Yesterday I went over the right field situation, noting that the circumstances didn’t change during the 2010 season. The Pirates started the season with a lot of options, but no lock for a right fielder, and ended the season with new options, and no lock for a future right fielder. The first base scenario is a lot of the same. The start of the season saw Jeff Clement as the starting first baseman. Many were worried about Clement’s defense, after moving from catcher to first. I was more concerned with his hitting, which ended up being the big problem this year.
The Pirates had Steve Pearce in the minors as an option. Like Neil Walker, Pearce had a huge season in AAA, hitting for a .326/.424/.535 line in 129 at-bats. Pearce got the call to the majors, and hit for a respectable .276/.395/.414 line in a mere 29 at-bats before going down for the season with a knee injury.
Garrett Jones moved to first after Jose Tabata came up, pushing Lastings Milledge to right field, and Jones from right to first. Jones had a disappointing year, with a .247 average, and a .720 OPS, despite having 21 homers. Part of the problem was that Jones struggled against left handers, possibly putting him in line for a platoon role going forward.
Like the right field situation, the Pirates have options, but no strong options going in to the 2011 season. The options include Jones, Pearce, Clement, and John Bowker. Jones is the best option, although he will have to improve on his 2010 totals to be a reliable starter. Pearce and Clement have struggled in their brief appearances in the majors, although there’s some hope for each player. Pearce has been good against left handers, while Clement has shown some power and little else. Both are out of options, which means the best case scenario would be for the Pirates to pick one, use him off the bench, and hope they catch lightning in a bottle in an emergency situation. Overall, I don’t expect much from either player. Bowker also seems like more of a bench player, who also struggles to hit left handers.
Short Term Options
In my review of the right field situation, I suggested the Pirates go with a platoon of Jones and Lastings Milledge, playing on Milledge’s strength against left handers. One of the reasons for this is due to the external options that are available for the first base position.
The Pirates won’t be players for top free agent options like Adam Dunn, Paul Konerko, or Aubrey Huff. They probably won’t have a shot at guys like Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, or Lance Berkman, and honestly the last two seem like they could be Jeromy Burnitz part two. Two interesting options who could be possible for the Pirates are former Pirates Adam LaRoche and Xavier Nady.
LaRoche is coming off a down year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, which saw him hit for a .261/.320/.468 line in 560 at-bats. LaRoche drew a lot of criticism while he was here, but truthfully he was an average to above average first baseman who was talked about like he was a below average player. The problem was that LaRoche was expected to carry the offense, and LaRoche isn’t that guy. He’s more of your third or fourth best hitter in the lineup, rather than your middle of the order guy. LaRoche traditionally has the slow start, although last year he was better in April than he was in September.
Nady is extremely injury prone, missing almost the entire 2009 season, and serving more of a bench role with the Cubs in 2010. His numbers weren’t good, with a .256/.306/.353 line. It should be noted that Nady had his best years with the Pirates, although that might be because those were his age 27-29 years. Nady played 52 games at first base with the Cubs last year, so he has first base experience. He’s not a strong option, but would be worth a flier if all else fails.
One of the most intriguing options is James Loney. Loney is arbitration eligible for the second time with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but is a non-tender candidate due to coming off a poor season. He made $3.1 M in 2010, and would be due a raise over that number through arbitration. Loney’s numbers don’t look good on the surface, but his home/road splits are worth a look. Loney is a career .268/.334/.377 hitter in 1080 at-bats at home with the Dodgers. He’s got a .307/.361/.493 in 1125 at-bats on the road in his career. Dodger Stadium is a pitcher friendly park, so it’s easy to see how Loney could be better on the road. Those road numbers might be worth a gamble on Loney. He might not replicate those numbers, but he’s definitely worth adding just for the chance that he comes close.
The future doesn’t look good at first base at the moment. The Pirates have drafted first base prospects in the middle rounds of the last three drafts, netting Matt Hague, Calvin Anderson, Aaron Baker, and Matt Curry. Anderson has a huge frame, but has struggled at the plate. Baker hits home runs, but lacks other hitting skills, and so far has been a sub-.800 OPS guy in the lower levels. Curry is too new to evaluate, but I would temper expectations on him. It’s nice to think that he could be a .300 hitting first baseman with power, but there’s a reason he slipped to the 16th round as a senior, and it wasn’t because he has a strong chance of being a future starter.
Hague is the best first base prospect in the system, but his upside is probably a James Loney or Casey Kotchman type player (assuming Loney’s stats are legit and weren’t negatively influenced due to Dodger Stadium). Hague has power, but that mostly translates in to gap shots. He’s strong defensively, rating as one of the best defenders at first base in the minors. Hague has hit for average every step of the way, including strong numbers in Altoona this past year. Still, he doesn’t project as more than an average first baseman, and isn’t a strong candidate to eventually start.
The likely option will be that Pedro Alvarez eventually shifts from third base to first base, although the Pirates also lack third base options. They are currently in position for a solution to that problem, holding the number one draft pick in 2011, and the chance to draft Anthony Rendon. Rendon is in college, there’s no guarantee he’s drafted by the Pirates, and even beyond that, there’s no guarantees that he makes the majors and lives up to his hype. That said, the hype is there for a reason with Rendon, and top college hitters traditionally have the best success rate not only with reaching the majors, but with turning in to star players.
It would be hard to imagine the Pirates passing on Rendon next year, assuming he’s healthy (and all reports are positive on his health). That, plus the hype and high success rate of top college hitters, is why I think the long term at first base will be Pedro Alvarez, right after Anthony Rendon takes over the third base position.