First Pitch: Pirates Are in a Great Bargaining Position For First Base

Earlier today, Jeff Sullivan wrote an article on FanGraphs about the Pittsburgh Pirates and what is really available for them at first base. Sullivan noted that the Pirates have their choice of trade options (like Mitch Moreland, Justin Smoak, or Ike Davis), a free agent like Kendrys Morales, or staying internal with Andrew Lambo. Sullivan noted that the external options really aren’t that good, and that Lambo is interesting enough that the Pirates could opt to stay internal and see what they have. His summary is something I’ve said many times this off-season.

But Lambo is sufficiently interesting and sufficiently talented that the Pirates shouldn’t need to give up much value for a part-time lefty bat. There’s only so much to be gained, and it isn’t hard to see how Lambo could hit for enough power to offset his various shortcomings. Maybe I’m too positive about a guy who hasn’t proven a thing outside of the high minors. But sometimes lower-budget teams have to take chances, and if the Pirates can’t find something for cheap, they seem to already be in position to go cheap.

The bold part is for my emphasis. All off-season I’ve said that the Pirates are always going to have to take chances on guys like Andrew Lambo. He hit 33 home runs last year in his age 24 season. Maybe that was a fluke. Maybe he’s finally realizing the potential that once made him one of the top 50 prospects in the game. The Pirates need to find out which is the case, and the only way to do that would be to give him a shot in the majors.

It might be different if there was a good first base option available. Kendrys Morales isn’t a first baseman anymore, and his hitting hasn’t exactly rebounded to his 2009 success. Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, and Justin Smoak have all had brief success in the majors, but the upside with all three would be limited, since none of them are established hitters. Basically the only difference between these guys and Lambo is that they’ve had a chance to show what they can do in the majors. They haven’t used that chance to become consistent hitters.

So that puts the Pirates in a good position. They can just go with Lambo, and have Chris McGuiness as a backup plan. By doing this, they wouldn’t be passing on any massive upgrades, and might get the best case scenario if Lambo turns out to be legit. Or, they could wait out the market and see if someone severely comes down in price.

There are fixed costs for all of the external players. The fixed cost for Morales would be the loss of a first round pick. The variable cost would be his price tag. The fixed costs for the trade options are the price tags. Davis is under contract for $3.5 M this year, and Moreland/Smoak will each earn $2-3 M through arbitration. The variable cost would be the cost in players to acquire these guys. None of the options really stand out, and there aren’t many teams looking for a first baseman and driving up the market, which puts the Pirates in a good position.

It wouldn’t make sense at all to pay big money to Morales, since the Pirates could get a first base option much cheaper for the equivalent of a late first round pick. That means for Morales to be worth it for the Pirates, he would have to sign a three-year deal for about $15 M, which is probably the max that any of the three trade options would make during their years of control. Considering Morales just turned down a $14 M qualifying offer, I don’t see him dropping the price that much.

It wouldn’t make sense to give up a big return to any of the individual players, since none of them really stand out from the pack. The best thing to do would be to wait for one team to come down in asking price, then acquire that player. If no team comes down in price, the Pirates could just stick with Lambo.

The best case scenario for the Pirates would be a trade of a bullpen piece for one of the first basemen. The Pirates currently have too many bullpen options, and not enough spots. Their bullpen projects to have Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and then Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro, Jeanmar Gomez, and Bryan Morris fighting it out for the final three spots. That doesn’t include all of the other relievers fighting for spots who have options remaining. If the Pirates could get one of the first basemen for someone in the Mazzaro/Gomez/Morris group, then it would make a lot of sense to make a deal. They’re not going to be able to keep all of those relievers, and it wouldn’t hurt to have extra options available for the first base platoon.

For the Pirates to get this price, they’d probably have to wait until the end of Spring Training. The Mets would be unlikely to keep Davis and his salary, since they seem committed to Lucas Duda. The Mariners have been looking at guys like Nelson Cruz, which could make someone like Smoak unnecessary. The Rangers don’t really need Moreland now that they have Prince Fielder. None of these teams really have a lot of negotiating power, since the alternative is that they’d be stuck with a backup first baseman who is making $2-3.5 M. The Mets would be in a worse situation, since it’s harder to hide an extra first baseman in the NL, with no DH.

