Throughout the franchise’s history, the Tampa Bay Rays have failed to produce a home-grown, long-term solution at first base. The team has had success with free agents at the position with Fred Mcgriff, Carlos Pena, and received a career year from Casey Kotchman in 2011. Aubrey Huff was productive as part-time first baseman; however, Huff routinely roamed the diamond in Tampa Bay, spending significant time at third base and right field. Once upon a time, Wes Bankston represented the Rays’ first baseman of the future. The Devil Rays fourth-round in the 2002 amateur draft was touted as the guy, but was a bust for Tampa Bay and appeared in just 17 major-league games; all with the Oakland Athletics.
With Casey Kotchman and Dan Johnson as free agents this winter, the Rays will be on the hunt once again for someone to man the bag at first in 2012. Internally, the organization has a few prospects with potential, but names like Jeff Malm and Josh Sale are years away from impacting the big league roster. Russ Canzler could be an above-average hitter; however, the team did not feel comfortable playing him in the field in September and he is probably not considered a full-time option at any position.
Tampa Bay will have options to choose from via free agency once the first base market settles after Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols sign. There is a chance Kotchman or even Carlos Pena resurfaces with the Rays; meanwhile, both represent cheaper alternatives to the top tier free agents, and may fetch multi-years and multi-millions elsewhere. Outside of former Rays, a name like Luke Scott may attract interest if non-tendered by the Baltimore Orioles. With plenty of tradable assets at his disposal, Andrew Friedman could find a fit there as well.
Undoubtedly, the team will explore any and every available option. One of those options – although unlikely – may include moving an existing player from another position to first. In the past few seasons we have seen Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez play some first base; however, both have abilities better suited at positions of higher importance on the defensive spectrum. Although there have never been any public inclinations from the team or player of a move, I am intrigued about the idea of giving Matt Joyce a shot at first this spring.
There would be several obstacles to overcome – namely defense – but Joyce has the athletic ability, size, and bat that profiles well at the position. Unlike Zobrist and Rodriguez, moving Joyce would not create a domino effect in replacing him as the Rays have several candidates to play the outfield including Brandon Guyer who deserves a longer look after a productive minor league career.
Offensively, Joyce’s skill-set is a solid match for first base. In 2011, American League first baseman hit .277/.340/452. Joyce hit .277/.347/.478 in 522 plate appearances last season and owns a career line of .269/.357/.485 in slightly less than 1,100 PA. His ability to hit 50-plus extra-base hits profiles well for a position traditionally known for power potential.
The biggest hurdle for Joyce is obviously defense. An outfielder by trade, the Rays would be asking the 27-year-old to learn a new position at the highest level of competition with limited time to get acclimated to a new home. In the past, former Rays like Jonny Gomes and Elijah Dukes experimented with similar moves, but never completed the transition.
Another wrinkle on defense is Joyce’s right arm. Traditionally, left-handed throwers are preferred at first base. Joyce bats left-handed, but throws with his right. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols has had a pretty decent career as a right-handed throwing first baseman.
As mentioned, this is simply a speculative suggestion of how the team may be able to juggle current assets to fill a void without using salary or additional resources. And although I have never asked, Joyce appears like the type to try anything to get on the field and help the team. Rays’ manager Joe Maddon spent the 2011 season speaking of “another way” of doing things. When it comes to who plays first base in 2012, giving an outfielder like Matt Joyce a chance seems like another potential Rays’ way of solving a problem.