For so long, first base was where teams parked their top sluggers. Historically, it's been the best hitting position on the field, often with a dedicated player to fill the corner spot. But as the careers of some likely Hall of Fame players near an end, and as the nature of the position and the game both change, is the prototypical, iconic slugging first baseman an endangered species?Thus far this season, first base production is nearly at an all-time low. Through Sunday, MLB first basemen had combined for a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark of 99. If that holds, it will be their worst collective performance since 1948 and the third-worst of all time. The metric is useful for this sort of evaluation because it adjusts for ballpark factors and run-scoring environments, allowing one to compare the relative strength of a position from year to year and era to era. A wRC+ mark of 100 represents a league-average offensive performance.Since 2018, the position has endured one of the softer periods in its history. First basemen have averaged a 113 wRC+ since the DH came into play, tops in the game. But after sitting in the 110 range for most of the 21st century, first base production dipped to a 105 wRC+ in 2018 and 2019, finished at 108 in last year's short season, and stood at 99 after Sunday's games.At a time when the game has never needed offense more - MLB's batting average sits a woeful .234 - first basemen were hitting .228 and slugging under .400 through Sunday. Where did the sluggers go? Icon Sportswire / Getty ImagesLongtime stalwarts at the position, such as Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Albert Pujols - whom the L.A. Angels released last week - are nearing the end of their respective careers. It's not clear who might form the position's next group of sluggers; catcher is the only position-player group to get fewer wins above replacement from players 25 and younger this season. Freddie Freeman remains the top star at the position, but he'll be 32 in September. Paul Goldschmidt turns 34 that same month. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. looks like he could be an elite talent for years - but will he remain at first base? Guerrero and Texas Rangers first baseman Nate Lowe are the only 25-or-younger players excelling as batters at the position. The Angels' Jared Walsh is hitting well, but he's already 27.Not only does MLB seem to have a talent shortage at first base, but clubs are also using the position differently - and valuing it less.In the last three free-agent classes, Carlos Santana and Daniel Murphy were the only first basemen to receive more than a one-year deal, according to Spotrac, and each only signed for two years.Clubs are also spending less draft capital on the position. There was just one first baseman selected in last year's abbreviated draft: University of North Carolina product Aaron Sabato, who went 27th overall to the Minnesota Twins. Just three first basemen were top-100 picks in 2019, and the same was true in 2018. Three first basemen were selected in the first round in 2017, but two of them - Keston Hiura and Evan White - have struggled mightily in their brief major-league time.Of course, players can always slide down the defensive spectrum like many stars have - including Cabrera and Pujols, who debuted as third basemen. But there's been a lack of direct investment in the position in recent years.That lack of investment might be taking its toll. Shortstop, a once-traditionally weak-hitting position, continues to close the gap. In the 1970s, shortstops averaged a 73 wRC+ through the decade, while first basemen combined for a 112 mark. Since 2010, shortstops have posted a 90 wRC+, while first basemen are at 108. Most positions are moving toward league-average hitting in a convergence of offensive productivity, and the gap between the best and worst hitting positions is shrinking. (Pitchers are the exception as they continue to decline in relative performance.) That makes some sense; with fewer balls put in play due to record strikeout levels, teams can trade glove for bat at most positions. The relative offensive bar is then raised for first basemen.Some teams are simply struggling to find anyone to play first base. The Cleveland Indians' first basemen have produced a .173/.239/.240 slash line and a 34 wRC+. Should that wRC+ stand, it will be the worst team performance at first base in major-league history. The Detroit Tigers' first basemen have combined for a 50 wRC+, and White's struggles in Seattle have staked the Mariners to a wRC+ mark of 58. Cleveland, Detroit, and Seattle first basemen have hit like early 20th-century pitchers - before pitchers fell into negative wRC+ territory for good in the 1980s. Dylan Buell / Getty ImagesSome teams are also treating first base as a utility spot. In the modern game, roster flexibility is king as teams try to jam their rosters with as many arms as possible. A record number of players played at least one game at first base over the six seasons before the shortened 2020 campaign, according to Baseball-Reference.com, while 2018 and 2019 were the first two seasons in which fewer than 20% of players played 75% of their games there. This year, 101 players have already logged time at first - more than three per team. It's possible this year's offensive outage is just a blip on the radar, that more stars will soon emerge at the position, just as Pujols, Votto, and Cabrera did in the early 2000s. But the game and position are changing, the demands are different, and the iconic first base slugger might soon be the outlier rather than the norm.Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.
