Position Roundtables: Starting First Baseman
We continue our overviews of each roster spot with a look at the Mariners shiny new $50 million first baseman today.
Jeff: Starting First Baseman: Richie Sexson
If there is a bright side to getting nothing for a position, here it is: whoever takes over afterward is almost certain to look good by comparison. The revolving door-sinkhole that was first base last year (and how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) has given way to Richie Sexson. However observers felt about his exorbitant contract, he’s just about certain to be a performance upgrade, given just two words as a caveat.
Those words are: If. Healthy. And unfortunately, it’s far from certain that he will be.
Sexson is a huge man who generates tons of power with his swing. So much power, in fact, that just checking his swing popped Sexson’s shoulder out of joint, causing a bone bruise upon reattachment. As age sets in — he turned 30 in December — likelihood of injury doesn’t decrease. Even if the maladies aren’t of the season-ending variety, a power outage similar to Shawn Green’s is possible.
When watching Sexson this year, think: this is the season when his productivity is likely to be highest.
Maybe a combination revolving door-sinkhole isn’t such a bad image for this position after all. It conveys something spinning, spinning and heading ever downward.
Derek: Didn’t we think the same thing about Spiezio being an upgrade over Cirillo at third, though?
I’m going to ignore for now the issues of his contract, and his DUI.
What Sexson is likely to contribute next year would be great: a
power-hitting right-handed bat who’s also a top-tier defensive first
baseman. That’s what the Mariners are paying him for. If you place your
faith for a moment in the team’s doctors, figure in some decline from
aging, maybe a slow return from having not played regularly for a year,
the bottom of a healthy Sexson expectation is .260/.320/.500. That would have
made him the second-best hitter on last years team, behind only Ichiro! The best
outcome for a healthy Sexson is a return to peak form, maybe a
The unhealthy Sexson scenarios get ugly quick: Spiezio as a regular
no-hit first baseman, Ibanez as a no-glove option, possibly some
combination of players — it’s all unappealing.
To the larger long-term picture, though, maybe we are better off with no
solution here, even it means ugly play now. I’ve heard the argument that
Sexson, because he displays what are commonly called “old player”
skills, should age well because those skills will expand. But on the
largest level, that’s not what happens. Players who, while young, hit
for average, power, and have speed tend to lose speed as they age while
they draw more walks and hit for more power. Then as strength and
reflexes erode, the average and power decline.
A young player with low contact numbers, no speed but power, who relies
on walks as a big part of their game have in general shorter careers.
They don’t add walks and power. Sexson isn’t going to become infused
with Super Old Man powers and draw 200 walks and hit 90 home runs at age
33 — we’ve likely already seen close to his max there.
If Sexson’s healthy next season, he’ll be an asset to the team and
contribute to returning them to respectability. In future seasons, I’m not so sure.
Dave: Sexson requires two different discussions, really. We should know fairly
quickly if the shoulder is going to be a performance issue. There is a
possibility that he’ll perform at a lower level than expected, ala Shawn
Green, but I’d guess that the more realistic scenarios involve him either
being 100 percent healthy or spending significant time on the DL. If he
shows up to spring training, taking hundreds of cuts a day and whacking the
ball all over the field, I’ll feel a lot better. If something in the
shoulder pops early on, well, this will go down as one of the biggest free
agent blunders in recent memory.
So, in the discussion of healthy Sexson, what should we expect? As Derek
said, Sexson’s contact issues point to a historical trend that his type of
hitter does not age particularly well, but let’s also put this in context;
he’s 30, which is just barely past his prime years and not even
significantly into the decline phase yet. While the discussion of aging
patterns of players with old man skills is interesting and relevant to his
contract, it isn’t particularly pertinent to his 2005 performance. The
difference between the expected performance of a 28-year-old healthy Richie
Sexson and a 30-year-old healthy Richie Sexson aren’t going to be
tremendously different. His 2000-2003 performances paint a fairly
consistent picture of his prime level of production; .270/.340/.530 or so.
Those are good but not great numbers for a first baseman, but his defense
was well above average by most metrics (though not by UZR, probably the best
of the flawed metrics we have for measuring defense at the moment, which had
him as the equivalent of Jason Giambi with the glove).
So, depending on which defensive metric you think is most likely to nail
Sexson’s worth with the glove, we should reasonably expect Sexson to be
worth something like 5-7 wins over replacement level. If he’s healthy.
If he’s not, well, I don’t think its quite as dire as Derek makes it sound.
Speizio isn’t nearly as bad as he was last year, and Ibanez’s problems with
the position would probably be minimized by regular playing time at the
position. But we certainly don’t want IbanZio in the lineup at first base
too often. If the M’s hope to contend at all this year, they need a healthy
Derek: I’d say this, though — we don’t know what his level of performance is
going to be. The Mariners think they do, or they wouldn’t have signed
the deal, but until he’s out there we don’t know if we get a 100%
Sexson, a 70% Sexson, or a 0% Sexson. That scares me a lot.
As for Ibanez at first — here’s my problem with the “regular playing
time improves play” argument. How often is that really true? Are there
that many cases of a player who looked horrible at a a position
initially getting better? Even an improved version of Ibanez at first is
Dave: I don’t know that this type of injury lends itself to the likelyhood of
there being a 70 % Sexson. To me, it seems like the shoulder’s either
permanently broken, taking his career down the drain with it, or it’s not,
and he’s fine. I think if we’re going to assume that Sexson is playing
regularly, that would lend itself to the assumption that we’ve got 100 %
Players changing positions, struggling initially, and improving as the year
goes on? How about Randy Winn, circa 2004?
Playing first base just isn’t all that hard, especially if you have some
kind of lateral mobility. Ibanez isn’t quick by any means, but he’s got the
athletic skill to move side to side better than most major league first
baseman, and I fail to see why his reactions wouldn’t improve with
Jason: The consensus seems to be that if Sexson’s healthy, he’ll hit; it’s
simplistic, I suppose, but I agree. He’s established himself as a .270’s
type of hitter with some walks and power. Sort of a Jay Buhner-lite, if you
will — more contact and a higher average, but fewer walks (though it’s
worth noting he walked 98 times in 2003). Even taking a bite out of his
numbers for Safeco, I think he can hit in the .260/.350/.500 range. Not
stellar, of course, but not awful for the position.
As for his health, I’m with Dave in that it’s probably an all-or-nothing
affair. If you look at Sexson’s career, he’s been quite durable — 148 games
played in 2000, 159 in 2001, 157 in 2002 and all 162 in 2003. If the
shoulder’s fine, there should be no reason he won’t play 150 or so games
If the shoulder’s not? I’d rather not think about that.