Coming in to the winter meetings, it was clear that the biggest need for the Pittsburgh Pirates was at first base. The team saw strong defensive additions at catcher and shortstop already this off-season, although the strong defense doesn’t come with much offense for the lineup. The moves make sense if you add a first baseman who can fit in to the cleanup role and give the lineup a boost.
The Pirates are pretty much set at every position on the field except first base. That’s not to say there aren’t questions. Pedro Alvarez is coming off a horrible year, and any strong production from him is far from a guarantee. Yet you’ve got to start Alvarez, in part due to a lack of alternatives, but also due to his potential. Not much needs to be said about Andrew McCutchen in center field. Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have both shown promise, and have earned a shot at the corner outfield spots. Neil Walker is locked in at second base. The Pirates filled their needs at short and catcher already this off-season.
Derrek Lee has until Wednesday to make a decision on his arbitration offer. If he accepts, the Pirates have their first baseman. If he declines, the Pirates could still pursue him. Neal Huntington said today that the team would still pursue Lee even if he turns down arbitration. However, he also said that first base isn’t a must fill this off-season.
The arbitration offer to Lee is essentially a $9-10 M offer for one year. If Lee were to accept, he would get a raise over his 2011 compensation, which was $8.5 M. The Pirates aren’t getting him for less than that if he declines, especially after Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder sign, which will only drive up Lee’s value. That same amount of money would allow the Pirates to be competitive for Carlos Pena.
As previously mentioned, the 2012 roster isn’t full of guaranteed production. About the only position you could count on offensively is center field thanks to McCutchen. The Pirates do have one benefit this off-season: their needs are very specific. They don’t need bullpen help. They don’t need to waste money on bench players when they have so many young options. They don’t need outfielders thanks to two young outfield options with promise, and guys like Gorkys Hernandez and Starling Marte expected to be in AAA next year. The only needs they have right now are a first baseman and a starting pitcher to give the rotation a boost.
This gives the Pirates an advantage in that they can ignore everything else and just focus on those two areas of need. Based on the rumors we’ve heard, that isn’t going to be their approach. We’ve heard that they have been talking to Nate McLouth, and are looking for outfielders. We’ve heard about them pursuing third base contingency plans such as Ian Stewart and Mark DeRosa. They have been focusing on starting pitching, with conflicting reports that they were interested in Jeff Francis.
Going after McLouth, or any outfielder, would be a waste of time and a waste of resources. They would be much better off sticking with Tabata and Presley as the starters. The only way it would make sense is if they found an outfielder who they planned to move to first base. Nate McLouth isn’t that outfielder, and McLouth-like outfielders scream “backup option” more than potential starter.
Pursuing a backup plan to Pedro Alvarez is smart. Alvarez is the key to the team’s success. They need him to realize his potential, but they also need a fallback option if he has another horrible season.
The Pirates don’t have guaranteed production from third base or the corner outfield spots. But those positions have something that first base doesn’t have. They have young players with a lot of upside. What does first base have? The current internal options include:
Garrett Jones - Is coming off a year where he had a .753 OPS, and has a combined .734 OPS the last two seasons. His defense was very bad at first base in 2010.
Matt Hague - Not a bad option, although he doesn’t provide much comfort. He has never played in the majors, and while his overall stat line was strong in 2011, he was inconsistent. He dominated in June, and had a good July with an .812 OPS. But those were the only two months where he had an OPS over .800, and it’s a stretch to assume that he’ll put up the same stat line in the majors that he did in AAA.
Jake Fox - He has a career .714 OPS in the majors, and turns 30 mid-season.
Nick Evans - Similar to Fox, he has a .712 OPS, although he turns 26 next month. Evans might be a cheaper alternative to Jones, but he’s no starting option.
The only starting option from the group is Hague. He hasn’t played in the majors, and he wasn’t exactly consistent in AAA last year. That’s not the type of player you throw in to the lineup on Opening Day.
Going after insurance for Alvarez, Presley, and Tabata makes sense, but only if you’re filling the hole at first base at the same time. It doesn’t make sense to add depth to the outfield and third base when you don’t even have a starting option at first base. The Pirates would be better off saving the money from an extra outfielder and a third base option, and using that money to fill the first base position. It would be less of a gamble to go with Presley and Tabata minus a Nate McLouth safety net than the gamble the Pirates would take giving their first base position to Garrett Jones or Matt Hague. Those two should be in the safety net category, and not on the list of potential starters.
I may be jumping the gun a bit here. Actions speak louder than words, so it doesn’t matter what the Pirates say leading up to the moves, it just matters what they do. The talk from day one wasn’t encouraging. It’s true that the Pirates could benefit from adding depth to some of their positions, and thus adding insurance in case the young players struggle. But anyone who looks at the makeup of the team and the available options can easily see that first base is definitely an area of need, and should take priority over strengthening positions that already have starting options.
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Also, be sure to order your copy of the 2012 Prospect Guide. The order for the first shipment will be placed on Thursday.