Carlos Santana hit a two-run home run to help the Kansas City Royals top the Detroit Tigers, 3-2.
Condensed Game: Brad Keller allowed two runs and Carlos Santana crushed a two-run homer to lead the Royals past the Tigers, 3-2
Carlos Santana puts the Royals on the scoreboard with a two-run home run to right field in the 3rd inning
Welcome to the third edition of theScore's MLB Power Rankings for the 2021 season. Our rankings come out biweekly, so there's been plenty of changes early on: 1. Los Angeles Dodgers Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 15-7 5-5 +32 1 (-) So far, so good for a Dodgers team that's lived up to just about every expectation as a juggernaut. The defending champions own MLB's best record and run differential. Five of their seven losses came in the last eight days, including four to the rival Padres, but that's hardly a cause for concern. These Dodgers are phenomenal.2. San Diego Padres Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 13-11 4-6 +9 2 (-) San Diego has gone toe-to-toe with the Dodgers thus far, taking three of a four-game set at Dodger Stadium and losing a couple of close contests at Petco Park. The Padres also weathered an early storm when Fernando Tatis Jr. suffered a shoulder injury, although Dinelson Lamet's continued arm issues could come back to hurt them. Still, the Padres have shown why they may be the one team that could legitimately challenge L.A.3. Oakland Athletics Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 14-8 9-1 -2 22 (+19) "Moneyball" nearly had its sequel 19 years after the A's won 20 straight games, but the Orioles stopped Oakland s win streak at 13 on Sunday. The A's outscored opponents 83-36 during the streak, which was the longest in the majors since 2017. It came after Oakland began the season losing seven of its first eight games.4. Chicago White Sox Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 12-9 7-3 +21 6 (+2) The White Sox field the AL's second-highest scoring offense, but that might not be the most exciting development early on. Michael Kopech has been incredible during his return from Tommy John surgery. The right-hander struck out 10 over five innings Sunday, and he now owns a 1.72 ERA and 0.70 WHIP to go with 27 strikeouts in 15 2/3 innings.5. Boston Red Sox Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 14-9 5-5 +20 12 (+7) The Red Sox have been one of the early-season surprises, though the AL East leaders have stumbled a bit following a hot start. Boston's pitching ranks 20th in WHIP and 23rd in ERA over the last week. Walks have especially been a problem, with the staff issuing the second-most free passes in the AL. Denis Poroy / Getty Images Sport / Getty6. Milwaukee Brewers Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 13-8 7-3 +18 17 (+11) Pitching has propelled the Brewers to an early NL Central lead, with Corbin Burnes leading the way while emerging as an ace. In addition to a sparkling 0.37 ERA and 0.33 WHIP, Burnes has yet to walk a batter in four starts. The trio of Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta has allowed just 12 earned runs and three homers in April.7. San Francisco Giants Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 14-8 6-4 +10 20 (+13) The Giants are surprisingly holding on to second place in the NL West. Their 2.94 staff ERA through 21 games is certainly helping as the team's offense struggles (88 wRC+). Although the club's plus-10 run differential suggests things will even out, two of the Giants' next three series are against the struggling Rockies, so they could keep this going for a little longer. We may not get to truly judge this team until it faces the Dodgers in a few weeks.8. Toronto Blue Jays Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 10-11 5-5 +11 9 (+1) Despite myriad concerns about the team's pitching staff entering the season and multiple injuries, the Jays have authored the AL's best ERA, and they only trail the Padres, Dodgers, and Giants in the majors. Offseason acquisition Steven Matz has been instrumental in that while posting a sterling 2.31 ERA and 3.29 FIP over his first four starts. The success of Matz and the rest of the staff might not be sustainable, but the Blue Jays' pitchers are performing well so far.9. New York Mets Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-8 5-5 -11 5 (-4) The Mets' pitching has been worth an MLB-best 4.0 fWAR this season, yet New York is only a game over .500. Poor run creation (3.3 runs per game) and lackluster defense (minus-7 DRS) were big contributors to New York's series loss to the Cubs, when the Mets were outscored by 15 runs while committing six errors.10. Atlanta Braves Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-12 5-5 -12 4 (-6) The Braves' season isn't going to plan early, but no team is running away with the NL East yet. Atlanta's offense fell flat during a doubleheader Sunday, mustering one hit across the 14 innings. However, Ronald Acuna Jr. has been unbelievable, Freddie Freeman looks great, and the club's front office may have found something in Guillermo Heredia. On the pitching side, the team's 4.00 FIP ranks 20th in the majors with Max Fried sidelined. Charlie Morton has been impressive, but