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.

Tim Williams

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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  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    Hey Tim, great article and I think you’re right on point about the situation in Pittsburgh with first base. I was wondering if you could expand on your theory a little. Your article speaks to the short and long term needs of the major league organization. Can you apply that theory with prospect’s playing time and position value within the sport of baseball?
    How do you see it applying to the current catching prospect depth the organization has? Including Tony Sanchez, you have 4 highly rank prospects at a high valued position. With most people having Sanchez penciled in as the starter in 2014, barring a major collapse of his performance this year. That leaves you with your next three prospects all bottlenecked at the same level fighting for limited playing time. I am assuming that one solution would be to become more aggressive with one and push their developments. I am, also, assuming another would be to have one repeat a level.
    Since Jhang and McGuire are in front of Mathisen in most all the ranking. Would you move him, with his background experience at other position in high school? And if a move would happen, would it only be to a similar valued position, such as SS?
    A friend of mine brought up a validate point about the lack of IF depth in the organization. His thought was to use the current OF and Catching depth to balance out the organization’s depth chart. I mentioned that I would rather have 4 valued catching prospects at 4 levels, then to move one or two of them to other position that have less trade value to other organizations. Even if that means holding one or two back at different period on their development.

    Lastly, How would you rank the 10 positions, 8 fielding plus starting and relieve pitching based on their value within the baseball market? I guess this is a great problem to have…

    • Cato the Elder

      I’ve linked to the fangraphs positional adjustments page. It doesn’t include pitchers, which are a different animal, but give a numerical value for the other 9 positions (DH included) so you can get a sense of both relative and absolute values of each position. Note, numbers aside, it is not an exact science.

      Also, I think you touched upon the other important point not mentioned in the article: trade value. Even if player X is marginally more valuable at a lesser position because of need, player X is more valuable to every other organization at the greater position. Even if their needs are the same as the Pirates because they too could move player X down the positional hierarchy just as easily, but ought to place some value (if even only a little) on the option.

      • Cato the Elder
        • piraddict

          Great reference Cato, thanks! Any thoughts on why, if SS is so valuable, the Pirates haven’t acquired talent there as readily as they have at catcher, CF etc.?

          • Cato the Elder

            I assume they take the “best player available” without regard to position. Truth is they drafted Mercer and acquired Hanson through international signing, so it is not as if they have completely ignored middle infield. Moreover, I think it would look like logjam at SS had they drafted Machado instead of Taillon. If there is a tendency that I read into this front office’s player evaluation, it is that they take the best athlete available in order to maximize “the possible,” which has translated into a lot of center field and power RHP prospects. It certainly could be worse.

  • Bridgevillebuc

    Great article!!

  • http://hiddenvigorish.com Hidden Vigorish

    I’ve been saying for a while it is time reconsider the positional value of 1B. the sabermetricians began talking about positional adjustments around 2008/2009. The valuations were hardened around then. In 2009 the league wide GB/FB rate was 1.15. It 2013 it had risen to 1.30. For the Pirates it was an extremely high 1.95. Burden on infielders is growing while lessening for outfielders. How much more important is RF than 1B for the Pirates? Not as much as it used to be, that is for sure.

  • https://profiles.google.com/101510909979106143098 David Lewis

    A variant on the first short-term example would be if Stephen Drew’s price comes down to where he could be signed for something like 3/30, that would enable the Pirates to sign him as the full-time shortstop, move Mercer to second, and move Walker to the LH side of the first base platoon. In this case, you’re basically replacing Lambo’s bat with Drew’s bat, which is likely to be an upgrade. You also put Walker in a less athletically-demanding position and sit him vs LHP, which could protect the health of his back.

    Of course, Stephen Drew’s agent is Scott Boras, so I’m not holding my breath.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: The answer to your question is you move to another position of need when you have the skills to do so, and there is someone already at the MLB level who can cover your position, or there is someone in the pipeline near enough to the majors to do move into your position. HV stated the need for skilled position players in the infield are maximized by the Pirates game plan. Therefore, if we need a LH hitting first baseman in 2014 to alternate with Gaby Sanchez, we would definitely want to find someone with defensive skills at 1B, or skills that would readily translate to the 1B position. First, anyone who thinks that Pedro Alvarez is going to move across the infield to 1B is deluding themselves. Even if he allowed himself to think about it, Scott Boras would make sure that does not happen. In 2 years he will be a highly sought, power hitting, free agent 3B, and will command a huge long term salary from the Yankees, or some other team like that. Since he is a New York native, it works nicely.

