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Where have all the big-hitting first basemen gone?

Not too many teams enjoy the luxury of having a player like Paul Goldschmidt at first base. Ralph Freso/Getty Images

There's something odd going on in baseball:

  • The St. Louis Cardinals are aiming for their sixth consecutive postseason trip and their plan at first base is some combination of Matt Adams, who was injured and ineffective last season; Brandon Moss, who had a poor .711 OPS last season; and maybe Stephen Piscotty, who has played 108 innings at first in his professional career.

  • The Pittsburgh Pirates have won a wild card three years in a row but grew so frustrated with Pedro Alvarez's defense at first base they non-tendered him even though he hit 27 home runs. Their solution for a replacement: John Jaso, who has played five innings at first base in the majors.

  • The Washington Nationals were a disappointment a year ago, but at first base they're once again banking on Ryan Zimmerman, who has played just 156 games the past two seasons and produced a meager .308 OBP in 2015.

  • Over in the American League, the Boston Red Sox are praying that Hanley Ramirez fares better defensively at first base than he did in left field.

  • The Cleveland Indians, who have a playoff-caliber rotation, moved Carlos Santana to DH because of his poor defense at first base and signed Mike Napoli, coming off a year in which he hit .224 overall and just .191 against right-handers.

  • The Tampa Bay Rays are sleeper contenders, but who is their first baseman? James Loney again? Logan Morrison? Steve Pearce? Richie Shaffer?

  • The Houston Astros are flying high after a postseason berth but don't have a starting first baseman. Maybe it's Jon Singleton, who has played 114 games in the majors and hit .171. Maybe it will be one of their prospects, Tyler White or A.J. Reed.

  • The Toronto Blue Jays led the majors in runs a year ago, but first base is a battle between Chris Colabello (who had a terrific 2015 after being claimed on waivers) and Justin Smoak, he of the 1.9 career WAR over six seasons.

You get the picture: A lot of contenders are simply hoping something works at first base rather than possessing a surefire solution. A couple of patch jobs are somewhat by design: The Pirates have Josh Bell on the way, and he may be ready for a midseason call-up, and Houston's Reed tore up Class A and Double-A a year ago, so neither the Pirates nor Astros needed a multiyear fix. But Bell and Reed, while very good prospects, aren't guarantees to produce as rookies.

I would say this seems unique, but last year the Pirates ranked 27th in wOBA at first base and the Cardinals ranked 28th, and both still made the playoffs. In 2014, the A's and Pirates ranked 25th and 27th in 2014 and made the postseason. Still, you'd think first base is a position a contending team would expect a little more reliability and production from.

More than anything, maybe this speaks to the dire straits of first-base depth across the majors. Yes, several of the games biggest stars and best hitters play there: Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Anthony Rizzo respectively ranked second, third, fifth, ninth and 12th in the majors in OPS. The second tier includes guys like Jose Abreu, Lucas Duda, Brandon Belt, Eric Hosmer and Freddie Freeman. Even then: Did you realize Duda had the seventh-highest OPS among first basemen? After that it, starts falling off. Put it this way: The overall non-pitcher wOBA in 2015 was .323; seven teams had below-average production from first base (with several others at .323 or barely above).

That was actually a slight uptick compared to the previous few seasons. Production at first base hit a nadir in 2012. Using OPS+ splits from Baseball-Reference.com, we can compare OPS at first base compared to the overall league average for each season. The higher the number, the better the production:

2015: 118
2014: 116
2013: 116
2012: 114
2011: 121
2010: 120
2009: 125
2008: 118
2007: 116
2006: 121

That 114 was the lowest figure for first basemen since a 114 in 1991. The 125 figure in 2009 matches the best totals over the past 40 years, also reached in 1997 and 1987. Back in 2009, six of the top nine hitters by OPS were first basemen: Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Votto, Derrek Lee, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira. Cabrera hit .324/.399/.547 and that ranked just seventh among first basemen. Adam Lind, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn and Kendrys Morales also ranked in the top 20 in the majors in OPS.

Perhaps not surprisingly, first-base production throughout the steroid era was high: From 1993 through 2002, it was 120 or higher each season except 1999. So yes, as far as recent history is concerned, first-base production has declined. It is now more in line with results from the late '70s and early '80s, when the OPS+ figure hit as low as 114 in four different seasons (1978, 1981, 1982 and 1983). Think of guys like Dave Stapleton, Bill Buckner and past-their-primes Pete Rose and Steve Garvey sucking up at-bats at the position. At least first base still had the best production in 2015 of any position; back then, left or right fielders outhit first basemen in some seasons.

The big-picture issue here is that if you're not getting production at first base, you need to get it from other positions that are normally less offensively inclined. The Cardinals won 100 games last year, but it wasn't because of the offense: They scored fewer runs than the Padres or Brewers. If Adams or Moss don't step up in 2015, that puts a lot of pressure on an aging Matt Holliday and young outfielders Piscotty and Randal Grichuk. What do the Indians do if Napoli continues to struggle against right-handers? Will first base be the Astros' Achilles' heel?

As tight as these playoff races promise to be, keep an eye on first base. It will be a key position in determining which teams ultimately make it to October.