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2018 Positional Preview: First Basemen

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The Marlins have a surplus of beef at first base this year

MLB: Miami Marlins-Media Day Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

You could call it a David and Goliath story if you want. On one hand, you have the elder statesman, who is coming out of a breakthrough year. He has his weaknesses; a well-placed slingshot to the eye might do the trick. But if he stays upright, Goliath is going to do what Goliath does: mash.

However in this version of the story, David happens to be three inches taller than Goliath. And he probably has more than a slingshot; he instead has a catapult or a trebuchet. Still, the path to the starting spot goes through Goliath, and it’s going to require the perfect shot from David if he wants to be the hero in this iteration of the tale.

Justin Bour

MLB: Spring Training-Houston Astros at Miami Marlins Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

I said my piece on Justin Bour this Winter when I attempted to role-play as his agent and argue his then-upcoming arbitration case. That said, I’m always happy to write about The Great Bourbino. This offseason, Bour was basically the only returning Marlins player - with some semblance of bargaining power - that didn’t request a trade. After surviving the thinning, he won his arbitration competition. Now, Bour stares down the barrel at a full season of work, in which he will be expected to fill the void in the middle of the lineup, and incur the lion’s share at first base.

Justin Bour Offensive Statistics

Year/System G AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ HR fWAR
Year/System G AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ HR fWAR
2016 90 .264 .335 .475 .343 115 15 1.3
2017 108 .289 .366 .536 .374 133 25 2.2
2018 ZiPS 116 .269 .343 .480 .345 113 21 1.2
2018 Steamer 122 .264 .342 .480 .344 113 25 1.4
Fangraphs.com

Justin Bour PECOTA Projections

Year/System Playing Time AVG OBP SLG TAV HR VORP WARP
Year/System Playing Time AVG OBP SLG TAV HR VORP WARP
2018 PECOTA 80% .266 .338 .466 .277 25 17.7 0.9

The Fangraphs projections seem to have Bour pegged to slash .267/.343/.480, and to hit somewhere between 20 and 25 home runs, which would be about par for the course for a middle-of-the-order first baseman. ZiPS and Steamer also both have Bour recording a wRC+ of 113, which would signify that he hits 13 percent better than average. For reference, Bour recorded a wRC+ of 115 in 2016, when he shared time with Chris Johnson and played in just 90 games; so 113 appears to be another conservative estimation. PECOTA seems to be in the same ballpark as Fangraphs, numbers-wise. Thus, it seems like the ‘perts have the book on Bour coming into 2018.

With that said, the second-biggest question for Bour to answer coming into this season is: will he be able to sustain his 2017 success against left-handed pitching? Before 2017, Bour was widely regarded as simply a platoon option. But in the first half of last year’s campaign, Bour proved the skeptics wrong, breaking out to the tune of a 181 wRC+ in 68 plate appearances against south paws. Although his second half was injury-hampered, he finished the year with a wRC+ of 112 against lefties. That 112 wRC+ came with a BABIP of just .302, which suggests that his newfound success against lefties is not necessarily unsustainable. Ultimately, he ended the year with a career high wRC+ of 133; and although partly responsible for the high watermark was an improvement against righties of 15% from ‘16-’17, it certainly helps that Bour also batted 12% better than average against lefties, instead of 61% worse, as he did in 2016.

What’s the biggest question for 2018 Justin Bour? Health. Bour succumbed to ankle injuries in both 2016 and 2017. Health is less than a guarantee when you’re 6’3” 265. But coming into his fifth Major League season, Bour needs to find his way to the Fountain of Health if he wants to preserve any contention that he is a full-time starter in the future. Otherwise, three consecutive injury-shortened seasons are hard to sweep under the rug when it comes time to talk about a contract, no matter how good the numbers are. The production is always welcomed; but when it disappears for two months in the middle of the season - as it has for the past two years - it really hurts the team.

Taking the average of the three projections, despite his optimal position in the lineup, and assuming his first full-healthy year, Bour is expected to produce just 1.0 WAR this year. This is due much in part to his relative inadequacies playing defense. For example, last year, while he tuned up his value by 13.5 offensive runs above average, he was also worth -5.3 runs on defense. But even if Bour peters out at 1.0 WAR, the Marlins will still enjoy a surplus of about $4.6 million on the Arb-1 first baseman.

Bottom line, the Marlins aren’t paying Bour to steal bases and play defense. There’s plenty of time for that with J.T. Realmuto, Lewis Brinson, Braxton Lee, and Magneuris Sierra. Bour is making the donuts in 2018 to hit the ball out of the park, and to drive in runs. If he can stay healthy and continue mashing lefty and righty pitching equally, it’s not unreasonable to expect The Great Bourbino to blow the roof off his projections, especially when it comes to SLG and home runs. Given that Bour hit 25 home runs in little over a half of a season last year, you can expect that, if he can maintain a modicum of consistency, the big guy will easily break through 30 round-trippers this year.

