I always felt that Adam LaRoche got a bad rap while he was in Pittsburgh. Many players get criticized for being unpredictable. In LaRoche’s case, he was too predictable. LaRoche started out every season with a poor April, heated up in May and June, then caught fire from July to the end of the season. LaRoche is a career .274 hitter, and I’m sure if you go and look at the breakdown of most .270-.280 hitters, you’ll find that they often have 1-2 bad months each season. The problem with LaRoche was that, every year, his bad months were the same.
Is that a bad thing? In 2008, Nate McLouth hit for a .214/.272/.350 line in June, and a .226/.309/.310 line in August. In that same year, Adam LaRoche hit for a .174/.260/.244 line in April, and a .228/.279/.404 line in August. McLouth finished hitting for a .276/.356/.497 line. LaRoche finished hitting for a .270/.341/.500 line. Those are similar numbers, yet McLouth was praised by Pirates fans, while at the same time people demanded more of LaRoche.
I understand that those stats look better in center field than first base, but a .270 first baseman with 25 homers a year isn’t something to scoff at. This year there were 14 first basemen with more than 25 homers. LaRoche finished with 25, putting him in the middle of the pack for major league first basemen. He’s no Albert Pujols, but he’s no Steve Pearce either.
Now that LaRoche is gone, Pirates fans may start to appreciate what he brought to the table, especially since the future of the first base position is in question.
The 2009 Season
LaRoche actually surprised a lot of people, coming out of the gate with a .269/.352/.564 line in April. It looked like he might have finally broken his early season woes. We soon found out that he only delayed the issue, as he hit for a .200/.303/.347 line in May. After success in June, LaRoche struggled again in July, with a .169/.190/.312 line.
Of course LaRoche went on to put up a .320/.391/.554 line after being traded from the Pirates, which isn’t anything new for LaRoche in the final months of the season. Meanwhile, the Pirates were giving Steve Pearce the chance to win a job, and Pearce did anything but that.
One thing to say about Pearce, he hits left handers well. Pearce had a .268/.349/.518 line in 56 at-bats against lefties this season, and a .174/.268/.294 line in 109 at-bats against right handers. This isn’t new for Pearce. In his short major league career he has a .306/.358/.561 line in 98 at-bats against left handers, and a .209/.283/.324 line in 244 at-bats against right handers.
Garrett Jones also played some first base, and did well at the plate, but with holes at first base and right field, Jones isn’t locked down to a position just yet until someone else steps up to claim one of those two jobs, leaving Jones to claim the remaining spot as his full time position.
The Pirates don’t have much at the upper levels. Jeff Clement doesn’t qualify as a prospect, but I’m putting him in this section anyways. Clement has struggled in his brief appearances in the majors, and might be done with the catching portion of his career thanks to injuries. That would make Clement the second coming of Neil Walker, with the exception being that Clement has shown success at AAA.
Clement showed his power potential with seven homers in 98 at-bats with Indianapolis this year, but only hit for a .224 average. That could be due to learning a new position, with his focus going more towards the defensive side of the game, rather than the hitting. Clement has an option left, so he can spend the 2010 season at AAA. However, with Jose Tabata also starting at AAA next season, and Garrett Jones doing well in the majors, Clement could have a small window of opportunity to break in to the lineup in Pittsburgh.
In the lower levels the Pirates have a few players from the last two drafts who look promising. Matt Hague was taken in the ninth round of the 2008 draft, and has shown some great hitting skills in his year and a half in the minors. Hague hit for a .321/.384/.470 line in 215 at-bats with West Virginia in 2008, and followed that up with a .293/.356/.412 line in 454 at-bats with Lynchburg in 2009. Hague hasn’t hit for power in terms of home runs, but he has hit for gap power, with 30 doubles this season, an indicator of future power potential.
Calvin Anderson is the same story in West Virginia. Anderson is a huge first baseman, at 6′ 7″, 240 lbs. In his first full season with West Virginia he hit for a .274/.347/.446 line with 12 homers in 372 at-bats. Anderson also had 18 doubles and five triples, which is pretty amazing for a guy his size. To put Anderson’s stats in perspective, the South Atlantic League average was .254/.324/.368, which Anderson topped easily in all areas.
Kyle Morgan is the wild card here, taken in the 36th round of the 2008 draft, and originally just expected to be organizational depth. Morgan hit for a .235/.319/.403 line with three homers in 119 at-bats in State College last year, keeping himself off the radar. He broke out big time in 2009, with a .296/.382/.541 line and nine homers in 159 at-bats in West Virginia. Morgan is a first baseman, but could switch to the outfield if he remains at the same level with Anderson next year.
Aaron Baker was taken in the 2009 draft, and played the 2009 season with State College. Baker hit for a .247/.341/.414 line, with three homers in 227 at-bats. Baker could be on his way to West Virginia next year, and should put up better numbers, as I feel his struggles might have been adjusting to wooden bats. Baker hit for a .215/.339/.342 line with one homers in his first 149 at-bats before the All-Star Break. In 78 at-bats after the break he hit for a .308/.345/.551 line with two homers. Baker also showed power potential with 25 of his 56 hits going for extra bases, including seven triples.
The first base position seems open for someone to step in and lay claim to the starting role. I would think that Steve Pearce has wasted his opportunity, leaving Jeff Clement next in line. I’m not ruling Clement out, but I don’t have high hopes for him winning the job next season. That means that Garrett Jones could be the everyday first baseman by the end of the season, and he might even take the job at the start of the season if the Pirates add a free agent outfielder, or have someone step up to play right field.
I wouldn’t rule out the Pirates adding a free agent, maybe even Adam LaRoche. I could see LaRoche coming at a favorable price, since he might give a discount to spend more time playing opposite field as his brother. This would also allow Jose Tabata more time to develop power at AAA, making it so the Pirates don’t have to rush him to the majors.
Eventually I think Garrett Jones will hold the position, with Tabata moving to the majors in right field in the future. This means that any success from Jeff Clement will likely be flipped as trade bait once Tabata is ready, which doesn’t really upset me, as it would only further improve the results of the Jack Wilson trade.
Long term the Pirates don’t have anyone stepping up as a top prospect, but they have four guys in A-ball who have good skills, and have shown power potential. I don’t think there’s a Ryan Howard or a Prince Fielder in that group, but I’m a guy who would be fine with another Adam LaRoche, which I think is highly possible from the group of Hague, Anderson, Morgan, and Baker.