The Chicago Cubs haven’t had much to cheer about this season, but one of the bright spots has been the play of first baseman Bryan LaHair. He was—and for that matter still is—seen as a placeholder until the team is ready to call up Anthony Rizzo from Triple A, and the 29-year-old LaHair had never done anything spectacular or even noteworthy in his time in the big leagues. But as we go into Wednesday’s games he’s having a great year with the bat, vaulted himself onto the front tier of National League first baseman in the All-Star race, and is opening up some interesting discussions over what the future might hold.
LaHair’s 171 at-bats this season are already a career high and the only other time he went over the century mark was 2008 in Seattle, with a pedestrian .315 on-base percentage/.346 slugging percentage as the result. So even though his 59 at-bats in Wrigley last year were productive there was no reason to be excited. But it proved to be a harbinger of things to come, as LaHair has posted a .377/.508 line this season.
Now becomes the question of what to do with him, as Rizzo has to be moved up the major leagues eventually. There’s talk of moving LaHair to the outfield and with veterans like Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus on the corner spots, there is room to trade one of the two, particularly DeJesus whose contract situation is less cumbersome than Soriano’s. But what about dealing LaHair himself? His value is not likely to go higher than it is right now, given how late his career got on track. And there are teams such as the Dodgers that need hitting at first base. Then again, perhaps other teams see LaHair the same way as I do—his value is only going down from here—and the trade market might not be attractive. But if I’m Cubs GM Theo Epstein, I’m seeing LaHair’s strong first two and a half months as an unexpected commodity to try and cash in for some prospects.
Whatever the future holds, LaHair has given his fans a compelling reason to choose him for the National League All-Star team. He joins Washington’s Adam LaRoche in the area of unlikely stars, as LaRoche has hit 11 home runs and has 42 RBIs and given a mediocre offensive team enough runs for its pitching staff to win games. Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt, after a slow start, is proving to be the hyped young hitter he was when he arrived at the end of last season, with a .362/.514 line and is certainly the player of the future at this spot.
But while Goldschmidt might be player of the future, LaHair the story of the present, and LaRoche the lynchpin on a first-place team, the first base spot in the National League is owned by Cincinnati’s Joey Votto. He won the MVP two years ago, had just as good a season in 2011, signed a big long-term deal in the offseason and in a depth-deprived Reds’ lineup has posted a surreal .479/.643 line. Votto’s got to be the choice at this position with all discussion surrounding his MVP candidacy.
Two up-and-comers at this spot are in the NL West with Yonder Alonso for San Diego and San Francisco’s Brandon Belt. Neither have the power to be All-Star caliber, at least not yet, but they are both young and good contact hitters. I’ll put Garrett Jones from Pittsburgh in this group on a limited basis—the plus being that he has one good attribute, which is a decent slugging percentage, at .474, but the downside being that there’s no upside. Alonso and Belt are only going to get better.
St. Louis and Milwaukee were hit by injuries to their starters at first base, although that’s as far as I’m willing to go in putting Lance Berkman and Mat Gamel in the same sentence. Both teams found good replacements, especially the Cardinals where young Matt Carpenter got his shot and ripped off a .356/.519 line, while the Brewers’ Travis Ishikawa slugged .516. Unfortunately both of these players also hit the disabled list and will return sometime this month. And of course no team awaits the return of its first baseman more anxiously than the city of Philadelphia with Ryan Howard. They’ve had to get by with Ty Wigginton whose value lies in his versatility in the infield, not being trotted there out each day at a position that demands a high level of production. The question for Philly is whether Howard will still be able to drive the ball for power after that Achilles tear and whether his team will be close enough for it to matter. The projected return date is still early July, as it’s been all season.
Finally we come to the disappointments and that’ s a big group in this year’s class of National League first baseman. Freddie Freeman got off to a decent start in Atlanta and has hit eight home runs, but the .296 on-base percentage is awful. James Loney for the Dodgers has been so subpar for so many years in a row now, I probably shouldn’t even dignify him with the disappointing level. He’s just not very good and Los Angeles needs to upgrade if they are serious about making a pennant run. And in the NL East, New York’s Ike Davis and Miami’s Gaby Sanchez are each hitting sub-.200 in spite of track records that suggest that should at least be second-tier talent in the NL at this position.