potential regular.

Platoon and Part-Time Bats

The former Giants cornerstone has had a resurgent year in Toronto, hitting .252/.371/.473 with 16 home runs in 380 plate appearances. Belt only has 36 plate appearances against lefties — they haven’t gone well — but has tattooed right-handed pitching. This year’s 34.7% strikeout rate is a glaring red flag, but Belt has also walked at a massive 15.8% rate. Belt will turn 36 next April, so expect a one- or two-year deal, but he’s shown there’s still plenty of power left in his bat.

The 2023 season has been one Choi would like to forget. After undergoing elbow surgery in the offseason, he suffered a strained Achilles tendon early in the year and wound up missing about three months of action. Choi played in just 23 games with the Pirates before being traded to the Padres, and after seven games in San Diego he suffered a Lisfranc injury in his foot and returned to the injured list. Choi is hitting just .179/.239/.440 in 92 plate appearances, but from 2017-22 he posted a .245/.350/.436 output. He’s never hit lefties well, but he’s a .244/.350/.455 hitter against right-handed pitching.

Cooper’s consistent productivity has always flown under the radar, in part because he’s spent most of his career playing for non-contending teams in Miami and also in part because he’s frequently been injured. This hasn’t been his best year (.256/.300/.420, 16 homers), but Cooper hit .274/.350/.444 in 1273 plate appearances from 2017-22 and carries a lifetime .270/.337/.435 line in the majors. His occasional dalliances in the outfield haven’t drawn good reviews, but Cooper has above-average marks at first base, both in his career and in 2023.

The former 30-homer slugger has been out since mid-August due to a back injury and also missed six weeks earlier in the season with a neck injury. He hasn’t had his best season when healthy, hitting .252/.299/.441 in 274 plate appearances. He’d been heating up at the plate, however, batting .287/.333/.470 in 123 plate appearances between those two IL stints. It’s been a tough year, but Cron hit .260/.331/.490 with 116 home runs from 2018-22. Between his track record and the lack of quality hitters on the market, he’ll get a big league deal and regular time at first base and designated hitter somewhere.

Gallo is athletic enough to handle any outfield position, but a Twins’ team deep in options on the grass has given him 322 innings at first base. He’s a solid defensive first baseman but hasn’t found his old All-Star form offensively. Gallo had a strong first couple weeks in the Twin Cities but has slumped since May and now carries a .177/.301/.440 line over 332 plate appearances. The sub-Mendoza average is nothing new, but this year’s 42.8% strikeout rate is high even by Gallo’s standards. He has hit 21 homers and walked at a huge 14.5% clip, leading to a roughly average wRC+ figure (103). That’s still not the bounceback the Minnesota front office envisioned when guaranteeing him $11MM last winter.

Solano’s out-of-nowhere emergence as a quality big league hitter after signing a minor league deal with the Giants heading into his age-31 season remains remarkable. He’s not slowing down in 2023. The Twins inked him to a one-year, $2MM deal that’s proven to be a bargain, as he’s slashed .292/.377/.415 with five homers while playing first base, second base and third base. He should get a raise to fill a similar multi-positional role with a team in 2024.

Rebound Hopefuls and Depth options

The A’s signed Aguilar to a one-year deal but released him in June after 115 plate appearances of well below-average production. He’s since signed a minor league deal with the Braves and is hitting .287/.393/.410 in Triple-A. The days of Aguilar looking like a genuine power threat might be behind us, but he’ll still draw interest on a minor league deal.

Calhoun posted a .906 OPS in Triple-A between the Dodgers and Yankees organizations before an August trade to Cleveland resulted in an immediate call to the MLB roster. He entered the year with just 44 innings at first base in his career but has already logged 192 with the Guardians, while hitting .241/.325/.398 in 123 plate appearances. Calhoun hit .208/.269/.343 in 606 plate appearances from 2021-22, but he’s been a roughly average hitter this year and has plenty of experience in the outfield corners as well.

Gurriel was a fixture in the Astros’ lineup from 2016-22 but had to settle for a minor league deal with the Marlins this offseason on the heels of down year in his final year with Houston. He’s now posted a .244/.294/.359 line in his past 892 plate appearances and will turn 40 next June.

Hosmer signed a big league deal with the Cubs after being released by the Red Sox this winter but wasn’t able to produce in 100 plate appearances before being released a second time in late May. He’s been unsigned since. Any team can sign Hosmer and only owe him the league minimum for any time on the big league roster, as the Padres are still paying the bulk of his contract, which runs through 2025. He’s hit .266/.331/.384 in his past 1084 trips to the plate.

