The Miami Marlins are unlikely to begin the season with their designated starting first baseman, Logan Morrison. Morrison is still recovering from his patellar tendon surgery despite having it done immediately after the season ended. If this indeed does happen, the Marlins would be once again have a problem in that Morrison would be absent from the lineup and unable to develop and recover his hitting stroke while readjusting to first base.
The good news for the Fish is that they anticipated this problem earlier in the offseason and made the appropriate acquisitions to cover themselves for a short time. The Marlins made two moves for first baseman that were designed to add depth to the organization: the Fish selected Joe Mahoney off of waivers from the Baltimore Orioles and they signed Casey Kotchman to a minor league contract when spring training began. Now, both of those players are raking in the early portion of spring training, with Kotchman racking up seven hits in his first 14 plate appearances, while Mahoney has five hits, two of them home runs, in 12 chances.
But who are these guys and what are the odds they can actually contribute both in the short- and long-term? Who is Joe Mahoney, and who is Casey Kotchman?
Mahoney was a former sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Richmond, and he was no slouch in terms of being a prospect. He was listed as the tenth-best prospect on the Baltimore Orioles prior to 2012 by FanGraphs's Marc Hulet. He received mention as the 13th-best prospect in the system by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus last season. Each of the last two seasons, he has received mention in the additional list of prospects beyond the top 20 by Minor League Ball's John Sickels as well.
One look at Mahoney and you can see why, as he has a massive 6'7" frame that evaluators could easily see engulfing fastballs and sending them into the bleachers. Mahoney's body was what attracted folks as a potential power-hitting first baseman, but he did not develop that skill until he reached Double-A. His collective Double-A line of .300/.356/.518 was impressive enough to finally warrant some prospect discussion, and he had a shot at reaching the majors at age 25 with the Orioles.
Unfortunately, his 2012 season was horrendous, as he hit just .265/.319/.389 in Triple-A, losing a lot of the batted ball luck that was inflating his hitting line. With that, the Orioles let him go and the Marlins swooped in to pick him up.
Based on that profile, what do the Marlins have in Mahoney? He is large, but only in the past two or three seasons has he shown hints of acceptable power. The big red flag on his resume is how much batted ball luck he needed to even reach those impressive numbers; Mahoney has a career BABIP of .327 in the minors, and you can rest assured he is unlikely that well against major league pitchers. Combine that with respectable but not fantastic strikeout and walk numbers that are sure to dip with a major league transition and you can see why the Fish got Mahoney for free. But if he keeps impressing during spring training, the Marlins might as well look at what they have in the big first baseman.
Kotchman, on the other hand, is a known commodity. After years of being a top prospect, folks quickly realized that his bat was not good enough for the position, as Kotchman lacked power and tried to make up for it by putting the ball in play often. This would have been a functional strategy were he able to better find the gaps, but his career BABIP of .272 in almost 3400 plate appearances indicates that he is not very good at that either. What we have remaining is a consistent, poor-hitting first baseman with a well-known strong glove. Kotchman was once an elite, Gold Glove-caliber first baseman, and for his career, he has averaged five or six runs above average per season by UZR.
No matter how well he plays this spring training, no one will confuse Kotchman as a significant part of a team. Even when he was scorching hot for the Tampa Bay Rays two seasons ago, the team wisely avoided paying him much money and passed on re-signing him. He promptly regressed back to his more typical Kotchman self last year with the Cleveland Indians. The Marlins are unlikely to make the mistake that other teams have easily avoided, but never underestimate a hot streak impressing the front office enough to convince them that Kotchman deserves a bench role.
Who Will it Be?
If the Marlins had to choose one, you would imagine the team would go with Joe Mahoney based on upside alone. While neither player is fantastic, at least Mahoney is 26 years old and has an iota of potential left. In addition, he fills a traditional first baseman appearance and profile that Kotchman has long abolished. Kotchman is 30 years old and not likely to change, and the Marlins are not playing for 2013, so the decision should be made based on potential rather than the certainty of mediocre performance.