If none of these players came at this price, then the Pirates could just stick with Lambo. The Pirates are in a good position. Lambo isn’t a guaranteed option himself. He’s got flaws like everyone else, but he also has upside like everyone else. If the Pirates went with Lambo, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. And because of that, they can afford to sit around and wait for a great deal, especially since there aren’t any other teams driving the first base market, and since Morales, the Mets, the Rangers, and the Mariners could lose big if the Pirates did decide to just stick with Lambo. I’d be surprised if the first base situation gets resolved prior to Spring Training, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some action on this market towards the end of camp.

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.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Infield

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Draft Preview: College Hitters

**Pirates and Kendrys Morales Share Mutual Interest

**International Links: Two Players Pirates Have Scouted

**Pirates Sign Quincy Latimore

**Pirates Sign Omir Santos

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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  • blackmax

    If the Pirates are in a “good” position at first, how do you characterize the position that the Cards are in at that position? they’re shibby? The Reds? are they the shiznik?

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Are the Cardinals or Reds exploring the market for a trade or free agent at first base? If they are, then I’ll evaluate their bargaining position too.

      • jbloss

        Tim I always look forward to your columns but I think you are dead wrong about this. Something is telling me that Lambo is going to be this year’s Brad Eldred/Mark Johnson/Craig Wilson, failures from the past. I don’t understand why a lot of people are drinking this Kool-Aid. Lambo hit like .200 in winter ball with no home runs and I remember reading that he looked awkward at first base during the January mini-camp. How does this translate into success? I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think so. Moreland would definitely be an upgrade.

        • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

          Why are the only comparisons for Lambo limited to former Pirates? Why can’t the possibilities extend to guys who have worked out in other systems?

          Also, why are you down on Lambo, yet optimistic about guys like Moreland. Who says those guys aren’t the next Jeff Clement or Lastings Milledge?

          • emjayinTN

            Tim: Lambo has to prove he is able to hit at the ML level, in addition to learning how to play 1B in an extremely fast-paced environment. And, you mentioned Jeff Clement who was the last guy we tried to fit into 1B without much previous defensive experience at first base. Give me a 1B who can play defense – McGuiness fits that slot. Lambo could be that one in a million guy to be able to overcome the odds, but IMO, he is still young enough not to have to do it all at once. 49 total games at 1B for Lambo; over 600 for McGuiness and a .998 fielding percentage at AAA. It’s nice stuff, but we will have Smoak or Moreland before too long.

    • BigB2323

      Everybody is always afraid of the unknown. Was Matt Adams an established big league 1B last year at this time? Adams was a 23rd pick out of South West PA and now hes a legitimate 1B option, because he was a given a chance. Lambo is a former 4th rd pick and once the Dodgers top prospect in 2009 and was a top 50 prospect. At only age 24, I am willing to take a chance after the numbers he put up last season.

      • emjayinTN

        Adams had some very strong years with the bat coming through the minors, and played well over 300 games at 1B in the minors with decent results. Not a good defender, but capable enough to hide and hope that his bat overrides his defense. In 2013, Lambo played ONE game at 1B at AAA and had 6 PO and 1 E. He did not play at 1B in 2012 or 2011. Therefore, I think he has been ill-prepared for this type of expectation.

  • csnumber23

    Tim, it is pretty obvious to me the Pirates are not sold on Lambo. I don’t know why but it seems that way to me. I haven’t seen enough of him to make my own evaluation. Do you think his power is legit and will play in the majors?

    My prediction is they will wait for late in spring training for 2 reasons. They can get a good look at Lambo and Mcguiness plus have the value come down on the trade options. If Lambo and or Mcguiness don’t stand out in a big positive way a trade will happen before opening day.

    Also, I still can’t figure out why Seattle extended a qualifying offer to Morales or why he didn’t accept it? He isn’t worth anywhere close to 14.1 mil for 1 year.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I don’t think it’s an issue where they’re not sold on him. I think they just tend to go for as much depth as possible at every position. They were burned in 2011 by not having enough catching depth, and they overcame a ton of injuries to the rotation last year due to strong depth. I don’t think looking for a first baseman says anything about their feelings on Lambo. It just points to their feelings on Lambo being one of the only options.

