Evaluating the AL West: First Base

Will this be Justin Smoak's season?

Over the coming month SeattleClubhouse will be evaluating the American League West -- one position at a time. In our second piece below, take a look at the first basemen who are slated to begin the 2013 season.

Evaluating the American League West Series
• Catchers (SUB)

Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics stunned Major League Baseball in winning the American League West in late season, heroic form during the 2012 season. Center stage were Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick and that young rotation; not much unlike others formed by General Manager Billy Beane. Another player, who treated the ball much like Reddick did down the stretch and was instrumental to the Athletics pennant push was first baseman Brandon Moss.

Signing with the Oakland Athletics during the 2011 off-season marked the fourth organization in five years for Moss. He would open the 2012 season in Triple-A, a level of baseball he was all too familiar with, being his fifth turn through. In June the Athletics designated Kila Ka'aihue and gave Moss his chance, he swung and he did not miss.

In 84 games played, Moss hit .291/.358/.596 hitting 21 home runs in just 296 plate appearances, numbers that average too every 14.09 trips to the plate. For comparison, Major League home run leader Miguel Cabrera, who hit 44 home runs, averaged a dinger every 14.13 trips on the season.

Is there a reason to be pessimistic? Most likely.

Moss hit an equal amount of home runs (7) in the month of June, through 20 games, as he cranked out in the entire 2009 season through 133 games played. He also showed an abundance of effort for the fences, logging a 30.4% strikeout percentage on the season nearly 8% higher than his career average at the time. Moss begins arbitration this season and projects to be a member of the 25-man roster. At what position this opportunity is presented, may be shrouded in some mystery.

Prior to the 2012 season, Moss had fielded first base a total of two times in his Major League career, both opportunities coming during the 2008 season in Boston. He spent 55 games fielding the position in 2012 and while Oakland is known for evaluating defensive talent, the club may opt to begin the 2013 season with a natural first baseman at the position.

The purest fielder in camp is Daric Barton. Two years ago, Barton was one of the most frequent contributors on the club, leading the Major Leagues in walks with 110. Posting career highs in nearly all categories, he was all but penciled in for the position in 2011 prior to a shoulder injury. Two years later and out of options, Barton likely is hitting his way onto the 25-man roster or outside the organization depending on his performance.

SUMMARY: The Athletics have invited a total of eight first base options into camp, five of which are listed on their 40-man roster; Adam Rosales, Jed Lowrie and Shane Peterson marking the other three. That is some serious competition for a serious position in a competitive American League West. While Rosales and Lowrie are likely to play on the other side of the diamond, they remain options at the position if Moss and Barton fail to stick.

Houston Astros

Former first-round pick Brett Wallace will enter his fourth-season with the big league Houston Astros on Opening Day. While his production in the Major Leagues has yet to be on par with his projected ceiling, he put together an inconsistent at times but promising 2012 campaign.

Despite hitting .253 during his time with the Astros, Wallace slugged .424 or 55 points better than his previous Major League season where his .259 average was in line with the former.

After being demoted in mid-June after a promising start, Wallace posted an .827 OPS in August after being recalled, hitting .287/.344/.483 for the month. While his bat waned in September/October, the Astros dedicated playing time to their rising star; something that could be very beneficial this coming season.

Much like Pujols above, Wallace could reap benefits from those projected in the line-up around him in 2013. With the proven potential of Jose Altuve and addition of Carlos Pena the Astros project to be harder to pitch against in 2013, which could spell increased production for Wallace.

While Pena will certainly get the majority of his plate time as designated hitter, he has a background at first-base and will likely be the clubs back-up for Wallace when needed or required. Do not look for Pena to push Wallace off the roster but do look for Pena to allow Wallace the ability to hit lower in the line-up, which could benefit his statistics further.

Wallace saw the majority of his at-bats from the third spot in 2012, hitting .219/.280/.328 and furthering his career line to a dismal .213/.273/.319. Moving lower into the line-up to the fifth spot, Wallace is a career .312/.392/.480 hitter. This was a position the Astros had little opportunity to present Wallace given their offensive limitations in 2012.

SUMMARY: This is Wallace's job to lose. If the Astros do not find themselves in playoff contention and Wallace struggles down the stretch, keep an eye on Marc Krauss and Nate Freiman to get Major League looks if they can outpace their Major League compatriots.

Los Angeles Angels

Few clubs have the kind offensive firepower at their disposal that the Los Angeles Angels bring into the 2013 season. This is no more evident than in their first baseman, Albert Pujols. The former back-to-back National League MVP is entering the second full season of a ten-year contract signed between both sides during the 2011 off-season. The main difference between this season and last, the supporting cast.

With a conceivably healthy Peter Bourjous, Rookie of the Year Mike Trout and newly minted slugger Josh Hamilton, the Angels could trot out the most dangerous top half of a line-up in baseball next season. This spells nothing but good news for Pujols.

The addition of Hamilton presents a back-to-back presence in their line-up that is arguably only mirrored by Cabrera and Fielder in Detroit. Together for their first season in Detroit, the duo hit third and fourth the entirety of the season, leading to career highs in nearly all offensive categories and an MVP award for Cabrera. In a division littered with young pitching, this is a benchmark that seems attainable for the Angels pair.

Off to an astoundingly slow pace in 2012, Pujols hit .217/.265/.304 in April. It didn't take him long to find his legs, capping his twelfth consecutive season with 30+ home runs. He has the type of bat that when stumbling, you sit back and wait for the production to begin. His next season will be nothing different.

