First Pitch: Could Travis Ishikawa Actually Win the First Base Job?

Earlier this evening, Jon Heyman said that Travis Ishikawa has a shot to beat out Andrew Lambo for the first base job against right-handed pitchers.

This seems largely speculating based on his Spring Training numbers. Ishikawa currently has a .333/.467/.708 line in 24 at-bats this Spring. The most important number there is that we’re only talking about 24 at-bats. A lot of those at-bats have come against Triple-A guys later in the game, after all of the starters left the game. Meanwhile, Lambo is 4-for-42. Those aren’t good numbers, but to put them in perspective, they basically represent one to two horrible weeks during the regular season.

Ken Rosenthal seems to think that the Pirates are still looking at Lambo and Ishikawa, and won’t go for someone like the recently available Juan Francisco.

The problem with starting Ishikawa based on his Spring Training numbers is that you’re putting a lot of stock into 24 at-bats, and ignoring 684 at-bats in the process. That’s what Ishikawa has in his career against right-handed pitching at the major league level. In that time, he has a .737 OPS. Putting that in perspective, Garrett Jones had a .730 OPS last year against right-handers. Throughout his career, Ishikawa has basically been the 2013 version of Jones, only with better defense.

Meanwhile, Lambo doesn’t really have any career stats to counter his horrible performance this Spring. What he does have is a 2013 season where he combined for a .922 OPS and 32 homers in 444 at-bats between Double-A and Triple-A during the 2013 season. That doesn’t guarantee any major league success, but it does mean Lambo should get a shot.

Going with prospects can be unsettling. They provide no guarantees, and unless you’re talking about the very top prospects like Gregory Polanco, they provide no reason for strong optimism. But as I’ve said all off-season, the Pirates always need to give guys like Lambo a shot. He could very well end up a bust, but they need to take that risk because the alternative is that his 2013 breakout was for real, and they’ve solved their first base position for a few years.

I could go through all of the past Spring Training numbers and point out players who had a horrible Spring and ended up turning things around. I’m not going to do that, because I’m not going to say that Lambo will turn this around. What I will point out is that 42 Spring Training at-bats isn’t a real shot.

I don’t think Ishikawa should win the job. I also don’t see him winning the job, since the Pirates don’t usually base these opinions on Spring Training results. Ishikawa isn’t a horrible option to have as a Plan C behind Lambo and Chris McGuiness. But you know what you’re getting with Ishikawa, and the upside isn’t that big. Lambo has much more risk, but also much more reward. The Pirates might not win if Lambo becomes a bust. But they’re also not going to win by playing it safe and going for the small upside that Ishikawa provides. Rather than playing it safe, they need to take a risk and hope to get a big reward out of Lambo.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**Update On Wei-Chung Wang and His Chance To Make Brewers

**Pirates Tried to Extend Starling Marte Through the 2020 Season

**Pirates Possibly Looking At Didi Gregorius

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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  • @BuccoSharkTank

    You basically wrote what I’ve been thinking all day.

  • Greg7373

    Greg Douglass

    Why not start the season with Ishikawa (who might stay hot at least for awhile) and see if Lambo can find his stroke and confidence again in AAA? Why not send Lambo back to AAA for about the same reason Pedro Alavarez was sent to AAA? Lambo has shown some talent, but he is obviously struggling now after basically not performing well in winter ball and not doing much at the end of last season with Pittsburgh. If he doesn’t hit in AAA, then its pretty clear that he doesn’t have a future in Pittsburgh; if he does hit down there, he can be brought back to Pittsburgh with some confidence and be given a legitimate shot at showing he can or cannot play in the majors. If he is started in Pittsburgh now there is a very high chance that he will fail as a result of being rushed and pushed too fast. Sending Alvarez back to AAA (when he was 24) worked out well, why not try the same thing with Lambo who at 25 is not old? Lambo isn’t ready to play in Pittsburgh now and starting him just because the Pirates have very limited alternatives is an unsound player development strategy in my opinion. If the Pirates had shown a little more development patience with Brandon Moss we might have a first baseman this year coming off a 30 home run season.

    • Scott

      Lambo and Ishikawa are both pretty awful options at this point…so I’d rather go with the guy with a little bit of upside in Lambo. Hopefully NH can pull some magic and bring someone in (Davis, Lind, Smoak, whoever) but that’s highly unlikely this close to opening day. Might be stuck with this logjam of mediocre first basemen until the summer.

    • roberto

      Let Lambo get in a groove before you promote (250 AB in the AAA outfield with is hardly extensive seasoning). Ishikawa is fine as a stopgap.

