Replacing Carlos Pena looked tougher before the Rays won the division despite the lovable first baseman hitting .196/.325/.407. In 2010, first basemen hit .264/.350/.452 leaving Pena’s production in the dust and the Rays knowing an upgrade to average is an upgrade indeed. Camp is near and the depth chart at first base appears set. Folks love a good springtime competition, but there should be none at first base – at least not between Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman.
Johnson managed .198/.343/.414 despite a .188 batting average on balls in play, a seemingly unsustainable rate given his career mark of .250. Folks may look at Johnson’s career .243/.343/.419 line, but keep in mind the majority of those numbers came while in Oakland, a fierce pitcher’s park. Johnson should benefit from playing in a park built for baseball and atomic fallout instead of football – although the Trop is a pitcher’s park as well.
Kotchman is a sexier name and a worse player. Kotchman’s career numbers were .269/.337/.406 before his disastrous 2010 season, leaving him behind Johnson in the meaningful areas. The Seattle Mariners attempted to alter his swing towards a flyball heavy approach – a change that appeared revolutionary for a minute as Kotchman hit three home runs in his first 77 at-bats before hitting zero over his next 149 at-bats. Another hot month in July (four home runs in 66 at-bats) made the arctic performance over his final two months even more miserable (two home runs in 172 at-bats).
Maximizing the players on a roster means Kotchman being better at certain aspects than Johnson could lead to a platoon, yet there does not appear to be a situation where Kotchman makes more sense in the lineup. Johnson is the better hitter versus right-handed and groundball pitchers and equal versus left-handed and flyball pitchers. A better defender perhaps, but there is a reason composite value metrics value Johnson as the better player (1.5 WAR per 500 plate appearances) relative to Kotchman (0.79 WAR per 500 plate appearances; 1.2 without 2010 included).
Comparing Kotchman to Pena is a hollow narrative. Pena hit .243/.331/.459 in his pre-Rays days, including .240/.334/.472 over the previous three seasons. Kotchman is more comparable to Hee-Seop Choi and even he hit .240/.349/.437 before accepting a spring training invitation only to head overseas. Instead, Kotchman is a one-win player without the reliability of similar players like Adam LaRoche and Lyle Overbay.
Admittedly, Kotchman is a better option than Leslie Anderson and superior to a Chris Richard type, but Chris Carter and Ryan Shealy (who came and went unceremoniously last season despite a better big league track record than Kotchman) could provide more upside. Perhaps the Rays can unleash what other intelligent organizations like the Braves and Red Sox could not, but odds are, Kotchman’s 2007 season is a career year instead of a reasonable expectation.
Barring injury or the signing of a legitimate option – like Russell Branyan – Johnson should enter the season as the unthreatened starter.