Over the past month, the Pittsburgh Pirates have loaded up on potential first base options. They already had Pedro Alvarez on the team, but then they acquired Travis Ishikawa, Aramis Ramirez, and Michael Morse in July. The only non-third baseman of that group is Ramirez, who just started taking grounders at the position to prepare for Josh Harrison’s upcoming return from the disabled list.
The Pirates have a lot of options here, but the problem is that they don’t have any good options. At least, that has been the case in 2015.
Pedro Alvarez has been horrible defensively at the position, despite two strong plays last night against the Mets. His offense hasn’t been horrible, with his typical low average, decent amount of walks, and good power production. He also has his usual splits, struggling against lefties and hitting right-handers much better, although with a .775 OPS against right-handers, he isn’t showing extreme numbers as a platoon player, and nothing that outweighs the defensive struggles.
Sean Rodriguez has played an interesting role this year in the first base mix. He has often been a late inning defensive replacement, and the defense has been solid. Out of 39 first basemen with 200+ innings, Rodriguez ties for sixth best with a 6.9 UZR/150 (Alvarez ranks 39th, and Morse ranks 30th). He doesn’t hit anything close to what you want from a first baseman, but the late defense plays an important role when the Pirates are protecting a lead.
Travis Ishikawa has also been a good defender at first base in his career, and while he’s not a great starting option, he has been a good bench option, with the ability to play the outfield if needed. He has a .655 OPS this season, which isn’t great, but ranks among the best for a poor Pirates bench.
Morse has a similar profile to Ishikawa, in that he can also play the corner outfield spots, although his defense at first isn’t that strong. He actually has an interesting situation, coming off a great year last year, which earned him a two-year, $16 M salary. The Marlins dumped him to the Dodgers, who dumped him to the Pirates for Jose Tabata. Morse hasn’t put up anything close to the same numbers this year, with a combined .218/.277/.312 line in 184 plate appearances between the Marlins and the Pirates, although he is 3-for-10 with all singles for Pittsburgh.
Last year, Morse had an .875 OPS, which included a pretty even split against lefties and right-handers. He had an .827 OPS against lefties, and an .803 OPS against right-handers. In his career, he has a .793 OPS with a similar split, posting an .802 OPS against left-handers, and a .789 OPS against righties. At his best, he’s not a platoon player, but an everyday guy. The question is whether he can get back to that.
Morse said all of the right things when I talked to him last week, saying he felt like he got a new lease on life with the Pirates. He didn’t really have an answer for why he was struggling with the Marlins, but seemed happy to be with the Pirates in a playoff race again.
“You can’t really pinpoint one thing,” Morse said. “It’s just one of those things that it didn’t work out for me, and it didn’t work out for them. I thank them for everything they did for me, and signing me over there. But at the same time I thank them for trading me also [to end up] here.”
Neal Huntington said that the Pirates saw some good signs with Morse, which led to adding him. He did note that the consistency hasn’t played in games.
“We still saw the bat speed. We still saw the strength. We saw the nice fit – a great compliment to our club,” Huntington said. “The opportunity to trade a player that didn’t really have a very good fit for us this year or, as we look forward, maybe even next year, for a guy that did fit and maybe a little lightning in a bottle – if we catch it, fantastic. If we don’t, we’ll have a decision to make as Josh and Jordy get healthy. So far, so good.”
Huntington described Morse as “a nice complement” to Pedro Alvarez at first, and a pinch hit option, so it doesn’t sound like he will get the bulk of the time at first. At the same time, he could be used in either part of the platoon, since he hasn’t historically shown splits. And if he does get a lot of opportunities, and does well in those opportunities, then he could emerge as the replacement for Alvarez at first base next year, since the Pirates have him under team control one more season.
This is one of those cases where a change in scenery might really help a player. Morse didn’t say anything negative about the Marlins, but it wouldn’t be hard to see why a player would struggle in that organization. The franchise has been a joke, capped off this year with their manager getting fired, and their General Manager taking over the day-to-day duties as the manager. The reports coming out of Miami were poor, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a player struggling in that environment.
The final piece of the puzzle is Aramis Ramirez. He has never played first base, and is at the end of his career, so that move will be interesting. It will be hard to do worse than Alvarez, although if he plays against left-handers, his work at the position will be limited. Ramirez is another guy currently in a down year, specifically for his future role as a platoon guy. He has a .634 OPS against left-handers this year in just 74 plate appearances. Last year he had a 1.024 OPS in 115 plate appearances, which is a better result, but still a small sample size. However, the success last year matches up with his career success of a .913 OPS against lefties.
The defense will be interesting, but the bat might be a bigger factor here. He’s struggling against right-handers since joining the Pirates, but has a .742 OPS against lefties. Both are more cases of small sample sizes, but the overall hope would be that he quickly returns to dominating left-handers, providing the Pirates with a good platoon option.
The Pirates seem set on going with Alvarez at first base as the main guy against right-handers. I honestly don’t see a big need for Ramirez to move over to first base. Morse has been the starter against lefties since being acquired. Just like Ramirez, he is having a down year in a small sample. And just like Ramirez, he had a good year against lefties last year, and good career numbers. The difference is that Morse can actually play first base, although the defense is still weak.
If Ramirez is learning first base to be a better bench option in September, then the move makes sense. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense for him to take over for Morse against left-handers.
Overall, the Pirates have an interesting mix at first base. When I say interesting, that’s short for “they don’t have any good options this year, but they have a lot of options who can do one thing well, or have had success in the not-so-distant past.” I’d personally have Ishikawa and Ramirez on the bench, and the Pirates might have to make a decision on one of those two in the next few weeks when Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer return.
Beyond that, the best platoon right now seems to be Alvarez and Morse, with the hope that Morse magically returns to the 2014 version, becoming the best overall option for this year and next year. Neither player has good defense, which means the Pirates would be smart to keep Sean Rodriguez around for his late inning work when the Pirates are holding a lead.
Morse and Alvarez both have power bats, and Alvarez has been streaky at times. The hope here would be that Alvarez goes on a hot streak at the right times, while Morse returns to his 2014 hitting sooner than later. It’s definitely a gamble, and there’s a good chance that the Pirates don’t get any solid production from first base if the gamble doesn’t pay off. Then again, they’ve managed to be the third best team in baseball this year, while having the second worst production at first base, so any production from that spot seems to be a bonus at this point.