    • emjayinTN

      I agree wholeheartedly with your initial statement about starting Ishikawa and giving Lambo time to find himself in AAA. Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez are both recognized defensive guys who can also hit. Ish has hit 3 HR’s in ST – do not know who the first one was off, but the second was off of Jake Peavy and tied the game late, and the third was off of Brad Lincoln Saturday night and tied the score at 3-3 in the 8th inning, and the Pirates went on to win that game. Against Burnett Saturday night he had two walks and a run scored prior to hitting the HR. I like Lambo, but he is struggling and needs some time to get himself together, and have some of those line drives start to fall in. I wrote something very similar Sunday, and I think the decision had already been made after the Philly game Saturday night. We have seen Steve Pearce, Brad Eldred, and Matt Hague, and nobody had more patience for Moss than the Pirates – let’s move forward with what is hot at the present time and see what happens from there.

  • mam995

    Tim, I respectful DISAGREE about having to give Lambo or ANY player more than a shot, if they find someone better. They don’t owe him anything. Baseball players are inherently Monopsonists. They are the SUPPLY side of a Monopoly…which MLB is. The player has great power to dictate to management…as long as he produces. You’re right about Ishikawa. He’s a jabroni who’s feeding off batting practice pitching. But why NOT take a chance on Juan Francisco? He’s only 26, but did bat .227/.296/.422 with 18 home at the major league level in about 380 at bats. He’s young enough that he might even get better. Let Lambo go back to triple A and prove if he can do it again. He’s only spent a half a season there anyway. I mean, Jeff Locke’s going back to the minors and he actually has DONE something at the major league level. Lambo’s situation should have always been contingent on other variables (like finding someone better) other than just getting the job by default. That is what happened in the Jeff Clements case. Can anyone honestly say that Lambo could start for any of the remaining 29 major league teams? Certainly not for any of the contenders. Not to rag on Lambo, but the Pirates need to be clinical in their efforts about putting the best team on the field. By any means necessary…if it is at all possible. They don’t need to be sentimental…they need to be business-like in their pursuit of excellence. If people’s feelings get hurt in the process? So what? Go find another job that pays a half a million base salary with great bennies.

    • Lee Young

      Monopsonists? You lost me after that….lol

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    I like Lambo, but Travis basically is looking like Morneau from last year which is fine by me for now. The upside of Lambo can still be found with some AAA at bats.

  • csnumber23

    Tim you said it perfectly, you know what you are getting with Ishikawa and it isn’t much. Of the two I would much rather see Lambo. I will say again, my preference is a trade but if that doesn’t happen, I hope they go with Lambo.

  • glassers

    My opinion is Lambo gets a scholarship and goes North .

    • Lee Young

      if he goes north AND does poorly, I expect him to be sent back down. That hardly qualifies as a ‘scholarship’.

      • glassers

        Really missed this one and now having to accept Travis as our option at first , not a good week . Come on Sanchez , hope you can handle most of the work at first .

  • Honusty

    An every day lineup with Lambo, Snyder, and Mercer is not ideal (not to mention the streaky Pedro). I feel better about Lambo if you had more production out of right field. NH is solidly stuck in the middle between building a contender and being a contender.

  • Joe Sweetnich

    Marlon Byrd disagrees that Travis Ishikawa should not get a chance…

  • gregenstein

    Here’s hoping the Pirates aren’t using this Spring as a competition to find out who should be the starting first baseman. If that was the plan, it was a bad one.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    The Pirates are in a very precious situation here. At this point every left hand hitting prospect seems to be the same guy……Garrett Jones. So it does not really matter who the left handed hitter is at this point. If Lambo would benefit by starting him in AAA then start him in AAA. That is management’s call. Not great options to start the season but Lambo certainly has the most upside and hopefully he performs above expectations.

    • Lee Young

      Nuke…’precious’? Might you mean precarious? (otherwise, I agree with what you wrote, but you did give me a chuckle).

      Now, you can edit it and make me look REALLY stupid….lol

      Go Go Golem

      • Nuke Laloosh

        Thanks Lee for making me look REALLY stupid…lol

  • Lee Young

    The only reason I would send Lambo down in favor of Ishi is if they think he needs a few more AAA ABs. Otherwise, throw him in the mix with Gaby.

    Btw, as hyped as Polanco is, even HE could fail. Less chance supposedly, but even hyped prospects fail. As excited as I am about Greg, he too, needs to prove himself.

    However, I agree with Tim, that this is how we need to operate. (Talented) Rookies need to ‘get shots’ because mediocre vets.

  • Lee Young

    And…after writing all that, I see Lambo got cut. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Travis