Welcome to Over the Monster’s 2023 Season Preview! Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Positional Preview Series, in which we do a deep dive on each positional group. Today, let’s look at first base.
* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.
The Red Sox will hand over the keys to a 23-year-old rookie with recent injury history to play first base in 2023. The fact that this seems to be one of the least risky storylines of the impending season either speaks to the amount of risk on the rest of the roster or it speaks to the quality and upside of the player himself. This follows a season in which a Bobby Dalbec/Franchy Cordero platoon led to a .210/.294/.369 slash line for Red Sox first basemen as a whole, to go along with a 31.4 strikeout rate, which led the league by far (Colorado at 28.6% were 2nd). The defense at the position was such an abomination that the Red Sox had to prioritize acquiring Eric Hosmer at the trade deadline simply to have a competent glove to play first base. It appears that the team has backed up the rookie with a bit more of a veteran presence this time around.
The Starter – Triston Casas
Triston Casas was drafted 26th overall in the 2018 draft and has been on our radar as the first baseman of the future ever since. He spent time at number one on just about all Red Sox prospect lists until Marcelo Mayer came along. His eye at the plate for a slugger with 65-grade raw power made it tough to differentiate between the BB and K percentages on his Fangraphs page throughout the minor leagues.
Then, upon being called up to Boston on September 4th last season, Casas posted a higher walk percentage than he had at any of his minor league stops (20.0%), as his .197 batting average and .358 on base percentage told much different stories. With only a .208 BABIP, both of these numbers are bound to go up in 2023. Across 27 games, Casas popped five home runs in only 76 at-bats at the big-league level, showing strong opposite field power that could clear the Green Monster with ease. In Alex Speier’s article last week for Baseball America, Casas said, “Hitting the ball hard is the objective. People love home runs. People love contact. And I try to generate that as often as possible. I’m in the entertainment business.”
To entertain us, Casas will have to stay on the field for the entire season. When he left a May 17th Woo Sox game with a high ankle sprain, it wasn’t expected that he wouldn’t step back on that field for ten weeks. In the Dominican Winter League, it was anticipated that Casas could recoup some of the at-bats lost in the summer, but he only lasted nine at-bats before leaving a game with a knee injury on October 17th. While it was reported that he would return on the 25th, he didn’t and underwent an MRI in Boston soon after that. The MRI came back clean but reports that he would rejoin Tigres del Licey in the Dominican did not come to fruition. Casas is listed at 6’4”, 252 lbs on mlb.com. Whether that’s a conservative listing or not, he’s a large first baseman who is expected to play in the field everyday thanks to a 55 fielding grade and 50 arm grade, per Baseball America.
In a Chris Cotillo piece last week, asked about whether Justin Turner will fill in at first base occasionally, Alex Cora said, “We’ll protect Triston from certain lefties. We’ll protect him from the workload. Let’s be realistic. He hasn’t been able to be on the field that often, especially last year.” Not the most confident quote I’ve read during spring training. There are also some platoon concerns, as well. According to Rotowire, in 2021 Casas had a .591 OPS against minor-league left-handed pitching and in 2022 the OPS landed at .617. In a short sample against southpaws in the big leagues, he did work six walks in 25 plate appearances.
All that being said, let’s be clear: If he can stay on the field, Casas has Rookie of the Year and middle of the order upside on a team that badly needs one more, clear-cut middle of the order bat.
Phil already covered Justin Turner at third base and Mike already covered Justin Turner at Designated Hitter. However, assuming that Rafael Devers stays healthy in 2023, there’s a good chance that the majority of Justin Turner’s defensive appearances come at first base this season. With a Triston Casas injury or, God forbid, a demotion, the easiest shift would be moving Turner from designated hitter to first base while rotating bats at DH. Although he’s only played one inning at first base since 2015, Turner expects to be ready when the call comes: “I feel like I’m a baseball player,” he said. “I feel like I can adapt and I know everything that that first baseman is supposed to do, where they’re supposed to go. So hopefully, it’ll be a quick and easy transition.”
