The 2014 Pirates Preview – First Base
Today we begin a position-by-position analysis of the options available to the Pittsburgh Pirates front office as they prepare to assemble the best team possible in 2014. At first glance, it might appear that there really isn’t much work to do; this team won 94 games and threw in three playoff victories to boot, and many positions are filled by young, cost-controlled players. But some cracks started to show down the stretch, and there are at least two positions that require some close attention. We begin with one of those positions – first base.
While first base was not an enormous black hole for the Pirates in 2013, it wasn’t a bright spot either – Pirate first basemen ranked 18th in wRC+, 20th in SLG, and 20th in ISO. The position needs some focus moving forward and perhaps more importantly, some real decisiveness and initiative on the part of management.
One of these things is not like the others:
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There is nothing wrong with the approach the Pirates took towards first base this year, other than the fact that Garrett Jones failed to hold up his end of what could have been a very effective platoon. Jones slipped from a wRC+ of 123 in 2012 all the way down to 97 in 2013, and Gaby Sanchez naturally did not receive enough opportunities against left-handed pitching to make up the difference. The Pirates could simply bring back Sanchez and Jones and hope for a bounce back year from the latter. That would be a reasonable approach, although the combined arbitration salaries of these two platoon partners could approach $9M, which is about the point where you can begin to consider an upgrade on the open market.
The Pirates could try to trade Jones, but that ship sailed last winter. Most likely, they will non-tender him. That leaves our outlier, Justin Morneau, who tried to singlehandedly redefine the position of first base, eschewing power in favor of on-base skills like a National League Daric Barton. There are two reasons why replacing Jones with Morneau will not work. First, Morneau will garner a salary of $7M or so all by himself, wiping out most of the budget for the position. Second, we saw firsthand that Clint Hurdle, apparently star struck, could not be trusted to subject Morneau to a strict platoon. Neal Huntington has gone on record as suggesting that the Pirates would like to bring Morneau back, to which I say…uhm, no. While the Pirates could no doubt use his OBP, a first baseman with an ISO of .052 is like a shark with no teeth, and his performance with Minnesota, while more traditional for his position on the diamond, resulted in a wRC+ of 103, or about what the Pirates put forth on the whole. Justin, you’re a nice guy, and you contributed greatly to one of the most exciting plays in the history of Pirates baseball, but please don’t let the door hit your keister on the way out.
The only other internal option is Andrew Lambo, although that is subject to the assumption that the Pirates realize he is a member of their organization. Lambo is still young enough that his 32-home run breakthrough can be considered to be real, especially since he actually improved upon his promotion to AAA. His defense will not impress anyone, but he could certainly put up comparable numbers to Morneau, and even Jones in a good year, at a fraction of the cost. This is a very viable option for the Pirates, but I would be shocked if they avail themselves of it.
The “get out of jail card” for the Pirates is Cuban defector Jose Daniel Abreu, who I wrote about here. I have seen Abreu play enough to believe that he is the way, the truth and the light for the Pirates, but competition for his services is shaping up to be greater than first anticipated. The Rangers, Red Sox, Giants, White Sox and Mets all seem to be genuinely interested, and the Pirates would have a difficult time surviving a bidding war with that group – difficult, but not impossible. Even at the high end of the estimated salary spectrum, Abreu should not cost more than $10M per year, which is much more affordable for Pittsburgh than many believe. At that salary, Abreu is only marginally more costly than it would be to bring back any combination of the players the Pirates fielded at the position this year, while offering the possibility of a home run, both literally and figuratively. Given the costs of scouting, signing and developing a hitter of Abreu’s ability, he should actually be considered a bargain and a very cost-effective option for a small market team.
There is a way for the Pirates to benefit from Abreu’s position on the market should they fail to sign him themselves – they can fall back on the players that Abreu may replace on other teams. Should the Red Sox win the bidding war, for instance, they will almost certainly jettison Mike Napoli, who – due to concerns over his hip condition – will probably not be in line for more than a two year commitment. Likewise, the Rangers would probably abandon Mitch Moreland should they land Abreu, given that Moreland is due for a considerable salary increase through arbitration. While the Giants would probably move their incumbent, Brandon Belt, to left field, and Paul Konerko’s future is uncertain, the Mets would have no use for either Ike Davis or Lucas Duda should they win the Abreu competition.
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Napoli has established himself as a legitimate power hitter at the same time as his strikeout rate has skyrocketed. Combining him with Pedro Alvarez would undoubtedly increase the number of bombs leaving PNC Park while also improving ventilation for the fans. Surprisingly, the defensive metrics liked him at first base this year. Moreland is less of a strikeout threat, but he has never put together a season that suggests he is a legitimate everyday first baseman. In his defense, he may have been on his way to such a season before a hamstring injury derailed him in June. Davis is the biggest risk here, and I just don’t see the Pirates taking a flyer on a guy who has done a very good impression of Pedro Alvarez at his worst - in consecutive seasons. If the Pirates are interested in the one skill that Davis consistently provides – on base percentage – they would be better served by taking a hard look at Duda, who would give them a very nice complimentary piece in a Gaby Sanchez platoon.
Finally, a perusal of the ranks of minor league first basemen reveals some pretty slim pickings, with one possible exception. I have always been a Vince Belnome fan. The ex-Padre prospect was lost in the shuffle in San Diego back when people still thought they had an elite farm system, and the Rays took a shot with him, moving Belnome to first base where he led Durham to the International League championship. Belnome is by no means a slugger, but his wRC+ of 143 was second in the league behind the 29 year-old Chris Colabello. Belnome is a left-handed hitter with a healthy platoon split; he would make a very nice partner for Sanchez, and has considerable experience at both second and third base as well.
The Pirates have many different directions they can follow to settle their first base problem, but the most direct path to success probably runs through Cienfuegos – Jose Daniel Abreu would be the simplest method of getting where they need to go, with one roster spot and without breaking the bank. If that road is blocked, there are many other ways the Pirates can go.
Tomorrow we look at a position that offers more detours – right field.