The Milwaukee Brewers were historically bad at first base in 2013. Seven different players combined to provide little at the plate and in the field, leaving general manager Doug Melvin looking to improve at the position in the offseason.
After weighing many options, Melvin brought Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay in on minor-league deals to compete with Juan Francisco.
Reynolds and Overbay ultimately made the roster and have manned first base for the Brewers all season. Released late in spring training, Francisco signed a minor-league deal with the Toronto Blue Jays and eventually worked his way back to the big leagues.
While Reynolds and Overbay haven’t solved Milwaukee’s long-term issue at first base, the duo has served as an improvement just by being average.
After Corey Hart and Mat Gamel both went down with season-ending knee injuries in 2013, the Brewers began the season with converted shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt at first base. In all, five different players made their big-league debuts at first base for Milwaukee, and that’s not including Martin Maldonado and Blake Lalli’s combined six games at the position prior to 2013.
Francisco was acquired from Atlanta in early June of 2013 and hit .221 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI in 89 games with the Brewers. Having never played first base before, Francisco struggled mightily to adapt to a new position defensively.
Combine Francisco with other inexperienced players and the Brewers were a terrible defensive team at first base last season. Using Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric that puts a run value to defense, the Brewers were dead last in baseball at first base in 2013 with a UZR of -12.9, which is between poor and awful according to Fangraphs.com’s definition of UZR.
Of the 34 players who logged a minimum of 500 innings at first base last season, Francisco had the worst UZR at -8.7.
To see how much better Milwaukee is defensively at first base this season, Reynolds currently has a UZR of 4.0, good for fourth-best in baseball. According to Fangraphs.com’s defensive rating metric, Reynolds has been the best defensive first baseman among regulars in baseball this season, while Francisco was 29th of 34 players a year ago.
Offensively, Reynolds has provided the Brewers with what was expected — a lot of home runs and strikeouts with a low batting average. He enters Tuesday hitting .204 with 21 home runs and 42 RBI, mostly batting in the lower part of the lineup.
Overbay has struggled as a starter (.206 batting average in 53 starts), but has thrived off the bench. With Reynolds grabbing most of the starts at first base over the last couple of months, Overbay has settled into a pinch-hitting role. The veteran is batting .444 as a pinch hitter and is hitting .391 with runners in scoring position.
Called up to the Blue Jays in mid-April, Francisco has played mostly at third base due to injuries to regular third baseman Brett Lawrie. Francisco has started 53 games at third and only 15 at first base for Toronto, while serving as the designated hitter 10 times.
While his defense has continued to be below average, Francisco had a big May for the Blue Jays, hitting .284 with seven homers and 20 RBI in the month. He’s struggled since, however, and has just seven homers since the end of May.
Francisco is hitting just .164 with two home runs and eight RBI since the All-Star break, including going 3 for 37 thus far in August.
The Brewers had a -4.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) at first base in 2013, meaning a replacement-level player would have given them nearly five more wins. It was a historically low figure, as Milwaukee had one of the worst collections of first basemen in baseball history in 2013.
This season, the Brewers have a 1.5 WAR at first base, good for 19th in baseball. While it is still not great, Milwaukee has been 6.3 wins better with Reynolds and Overbay than it was at the position last year.
Reynolds’ defense alone makes the Brewers significantly better, as the decision to bring him in on a minor-league deal has been worth it. Considering the options that were on the market at first base, Melvin looks wise for how he improved the Brewers at the position for 2014.
The Brewers are fortunate Corey Hart received a better offer from the Seattle Mariners, as he has not been able to stay healthy. Hart hasn’t been productive while on the field either, hitting just .203 with five homers and 20 RBI in 58 games.
Ike Davis was a popular name on the trade market, but he has hit just .240 with seven homers and 33 RBI in 102 games since being dealt to the Pirates early in the season.
While the Brewers certainly still have long-term issues at first base, Reynolds and Overbay have stabilized the position for 2014. Again, neither has produced near an All-Star level, but both have contributed to where the team currently sits in the standings.
It is way too early to know if either Reynolds or Overbay will return in 2015, as both will be free agents. The Brewers still are lacking at first base in the minor leagues, as Hunter Morris has had an underwhelming year at Triple-A.
There will continue to be questions at first base until the Brewers find their long-term replacement to Prince Fielder. But unlike in 2013, Milwaukee’s first basemen are providing positive production to the ball club.