Turner may simply seem like a decent stopgap for Boston when looking back at his .278/.350/.438 slash line in 2022. However, he put things into another gear in the second half. From July 2nd on, Turner slashed .344/.414/.522 with 7 HR and 40 RBI in 239 plate appearances, good for a 166 wRC+. Only four hitters from July 2nd-forward had a higher wRC+ than Turner: Aaron Judge, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and Freddie Freeman. Not bad for a 37-year-old!
Bobby Dalbec is also still in Boston after a disappointing and, at times, catastrophic 2022 season. After hitting 15 HRs and posting a 1.058 OPS from July 30th-on in 2021, Dalbec faced increased expectations and could never get it going in 2022. Dalbec saw an increase in breaking balls from 27.9% in 2021 to 33.2% in 2022 and regressed significantly on the pitch, hitting .161 and slugging .376 in 2022. Defensively, Dalbec did not pick up the slack. Of the 32 first basemen who played 500+ innings in the field, he was 30th in Defensive Runs Saved with negative-6. He was demoted in September, around the time that Casas was called up, and finished the season with an 80 wRC+, hitting just .215. He does have a .268 career average against lefties (.240 in 2022), and if you drill down further has a .292 average at home against lefties (83 games) so we could see a few games with Dalbec at 1B and Turner at DH against southpaws.
Dalbec does have minor league options remaining and is no lock for the Opening Day roster. With Yu Chang having signed a major league deal last week, it’s worth noting that Chang plays all four infield positions, with a (slight) majority of those coming at first base in his career. He started 41 games at first for Cleveland in 2021.
Minor League Depth
Between Casas, Turner, Dalbec, and Chang, the Red Sox are pretty well covered for immediate depth but there are some interesting names as you go lower down the minors. Niko Kavadas plowed through three levels in 2022, hitting a combined 26 HRs, before finally being challenged for the first time at double-A Portland. He put up an identical 186 wRC+ at both Low-A and High-A, and had OBPs of .453 and .472, respectively. Kavadas had 110 hits and 102 walks in 515 combined plate appearances, video game numbers, but as a bat-first 1B/DH 24-year-old, he will need to continue to hit this well to reach the majors. He will start 2023 in Portland and is the 20th ranked prospect on Sox Prospects.
Phil discussed Blaze Jordan on the 3B preview and Jordan doubles as depth at first base. The 20-year-old handled low-A well last year, striking out only 16.1% of the time and slashing .286/.357/.446 before getting a month at Greenville. He is projected to open the year in Greenville and is the 15th ranked prospect on Sox Prospects.
FanGraphs’ Boston Red Sox 2023 Third Base Projections
1. Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
2. Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees
3. Yandy Diaz, Tampa Bay Rays
4. Ryan Mountcastle, Baltimore Orioles
5. Triston Casas, Boston Red Sox
Vladdy isn’t debatable for the number one spot, but the other four projected starters are all in a big cluster. Rizzo is second for me as he hasn’t put up less than a 2-WAR season in the past decade and has found the perfect park for his swing in his later years, dropping a (tied for) career-high 32 home runs in 2022. Yandy Diaz may not hit for much power, despite the Popeye arms, but it’s tough to argue against a 3.8 fWAR season in 2022 with a 10.8 K% and a .401 OBP, which was 5th in all of baseball. I do think that Casas can outperform Ryan Mountcastle in 2023, specifically because of the difference in OBP. Mountcastle had just a .305 OBP last season, striking out 25.3% of the time. However, he has popped a combined 55 home runs in the last two seasons, was 8th (of 36) among first basemen with a +2 outs above average last year, and is entering his prime age-26 season. Casas is going to have to prove he belongs before I can move him up the ranks but he should be second or third on this list in short order.