The Miami Marlins did not start the 2015 season with the same first baseman with whom they ended the year. Justin Bour went from being an intriguing Quad-A slugger to a contributor on offense in 2015, and he is slated to continue his run at first base in 2016 for Miami. In fact, Bour may be looked at to provide a similar power spark that he did last year while he mans the majority of chances at first base.
First Base Depth Chart
1. Justin Bour
2. Chris Johnson
Minor League Depth: Tommy Medica
Bour was acquired by the Marlins in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft heading into 2014 and he performed well in Triple-A New Orleans. That performance got him on the team's radar, and when Michael Morse failed in significant fashion, Bour was tasked to take the first base position on his own. He did that well to a degree, producing power that the Fish had not seen from that spot since Mike Jacobs back in the mid-2000's. Bour hit 23 home runs in just 446 plate appearances, putting up blasts and a surprising .262/.321/.479 (.343 wOBA) batting line for Miami.
Whether Bour can continue that kind of production is a different tale. On the one hand, it is clear he has power in his swing. Bour's average batted ball in play had a velocity of 92.8 mph, which ranked 14th among players with at least 150 recorded balls in play. That is about the same as guys like Kendrys Morales and Marcell Ozuna, players with legitimate 20-homer power. This is the kind of power Bour always flashed in the minors, so it does not come as a terrible surprise, though it was hard to expect him to simply pick up where he left off after moving to the big league level. Given that he will be 27 years old for half of the 2016 season, it does not seem likely that he should precipitously fall from this power level.
The problem is that if there is any regression on that level of power, the rest of his skill set is less than ideal. His strikeout and walk rates from 2015 were prototypical of a player who had decent but unspectacular ratios in the minors, especially for a player who played his high minors years in advanced years. It also happens to match up with the career ratio of Jacobs, whom the Marlins could not sustain at first base despite a 32-homer season in 2008.
In addition, Bour has an obvious deficit versus left-handed pitching. Throughout his career, including in the minors, he posted large lefty-righty splits, and in the limited time he played against lefties last season, those splits held true. Luckily for Miami, they have a potential platoon option in backup Chris Johnson, which would allow the Fish to avoid Bour's negative platoon half for the majority of his plate appearances.
If he does not add on-base skill via more hits or walks, Bour is going to have to maintain that power, and he would be doing so with an alarmingly high ground ball rate. Bour's home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate in 2015 was 21.5 percent, which would be a top-ten homer rate among qualified players from 2013 to 2015. Expecting Bour after one season to keep hitting bombs like Bryce Harper, Chris Carter, and Paul Goldschmidt would be a tall task, but he needs to do that because his 49 percent career ground ball rate thus far forces him to use the air as efficiently as possible. If his production on his limited fly balls dips, the batting line suffers greatly as well.
But with Bour's obvious natural strength, there is some thought that he could maintain a little bit of these gains. The question is whether he can be effective anywhere else. He was a horrific baserunner last year, costing Miami seven runs with his slow feet according to FanGraphs. He was also not a good defender unsurprisingly given his less-than-athletic tall physique. He cost Miami five to seven runs last season on defense supposedly based on various metrics.
Will these other negatives continue? They should similarly be less extreme than they were last year, but they remain issues. The Marlins are blessed with an excellent infield defense instructor in Perry Hill, and that at least gives the team a better way to prepare and improve defensive performances. But Bour's baserunning is something that is simply going to stick, as he is unlikely to be much better than a hobbler on the basepaths.
These projections are not all that different from each other, and each make the following reasonable assumptions:
1) Bour hit too many ground balls to be someone who can rack up 20 homers in just 450 plate appearances, so his power production was expected to be worse. Even ZiPS, which is most optimistic about his game, expects only 19 homers in 501 chances.
2) Bour's defense and baserunning remain a net negative that drains on his value
These are not unreasonable, and with them, you are looking at an average expected batting line of .257/.319/.432, which is about the same line as the one David Freese pulled off last season. That may be worth a .324 wOBA, and such a figure would have ranked 22nd among 31 players who played first base semi-regularly last year. That kind of batting line is decent, but inspires very little confidence at the first base position. It is an above average mark, worth about 4.5 runs above average in 525 plate appearances.
The problem is on the other hand. Conservatively, let's say a full season like that would leave Bour a defender worth two runs less than average in a full year (given his FanGraphs season-average UZR of -5.3 runs per year, this is not unreasonable). Let's assume his baserunning costs Miami another two runs on offense, which is about the level of the 40th or so worst baserunners in baseball in the last three years. That would almost negative his offensive advantages, leaving him only at the mercy of his defensive positional adjustment. That would make Bour worth just 1.0 Wins Above Replacement next year.
Essentially, Bour's potentially modest offensive contributions are too light for his faults and his position, leaving him at essentially the quality level of a good bench player. The Marlins will have to get more slugging than the projection systems are expecting to compensate for the tough hill to climb at the position.