Around the Horn: First base
After using seven players at position in '13, Crew hopes for stability this year
PHOENIX -- To put it as plainly as possible, the Brewers had a little trouble filling first base last season.
After Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green all went down with season-ending injuries before the end of Spring Training, seven players manned first base for Milwaukee in 2013. None had ever before started a Major League game at that position, and four had never before played a single professional inning there.
Those seven players -- Juan Francisco, Yuniesky Betancourt, Sean Halton, Alex Gonzalez, Jonathan Lucroy, Martin Maldonado and Blake Lalli, in order of their total number of starts -- combined for a .629 OPS when at first base, the lowest mark in the Majors. They also made 21 errors, most in the Majors. They combined for 4.6 wins below replacement, according to the Fangraphs.com measure, worst in the Majors.
"I said, 'We need to find a first baseman who can play first,'" general manager Doug Melvin said.
Melvin considered Justin Morneau and James Loney before they signed with the Rockies and Rays, respectively. He tried to bring back Hart but could not match the Mariners.
In the end, Melvin found a pair of veterans, signing Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to Minor League contracts that included invitations to big league camp and to the Brewers' annual fanfest in Milwaukee. The latter invitation was unprecedented, a sign that Reynolds and Overbay were much more than Spring Training filler.
"I thought that was a good sign," Reynolds said with a smile.
Other candidates include Francisco, who batted .221 with 13 home runs, 32 RBIs and 95 strikeouts in 240 at-bats for the Brewers in 2013 after a trade from Atlanta. He avoided arbitration with a $1.35 million contract. Also returning are Halton and Hunter Morris, Milwaukee's 2012 Minor League Player of the Year, who had an admittedly down year in 2013 and never made it to the Majors, despite the Brewers' troubles at his position.
Melvin and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke say it is an open competition.
"They said it took 20 years for Brett Favre to replace Bart Starr," Melvin said, referring to the Packers, the Brewers' NFL neighbors to the north. "I hope it doesn't take 20 years to replace Prince Fielder here in Milwaukee at first base."
Reynolds weighed a number of offers in free agency, all of them oddly familiar. Minor League deals with a base salary around $2 million if he made the big league roster, plus incentives for playing time.
So what led him to the Brewers? It was simple, really.
"This is my best chance to not only make a team, but to contribute on a daily basis," Reynolds said.
He said it was "tough" to accept a Minor League offer. Reynolds' 185 home runs since the start of 2008 rank fifth in baseball behind Miguel Cabrera (227), Albert Pujols (210), Fielder (205) and Adam Dunn (202). Reynolds has three of the six 200-plus strikeout seasons in Major League history, but he has also topped 20 home runs in six straight years, including a 2013 season that saw him released by the Indians in August while he was slumping and nearing some contract incentives.
Reynolds hooked on with the Yankees and finished the season batting .220 with a .306 on-base percentage, 21 homers and 67 RBIs. Brewers first basemen combined for the same number of homers and 19 more RBIs in 142 additional at-bats.
Not surprisingly, Reynolds wants to play every day, but the possibility also exists that he will form a right-left platoon with either Overbay or Francisco. If that's the case, Reynolds could gain additional at-bats as a back up to Aramis Ramirez at third base, which is Reynolds' original position.
In the end, "It's not the total number of at-bats that matter," Reynolds said. "It's the consistency of those at-bats."
Opportunity was an equal draw for Overbay, who had some of his finest seasons with the Brewers in 2004 and '05 before Melvin traded him to make way for Fielder. Overbay led the league and set a Brewers record with 53 doubles in 2004 before an odyssey that took him to Toronto, Pittsburgh, back to Arizona (where he began his career), then to Atlanta, New York (where he was a teammate of Reynolds) and back to Milwaukee.
When he returned to Maryvale Baseball Park last week, Overbay found only one former Brewers teammate: Rickie Weeks.
"I know some of the guys as far as playing against them or talking at first base," Overbay said. "But it's good to be here again. As far as the roster and everything, I know it's going to work out."
Overbay and Reynolds each has an out in his contracts that allows him to elect free agency if he is not added to the roster during the final full week of March.
In Reynolds and Overbay, Roenicke said the Brewers have "two veterans that we know pretty much what we're going to get from them. Both of them do a pretty good job at first base as far as picking the ball, which I think is very important for our infield and their confidence, as well as our pitching staff.
"I think the addition of those guys give us a chance. And I'm not saying that the young guys don't have a chance to be our first baseman, because it is open. But because we're more familiar with what [Reynolds and Overbay] can do and we're comfortable with what they can do, we're hoping that they come through and we see a lot of good things from them."
Reynolds has the same hope.
"The thing about it is, I think Lyle and I both [could be] what this club is looking for in terms of veteran presence," Reynolds said. "From the guys that I've talked to, that's what this team was lacking. Hopefully we can provide some of that 'old guy' know-how."