Now less than three weeks from Opening Day, our Braves 2020 Position Ranks series moves on to first base — easily the most consistently productive position for the Braves’ over the last decade. For those just now joining us, be sure to catch up on our previous posts:
2020 NL East Position Rank Series
- Starting rotation (March 2)
- Bullpen (March 4)
- Catcher (March 7)
And now to our series disclaimer…
In this series, we’ll look at each position group one at a time, while ranking all five NL East clubs according to their projected WAR total for each respective position for the 2020 season. We’ll be using 2020 ZiPS projections for all rankings, and all WAR figures will be compiled from FanGraphs. The order of these posts will correspond with each defensive position-number on the field (1: pitcher, 2: catcher, 3: first base… etc.).
2020 NL East First Base Ranks
Of the positions we’ve covered thus far (starting rotation, bullpen, and catcher), the first base position has perhaps been the most productive for the Braves, thanks to the consistent excellence of Freddie Freeman. Entering the 2020 season, Freeman has produced the 7th-most bWAR all-time among Braves’ position-players (39.7) and is roughly half a season worth of WAR from passing Fredd Tenney among all-time Braves’ first baseman (who’s last game was in 1911).
The truth is, Freeman is the best to play the position for the Braves, and depending on how well he ages now into his 30s, he could very well finish within the top-10 all-time among major league first baseman (which deserves its own article soon). Currently, Rafael Palmeiro ranks tenth with 71.9 bWAR — 32.2 WAR more than Freeman. Assuming he plays until at least 38, Freeman would need to average something like 4 WAR per season over the next eight years; not an easy task, but doable, considering he has averaged 5+ bWAR per season over the last four. Regardless, it’ll be fun to watch. Let’s see how the rest of the division stacks up (again, depth charts are derived from MLB.com and WAR figures are from FanGraphs):
Braves — 6.2 WAR
- F. Freeman — 4.2
- A. Riley — 1.7
- N. Markakis — 0.3
Repeating myself from the passage above, Freeman is already the best to ever play first base for the Braves, and his power-breakout in 2019 just shows that he still has plenty left in the tank. Last season’s 8th-place finish in the NL MVP vote gives Freeman yet another top-10 campaign — the third time he has finished amongst the top 10 in MVP voting in the last four seasons. Expect big things from the Braves’ franchise player in 2020.
Riley isn’t in camp this spring to play first base, but in a pinch, he could easily maintain the position’s power on offense if Freeman became injured (which is the only way this situation occurs). Defensively, Riley has just six big-league games under his belt at first, though his 50-grade fielding (via FanGraphs) is plenty sufficient for a backup.
It makes more sense to see Nick Markakis as the Braves’ backup first baseman in 2020, at least in the event Freeman needs a breather. The veteran outfielder has a whopping 47 innings at the position during his career (similar to Riley’s experience so far). The dropoff in power on offense would be rather substantial if he were forced to hold down first base long term, but Markakis’ career .288 AVG wouldn’t be the worst that could happen.
Mets — 4.0 WAR
- P. Alonso — 3.5
- D. Smith — 0.3
- J. Hager — 0.2
Whether or not you agree with Mike Soroka’s snubbing of 2019’s NL Rookie of the Year award, the Mets’ Pete Alonso did mash a record 53 home runs last year, as the 6-3, 245-pounder knocked in 120 runs and tied his teammate Jeff McNeil for the fifth-highest wRC+ (143) in the majors while posting the lowest BABIP (.280) of his pro career (including the minors). Alonso’s HR total may suffer a tad with a deader baseball in 2020, but the guy has legit power, and his 3.5-WAR projection seems super light, considering he finished with 4.8 WAR in 2019.
Before Alonso burst onto the scene last season, former Mets’ top-5 prospect Domonic Smith was originally projected to flourish. That hasn’t happened just yet, as Smith owns a career 98 wRC+ so far in parts of three seasons (194 games), good for minus-0.2 WAR altogether. However, the 24-year-old lefty-swinger is coming off his best year in 2019, in which he hit .282 with 11 homers in 89 games (all career-highs).
