Breaking down the Rays' first-base options

November 12th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry's Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

As he slumped through the second half, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Ji-Man Choi wouldn’t return as the Rays’ primary first baseman. That inevitability became reality on Thursday, when Tampa Bay traded Choi to Pittsburgh for Minor League reliever Jack Hartman.

So, what will the Rays do at first base now? Let’s look at some potential external options and a few within the organization.

On the market

This path offers the most intrigue, from multi-year possibilities to one-season stopgaps.

Free-agent sluggers Josh Bell and José Abreu aren’t tagged with qualifying offers so signing them wouldn't mean giving up a Draft pick, and either would go a long way toward stabilizing the middle of the lineup. Bell is a 30-year-old switch-hitter who makes hard contact, while Abreu is a former American League MVP and a right-handed hitter who’s performed well against everyone. They look like the best available options.

The Yankees extended Anthony Rizzo a $19.65 million qualifying offer and could retain him regardless, as he’s likely seeking a multi-year contract after a 32-homer season. He has the power and presence Tampa Bay would like, but it’s tough to see it happening. Matt Carpenter and Brandon Belt are two lower-profile, riskier left-handed-hitting candidates.

At first glance, the trade market seems less promising … with one exception: former National League MVP Cody Bellinger. The lefty-hitting outfielder/first baseman could be non-tendered by the Dodgers if he’s not dealt in the coming days. He’s been a well-below-average hitter the last two years, but his past performance and defensive versatility -- not a lot of center-field/first-base types out there, you know -- give him massive upside.

On the roster

Yandy Díaz spent most of his time at third base last season, but he has plenty of experience at first. His range might prove useful in an environment with limited defensive shifts. Díaz can also hit lefties and righties, and he could be spelled by backups like Isaac Paredes, Jonathan Aranda and Harold Ramírez.

But that would leave a hole at third, with few intriguing free-agent options there. Plugging in Paredes at the hot corner -- or at first, with Díaz remaining at third -- wouldn’t do much to satisfy the Rays' stated need for a left-handed bat to balance the lineup.

Aranda is a lefty hitter and earned a chance last season by batting .318/.394/.521 in Triple-A. Defensively, he looked best suited for first base, where he could platoon with Paredes or Ramírez (or maybe top position player prospect Curtis Mead, eventually). But Aranda didn’t hit much in the Majors, and after seeing so many young players struggle when given opportunities last season, would the Rays really risk it again at such a key offensive position?

Brandon Lowe has played 40 MLB innings at first base, although all but two of them came in 2019. If he moved off second, the Rays could sacrifice offense for rangy, up-the-middle defense with the likes of Taylor Walls and perhaps Vidal Bruján. When Lowe is healthy and hitting, his offensive production will play at any position. But some of Lowe’s value comes from playing second, and it’s easier to find offense at first base.