The Pittsburgh Pirates are currently without a long-term solution at first base. The team will enter the 2012 season with a platoon of Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee at the spot. Matt Hague could be a backup plan should the platoon struggle, although Hague profiles more as a James Loney type, and not a long-term solution.
The best long-term solution might be 2011 third round pick Alex Dickerson.
In a draft that featured outfielder Josh Bell getting $5 M in the second round, and pitcher Clayton Holmes getting $1.2 M in the ninth round, it’s easy to overlook Dickerson. He entered the year a candidate to be drafted at the end of the first round. Baseball America ranked him as the 27th best prospect in their pre-season rankings. He slipped due to a back injury during his junior year, but was still rated as a top 50 prospect.
Dickerson fell in the draft, and was taken 91st overall by the Pirates. They signed him for the slot price in the third round, which was $380,700.
Dickerson is a guy who hits to all fields, and hits for power to all fields. He made his pro debut in State College last year, hitting for a .313/.393/.493 line in 150 at-bats. He also moved to first base, despite playing outfield during his time at Indiana. He was a little raw during his season, and again during instructs, but the continued work at the position has helped and his defense is starting to come along.
“I’ve shown flashes in the past of being able to play it, and I’ve shown flashes of not being able to play it,” Dickerson said about first base. “Right now I’m just taking it one step at a time and I’m really trying to concentrate on fundamentals, which is something I haven’t done because I haven’t played there.”
A big thing for Dickerson will be getting more time at the position and concentration on his foot work.
“For him [the focus is] going to have to be to keep his feet moving,” Pirates’ farm director Larry Broadway said. “Keep his feet moving, [and] his hands will work fine. But he’s a big guy, a strong guy, so guys like that have a tendency to get cement boots on. So his big key will be to keep his feet moving, continue to get reps, and he’ll be alright.”
“My main goal is to just become a better first baseman,” Dickerson said. “I think I’ve done that. There’s still those welcome to reality moments. I’ve been doing really well and I think I’m going to keep improving there.”
The Pirates have had Dickerson working with two other similar players: Jose Osuna and Jared LaKind. Both hitters have raw power, but both are also poor defensively, limiting them to first base. Osuna played outfield in 2011 at the GCL level, but has been getting work primarily at first base. LaKind was drafted in 2010 in the 23rd round and was given a $400 K signing bonus. He was a left-handed pitcher and a first baseman in high school, but the Pirates drafted him for his bat.
The Pirates have had Dickerson working with Osuna and LaKind at first base since the instructional leagues.
“We really do play like a team when we’re doing these drills,” Dickerson said about his work with the group. “We all wish the best for each other, and I think that’s really helped as far as just getting through it every day.”
Nothing is set this early in Spring Training, but if everyone remains healthy Dickerson should lead the group as far as his placement in the system. Dickerson is expected to go to Bradenton to start the year, with Osuna going to West Virginia, and LaKind starting in State College. Justin Howard, who has also been getting some time at first base, and who played first with New Mexico, could also get some time in Bradenton at first base, although Howard is a better candidate to play in the outfield than Dickerson.
The defensive work at first base will be the key for Dickerson. Offensively he’s strong. His swing isn’t fully there this early in Spring Training, and they haven’t had many game situations yet, but he’s done well putting the barrel of the bat on the ball in the batting cages.
The back injury, which gave Dickerson problems last year as well as once before in high school, doesn’t seem to be an issue right now. Dickerson had a hiccup in the fall, but feels healthier than he has in a while this Spring.
Since the Pirates lack a long-term first base option in the majors, many will be watching how quickly Dickerson can move throughout the system. Last year the Pirates promoted Matt Curry to the AA level in his first full season in the pros after college. Curry struggled with the promotion, although he skipped over high-A in the process. It’s not a guarantee that the Pirates would take the same approach with Dickerson.
“There’s two trains of thought. If [players are] having good years, let them have some success, especially the first year out,” Larry Broadway said”. “Let them, one, go through the grind of a whole season. Understand what that’s like to be in the same spot, to show up every day. And two, to give them some success.”
“If they’re having a good season, we don’t necessarily move them based on the numbers. It’s more developmentally, one, have they accomplished what we wanted them to accomplish at the level, and two, are they ready for the challenges at the next level? We weigh the benefit of ‘is it better to keep them here the whole year to experience this, or is [a player] going to get more out of the next level?'”
Dickerson already received recognition this off-season, being named the ninth best first baseman in the minors by Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com. If he could make the successful jump to AA in 2012 — which is the hardest jump to make for a hitter, and the big test of skill for college guys — then he’ll starting opening more eyes. If that happens we could also start seeing his name on the horizon as a long-term option in Pittsburgh, maybe even as early as July 2013.