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Potential Off-Season Targets: First Basemen

The Pirates need to upgrade over Jones at first base this off-season.

A week ago I looked at some options to fill the starting pitching needs for the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates.  Since then, a few names and rumors have emerged, with the focus mostly being on pitching.  Despite the coverage focusing around pitchers, the 2011 Pirates have a few more needs on the team.  One of the needs is either a first baseman or a right fielder.

In my current 25-man roster projection I have Garrett Jones projected as the starting first baseman, and Lastings Milledge as the starting right fielder.  Jones had a breakout year in 2009, but saw a regression in his numbers during the 2010 season.  He hit for a .247/.306/.414 line in 592 at-bats with 21 homers.  He had trouble against left handers, with a .220/.261/.360 line and six homers in 214 at-bats, compared to a .262/.330/.444 line and 15 homers in 378 at-bats against right handers.

The Pirates have talked about platooning Jones, although he might be best fit for right field, considering his problems at first base attempting the throw to second on 3-6-3 play attempts.  The ideal situation would be a platoon in right field with Milledge or Steve Pearce.  Milledge hit for a .320/.414/.512 line in 125 at-bats against left handers in 2010, compared to a .256/.287/.315 line against right handers.  Pearce is a career .304/.372/.557 hitter in 115 at-bats against left handers, compared to a .211/.286/.320 hitter in 256 at-bats against right handers.  Milledge struggled with his defense in right field, with some horrible routes, although Pearce may not be a guaranteed upgrade since he doesn’t have a long track record in right field.

If the Pirates do go with a platoon option in right field, that would leave first base open.  Here are some of the options that could be available this off-season.

Free Agents

The free agent market provides a lot of upgrade candidates, and the Pirates could definitely find an option that would fall in to their price range.  The first base options include Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee, Russell Branyan, Aubrey Huff, Carlos Pena, Adam LaRoche, Nick Johnson, and Lyle Overbay.  Dunn is the top option on the market, and unlikely to land with the Pirates.  The same could be said for Konerko.  Berkman and Lee are concerns due to their ages, with both players turning 36 next year.

FanGraphs polled their readers on some of the first base contracts this off-season, focusing on five of the top guys behind Dunn.  Their results:

Average length:

Paul Konerko: 2.43 years
Carlos Pena: 2.25 years
Aubrey Huff: 2.20 years
Lance Berkman: 1.68 years
Lyle Overbay: 1.44 years

Average salary:

Konerko: $10.96 million
Pena: $8.94 million
Huff: $8.80 million
Berkman: $7.70 million
Overbay: $4.80 million

Median contract:

Konerko: 2 years, $20 million
Pena: 2 years, $16 million
Huff: 2 years, $16 million
Berkman: 2 years, $16 million
Overbay: 1 year, $5 million

The option I like the best from this group is Pena.  His average has been horrible over the last few years, but he gets on base at a great rate, and has a ton of power.  He would be a great option to pair with Pedro Alvarez in the middle of the lineup over the next few years, especially at $8 M a year.

Another guy I like, not mentioned here, is Adam LaRoche.  LaRoche wasn’t the most popular player when he was with the Pirates, for two main reasons.  First, he was touted as the big bat the Pirates were missing after arriving from the Atlanta Braves in the 2006/2007 off-season.  That was following a year in which he hit for a .285/.354/.561 line with 32 homers.  LaRoche isn’t a hitter who can carry a lineup, but he’s a great support hitter, which was the role he filled in his big year in 2006.

The bigger issue was that LaRoche always seemed to struggle in the early part of the season, before catching fire in the second half.  His career line by month:

March/April: .211/.304/.396 in 512 at-bats

May: .257/.332/.449 in 623 at-bats

June: .263/.328/.451 in 535 at-bats

July: .289/.343/.527 in 537 at-bats

August: .314/.382/.571 in 599 at-bats

September/October: .287/.340/.517 in 630 at-bats

LaRoche hasn’t been bad every April, and he hasn’t been dominant during the second half of every year.  Last year he hit for a .296/.390/.563 line in April, and a .214/.245/.350 line in September.  In 2009 he hit for a .269/.352/.564 line in April, and struggled in July with a .169/.190/.312 line.  Basically LaRoche will struggle two months out of the year, but looks very strong the other four months.  That might sound bad if you’re expecting LaRoche to carry the lineup, which was the mistake made the last time around, but that’s not uncommon for a support hitter.  In fact, the only reason it was notable with LaRoche is because he was so consistent with his April struggles in his time with the Pirates.

LaRoche turned down a two year, $17 M contract with the Giants last off-season, and probably regretted the move, not just because San Francisco won the World Series, but also because he only ended up with a one year, $6 M deal.  LaRoche probably wouldn’t receive more than $6 M a year this off-season, with all of the available free agents, as well as some of the options on the trade market.  He could be had for less than what Pena or Huff would receive, possibly in the 2 year, $12-14 M range, with an option for a third year.

Trade Market

MLBTR took a look at the trade market for first basemen, although the market doesn’t provide many realistic options for the Pirates.  The Pirates don’t have the assets to land top options like Prince Fielder or Adrian Gonzalez.  They shouldn’t take on a big contract like Carlos Lee.  Their best bet might be non-tender candidates.

James Loney is my favorite of the potential non-tender group.  Loney is coming off a down season, which saw him hit for a .267/.329/.395 line in 588 at-bats.  He started his career strong, with a .321/.372/.543 line in 446 at-bats over his first two seasons.  Since then he’s hit for a .279/.341/.409 line in 1759 at-bats over the last three years.  Those numbers don’t look strong, although Loney’s home/road splits leave hope that he could succeed outside of Los Angeles.

In his career, Loney is a .307/.361/.493 hitter in 1125 at-bats on the road.  At home he is a .268/.334/.377 hitter in 1080 at-bats.  That’s significant, as Loney plays in Dodger Stadium, a very pitcher friendly park, for his home games.  Loney turns 27 years old next year, and has two years of arbitration remaining.  He’s due for a raise over his $3.1 M salary, but would probably still be cheaper than the free agent options, and wouldn’t cost much in terms of prospects, considering he’s a risk to be non-tendered.

The free agent market has a lot of first base options who are more of a sure thing than Loney.  I’d prefer Carlos Pena or Adam LaRoche over Loney, especially if they only take two year deals at $12-16 M total.  Loney could be a good alternative if the Pirates are unable to land one of those options.  However, the deadline for the Dodgers to tender Loney a contract is December 2nd.  The Pirates would have to make a decision early as to what they want to do at first base.  Trading for Loney would be like trading for Akinori Iwamura last year.  The Pirates would guarantee that they fill their positional need, but they could run the risk of missing out on a good value, like Kelly Johnson was last year, or like Adam LaRoche could be this year.  If they pass on Loney, they run the risk of missing out on the free agents, and ending up with no one to fill their positional need.  My preference is LaRoche or Pena, but Loney wouldn’t be a bad “safe bet”, especially since he’s technically entering his prime years, and has good numbers outside of LA.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Anonymous

    I believe I heard a report earlier in the offseason that the Pirates might choose to keep Jones at 1st and look for a 1st base platoon partner to complimant him.

    Who do you see as possibilities if they choose to go this route? My two favorites are Xavier Nady and Jorge Cantu largely because of thier ability to play elsewhere.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been thinking a lot about LaRoche coming back but I thought I would be ridiculed for bringing his name up but since you brought his name into the the discussion……….. he would be a lot better option than what we have internally. He would be expected to contribute but like you said he wouldn’t be asked to do something he can’t do. The only thing I question is that the 4 5 6 hitters would all be LH.

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