      • emjayinTN

        An excellent point about the depth, but the baseball purist in me demands that we actually have an experienced first baseman playing first base in the Majors. Garrett Jones was an average defender through 7 or 8 years in the minors as a 1B, but he was good enough for the Pirates of 2009. The Pirates of 2014 coming off making the Playoffs in 2013 and their first .500+ season in 20 years are well beyond that point. My option is to go full time with Sanchez or Sanchez/McGuiness, and give Lambo the time to play 1B full time at AAA until he is deemed ready. The Pirates do not want this kid to fail, so they need to prepare him to play that position where he will be capable of earning the respect of the other infielders.

        We still need to find some future depth at 1B, and my two favorites were Dan Vogelbach 21, of the Cubs, and Matt Skole 24, (3B/1B) of the Nats. Add Greg Bird 21, of the Yankees to that list, and a long shot, Nick Franklin 23, of Seattle. Bird will start at Hi A; Vogelbach will start at AA; Skole will start at AAA after missing a year with a non-throwing arm injury, and Franklin played middle infield for Seattle last year. Franklin is a switchhitter who would have to learn the 1B position, but with Cano in Seattle, he is excess baggage right now.

  • stickyweb

    Tim, you have some influence, man. Now you have national writers defending the fact that internal options are as good as making a “big splash” for 1B. Anyone else notice that Loney wasn’t on that list of top 21 1B? And he was supposed to be the salvation for the Bucs?

  • jaygray007

    My argument for getting another 1b isn’t as much about that 1b being a ton better than Lambo. It’s about having to go through one more injury/failure before having to have Travis Ishikawa having playing time…

    two lambos are better than one. at least as long as Lambo has options remaining.

    If Lambo further proves himself in AAA/4th OF role/ 1b injury replacement, then re-trade the Davis/Smoak/Moreland that you traded for in 2014 before 2015.

    Then again, 2015 COULD be the Year of the Pedro at 1b…

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

      Jay…using the injury argument, we’re an injury away from having Harrison as our regular 3rd baseman.

      :)

      • BigB2323

        Seriously that is what scares me more than anything. No one talks about the backup plan at 3B if Pedro gets hurt. That’s absolute huge blow to the lineup. I guess you would have to move Mercer to 3B and let Barmes play everyday at SS.

        • jaygray007

          the backup plan is to bribe the other teams into throwing their lefty SPs while pedro is hurt.

  • swampirate

    just a wild thought…..

    sign drew, walker to 3rd, mercer to 2nd, pedro to 1st.

    Is this what your thinking?

    • honusty

      Very good idea – i love it. But probably too radical. Drew crushes righties, so it would provide a good split against righties. Drew would be a really good fit for the Bucs’ (ignoring$ and draft pick).

      • joshuabobby

        you’d probably take a pretty good hit on defense with so many position changes.

  • honusty

    Is Chris McGuiness really a true backup plan? He seems more of a “break the glass” emergency guy. His career minor league batting average is .257.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I’d think Ishikawa is the emergency guy.

  • dr dng

    Tim I am learning and what you wrote is exactly where I am right now. I’ve had a few months to let it settle that we will give Sanchez/Lambo a chance with some other backups in the wings.
    -
    Unless on the other hand, if we are at the end of spring training and are still pitcher rich (more quality pitchers than we can hold on the roster) and could lose the value of someone due to a cut, then look at a trade that improves the team now OR in the future.
    -
    Can’t wait to get this thing started!
    -

  • honusty

    In seasons past I would be less concerned about giving Lambo the job. But the pirates are legitimate contenders this year and need more offense (particularly against right-handed pitching) . NH should go out and get Brett Wallace (dfa’d by Astros last week) and let him and Lambo fight it out in spring training. Wallace would also give NH some more leverage in trade negotiations. Other GMs know that NH needs someone at 1B and have the upper hand (same as at the trade deadline).

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I don’t see how Brett Wallace is better than Lambo. If the Pirates can’t turn to Lambo (25, coming off a big year in the minors) since they’re contenders, then how is Wallace better (27, career .704 OPS in the majors)?

