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.