Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matt Rourke/AP/Shutterstock (13488817au) San Diego Padres’ Josh Bell hits a RBI-double during the seventh inning in Game 5 of the baseball NL Championship Series between the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies, in Philadelphia NLCS Padres Phillies Baseball, Philadelphia, United States – 23 Oct 2022
Looking at the best free agents in the 2023 class at a potential position of need for the World Champions
Josh Bell (.266/.362/.422 17 HR 71 RBI 78 R 0 SB 3.0 WAR)
Bell is an interesting and undervalued player. He is a switch hitter who does not exhibit major platoon splits from either side, with slash lines of .262/.364/.404 vs RHP and .276/.357/.459 vs. LHP. Hitting .301 with an .877 OPS when he was traded at the deadline from Washington to San Diego, he struggled to find his groove at the plate with his new team. In August and September, Bell hit only .192, and his OPS was .290 points lower than it was in Washington for the first four months of the season.
However, his overall numbers were in line with his career norms of .262/.351/.459, and he hit .353 in the NLCS with 1 HR and 3 RBI. Bell also could have been the victim of some bad luck in San Diego, as his BABIP as a Padre in the regular season was only .233, down from .324 with the Nationals and his career average BABIP of .288.
Bell has a high walk rate, and for a power hitter, he doesn’t strike out a lot (81 BB, 102K in 647 PA). Bell makes good contact and puts balls in play.
As a defensive first baseman, Bell is below league average. He will not be confused with a Gold Glover like Yuli Gurriel defensively but he’s not a total stiff, either. As a switch hitter who can hit for power and average from both sides of the plate, his bat will more than make up for his defensive deficiencies.
Entering his age 30 season, he is still a viable defensive player, but could become more of a DH as he ages. For a team like the Astros that will want to at least timeshare DH for Yordan Alvarez, Bell would need to be a primary first baseman with the Astros with the occasional DH start. With the elimination of the shift, the balance Bell brings to the lineup is even more valuable, as Houston could alternate lefty/righty further down the lineup making it harder for opposing managers to matchup their bullpens later in games. Anything more than 3 years is likely going into full time DH territory.
Jose Abreu (.304/.378/.446 15 HR 75 RBI 85 R 0 SB 4.2 WAR)
Abreu is a highly respected team leader and Cuban baseball legend. He is a fan favorite in Chicago as well.
He is also entering free agency for his age 36 season, coming off a year that saw a significant downturn in home runs falling from 30 in 2021 to only 15 in 2022. he did improve his doubles total from 30 to 40 in the same time frame, but those are balls that he used to put out of the building.
He is still a difference-maker bat, with an OPS+ of 133 (33% better than league average), although he has significant limitations as a fielder. He has been a consistent RBI machine, although he does have a penchant for grounding into the double play.
He is another candidate for a short-term deal and someone with whom the Astros could potentially do well even though he is a right-handed hitting first baseman. Abreu is a player with a winning pedigree, with a ROY, an MVP, and is a three-time All-Star. Internationally, he is a Cuban MVP, Cuban National Series MVP, and Intercontinental Cup Champion. International players hold him in very high regard.
The White Sox cannot make him a qualifying offer, so there is no compensation for signing him. He is another player whose bat makes up for his defense, but he is also the kind of high leadership type player that should fit in well with the Astros winning culture.
Justin Turner (.278/.350/.438 13 HR 81 RBI 61 R 3 SB 2.0 WAR)
While I am admittedly getting a little outside the box here, I am doing so for good reason. First, the list of quality first-basemen free agents is short, and second, Turner is position flexible.
Since reworking his swing before the 2015 season, Turner has transformed from a “Punch and Judy” hitter into one of the most consistent hitters in the National League. Even at age 37 in 2022, Turner put up solid numbers and a 116 OPS+.
Primarily a third baseman for his career, he also has experience at second and first base. Entering age 38, a full-time shift to first base would likely be easier on his body. Turner is coming off one of his better years defensively at third and should at least be league-average as a 1B in the short term. Like Abreu, he is a right-handed batter and would likely be looking at a one-year deal for half of what Abreu’s price tag is expected to be.
While he wouldn’t be a primary option for that position, he would make for an acceptable backup plan should the Astros be unable to land a Bell/Abreu and deem Rizzo too expensive while they decide what they have in Yainer Diaz.
Trey Mancini (.239/.319/.391 18 HR 63 RBI 56 R 0 SB 1.4 WAR)
Mancini is about to enter his age 31 season as a World Champion. Mancini struggled mightily upon being traded to the Astros at the deadline and horrifically in the postseason, where he was 1-for-21 with eight strikeouts. He is a terrific story of overcoming cancer and a highly likable player who seemed to have the respect of his teammates.
While his comeback story is an inspiration, his regression since his return from Stage three colon cancer is noticeable. His OPS was down 48 points from 2021 to 2022.
Now, part of his poor play with the Astros could be due to inconsistent playing time. Now that he has been part of the team for three months, perhaps he could settle in as an everyday first baseman and return to being a .260ish hitter with 20 HR. His terrific defensive play in at first in the World Series in relief on an injured Yuli Gurriel should have earned him some defensive trust with manager Dusty Baker, who will be sticking around as he seeks a second ring.
While 31 shouldn’t be considered old, Mancini hasn’t led a typical life or career in his successful battle against cancer. It’s highly likely he will age much faster as a result. It would be dangerous to get into a long term contract with him, but a one year stopgap deal for a player who likely wouldn’t cost much wouldn’t be the end of the world. There have long been rumors he wants to return to Baltimore, previously the only franchise he had ever been a part of.