The former D-backs third baseman broke camp with the Angels after signing a minor league deal but appeared in only 19 games before being designated for assignment and released. Lamb popped 59 homers with Arizona from 2016-17, but shoulder injuries tanked that promising trajectory. He’s a .205/.306/.359 hitter in his past 898 MLB plate appearances (2018-23).

Mancini’s two-year deal with the Cubs didn’t work out for either party this winter. He hit .234/.299/.336 in 263 plate appearances — the most tepid production of his career to date. The Cubs are paying Mancini’s $7MM salary next year, so any team can sign him and only owe the league minimum for any time spent on the big league roster. His 35-homer campaign in 2019 is a distant memory, but Mancini is a beloved clubhouse presence who hit .247/.323/.412 from 2021-22 after his inspirational return from colon cancer.

Released by the Reds heading into the final season of his four-year, $64MM deal, Moustakas caught on with the Rockies and hit well enough to merit trade attention from the Angels. His bat has tailed off since. The once-formidable slugger has batted .228/.294/.377 over his past 855 MLB plate appearances.

Myers is the third straight player on this list to be released by the Reds this season. (Mancini briefly signed a minor league deal there after being cut loose by the Cubs.) His one-year, $7.5MM deal didn’t pan out as hoped. Myers hit just .189/.257/.283 in 141 plate appearances, striking out at a 34% clip. He’s a capable outfielder in addition to his work at first base and hit .256/.334/.434 with 17 homers as recently as 2021. He hasn’t signed since being released and might have to take a minor league deal this winter.

Ruf can crush lefties (career .270/.368/.512, 141 wRC+), but he appeared in just 20 games this season due to injury and sluggish performance. He was a terrific find for the 2020-21 Giants, but he turned 37 in July and has now had consecutive below-average seasons at the plate.

Player Options

  • Josh Bell (31), $16.5MM player option; ineligible for qualifying offer (traded midseason)

Bell looked like a lock to exercise his player option not long ago, but he’s been on a tear since being traded from Cleveland to Miami and may have planted the seeds for that turnaround even earlier than the swap itself. He’s been hitting fly-balls at the highest rates of his career since early June, and the results have been noticeable. The switch-hitter is batting .276/.340/.515 in 148 plate appearances with the Fish and now carries a .262/.322/.472 output in his past 339 plate appearances.

There’s still a chance, if not a likelihood, that Bell will exercise his player option. But he’s been producing at a decidedly above-average level for more than three months now. It’s the inverse of last year’s season, wherein Bell had a productive run with the Nationals but slumped late in his tenure there and cratered following a trade to the Padres. Bell still secured a two-year, $33MM deal on the heels of that season, and while he probably won’t match his current AAV on a multi-year deal in free agency, it’s increasingly feasible to see him declining that player option and signing a multi-year deal with a larger total and lower AAV.

  • Justin Turner (39), $13.4MM player option with a $6.7MM buyout; ineligible for qualifying offer (has previously received a QO in his career)

Whether a team would install Turner as its everyday first baseman isn’t clear, but the Red Sox have given him 249 innings there in 2023. At the very least, he could presumably handle multiple infield spots and log ample time at DH with a new team.

There might be questions about Turner’s defensive outlook at this point, but there’s no questioning his bat. He continues to age like fine wine at the plate, hitting .285/.355/.480 (122 wRC+) with 23 home runs, an 8.4% walk rate and 16.9% strikeout rate. Turner bas become the embodiment of the “professional hitter” classification, and with such a hefty buyout on that player option, he should have no time toppling a net $6.7MM in free agency.

Age is going to limit Turner to a one- or two-year deal, but he’s one of the best hitters on the market and should command a strong annual rate of pay with a contending team.

Club Option

  • Joey Votto (40), $20MM club option with a $7MM buyout

Votto told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this month that he hasn’t made any decisions on his future. Only 40 qualified hitters in MLB history have gotten on base at a higher clip than Votto’s career mark of .410, but he’s followed up a staggering 2021 renaissance (.266/.375/.563, 36 homers in 129 games) with a .204/.313/.405 slash in his past two seasons — a total of 575 plate appearances.

The Reds will surely buy Votto out rather than pay him a net $13MM for his age-40 season, but if the Canadian-born slugger wants to continue his playing career, doing so in Cincinnati will remain high on his list. Whether he earnestly fields interest from other teams remains to be seen, but his track record, plate discipline and power — he hit 14 homers in 199 plate appearances this year — would likely gather interest on a one-year deal.

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