The Pittsburgh Pirates have tried a platoon with Garrett Jones for the past three seasons. In 2011 they brought in Matt Diaz and tried to platoon both players in right field. Jones held up his end of the platoon, with an .808 OPS against right-handers. Diaz didn’t hold up his end, with a .704 OPS against left-handers. What made matters worse was that Lyle Overbay struggled at first base, leading to Jones getting more playing time at the position. That led to Jones facing more left-handers, and Diaz facing a lot of right-handers.
In 2012 the Pirates moved the platoon to first base, and brought in Casey McGehee as the platoon partner for Jones. Once again, Jones did well with an .888 OPS against right-handers. McGehee also did well, putting up an .807 OPS against left-handers. However, the Pirates had problems in right field, forcing the platoon apart. Jones went to right, where he played more left-handers, and McGehee got more playing time against right-handers at first.
The 2013 season looked to be the year where the Pirates could finally put a platoon at first and leave the platoon alone. They had Jones once again, and they had Gaby Sanchez, who has been very successful in his career against left-handers. They also had plenty of options in right-field, such as Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, and Jerry Sands. Unfortunately, the right field situation didn’t work out, and once again Jones was forced to spend more time in right field, with both Jones and Sanchez playing outside of their platoon roles.
That wasn’t the problem with the 2013 platoon. The biggest problem in 2013 was that it was Jones who didn’t carry his end of the platoon. He had a .730 OPS against right-handers this year, with some major struggles down the stretch in August and September. Gaby Sanchez held up his end of the platoon, with an amazing .987 OPS against left-handers. He struggled against right-handers, with a .619 OPS, which made his time as a full-time starter even worse. If Jones would have had his pre-2013 numbers against right-handers, and if the Pirates would have been able to keep both players in the platoon at first base, then the Pirates would have been looking at a combined All-Star performance from their first base platoon.
Instead the situation got bad enough that the team traded Alex Presley and Duke Welker for one month of Justin Morneau at the end of the season. Morneau didn’t provide any offensive help, hitting for a .681 OPS in 92 plate appearances with the team. He was decent in the post-season, with a .300 average in 20 at-bats, but didn’t produce any power. He was also used as a full-time starter, when, like Jones, he was better as a platoon player (.744 vs .423 OPS in his limited time with the Pirates).
By the end of the 2013 season, the Pirates found themselves with a big question mark at first base. In previous years the question mark was about finding Jones a platoon partner, and finding a starter for right field or first base so that Jones could stick in the platoon. But with Jones seeing a sudden decline with his numbers, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him non-tendered this off-season. Gaby Sanchez is just a platoon player, and with no platoon it wouldn’t make sense to roster a first baseman who only hits lefties and is in line for a raise of up to $3 M. Morneau struggled in his time with the Pirates, and doesn’t look to be much better than Jones. The Pirates entered the year hoping to find a right fielder so that they could keep their first base platoon together at first base. They ended the year with no short-term options at either position.
The Pirates don’t have a lot of first base options to choose from in the minors. The top first base prospect is Alex Dickerson, although he has only played as high as Double-A. Dickerson will at least need time in Triple-A, and then there’s the issue from the last two seasons where he has struggled the first two months, exploded in June and July, then faded in August. That kind of inconsistent performance isn’t ideal for a starter. Dickerson did see an increase in his power this year, and hit at Double-A, which is why he’s seen as a legit prospect, despite the consistency concerns.
Matt Curry fell off the radar this year, missing most of the 2013 season with hamate surgery. That usually saps power for a year, and Curry had the surgery in early May, so he could still be impacted for the start of the 2014 season.
Stetson Allie looked great in West Virginia, crushing the ball to the tune of 17 homers in 244 at-bats. However, he looked completely over-matched in Bradenton, with a .697 OPS and a 34.7% strikeout rate in 236 at-bats. Allie has more power than anyone in the system, but it’s useless without some strike zone discipline.
None of these guys are options for the 2014 season, although one could emerge as an option in 2015 or beyond. One sleeper option for 2014 could be Andrew Lambo. He has barely played first base, but his bat this season could be enough to force playing time at a new position. Lambo looks like a platoon option, and the Pirates would need someone to hit left-handers in that scenario. If they went this route, it would make sense to keep Gaby Sanchez around. The Pirates also have a hole in right field, and Lambo would make sense there in a similar role. But in the long-term, Gregory Polanco is the third outfielder. If Lambo is going to have a career in the majors with the Pirates, he needs to find a new position, and first base is the only other option.
Outside of moving Lambo to first base, or bringing back the Jones/Sanchez platoon and hoping for better results, the best option in 2014 would be a free agent. There are some interesting options on the market, with the most interesting short-term and long-term solution being Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu. He would cost a lot of money, but the Pirates have money to spend and very few positions of need, so it wouldn’t be money that would prohibit them from landing the first baseman.
The Pirates don’t have a solution at first base in the short-term or the long-term. As a result, first base will be a key position to watch this off-season.