No first baseman performed better in 2020 than Atlanta's Freddie Freeman, arguably one of the most underrated Major Leaguers before winning the National League MVP Award in his 11th season. Up north in New York, Dominic Smith finished fourth at the position in FanGraphs WAR, while reigning NL Rookie of the Year Award winner Pete Alonso had a down campaign.
On the other side of the infield, several teams face uncertainty at the hot corner -- but not the Marlins. Homegrown talent Brian Anderson paced NL East third basemen in WAR and was named a Gold Glove Award finalist. For the Phillies, Alec Bohm, who finished as the runner-up for the NL Rookie of the Year Award, proved to be a hit machine. Upon his callup, he posted a .338/.400/.481 slash line in 44 games.
As we continue our Around The Horn series, here is a breakdown of each NL East team’s corner-infield plans:
The known: Coming off his first MVP season, first baseman Freddie Freeman will attempt to maintain his ranking among the game’s elite. Freeman hit a career-high 38 homers in 2019 and produced a 35-homer pace while constructing a 1.102 OPS over 60 games last year. The '18 Gold Glove Award winner is entering his 11th season as Atlanta’s starting first baseman. The primary question surrounding him is whether he will get an extension before he enters this final year of his current contract.
The unknown: Austin Riley produced some encouraging stretches last year and hit the go-ahead homer in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the NL Championship Series. He has also shown the capability of being an above-average defender at third base. But he hasn’t yet created the consistency necessary to entrench himself as the club’s long-term option at the hot corner. This will be a big season for the young slugger, who could draw some competition from Johan Camargo, who will come to Spring Training fresh off a successful stint in the Dominican Winter League.
-- Mark Bowman
The known: In December, Miami retained Garrett Cooper and Jesús Aguilar, likely with the assumption the universal DH would return. Cooper (130 OPS+) and Aguilar (120 OPS+) -- both of whom are right-handed first basemen -- were key cogs in the middle of Miami's offense in 2020. Earlier this offseason, manager Don Mattingly called it a "good problem to have" both quality bats in the lineup. Manning third will be NL Gold Glove Award finalist Brian Anderson, who played in all but one regular-season game last season. He has 31 homers and an .810 OPS in his past 185 games.
The unknown: The DH won't return in the NL, so how will the Marlins divvy up playing time at first? Cooper has 34 MLB games in right field, but Miami is reportedly nearing an agreement with free agent Adam Duvall. Could Cooper, who's missed significant time in the past with injuries, be the odd man out? Meanwhile, Lewin Díaz (Miami's No. 8 prospect) is waiting in the wings. The 24-year-old debuted in 2020, going 6-for-39 and looking smooth on defense. Should Anderson continue his trajectory, will the Marlins offer an extension and make him a cornerstone?
-- Christina De Nicola
The known: Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis are (probably) back as the Mets’ starting corner infielders, both coming off down years following 2019 breakouts. Alonso lost playing time to Dominic Smith last season but should regain most of it with Smith receiving everyday reps in left field. Davis’ status is a bit more tenuous. Mets officials have only casually committed to him as the starting third baseman, all while exploring possible upgrades. Plenty of optimism still surrounds Davis offensively, along with a hope that he can improve at his natural defensive position. But if Davis can’t, the Mets have Luis Guillorme and Jonathan Villar ready to spell him at third.
The unknown: Only an unexpected return of the universal designated hitter rule would affect this situation, with Smith, Alonso and Davis all candidates to DH. Barring that, the most significant unknowns revolve around the amount of rope Mets officials will give Alonso and Davis. If Alonso’s 2020 struggles continue into April, would the Mets consider benching him in favor of Smith? If Davis does the same, might the Mets give his job to Villar (or, eventually, look for upgrades on the trade market)? The Mets can afford some growing pains for both players, but not forever.
-- Anthony DiComo
The known: The Nationals traded pitching prospects Wil Crowe and Eddy Yean to the Pirates on Christmas Eve to acquire Josh Bell as their starting first baseman. After Washington defended the position by committee last season, Bell gives the team an everyday option. The Nats also addressed their need for a backup first baseman by re-signing veteran Ryan Zimmerman to a one-year deal last month. Zimmerman provides a right-handed bat to complement the switch-hitting Bell.
The unknown: For the second year in a row, the Nationals are giving Carter Kieboom the opportunity to earn the starting third-base job. Kieboom went through a learning curve in 2020 as he adjusted to his first season at the hot corner. Manager Dave Martinez said this winter, “I think he’s going to be fine, but he’s got to believe that in himself.” Unlike last season with Asdrúbal Cabrera, the Nationals do not have an automatic go-to veteran backup. Among options on the 40-man roster is utility man Josh Harrison, who has over 1,900 innings of experience at third base.
-- Jessica Camerato
The known: The Phillies have two top-of-the-order hitters playing the corners. First baseman Rhys Hoskins has an .861 OPS and 125 OPS+ in four seasons, ranking 27th and 29th in MLB in those categories, respectively (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). Third baseman Alec Bohm finished second last season for NL Rookie of the Year, batting .338 with four home runs, 23 RBIs and seemingly endless clutch hits. He spent his first 28 games hitting in the bottom of the Phillies’ lineup, but the final 14 hitting second or third, partly because of injuries and partly because he earned it.
The unknown: Hoskins is recovering from left elbow surgery, but he told The Philadelphia Inquirer last month that he plans to be ready by Opening Day on April 1. If Hoskins’ recovery experiences a hiccup or if he just needs a day off, who plays first base? Last season, seven people played there: Hoskins, Bohm, Phil Gosselin, Neil Walker, J.T. Realmuto, Jay Bruce and Andrew Knapp. At the moment, Bohm could move to first and Jean Segura or Scott Kingery could play third. The Phillies are looking to find more bench help before camp opens, so the answer could come from there, too.
-- Todd Zolecki