    My suggestion has multiple parts. First, Neil Walker has the most skills that would translate to 1B – a former Catcher who had his position changed to 3B at AA because we had the Catcher position covered with Paulino and Doumit. In his first year as a 3B, he was voted the best 3B prospect in the EL. But, then we had that Alvarez kid at 3B, so he became a second baseman out of pure need to try to get his bat into the lineup somehow. At AAA in 2010, Neil Walker played 21 games at 2B, 7 games at 1B, and 1 game at 3B before being brought up to the majors where he played 2B for 85 games. Needless to say, the kid can play anywhere in the infield except on the mound. We also have a Top Prospect, switchhitting leadoff batter and middle infielder named Alen Hanson who will start the year at AA. So, if McGuiness does not show well in ST, I would start Gaby Sanchez at 1B and try to get 20 starts for Walker in the first half of the season. If things do not work well, we can always do something at the trading deadline. I think the Pirates would have an excellent balance between Walker and Sanchez, both offensively and defensively.

    While doing that with Walker, I suggest we look in the minors of other teams and find some young 1B talent that is “blocked” by young guys already in the majors at that position. Dan Vogelbach of the Cubs is my 1st choice and he is only 21 maybe and is already at AA. The other is older and that is Matt Skole who is a 3B/1B and has a strong bat.

    • IC Bob

      Emjayin you make some good points however Walker is one of the best hitting 2Bs in the league. You move him to first and he becomes one of the worst hitting 1Bs. The reason why you see guys like Prince Fielder, Mark Mcguire, Ryan Howard and the likes at first is because thats the only position that allows big slow players or players with weak arms to be successful. I am all for converting a good hitter but a lousy fielder to 1st however I would hesitate to move a good fielder at any infield position to first. The ideal candidate would likely be Bell. He is a couple of years away but in comparison to the other outfielders in the minors he is not as skilled defensively yet he has a huge upside bat. Alverez would be obvious fit however we have nothing to replace him with so that really doesn’t make sense for the Bucs. This is always a tough decision.

      One other point, I played 1B. Its a critical position but its really not that tough of a position to play. You get a huge glove so it really makes it easier to field with. You don’t have to have a strong arm you just need quick reflexes (which most athletes have) and good coordination around the bag.

      Just a though, what would it take to get Ryan Howard? How much money would the Phillies pay to get rid of him at this time? Has his game diminished so much that he brings no value? The Phillies have other 1B they are playing in the outfield so it would make sense for the Phillies to trade him. Would they be willing to picked up most of his contract?

      • SportOMania

        I have had the same thought about Howard but I doubt the Phillies would pay enough of his salary to make it happen. He makes $25 million dollars so the would no doubt have to eat 15-20 million per year for three years for someone to take him off their hands for a used fungo bat. If they won’t eat any of Papelbon’s contract (and they want him to go away) to get rid of him I don’t see them doing that to move Howard.

      • emjayinTN

        Bob: I have a higher estimation of the skills needed at 1B, In addition to quick reflexes and good coordination around the bag, I think a 1B at the MLB level must have soft hands, quick feet, and the mental capacity to know what happens in the infield, such as holding a runner, covering a bunt, or where to be to get a cutoff from the OF. I may be really overestimating the quality of ballplayer needed for that position, but I doubt it.

        I think Neil has done a terrific job at 2B, but I think his natural athleticism and good instincts would play perfectly at 1B. Sure, maybe Josh Bell in the future, but I am talking now, and if we cannot get anything to step up, he would be my best alternative. With his height, he is a very tall 2B, but just right as a 1B.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    I guess this mean Mathisen is still gonna be catching and not playing 3b?

    Darn!!!

  • CalipariFan506

    Bell to 1B is the move I’m most interested in. As long as nothing goes wrong with Meadows and Ramirez this season, I see no reason why Bell isn’t moved to 1B next year. Based on the progression of Marte and now Polanco through the system, we would be looking at a mid season 20176 call up for both Meadows and Ramirez. That’s long before Cutch or Marte is a FA so naturally the Pirates could afford to move Bell to 1B while his value may decrease to the other 29 teams a s a 1B in potential trades, the value he gives the Pirates there will trump that IMO.