he wasn't expected to be this team's ace, and Ian Anderson has yet to take his game to the next level. Julio Aguilar / Getty Images Sport / Getty11. Tampa Bay Rays Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 11-11 6-4 -5 14 (+3) Injuries have decimated the Rays' pitching staff, and the team ranks in the bottom third in the league in ERA and opponent's batting average. However, those injuries have opened the door for a pair of youngsters. Josh Fleming owns a 1.23 ERA and 0.95 WHIP through 14 2/3 innings, and top pitching prospect Luis Patino tossed 2 2/3 shutout innings in his debut with the team Sunday.12. Kansas City Royals Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 13-7 7-3 +3 19 (+7) The AL-leading Royals have become one of the most exciting teams through the first month. But there are tons of reasons why that doesn't seem sustainable. Entering Sunday, their offense has been middle-of-the-pack, and the only regulars with a wRC+ greater than 120 are Carlos Santana and Salvador Perez. The same can be said of the Royals' pitching, which has been the definition of average, though Brady Singer continues to look like a potential ace. Don't write Kansas City off, but don't buy in fully just yet.13. Houston Astros Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 10-11 4-6 +18 3 (-10) The Astros have come back down to Earth following a strong start when they thumped the opposition. Their offense remains predictably elite, ranking third in the league behind the Red Sox and White Sox in wRC+. But pitching has let them down. Zack Greinke has looked decent and Cristian Javier has been legit over a small sample, but almost everyone else is disappointing. Jake Odorizzi has run into home run trouble, surrendering three over eight innings with a 10.13 ERA.14. New York Yankees Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-12 4-6 -8 7 (-7) The Yankees are tied for last in their division, and while they shouldn't be expected to stay there, New York may be experiencing some problems. The team's pitching has been surprisingly decent while leading the AL in WAR. What's really troubling is how terrible the Yankees have been at hitting and defense. Everyone not named Aaron Judge has looked unrecognizable at the plate. Giancarlo Stanton, Clint Frazier, and Aaron Hicks have all posted sub-.300 OBPs. Even DJ LeMahieu and Gary Sanchez are slugging around the .350 mark. It's just not good enough.15. St. Louis Cardinals Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 11-10 5-5 +4 15 (-) Yadier Molina joined an elite club early this season, becoming just the fifth player to catch 2,000 career games. That's a lot of mileage, but it's not stopping the 38-year-old from leading the Cardinals' offense with five homers and a 1.044 OPS. The Cardinals made a big splash with their trade for Nolan Arenado, but Yadi is keeping them afloat in the early going. Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images Sport / Getty16. Cincinnati Reds Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-12 2-8 +11 13 (-3) The last-place Reds have lost seven straight. They're also missing Mike Moustakas because of an injury, while key pieces Eugenio Suarez, Luis Castillo, and Amir Garrett have struggled. Despite all that, David Bell's club owns a respectable plus-11 run differential because of its potent offense that's hit 32 home runs. It's far too early to write this team off.17. Philadelphia Phillies Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 10-11 4-6 -15 10 (-7) This is the Bryce Harper the Phillies paid $330 million for in 2019. The 2015 NL MVP is leading the Phillies' offense with a 1.132 OPS while drawing as many walks as strikeouts. He's the main reason why the Phillies are treading water with Andrew McCutchen slumping, Jean Segura on the injured list, and multiple players and coaches away due to COVID-19.18. Minnesota Twins Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 7-13 2-8 -9 8 (-10) Where the heck is the offense? Minnesota ranks 23rd in the majors in home runs, with Byron Buxton and Nelson Cruz accounting for 13 of the team's 21 long balls. It's really been difficult for the Twins to manufacture runs, and they've scored two or fewer times in seven of their last 10 games. Max Kapler has yet to go deep in 47 at-bats, while Miguel Sano is slugging just .244.19. Seattle Mariners Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 13-9 6-4 +4 23 (+4) Are the Mariners for real? Seattle sits one game behind the A's for first place in the AL West thanks to a .636 road-winning percentage, and Kendall Graveman leading a surprisingly good bullpen. Opponents are hitting .038 against the Mariners right-hander, and he's allowed one hit and zero runs to go along with 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings.20. Los Angeles Angels Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 10-10 3-7 -17 11 (-9) It's hard not to connect Mike Trout's absence to the Astros walloping the Angels. Los Angeles dropped three of four over the weekend, getting outscored 31-12 with their superstar outfielder sidelined. However, while losing Trout would be an issue for any team, pitching is holding the Angels back, as their 5.22 ERA is the