Heading in to the 2011 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were looking for a short term answer at first base. They ended up signing Lyle Overbay, who was coming off a 2010 season where he posted a .243/.329/.433 line in Toronto, which was actually a down year for the first baseman. Overbay struggled big time with the Pirates, hitting for a .227/.300/.349 line in 352 at-bats before getting released on August 5th. After he was released, Overbay signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he bounced back with a .286/.388/.452 line in 42 at-bats at the end of the season, with most of the production coming in September.
The question throughout the season asked why the Pirates stuck with Overbay for so long. His finish to the season might have given an indication as to why the Pirates held on to him for so long, and what they might have been waiting for. Throughout the waiting, the Pirates had Matt Hague performing well at the AAA level, including a dominating month of June where he hit for a .402 average and a 1.094 OPS. He followed that up with a .279 average and an .812 OPS in the month of July, with most of that production coming late, after he slumped early in the month.
The Pirates didn’t go to Hague, and instead traded for Derrek Lee, sending Aaron Baker to the Baltimore Orioles. Lee quickly made an impact, hitting two homers in his first game with the team, and going 5-for-18 in his first five games. He was then placed on the disabled list with a hand injury, after throwing it in the way of a pitch that was about to hit his hip. The injury sidelined him for about a month, yet the Pirates still didn’t go to Matt Hague, opting instead for Garrett Jones.
Lee returned in September and picked up where he left off. He hit for a .349/.415/.554 line in 83 at-bats, with five homers. It made you wonder where the Pirates would have been had they seen half of that production for the other five months from the first base position.
Bringing Back Derrek Lee?
The Pirates have already expressed interest in bringing back Lee for the 2012 season, and it’s clear to see why. When Lee is on his game, which he was in September, he’s a huge asset to the lineup. He’s also strong defensively, making him the all-around first baseman that the Pirates have lacked for years, unless you only count Adam LaRoche after the month of April.
Lee hasn’t been receptive to returning to the Pirates, although his time in Pittsburgh this year and his strong numbers with the team could persuade him to change that thought process. If the Pirates can’t work out a deal with Lee, they can offer him arbitration. If he accepts, they’ll get him for something north of $8.5 M, which was his total compensation in 2011. If he declines, they’ll get a compensation pick between the first and second rounds of the 2012 draft.
If they can’t sign Lee, the Pirates do have some options. Some of the better options on the free agent market are Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, assuming both hit the market. There’s also Matt Hague, although it seems unlikely that the Pirates would go with him in 2012 after keeping him in AAA the entire time during the 2011 season.
Matt Hague is the closest to the majors, but as I’ve written many times, he profiles as an average first baseman at best. He put up an .829 OPS in AAA this year, although a lot of that was due to his huge month of June. His OPS by month, from April to September: .699, .782, 1.094, .812, .747, .762. I don’t want to rule out the possibility that he can jump to the majors and hit for a consistent .800 or better OPS, but when you look at the numbers, and look at the lack of consistency, you get the idea that Hague probably won’t make that seamless jump to the majors. Still, that doesn’t answer the question as to why the team didn’t give him a shot in August, when they had no first baseman, and didn’t have much to lose.
Two first base options emerged this year in the lower levels. Matt Curry started the year with breakout numbers in low-A. He hit for a .361/.477/.671 line in 155 at-bats, and was skipped over high-A and sent straight to AA in his first full pro season. Curry handled the aggressive assignment about as expected. He ultimately struggled, hitting for a .242 average, with a .694 OPS, with a few hot streaks in his 302 at-bat season. The alarming thing was his strikeout totals, with a 29.8% strikeout rate. Keeping things in perspective, Curry was playing in his first full season. By comparison, Matt Hague didn’t reach AA until his second full year. Curry is a guy who can hit to all fields, and hit for power to all fields. I’ll reserve judgement until he shows what he can do next year.
The other option that emerged came through the draft. Alex Dickerson entered the draft ranked as the 42nd best prospect by Baseball America, but fell to the Pirates in the third round. He got off to a hot start in State College, hitting for a .313/.393/.493 line in 150 at-bats. Like Curry, Dickerson can hit to all fields, and hit for power to all fields. That’s what you want to see if you’re looking for a guy who can eventually be a major league starter. Dickerson and Curry profile as the best chance for the Pirates to land an above average first baseman who can hit for power. That likely won’t happen until mid-2013, at the earliest, unless Curry gets off to an amazing start in 2012.
The wild card in all of this is Jose Osuna. He’s too far off to project, as he’s only really played in the Gulf Coast League. However, he does have some power potential, and the Pirates have been working him out at first base. Between Osuna, Dickerson, and Curry, the Pirates have a few first base options with power potential (although none of them have the defense of a guy like Derrek Lee). They don’t have any short term options, but they do have some candidates for the long term.