      • honusty

        Last year vs. RHP Wallace had an OBP of .307, slg of .481 and OPS of .787 with 12 HRs in 225 plate appearance. Good minor league #’s as well and used to be a top prospect. Lambo’s #’s come with somewhat of an asterisk because he played at AA level for the past 3 or so years. His AAA stats were also good, but so were Jeff Clement’s.

        I am not saying he’s definitively better. But he should be cheap to get and provide another option. He could also be a late bloomer like Brandon Moss. Wallace has the pedigree.

  • Cato the Elder

    Seriously, how much worse could Lambo be than Jones? 233/289/419 and -0.2 WAR is a pretty low bar to clear. Honestly, Lambo could be objectively bad/disappointing and still represent an upgrade for a team that won 94 games last year.

  • Andrew

    Do middle relievers who do not strike out batters have any value? I still think you are going to have to give up something more than Gomez/Mazzaro/Morris to obtain one of the mentioned options.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      The name “Tony Watson” springs to mind.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      I think the flip side to this question is wondering what kind of value the first basemen have. All of them are age 27-28. None of them are established. They’re all making $2-3.5 M. None of them are needed by their current team. And there are more expendable first base options available than teams in need of a first base option. So where exactly does their value come from?

      • Andrew

        I can understand that, and completely agree with giving Lambo a chance, but I find it interesting that the Pirates front office states they are fine with Lambo but the first base rumors persist, (of varying degrees of credibility.)

        I have not look at organization depth charts/payroll, but would the Pirates give up Travis Snider for a middle reliever with a pedestrian K rate who relies on a low BABIP. Of those listed guys I think only Davis is truly expandable to this team, Texas has two guys for 1B, DH, Mariners three for RF, 1B, DH, (of course Cruz could change that.) Carp has value in his versatility. Daric Barton might also be expandable in Oakland.

        I do not really have a grasp of what spring training trade look like but I am skeptical that a mid relievers have any value in trade talks.

  • leadoff

    Every option on the market is flawed in some way, so I agree with Tim, just stick with what we have, a 33 HR. slugger that might not hit 33 playing part time as a platoon player, but he should hit what Jones hit and then some, the rest of the available market has already proven that it won’t do much better.
    Of course there is one possible flaw in Tim’s argument and that is Lambo’s defense, in ST he is not only going to have to hit, he is going to have to show that he can play some decent 1st base, Alvarez’s rocket launcher does not always hit the target and sometimes it requires a little bit of an exceptional play to field some of his throws, as well as Barmes from time to time.

  • BigB2323

    The only player I wouldn’t mind trading for and giving up a Gomez/Mazzaro/Morris and a low level prospect for is Justin Smoak. I think he has a very nice swing from both sides of the plate and seems to bode well on defense. Hes the one with the highest upside in my opinion out of all the options. If you could get the former 11th overall pick (Same draft as Pedro) who many people I know wanted Smoak instead of Alvarez, it would be well worth the gamble.

    • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com wkkortas

      I can understand a subjecitve desire for a guy, but Smoak has done pretty much zero in the bigs–a career .700 OPS, a sub-100 OPS+, and both B-R and Fangraphs have him as a negative WAR guy on defense. I know he was a high draft pick, but he’s done absolutely nothing to prove it was justified.

      • honusty

        Smoak had a .839 OPS versus RHP last year. He’s not a guy without warts, but he would be valuable as a lefty platoon partner. I have no idea what the Mariners would want for him. I don’t think a Mazzaro/Gomez/Morris would get in done?

        • emjayinTN

          H: Check further because 2013 was the best year for Smoak – 2012 .627 OPS, 2011, .716 OPS. Moreland is not great, but consistent against RHP – .752 in 2013, .798 in 2012, .783 in 2011. In those 3 years he averaged about 325 AB’s and averaged 16 HR’s/yr against RHP. He’s a blue collar-type player.

  • https://profiles.google.com/113312464150607456430 Burgher Meister

    Regarding options, I’ve been thinking that they should toss a first basemen’s glove to Travis Snyder. Then when Polanco (hopefully) comes up in June or July, they can keep the better of Snyder and Lambo around to be the lefty half of a first base platoon.