A Conversation About First Basemen and Rebuilding Strategies

This is the first in a new series in which Cubs Insider writers Moshe Wilensky and Sean Holland discuss and debate Cubs & baseball topics in a more conversational format. 

Hi Sean,

The Mariners announced their intent to rebuild from the ground up, trading away Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, and Jean Segura. It got me thinking about rebuilding strategies. Maybe you could answer a question that has been puzzling me.

Why do so many teams seem to rebuild around first basemen? Anthony Rizzo with the Cubs, Freddie Freeman with the Braves, and Eric Hosmer with the Padres. First base should be the position you fill last. It is the easiest defensive position, so weaker defensive players from other positions can transition there as needed over time, e.g. Albert Pujols or Joe Mauer.

Yet, if you sign or develop a dedicated first baseman you are stuck with a positionally inflexible cornerstone corner infielder. Consider how the Padres already seem to be paying a price for choosing to build around Hosmer, as they now are considering trading Wil Myers because he is no longer an effective outfielder and they cannot transfer him back to first base.

It seems to me teams should try their hardest to avoid first basemen early in a rebuild, yet the Braves and Cubs have brilliantly succeeded doing the very opposite. Did they succeed in spite of the pitfalls, or am I missing some hidden benefit of building around a first baseman?

Hi Moshe,

I think elite players are really hard to come by in any form. So if you get a chance to land one early in a rebuild, you have to take it, even if it a position that is usually easier to fill like first base or left field. As is often said, beggars can’t be choosers. The Cubs had a chance to trade for a piece (Rizzo) that could make an immediate impact. They didn’t have the luxury of looking for someone at a more “premium” position.

As far as Hosmer is concerned, I don’t feel he is an elite talent at first like a Rizzo, Freeman, or Paul Goldschmidt. Hosmer is just an above-average first baseman. To invest big money in him was a strategic blunder by San Diego, especially if they consider Myers a better player. That’s why I think it’s wise for a truly elite first baseman to be a cornerstone piece, but those players are few and far between.

There is also an argument to be made, especially for a National League team, that it’s best to trade veteran hitters when they lose their defensive abilities. More value can be extracted by getting young prospects back for an aging hitter than by trying to wring out production with a move to first base. A trade to an AL team would allow the player be a designated hitter where no defense is required.

And when you get down to it, a cornerstone player can come from any position, even those with traditionally limited value. Mariano Rivera helped anchor the Yankees dynasty despite being a reliever, a traditionally fickle position value-wise. Similarly, David Ortiz was arguably the most important player for the Red Sox late in his career despite being a designated hitter. I’m just saying elite talent is elite talent no matter where it is found.

Hi Sean,

We seem in agreement that Hosmer was a mistake for San Diego. Progress! You make some valid points, particularly regarding taking elite talent where you can. That certainly applies to Freeman, who was already in the Braves farm system. But the Cubs traded for Rizzo. They could have traded for someone else. Instead, they made a conscious choice to seek out a first baseman as the first major piece in the rebuild. I’m glad it worked out, but it seems an odd first move in retrospect.

You bring up trades as an alternative to shifting aging players to first base, but in many cases the aging player is on an expensive contract that is only justified for a more premium position. Take Mauer, who the Twins moved to first base as he aged. His contract, based on his value as a catcher, was unmovable — even for a team with a 1B or DH opening — because cheaper 1B/DH options were available. But by moving him to first base, the Twins got some value out of their money. Keeping talent in-house is usually more cost effective in the long run.

You also bring up Rivera and Ortiz as examples of non-traditional cornerstones. But I do not think either is particularly persuasive to our debate. Rivera, and his 56 bWAR is an historical aberration since most of the great relievers (like Trevor Hoffman and Bruce Suter) never broke 30 bWAR. Any team banking on finding the next Rivera is going to be disappointed.

As for Ortiz, he was a bargain-bin signing after being released by the Twins. I have no objection to picking up value at any position and if an Anthony Rizzo becomes available on waivers, pounce. My main thrust is that a rebuilding team should never seek out a first baseman as one of the early foundation pieces.

Hi Moshe,

Rivera clearly is a total aberration, but he was a cornerstone piece. As for Ortiz, he did start out as a scrap-heap pickup for Boston. Still, they made a large financial commitment to him later in his career and he clearly was an integral part of the team. I do see your point, though. None of those players were brought in specifically to be a key part of a rebuilding team.

What you really are asking is why did the Cubs target Rizzo to be the first aspect of their rebuild? They even traded a talented yet inconsistent pitcher in Andrew Cashner for him. Of course, the trade worked out brilliantly for Chicago in hindsight, and not just because Cashner flamed out. It was a big risk at the time, for Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to take. I think the real driving force behind the move was off the field.

A lot has been made about intangibles, which can’t really be quantified for those of us who may be sabermetrically inclined. Clearly the Cubs felt Rizzo was not a typical baseball prospect, that he had the makeup to be really special. They drafted him in Boston and saw him persevere through a battle with cancer. Then Hoyer brought him to San Diego when he was GM of the Padres because he felt Rizzo was that much of a leader.

The Cubs believed he could be an elite player too. You don’t just trade a super valuable asset for a rah-rah guy, but that intangible factor could still be a tiebreaker when acquiring a player to launch a rebuild. Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way goes into detail about the the front office’s desire to bring Rizzo on board the second they took over in Chicago. So honestly, I think Rizzo was always going to be the cornerstone of the rebuild. They felt he had an irreplaceable combination of talent and intangibles. You could quibble with some of their other moves, but they clearly nailed this one, premium position or not.

Hi Sean,

I think you are absolutely right about Rizzo’s character being far more important to the Cubs than his position. The Cubs wanted a long-term clubhouse leader with character who could serve as an example to the prospects that followed. They just happened to end up with a first baseman in the process. I wonder if the Padres were thinking the same think with Hosmer, who supposedly has that clubhouse leader quality. If rebuilding clubs are convinced that having a foundational player with elite off-field skills is more important than positional flexibility, I can buy that. It explains Rizzo and possibly Hosmer, while Freeman is a result of taking what your farm system develops.

Thanks for the conversation. I look forward to our next one.

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