Jake Hager is a career minor leaguer, coming over from the Brewers. He showed some pop last season by hitting a career-high 12 home runs in Triple-A, but that power surge also came with a bump in strikeouts (29.2 K%).
Phillies — 4.0 WAR
- R. Hoskins — 2.6
- J. Bruce — 1.2
- N. Walker — 0.2
Over the last two seasons, Rhys Hoskins has been the Phillies’ version of Freddie Freeman, finishing with 25-30 home runs, 35-40 doubles, and close to 100 RBI in each of 2018 and 2019. The 26-year-old doesn’t wield the same contact skills (career .239 AVG) as the Braves’ long-legged first baseman, but he’s just one more potent hitter in a solid Philadelphia lineup, among the likes of Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Andrew McCutchen. Hoskins has been a consistent 2-2.5 WAR producer so far (even in his 50-game 2017 season) in his career, and despite hitting for a poor average, he is an on-base machine that knows how to rack up walks.
Thirty-two-year-old Jay Bruce has battled some injuries over the last couple of seasons, including a balky elbow during this year’s Spring Training. However, the Phillies have been working Bruce at first base during camp, a position he has only made 48 starts at throughout his up-and-down 12-year career. It’s been a minute since he posted that power-filled 4-WAR season in 2013 with the Reds, but the former first-round pick (2005) still has some upside in the home run department, shown by his 26-HR season just last year.
Like Markakis with the Braves, though a bit more versatile defensively, Neil Walker provides Philadelphia with a veteran presence and ability to hit for consistent contact, especially versus lefties (career .271 AVG / 118 wRC+). With just 128 games at first in his career — most of which came in 2019 with the Marlins) — Walker, 34, has primarily played second base during his big league tenure.
Nationals — 1.5 WAR
- E. Thames — 1.0
- R. Zimmerman — 0.0
- H. Kendrick — 0.5
Just a few seasons ago, this group would’ve been dangerous for the Nationals, but boy does time fly. Instead of re-upping with former Brave Matt Adams — who hit .226 with 20 homers in 2019 — Washington looks to platoon the left-handed Eric Thames (118 wRC+ vs. RHP) with right-handed Ryan Zimmerman (142 wRC+ vs. LHP) at first base in 2020. Thames has outfield capabilities and can put up a 30-homer season if healthy, though he does come with some swing-and-miss (32.7 K% last two seasons combined). Zimmerman was once upon a time a 6-WAR player for the Nats and has, for the most part, maintained his above-average plate discipline. But injuries have slowed him down over the years, as the 35-year-old Zimmerman has averaged just 92 games per season since 2014.
Then if all else fails, there’s always the team’s hero last season, soon to be 37-year-old Howie Kendrick, who can play just about anywhere on the field. Kendrick will earn his fair share of playing-time elsewhere for the Nationals, as they’ll look to implement his bat in the lineup as much as possible. The former Angel hit .344 with 17 home runs in 121 games in 2019.
Marlins — 0.6 WAR
- J. Aguilar — 0.7
- G. Cooper — 0.3
- L. Diaz — -0.4
The Marlins will obviously lack production at first base this season, unable to even total 1 WAR collectively, according to the team’s 2020 ZiPS projections. But soon to be Miami’s cleanup hitter during the regular season, the 6-3, 250-pound Jesus Aguilar will at least provide the club with some fun, and more importantly, some power… if he can resurrect his 2018 performance (35 HR / 3.1 WAR).
Former ranked Brewers prospect Garrett Cooper appears to have potential after hitting .281 with 15 home runs in 107 games with the Marlins last season. Cooper, 29, is one of those late-bloomers we often see, just now entering his second year as a potential regular in the big leagues. His swing is in desperate need of some modernization (52.2 GB% in ’19), but this could be a big year for Cooper if he starts to elevate the ball.
Lewin Diaz is having a lovely spring, hitting .286 with a home run in 12 games so far for Miami, but the 23-year-old has yet to play above Double-A in the regular season. Diaz has the size (6-4, 225) and made some excellent strides in the Twins’ system last year, but he’s most likely a little ways from contributing in the majors… unless the Marlins start giving a look at its young players this season.
Next up: Second base
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