First Pitch: When Should Players Change Positions?

There are two types of questions I get often involving players changing positions. Usually the questions surround a position of immediate need for the Pirates. This year all of the questions involve first base. The questions have the focus of filling a first base need, either in the short-term or the long-term. I answer them all the time, but felt I would expand on each answer here.

Short-Term

The short-term questions usually involve shuffling the infield around to fill the first base position. I’ve seen many variations, but to give two examples:

1. Some variation of Neil Walker/Pedro Alvarez at 1B/3B (with either Walker moving to first, or Alvarez to first and Walker to third), with Jordy Mercer playing second and Clint Barmes playing shortstop.

2. Tony Sanchez moving to first base, or Russell Martin moving to third base, Sanchez catching, and Alvarez to first.

I’m assuming the Pirates will have an infield that includes Pedro Alvarez at third, Jordy Mercer at shortstop, Neil Walker at second, and a question mark at first. The above scenarios solve the problem of finding a body for each position. Maybe some scenarios improve the defense. But these types of short-term moves mean that you’re basically adding Clint Barmes or Tony Sanchez on offense to be your first baseman.

In scenario one, the only difference offensively between the projected lineup and the proposed roster shuffling is that Barmes is in the lineup. That would be a huge boost to the middle infield defense, but the offense would be horrible. Plus, you’d have to deal with Neil Walker either learning first base, or re-adjusting to third base. I don’t see how that is better than someone like Andrew Lambo learning first base. Lambo might not be a guarantee to carry his power over to the majors, but his bat would be better than Barmes. He also keeps everyone else at comfortable positions, rather than shuffling up the infield order.

Tony Sanchez

Any plan to move Tony Sanchez to first base is extremely short-sighted. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Scenario two mostly involves the fact that the Pirates have Tony Sanchez blocked in Triple-A, and have a few long-term options at catcher, such as Reese McGuire. I’ll get to the McGuire aspect in a minute, but for now let’s focus on the short-term impact of Sanchez as a first baseman.

In the last two years, Sanchez has rediscovered his power, and has done an excellent job of hitting to the opposite field. That’s great for PNC Park, as he can use the Clemente Wall as a big target. It’s possible that Sanchez could hit enough to be a good first baseman, although I don’t know if his chances would be considerably better than Lambo’s chances at the plate. You also have to consider the impact during the 2014 season, and beyond 2014.

Say you move Sanchez to first base, or move Martin to third (which is crazier, since Martin was statistically the best defensive catcher in the majors last year). What happens if a catcher goes down mid-season? If Martin goes down behind the plate, you’ve got Sanchez fresh and ready to go after playing everyday in Triple-A. That is, unless he’s your starting first baseman (which might not provide an upgrade over Lambo).

Then there’s the 2015 season to consider. Russell Martin will probably get a huge deal from another team after the 2014 season, especially if he has a repeat of his 2013 success. That means Sanchez will be the starting catcher in 2015. Do you want Sanchez to take over the role after spending a year behind the plate with Indianapolis, or after a year at first base because for some reason Andrew Lambo making the same jump isn’t an option?

Long-Term

In the long-term, the Pirates need a first baseman. They don’t have a long-term first baseman in the system right now. That was the case even before they traded Alex Dickerson. A lot of people pointed to him as the first baseman of the future, but he didn’t have a good grip on that title. He was merely the first base prospect closest to the majors (and yes, he was a first base prospect even if he did spend the 2013 season in right field). The Pirates have guys with similar value to Dickerson, but all of them have questions that prevent them from being considered the “first baseman of the future”.

**Matt Hague doesn’t hit for a lot of power, although he is a good backup to Gaby Sanchez as a platoon option vs left-handers.

**Stetson Allie has a ton of power, but horrible plate patience.

**Alex Dickerson didn’t have a lot of power, and didn’t draw many walks.

**Matt Curry underwent hamate surgery this past year, and will probably return to Double-A once again in 2014.

**Justin Howard does a good job defensively, and he can hit for average and get on base, but he has very little power.

The lack of a first baseman who has locked down the “first baseman of the future” title isn’t a big concern. First base isn’t like other positions where you have to be a first baseman in the minors to be a first baseman in the majors. Sure, you’ll have guys like Prince Fielder who are first basemen their entire careers. But you’ll have just as many converted third basemen or converted outfielders that eventually wind up at first base.

The Pirates are currently taking that approach with Andrew Lambo, and it’s possible he could be the short-term solution. If he does well, Lambo could also be a long-term solution. But what about a backup plan? That’s where we look to the depth the Pirates have in the outfield.

At some point this summer, the Pirates will promote Gregory Polanco to the majors. That will give an outfield of Polanco, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen, which is a group that will be under control through the 2018 season. Because of that, there’s not an immediate need for top outfield prospects like Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, or Josh Bell. Of the guys in that group, Bell makes the most sense as a future first baseman. He’s fine as an outfielder, but he’s got less range than the other five players mentioned, which limits him to right field. He’s got power potential, so his bat could eventually be great for first base.

Josh Bell could eventually be a first baseman, but there's no need to move him yet. (Photo Credit: Tom Bragg)

Josh Bell could eventually be a first baseman, but there’s no need to move him yet. (Photo Credit: Tom Bragg)

Does this mean the Pirates should move Bell to first base right away? No, for several reasons.

The first reason is that you don’t want to move anyone to a less valuable position until you have to. Bell has more value as an outfielder. If he’s eventually needed at first base, he can make that move with ease. Until the Pirates know they have three MLB outfielders, and until they know they will eventually need Bell at first base, it doesn’t make sense to move him. What if they move him, then Lambo works out at first base and one of the three outfielders doesn’t pan out? Then you’ve got to move him back to the outfield. That might sound simple on the surface, but it ignores the impact on his hitting.

Bell has the potential to hit for a plus average and plus power. The key word there is potential. At this point he needs to work on turning that potential into results. That’s easier to do if he isn’t also spending a lot of time learning a new position. His focus right now should be on developing the offense. Without that, it doesn’t matter what position he plays.

Once the offense is developed, then there can be a discussion of whether Bell should move to first base. If Bell’s offense is developed, the outfield in the majors is going as planned with Polanco, and Meadows and Ramirez are both doing well, then it wouldn’t make sense to keep Bell in the outfield. But a lot of things need to happen before any kind of switch is made, starting with Bell realizing his offensive potential.

On that same note, and going back to Tony Sanchez and Reese McGuire, there’s no need to move Sanchez because of McGuire. Eventually McGuire might be the starting catcher in Pittsburgh. He might even take the job from Sanchez. But moving Sanchez because of that possibility ignores the multiple years that Sanchez could be the catcher while McGuire is developing. It also ignores the possibility that McGuire might not make it.

In short, when it comes to changing positions, the rule of thumb is to only make a move to a less valuable position when you absolutely have to, and only when it involves a blocked player knocking on the door to the majors. You should never be making such a move in preparation for a few years down the line, simply because it’s impossible to predict what needs will exist a few years down the line.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.

**We will be releasing our top 20 prospects over the next few weeks. Today the countdown started with #18 – Barrett Barnes.

**Jameson Taillon: The 2014 Version of Gerrit Cole. Looking at Taillon’s development from a two pitch pitcher with command issues to a four pitch guy with improved command on his fastball and curveball, and a much improved changeup.

**Injury Notes: Jones, Inman, Burnette, Brewer, Mathisen.

**Andrew Lambo Looking Better at First Base Today. I wrote last night that he struggled in some drills. He looked better today picking balls out of the dirt, and the link has video.

**Winter Leagues: Polo Goes Yard In 6-4 Win.

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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