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As he crumbled in the second half, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Ji-Man Choi would not return as the Rays’ primary first baseman. That inevitability became reality 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 some within the organization.
This path offers the most intrigue, from multi-year possibilities to one-season stopgap.
Freelance hitters Josh Bell and Jose 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 to stabilizing the middle of the roster. Bell is a 30-year-old hitter who makes hard contact, while Abreu is a former American League MVP and a right-handed hitter who performed well against everyone. They look like the best options available.
The Yankees extended Anthony Rizzo a $19.65 million qualifying offer and could retain him regardless, as he is likely seeking a multi-year contract after a 32-home run season. He has the power and presence that Tampa Bay would love, but it’s hard to see it happening. Matt Carpenter and Brandon Belt are two more low-key, riskier left-handed candidates.
At first glance, the trade market looks less promising… with one exception: former National League MVP Cody Bellinger. The left-handed outfielder/first baseman could be unoffered by the Dodgers if not dealt with in the coming days. He’s been a well-below-par hitter the past two years, but his past performance and defensive versatility — not a lot of center field/first base types out there, you know — give him a huge advantage.
Yandy Díaz spent most of his time at third base last season, but he has a lot of experience at the start. His range could come in handy in an environment with limited defensive changes. Díaz can hit lefties and righties alike, and he could be spelled by substitutes like Isaac Paredes, Jonathan Aranda and Harold Ramírez.
But that would leave a hole in the third, with few intriguing free agent options there. Plugging Paredes into the hot corner — or early, with Díaz staying at third — wouldn’t do much to satisfy the Rays’ stated need for a left-handed bat to balance the lineup.
Aranda is a left-handed hitter and got a shot last season hitting .318/.394/.521 in Triple-A. Defensively, he seemed best suited for first base, where he could form a platoon with Paredes or Ramírez (or perhaps top prospect Curtis Mead, eventually). But Aranda hasn’t hit much in the Majors, and after seeing so many young players struggle with opportunities last season, would the Rays really risk starting over at such a key attacking position?
Brandon Lowe has played 40 MLB innings at first base, though all but two have come in 2019. If he started second, the Rays could sacrifice offense for long-and-middle defense with the likes of Taylor Walls and maybe Vidal Brujan. When Lowe is healthy and hitting, his offensive production will play at any position. But part of Lowe’s value comes from playing second, and it’s easier to find the offense at first base.