Who’ll play first base for the Rays in 2011?

As I did with the Red Sox yesterday, I charted out the Rays current roster today in preparation for my upcoming previews (which tentatively will start February 7th).

This, of course, coincided with the press conference introducing both Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez as official members of the Rays, but I’m not here to talk about that; well, not mostly anyway.  We know that the Rays plan to use Manny as the DH and Damon in mostly a corner-outfield role, which will certainly yield hilarious results.  I do, for the record, love both signings as I think the two of them still have a lot left offensively and came so cheaply that I’m considering asking Rays GM Andrew Friedman to marry me on a count of his ability to run a baseball team.

But like I said, I’m not here to talk about that.

No, I want to talk about one area of concern for the Rays: First base.

The storyline this offseason for the Rays has been the departure of many key free agents.  Franchise staple Carl Crawford signed with division-rival Boston.  The franchise’s all-time home run leader Carlos Pena signed with the Cubs, and the bullpen was also gutted with the loss of closer Rafael Soriano and other relievers Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Chad Qualls, Randy Choate, and Lance Cormier.

But as we will soon know in more detail thanks to Jonah Keri’s upcoming release The Extra 2%, the Rays are a franchise that is built to absorb these types of losses.  You see my friends, the Rays are built like an onion; when one layer is peeled away, there is a fresh new layer of young talent ready to step up and take their place.

Trading from strengths for prospects and building through the draft are the cornerstones of this system.  Friedman and his staff were at it once again this offseason, trading from their two positions of strength, shortstop and starting pitching, to maintain a system that is expected to graduate the team’s top two prospects in Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson.

First, the Rays shipped shortstop Jason Bartlett to the Padres for a host of relief arms to help rebuild their bullpen and then they dealt starting pitcher Matt Garza to the Cubs for a thief’s bounty of prospects, which allows the team the space to bring Jeremy Hellickson into the fold full time.

And all those free agents leaving means a boat-load of compensatory draft picks for the Rays.  They’ll actually have twelve of the first 93 picks in the 2011 draft, and eleven before the Tigers even make their first selection.

But let’s get back to the first base situation.

Carlos Pena had his worst season as a Ray last year, but was still able to sign for some healthy coin in Chicago leaving a gaping hole at first base in Tampa.

At first glance, it appears as though Dan Johnson is the most likely to take over there this season, which is frightening if you’re a Rays’ fan since he’s 31 and has all of 1429 plate appearances.

The good thing is that Johnson was a monster at AAA-Durham last year posting a surreal 1.054 OPS with 30 homeruns and 95 RBI in only 98 games.  The bad thing is that he has always been a good hitter at AAA, but it has yet to translate to the majors.  At his age, there’s a good chance it never does.

So what if Johnson fails miserably?  Well, the Rays just inked Casey Kotchman to a minor-league contract.

Kotchman had a disastrous season in 2010 with Seattle finishing with an atrocious slash line of .217/.280/.336.  On top of that, he wasn’t strong defensively, which was unusual considering just how good he had been as a first baseman in his career.

Kotchman has been around a while, but is still only 28 and in his prime.  With regular time, he should see a rebound to his career numbers of .259/.326/.392.  Not terrific, especially for a first baseman, but he may be a better option than Johnson for this year; he’s certainly a huge upgrade defensively.

Then there’s the intriguing option no one seems to be talking about: Chris Carter, formerly of the Mets and Red Sox.

Carter was once a highly touted outfielder in both Boston’s and New York’s system, but has fallen off the map in recent years.  He’ll come to camp, like Kotchman, on a low-risk minor-league deal.  He’s played more than enough first base in the minors to be considered an option there and last season posted a .263/.317/.389 line mostly in cavernous Citi Field while finding his way into 100 games with the Mets.

If Carter proves he can hit enough this spring, then he could break camp as an everyday player.  Kotchman and Johnson do have the inside track though.

Another good thing about the Rays lineup this season is its versatility.  Ben Zobrist can play anywhere but catcher effectively, Sean Rodriguez can play the middle infield and corner outfield spots, while Matt Joyce can play both corner outfield spots with ease which will give the Rays a lot of flexibility.

Not to mention that Dan Johnson can sort of play third base and Chris Carter, if he makes the team, can play the outfield.

The main area of concern, however, for the Rays has to be their bullpen.  I’ll go over why I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as people think later tonight or tomorrow.

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