Similar to other American League clubs, Los Angeles will likely field their full-time designated hitter Mark Trumbo in first base back-up duties. Trumbo, coming off an All-Star season of his own, managed first base only 11 games in 2012 but was the majority starter at the position in 2011. He owns 61 home runs over the past two seasons and is more than capable of driving in Bourjous and Trout at the top of the lineup if necessary.

SUMMARY: If Pujols and Napoli are somehow both unavailable to play the position, Efren Navarro who is a former fifth round selection has hit well over his past two seasons in Triple-A with Salt Lake. Kole Calhoun would be another option, the young outfielder began to see time at first base during the 2011 season and impressed in Salt Lake as well, hitting .298/.369/.507 in 2012.

Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers played one of the highest volume games of the ‘player shuffle' this off-season, signing A.J. Pierzynski and Lance Berkman in response to an influx of players leaving via free agency and trade.

One of the players Texas is hoping will step up in the midst of their player turnover is first baseman Mitch Moreland. Like Brett Wallace above, the upcoming season will be Moreland's fourth in the Major Leagues. While Moreland, who has spent the majority of his career batting in the lower portion of the Rangers lineup maintains a respectable .769 OPS, it's far from ideal for a premium position such as first base.

Moreland was strong coming off a mid-season injury, hitting .329/.372/.565 in August but for the second season in a row, he could not capitalize on late season at-bats, hitting .221/.256/.286 in September/October. In a competitive American League West, as showcased last season, at-bats down the stretch are crucial to not only winning games but the chance to play in the postseason.

Projected behind Moreland are two new faces in Texas, Jeff Baker and Brandon Allen, and returning contributor Brandon Snyder. While Baker is the favorite, all three players have the ability to latch on to a 25-man designation before Opening Day.

Baker is a career .266 hitter over parts of eight Major League seasons with his real value being presented in his defensive versatility. Baker manned five different fielding positions in 2012 including first base. Every club needs a utility player, Baker just might be the Rangers horse in the upcoming season.

SUMMARY: Moreland, if healthy, will see the majority of his time at first base for Texas. If he fails to deliver, the Rangers have one of most diverse and deep minor league systems in baseball and could look to their youth in 2014. Of note on Moreland, his name was seemingly placed ahead of Justin Smoak in Texas as the latter was traded to Seattle while Moreland assumed the first base job later that season.

Seattle Mariners

The outlook at first base will begin in similar fashion to the two previous seasons in Seattle, on the hope that Justin Smoak can resemble the premium talent he was acquired to become.

Over the course of three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Smoak has hit .227/.304/.382. Those numbers coming in from a total of 285 games played, nearly two full seasons of playing time to adjust to the Major League environment.

He returns with a new swing and an updated physique that Seattle is hoping will be the key that flips his game around. Amidst the struggles Seattle Mariners skipper Eric Wedge has been the most constant of his supporters telling Ryan Divish of The News Tribune, "I've made it very clear I feel strongly about Justin Smoak and what his abilities are."

This sentiment was echoed as the club traded away Mike Carp just two weeks prior to Spring Training. While Carp certainly isn't the clubs only first base option outside Smoak, he represented the player with the best chance to unseat him relevant to positional value elsewhere on the roster.

Unlike many young players, Smoak's struggles are not attributed to Major League pitching but to the consistency of his own swing. Each season his resume is represented by a month much like his September/October showing in 2012. During these 26 games the first baseman hit .341/.426/.580 while posting an OPS of 1.005. These numbers existing regardless that 16 of those contests took place at Safeco Field, a stadium regarded as notoriously hard to produce.

Mariners trainer Rick Griffin spoke with Ryan Divish of The News Tribune in regards to the off-season training of Smoak, "He put on nine pounds and his body fat went down. He looks bigger and stronger. He's more agile." Griffin would continue to say, "We ran him through a bunch of agility drills. Three years ago when he got here, he could not do the drills. The other day when we did them, he blew right through them."

Combined with the fence adjustments that Safeco Field will debut in 2013, Smoak has the tools to succeed in Seattle. If he doesn't, this Mariners squad still has the pieces to man first base once a decision on Smoak has been reached.

After failing to score 700 runs for the fifth consecutive season, Seattle had as productive an off-season as they have since committing to their youth overhaul, including trading for Kendrys Morales. While Morales fits into the Opening Day equation at designated hitter, he played 150+ games from first base during the 2009 season and could fill the position if Smoak fails to take off.

Another option would be Jesus Montero who received drills at first base over the offseason, though he appears to received the majority of time behind the plate after John Jaso was dealt to Oakland. If top prospect Mike Zunino hits his way to the Major Leagues, Montero could get a serious look at first base if the hole is there to be filled.

SUMMARY: The farm has no immediate answers at first base, although Rich Poythress could make a statement for 2014 consideration if healthy. With a new plate approach, Seattle will likely give Smoak ample time in the lineup, keeping an eye on his production relevant to the league. Though, unlike previous years, Seattle has the tools to fill Smoak's shoes if required.

Ranking the AL West First Baseman:
1. Los Angeles Angels
2. Texas Rangers
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Seattle Mariners
5. Houston Astros

Looking for more Mariners player interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse Contributing Writer Josh Dobner on Twitter at @JPDobner and site Editor Rick Randall at @randallball.

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