Garrett Cooper

MLB: Spring Training-Miami Marlins at New York Mets Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Coming up with the Milwaukee Brewers, the highly touted prospect Garrett Cooper was traded midseason-2017 for a reliever to the New York Yankees. After a nice cup of coffee in the Bronx, in which he slashed .326/.333/.438, Cooper was traded to the Marlins, as the Yankees attempted to pilfer international signing bonus money for the upcoming Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. While it’s not necessarily wrong-time-wrong-place for Cooper, it can certainly be said that his arrival in Miami throws him right into one of the team’s most uphill position battles in camp.

Still, as you may have noticed, the book on Bour’s 2018 is peppered with “if’s.” That’s where Cooper comes in. A number of things can go wrong for Bour this year. And although one certainly hopes that none of Bour’s red flags manifest themselves, you also can’t help but see Cooper playing a little bigger picture with the team than his projections suggest.

Garrett Cooper Offensive Statistics

Year/System G AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ HR fWAR
Year/System G AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ HR fWAR
2017 13 .326 .333 .488 .343 113 0 0.2
2018 ZiPS 114 .246 .301 .403 .300 84 13 -0.3
2018 Steamer 46 .269 .324 .422 .319 96 5 0.1
Fangraphs.com

Garrett Cooper PECOTA Projections

Year/System Playing Time AVG OBP SLG TAV HR VORP WARP
Year/System Playing Time AVG OBP SLG TAV HR VORP WARP
2018 PECOTA 20% .270 .330 .438 .269 6 4.9 0.5
baseballprospectus.com

The projections are hot and cold for Cooper. ZiPS has Cooper finding his way into 114 games, but recording an OBP of just .301 and hitting 16% worse than average. That’s hard to believe, given that Cooper has done nothing but hit his entire career. At Triple-A, Double-A, and High-A for the Brewers over the past three years, Cooper recorded full-season wRC+’s of 173, 123, and 142, respectively. He’ll feel a learning curve when his time in the bigs comes, but it’s hard to see him struggling as much as ZiPS projects him to.

Steamer and PECOTA seem to be more accurate projections, in terms of both playing time and statistics. Both projections have Cooper taking up about 20-25% of the playing time at first base. Still, they have Cooper adding up to about half-a-WAR, and slashing average figures. This seems more likely; assuming Bour plays all year, it’s undoubtedly going to be hard for Cooper to adjust to his first full season in the major leagues, given such fragmented playing time as a backup. Still, his history suggests he has a nose for hitting, so again, it’s hard to picture him struggling severely. As mentioned earlier, he’s already proven an ability to hit at the major league level in his time with New York.

Although it’s always difficult to gauge a player’s success on their Spring Training performance, thus far Cooper is just 3/21 with one home run. Notwithstanding how he finishes the month, there appear to me two likely scenarios concerning Cooper.

Scenario 1: In addition to Chad Wallach, the Marlins take on Tomas Telis to back up Justin Bour at first base. Telis isn’t an improvement over Cooper, but due to his experience with the team, the fact that he has no more options, and his ability to play first and catcher, he gets the edge over Cooper. Cooper starts the year in Triple-A, and waits either for the first injury, or for the Marlins to tire of Telis, at which time Coop is promptly recalled to the big league club.

Scenario 2: Garrett Cooper makes the team. He is 27 years old, and he has paid his dues in Triple-A. Before he was tossed to the Yankees, Cooper was regarded as one of the preeminent hitting prospects in the Brewers system; he’s still that prospect, despite the fact that he’s in orange and black now.

The more optimal situation seems to be in Scenario 2, at which point Cooper’s season may follow a number of paths. If Bour fails to reclaim his 2017 aptitude against lefties, the righty Cooper may seem himself sliding into more of a platoon role, rather than a backup role. If Bour gets injured, Cooper may see himself taking more of a starter’s workload. Finally, as I suggested in a previous article, if Don Mattingly wants to get the most out of his roster, he may benefit by sliding Cooper’s bat into left or right field. Although Cooper has no recorded experience of playing outfield in the minors, he supposedly has some semblance of a background as an outfielder, and according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Marlins have already expressed their intent to play him there. On Saturday, he will be playing left field against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Thus, it’s hard to say for sure how Cooper’s season will play out. Still, at 6’6” and 230 pounds, he is built to mash. Whether it be at first or in the outfield, if Cooper finds his way into a steady stream of at-bats, don’t be surprised if he hits for both average and power.


Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.com and Baseballprospectus.com