MILWAUKEE — First base is supposed to be a position of offensive strength. Baseball’s best lineups usually have a run-producer at first base.
Ever since Richie Sexson was acquired in 2000, the Milwaukee Brewers have had no problem filling first base with Sexson, Lyle Overbay, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart.
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This season has been a totally different story. With Hart and top backup Mat Gamel needing knee surgery before the year even began, the Brewers ended up plugging the hole with stopgaps.
As Hart’s return date kept getting pushed back, Milwaukee’s black hole at first base kept getting worse. How bad has it been? The Brewers are currently on pace to get the least amount of production out of first base in the history of baseball.
The Brewers broke camp with Alex Gonzalez as their Opening Day first baseman, an experiment that didn’t last long. Age had certainly caught up with Gonzalez, as the once average hitter with pop didn’t give Milwaukee much at the plate.
On a tear filling in for Aramis Ramirez at third base, Yuniesky Betancourt took over as the every day first baseman when Ramirez returned. Betancourt’s shift to first base corresponded with his massive slump at the plate. After hitting .280 in April, Betancourt is hitting .167 ever since.
Milwaukee’s latest every day first baseman has provided some run production to the position, but Juan Francisco is far from a safe bet. Hitting .235 with six home runs and 15 RBI since coming over from Atlanta in a trade, Francisco has at least brought some pop to the position.
Of the seven players that have played first base for the Brewers this season, six had never played the position before, while all seven were playing out of position. Only Blake Lalli, now at Triple-A Nashville, had big league experience at first base, having played two career games there last season with the Cubs.
Considering Hart has spent the majority of his career in the outfield, the Brewers haven’t had a player natural to the position as their every day first baseman since Fielder left as a free-agent after the 2011 season.
The statistic used to evaluate individual players’ total contribution to the team is wins above replacement, or WAR. According to FanGraphs.com, Milwaukee’s first baseman this season sport a WAR of -2.6, meaning the Brewers have lost 2.6 wins this season simply because of the players at first base.
An average WAR for a position player is 2.0. The highest individual WAR by a Brewers first baseman this season is Francisco at 0.4.
A cumulative statistic, the Brewers are on pace to unseat the 1920 Athletics for the least production out of first base ever. That season, the Athletics posted a WAR of -4.3. No team has had a first base WAR worse than -2.9 since the 1970’s.
Brewers’ first baseman have the lowest batting average in baseball at .196, a figure that’s jumped up from .180 with Francisco having a good last two weeks. Prior to Francisco’s arrival, Milwaukee’s first baseman had just four home runs, now they have 10.
What can the Brewers do about their problems at first base? There’s not a whole lot they can do right now. Nobody can blame them for being patient with first base prospect Hunter Morris. A strong July has boosted Morris’ batting average to .247 to go along with 18 home runs and 45 RBI.
He’s likely going to get a call-up in September, but he wasn’t ready for the big leagues earlier this season.
The Brewers prepared to cover first base for a month or two, certainly not the entire season. Bad luck has had a lot to do with their struggles at the position. Losing their top two options in Hart and Gamel to knee injuries right off the bat is hard to overcome.
Gonzalez should have been a fine fill-in until Hart returned, but his sudden decline was hard to see coming. If the Brewers had known Hart would be out for more than two months, or the whole season as it turned out, they would have been able to attract a free agent first baseman to town.
Overbay was interested in joining the Brewers in the spring, but he opted to sign where he was going to find more playing time. Overbay and others expected to play regularly for a few weeks before returning to a bench role, or even losing their job, when Hart returned.
For now, Francisco is as good of an option the Brewers are going to find. He’s just 25-years-old, has great power and at least has a chance to become more consistent at the plate.
And let’s face it, the lack of production at first base hasn’t been the reason why the Brewers currently sit in last place. Sure, it has played a part, but just having Hart’s production at first base wouldn’t have suddenly thrust them into the race.
Milwaukee now must figure out what it is going to do next season and moving forward at an important position. Morris is still thought of as the team’s first baseman of the future, but he still is unproven. Hart will be a free agent and likely could be brought back on a one-year, incentive-laden contract.
One thing is for sure, the Brewers can’t continue to be at the bottom of first base production if they expect to contend moving forward.