One of the most surprising things about the upcoming off-season is how little attention Andrew Lambo has received. In Lambo, the Pirates had a 24-year-old outfielder who combined for 33 home runs between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors in 2013. In his very limited time in the majors he hit for a .703 OPS, spanning 30 at-bats. The Pirates have holes at first base and right field. Lambo has experience at both spots, with most of his experience coming in the outfield.
In previous years, it would have been a guarantee that Lambo would have been seen as a starter for the following season. But will that be the case in 2014?
I think a big reason why Lambo isn’t seen as a guaranteed starter next year is because he wasn’t a starter this year. The Pirates had plenty of opportunities to call up Lambo to try and solve their problem in right field. They eventually did call him up, although only for a brief time, as Jose Tabata started on a hot streak, and they needed a roster spot. A few weeks later they traded for Marlon Byrd, which meant there was going to be very little playing time for Lambo, especially with Tabata still doing well.
There’s a big reason Lambo wasn’t thrown into the fire in 2013, and that was because the Pirates were contending. While you could argue that he couldn’t have done worse than the current right field options, throwing a rookie with a lot of question marks into the starting lineup isn’t the best idea during a playoff race.
You can understand why the Pirates wouldn’t give Lambo a lot of playing time in that situation. But the reality is that the Pirates need to eventually give Lambo and prospects like Lambo a shot. This was easier to do when the team wasn’t winning. You could throw an unproven prospect in the lineup during the middle of a breakout season. If he ends up being legit, you get closer to winning. If he doesn’t work out, then you’re still losing. But it’s harder to take this risk when you’re a winning team, especially when you’ve got money to spend to try and get established players over the off-season.
It’s too early to tell what the Pirates will do with Lambo, their first base, or their right field situation this off-season. They literally could do pretty much anything due to the small amount of needs they have, and the money they have available. Even with the money, and the ability to spend to get an established right fielder, I think they should give Lambo a shot.
First of all, there’s the question of where to play him. Technically Lambo could be an option at first base. However, he has limited playing time at the position, and his defense would be poor as a result of that limited time. The Pirates also have a hole in right field, which is where Lambo is better suited.
The issue with right field is that, in the long-term, the Pirates will be starting Gregory Polanco in that spot. That’s going to lead a lot of people to say that Lambo should move to first base, since his future with the Pirates probably isn’t going to be in the outfield. I would lean the other way with this thinking. I’m a believer that Polanco is going to be an impact player, and the third starting outfielder in Pittsburgh. But until the Pirates have three outfielders in Pittsburgh, they shouldn’t be moving anyone.
Also, if Polanco is the future, then the Pirates have a limited window to see what they’ve got with the other players on their roster. This limited window could be used to sign a stopgap free agent, such as bringing back Marlon Byrd or signing another free agent right fielder. Or it could be a chance to see what the Pirates have with Lambo, and to see if Jose Tabata’s late season hot streak was legit.
The best thing about this approach is that it gives the Pirates options. If Lambo doesn’t succeed, they can turn to Tabata. If neither player succeeds, they can call up Polanco. If Lambo does well, and Polanco is ready, then that’s the time to discuss moving Lambo to first base. Or, the Pirates could use Lambo and/or Tabata as trade bait if they’re doing well and Polanco is knocking on the door.
I wrote last week about how the Pirates can’t abandon the plan that got them here. That plan involved trusting young, unproven players over more expensive players with a better track record. In this case they’ve got an outfielder who hit 33 home runs at the age of 24. You have to give him a shot to see if that power is legit. With Polanco arriving soon, the window for Lambo to get an opportunity is small. If the Pirates don’t give him a shot this year, then they might not find another chance to see what they’ve got with him. Lambo might not work out in the majors, but the Pirates can never pass up the chance to see if a guy who hits 33 home runs is legit.
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