Winter Meetings Day One: Who’s On First?

Lee is unlikely to accept arbitration by Wednesday's deadline.

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.

Today’s Link Roundup

-How to Follow the Winter Meetings on Pirates Prospects

-Derrek Lee Updates for Monday

-Pirates Interested in Jeff Francis?

-Mark DeRosa and Nate McLouth updates

-Trade target: Ervin Santana

Also, be sure to order your copy of the 2012 Prospect Guide. The order for the first shipment will be placed on Thursday.

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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, 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

    If PIT is seeking additional depth in the OF, is it possible that that they are looking to package prospects for an MLB or near-ready 1B or SP?  Maybe they are looking to offer up Marte as part of a trade.  With G Jones likely on his way out, that could create some need at the Major League level.

  • Brian Bernard

    anything is possible of course, and NH would say they are doing their due diligence I’m sure. Packaging a young OF like Marte or one of the current OF’rs on the roster wouldn’t be the worst move with other young talent on the way up like Grossman and Bell. Especially if the target is a fairly young and talented 1b player such as Alonso or some other current impact type target. A solid pitcher acquired in trade would also be a welcome addition to the roster as well.

  • Mike

    Pirates need 2 starters, a First Baseman , Mark DeRosa or another 3b to back up pedro, i think 4th outfielder is last on the list . Gorkys is just as ready as nate mendoza mclouth to come up and be the 4th outfielder or starling marte in june.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it’s just posturing, but when the GM says 1B isn’t a must fill this off season  what kind of thought process is he using? Jones and Evans here you go.

  • Ian Rothermund

    With all the talk about the Marlins acquiring one of the big name first base free agents this off-season, would Gaby Sanchez be a good trade option?  In each of his first two full years, he’s put up about 20 HR and 80 RBI.  Those aren’t dominating numbers, but he seems very consistent, and he still has another 4 years of team control.  Looking at it now, he also had a 74-97 BB-K ratio, not too shabby.  Also, if they did have one of those big name first baseman, his personal value to the Marlins would be a bit depleted, which would hopefully offset the competition that would arise from a relatively thin first base market this off-season.  Gabby Sanchez’ WAR in 2011….2.9.    Garrett Jones’ WAR in 2011…1.1

    • Anonymous

      There going to want a good SP to come back in a trade for Gabby. I don’t think we have what they want

  • Anonymous

    I have to disagree with the contention that Hague’s “overall stat line was strong in 2011″. He did a good job of hitting for average, but he didn’t hit for much power or draw many walks. Without one or the other, he’s likely limited to an OPS in the low-.700s.

    Dan Szymborski’s zMLE for Hague’s 2011 season was only a .275/.327/.397 batting line. That’s workable for a reserve, but pretty poor for a starter, and at Hague’s age, how much further improvement can be reasonably projected for him?

    • michael

      Agreed; I’m all for giving a top prospect a shot at starting for the ’12 Bucs; but not a middle-tier, questionable guy like Hague.  If he earns a call up and shows he belongs, fine.  Until then, go after Lee or Pena, or worst-case a Jones/Evans platoon.

  • Nate

    If the Cards retain Pujols, try and trade for Matt Adams

  • Anonymous

    Ian Stewart I think would be a great fit, he could compete for the job at 1B too I believe hes played there before along with 2B, good young guy with potential to rotate around.

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