Who Plays First Base for the Pirates in 2012?

The Pittsburgh Pirates activated first baseman Derrek Lee from the disabled list yesterday, and he promptly hit a grand slam in the ninth inning of his first game back, giving the Pirates a 7-5 win.  The Pirates added Lee at the trade deadline in exchange for Aaron Baker, but quickly saw him go down with a fractured wrist.  All throughout the year, the Pirates have had first baseman Matt Hague hitting well in AAA, with a .309 average and an .829 OPS.  However, they’ve passed over Hague all year, leaving him in AAA with Lyle Overbay struggling, and then again with Derrek Lee injured.  Today, David Todd reported that the Pirates won’t call up Hague in September.

The Pirates don’t have an option at first base heading in to the 2012 season.  The best internal options, as far as guys that are close to the majors, are Lee and Hague.  The long term options include Matt Curry and Alex Dickerson, although they’re too far away to count on for the 2012 season.  So what do the Pirates do at first base in 2012?  Do they go with a one year stop gap and try to bring Derrek Lee back, or do they give Matt Hague a shot?

The Case for Derrek Lee

The Pirates haven’t had the best results adding free agents.  A big reason for that is probably the class of free agents that they are choosing from.  When you’re adding guys from the $5 M and under range, you’re usually adding guys who are older veterans that are on the downside of their careers, or someone coming off a down year.  In Lee’s case, you’ve got a veteran first baseman who has had a down year, and has looked strong in the second half.

A big question is what you’re getting with Derrek Lee.  The last two years we’ve seen him have success in the second half, but struggle in the first half.  You could chalk those first half struggles up to injuries, although that raises another question about his durability at the age of 36.  Can the Pirates be assured that Lee won’t have any future injury issues like he had to start the 2010 and 2011 seasons?

If Lee is healthy, he is a much better option than anyone in the Pirates’ system, even at the age of 36.  The Pirates aren’t really looking for a long term first baseman in 2012.  They’re looking for a short term guy, while their two best long term options (Curry and Dickerson) make their way through the minors.  If you’re only looking for a short term solution, then the best thing to do would be to go with the best possible option you can get.  Lee is a bit of a gamble because of his age, but at the same time, the upside is pretty big if he’s healthy.  That’s not to say that Matt Hague isn’t a gamble, as he is unproven at the major league level.

Is Matt Hague an option at first base in 2012?

Why Not Matt Hague?

When Matt Hague wasn’t called up in the month of July to replace Lyle Overbay, I could see where the Pirates might want to keep him down.  He struggled at the plate in April and May, then had a monster June.  He then regressed a bit in July.  How much was being made over one month of his performance?

When Derrek Lee went down in early August, Hague was starting to hit again, and the Pirates were starting to fall out of the race, meaning that they could afford to give Hague a shot.  I understand not calling up Hague in September.  You’ve got Derrek Lee starting at first base, and if you want to have the chance of bringing him back, you need to play him every day.  What I don’t understand is not giving Hague a shot while Lee was out.  That almost says that he’s not in the Pirates’ plans.

I’ve pointed out that Hague profiles as an average first baseman at best.  So far this year in AAA he’s hit for average, gotten on base at a good rate, and hits a lot of doubles, although his home runs aren’t what you want from a first baseman.  There have been two things that have led to a perceived higher value for Hague this season.  First, Lyle Overbay was so bad for the first half of the year that it created this sense that Hague was the answer.  I believe Hague would have been an upgrade from Overbay, although that doesn’t mean Hague would have been the team’s savior.

The second thing is tied to the first.  Hague is putting up good numbers in AAA, but those are numbers in AAA.  Too often you see people pointing out his numbers and saying “We could use that at first base in Pittsburgh”.  The problem is that AAA numbers don’t project as major league numbers.  Hague is hitting for a .309 average with an .829 OPS and 12 homers.  Those numbers look good enough for a starter in the majors.  But will we see that from Hague in the majors?  What if he drops to .270 with less than ten homers and a .750 or less OPS?  Is that what you want from a starter at first base?

Those numbers might be better than what we saw from Overbay this year, but that’s hardly the bar we should set.  The best case scenario for Hague would be his current numbers at AAA, and that assumes no drop off from AAA to the majors.  From there, we don’t really know how far Hague’s numbers would drop.  That’s why it would have been nice to see him when Lee was out, although I don’t know how much we would have learned in a few weeks of playing time.

Hague or Lee?

The decision really comes down to Hague or Lee, as far as internal options.  The expected free agents are either unobtainable (Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols), or don’t really provide an upgrade over Lee.  In the comparison between Hague and Lee you’ve got two unknowns.  At their best, Lee is the better option.  Both players have question marks: Lee, due to his age and injury concerns, and Hague, due to his unknown performance in the majors.

People might point out that guys like Neil Walker and Alex Presley were unknowns due to their lack of major league experience, although their numbers were much better than Hague’s at the AAA level.  Presley had a .333 average and an .874 OPS.  Even with a drop off offensively, his defense in the outfield makes him a starting candidate.  Walker hit for a .321 average and a .921 OPS in 2010, and was putting up similar numbers in the final months of the 2009 season.  Even with a drop off, his numbers would be great for a second baseman.

That’s not the case with Hague.  His numbers right now are borderline what you’d want from a starting first baseman, and that assumes no drop off.  He might not be a bad starting option in the majors, and he definitely would be better than Overbay was this year.  That said, I think Lee would be the better option.  You’re basically hoping he stays healthy, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of what he can do when healthy.

It makes sense to me to give Lee the playing time in September.  That’s the only way you can try and get him back next year.  Hague will be there if Lee decides he doesn’t want to return.  If that happens, I’d prefer Hague to any of the free agents available (outside of maybe Carlos Pena, although the Cubs want him back, so I’d probably avoid a bidding war there and go with Hague).  Neither case presents a long term solution, although you’re not looking for a long term solution.  The approach should be to try and find the best short term solution you can, until a long term solution emerges from the minors.

Tim Williams

Author: 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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