While the biggest loss for Cleveland this off-season was obviously Francisco Lindor, that loss may be easier to cover up than the loss of first baseman Carlos Santana to Kansas City through free agency (2 year, $17.5M). While the franchise has been stockpiling short stops for years through the draft, international free agency and trades (particularly the last two big ones of Mike Clevinger to San Diego and Francisco Lindor to New York), they have become essentially devoid of first base talent throughout the system.
This article’s specific focus isn’t the long distant future, however, but 2021 and a little bit of 2022.
Since Santana returned to Cleveland in 2019, he made 195 of 222 starts at first base with Jake Bauers (22 GS) and Bobby Bradley (5) making up the difference. Both athletes will be returning to 2021 spring training and they will be joined by a couple other less conventional candidates for first, one on the 40 man roster and one non-roster invitee.
The first point of interest in this competition for first base starter is that whoever wins the job is someone who wasn’t good enough in 2020 to even play a single inning with the Major League team. All four contenders were at least part of the Indians alternate site in Lake County, but with a poor offense all year, none got the call to the big leagues.
That caveat in mind, the heir apparent for Santana should automatically default to Bobby Bradley. He did post an embarrassing batting line in 2019 of .178/.245/.356 over 15 games, but anyone can have a poor two week run and he was never given a second chance to prove himself. When he did have a lengthier stay in Triple-A that season, he hit 33 home runs with a .264/.344/.567 batting line, extending his stretch of seasons with at least 23 home runs to five years. When calculating all his faults (which are essentially just that he strikes out too much), it’s very important to note that he comes with this huge power bonus. There have been many players in baseball history to struggle with swings and misses and still provide much value to a team exclusively through home runs and there’s no reason Bradley couldn’t be that guy for Cleveland.
Naylor is a former top-100 prospect who was moved to left field in San Diego because of the presence of Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers at one time or another. Then when he came to Cleveland in the Clevinger trade, he was moved to left field because of Santana as well. Naylor has as much power as Bradley and as much or more as anyone else who is a candidate. He has the benefit of being able to play left field, so his flexibility could lead to someone else getting a shot to stay on the roster at first base, at least in a part time role.
Bauers, on the other hand, also had a terrible season in 2019 although his was over a much more significant 117 games. In addition, he has all the faults of Bradley (low average, high K%) without the benefit of power (his highest career MiLB slugging percentage was under .430, Bradley’s career mark is over .500) or the walks. There is an argument to keep Bauers with the team as a bench player who could spell Bradley or either corner outfielder, but there is no legitimate argument that he’s a more valuable player starting at first base than Bradley.
Miller was already mentioned in the shortstop competition and quickly dismissed as it appears the Indians are pushing him towards second base. It is, however, possible they will try him out at first as well, something they first experimented with in 2020 instructs. Miller is a much more rounded player offensively than either Bradley or Bauers, hitting .307/.367/.441 across 205 minor league games. He has more power than Bauers and more speed than both other major options. If the strike out rate of both other options really bothers Cleveland, Miller could ultimately be a serious option at first in 2021. Otherwise, he’s going to start the season in AAA and could possibly become the starting second baseman in Cleveland in 2022.
The final option for first is another positional convert, Nolan Jones. The top Indians offensive prospect has essentially finished his minor league development, but has found it difficult to break into the big leagues due to a combination of Jose Ramirez being amazing and his own defensive faults. In order to bypass both these issues, Jones was tested at both corner outfield positions and first base during 2020 instructs. He was tested fairly often when playing first and looked fantastic, bringing the athleticism of a middle infielder to a generally non-athletic position. He also brings the power and high walk rate expected for the position with a slightly better strike out rate than Bradley and both a better average and OBP.
The most obvious solution to the Indians problem at first could end up being a mix of everyone. There is room on the roster still for Bauers due to his versatility and Jones as well, potentially as a platoon partner for Jordan Luplow in right (as discussed in the earlier outfield breakdown). If all three players are on the roster, the Indians could rotate the trio until someone proves they deserve the majority of the starts. If they are looking for more stability, the answer would appear to be to simply stick with Bradley (who is a good defender as well as a masher) and hope he hits 20+ home runs to give the fans something to enjoy in what could otherwise be a dismal season.