league's worst. The saving grace, though, is that their 3.75 FIP is respectable, and Andrew Heaney, Alex Cobb, Dylan Bundy, and others should eventually get better results. Quinn Harris / Getty Images Sport / Getty21. Chicago Cubs Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 10-11 5-5 -2 21 (-) In the five days since Joc Pederson sounded off on the sorry state of his team's offense, the Cubs' bats have come alive to the tune of a 141 wRC+. That breakout was sorely needed, as Chicago had owned the league's second-worst offense. The Cubs still need more over a longer period, and Pederson himself could step up after returning from the IL. But it must be comforting for manager David Ross to see even a bit of life at the plate.22. Cleveland Indians Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-11 3-7 0 16 (-6) Without elite pitching, the Indians aren't an especially fearsome team. And their pitching hasn't been elite so far this year. Shane Bieber is still otherworldly, and Aaron Civale may be taking a step forward, though his FIP indicates regression. But no one else has shown an ability to fill Mike Clevinger's spot. Young stud Triston McKenzie is coming off a stinker against the Yankees, and he now owns a 4.32 ERA and 5.97 FIP.23. Arizona Diamondbacks Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 11-11 7-3 +8 25 (+2) Entering Sunday, the Diamondbacks were the only team with a pitching staff worth negative WAR. So, what did Zac Gallen and Madison Bumgarner do? Allow one hit over 14 total innings of a doubleheader against the Braves. When healthy, Gallen has been a great starter, but Bumgarner has looked downright pedestrian prior to his most recent outing. If Bumgarner can be the horse Arizona thought he was when they signed him, then maybe - just maybe - this team can stay in the wild-card mix.24. Washington Nationals Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 8-11 5-5 -24 18 (-6) The Nationals' offense is in a funk. Washington has been shut out five times while scoring just 3.3 runs per game. Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber have combined for two homers, and Trea Turner is striking out in 26% of his at-bats. The return of Juan Soto, who could be back in the lineup before the end of the month, can t come soon enough. Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images Sport / Getty25. Miami Marlins Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-12 4-6 +1 24 (-1) Rookie second baseman Jazz Chisholm Jr. is breaking out as an all-around threat. In addition to his stellar defense, the 23-year-old owns a .904 OPS with four homers and four steals, and he's tied for the second-highest WAR at his position. The Marlins may have found their much-needed offensive spark plug.26. Baltimore Orioles Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-12 4-6 -6 27 (+1) The Orioles are tied for last place in the division, but it hasn't been all bad news in Baltimore. John Means shut down the A's on Sunday, ending their 13-game winning streak in the process. The left-hander owns a 1.50 ERA - the fourth-best mark in the majors - and a 0.87 WHIP across five starts. He's Baltimore's only starter with an ERA under 4.50.27. Colorado Rockies Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 8-13 5-5 +6 26 (-1) The Rockies' offense ranks 19th in WAR, which is quite the feat for a team playing its home games at a high altitude. Charlie Blackmon, who briefly flirted with .400 last year, is hitting .153 with a 45 OPS+. Trevor Story has slugged only two home runs. German Marquez can defy the altitude and pitch like an ace, but if the Rockies aren't hitting, their season might get even uglier than most prognosticators expected.28. Pittsburgh Pirates Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 11-11 6-4 -10 30 (+2) It took Pittsburgh 10 fewer games to collect their 10th win in 2021 compared to last season, so it's already been an encouraging start. Part of that success is due to JT Brubaker. The right-hander has posted a 2.01 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 23 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings.29. Texas Rangers Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 9-13 4-6 -18 29 (-) Texas has actually faired pretty well considering 16 of its 22 games have come against teams with a .500 or better record. Adolis Garcia, acquired from the Cardinals in 2019, has been a nice surprise. He leads the team with a .927 OPS and five home runs. Joey Gallo boasts one of the weirder stat lines in MLB. He's recorded just one extra-base hit and 30 strikeouts over 66 at-bats, but Gallo leads the majors with 21 walks.30. Detroit Tigers Record Last 10 RD Previous Rank (Change) 7-15 1-9 -37 28 (-2) The Tigers dropped their fourth straight game Sunday and have notched just two series wins. However, Matthew Boyd hasn't been part of Detroit s inferiority. Opposing hitters are batting just .189 against the left-hander, who ranks fourth in the AL in ERA. This is coming after Boyd tied for the major-league lead in homers allowed last season. Maybe the Tigers can get some value for him if they decide to make a trade.Copyright © 2021 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.