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.

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43 COMMENTS

  1. I, honestly, wonder how much better this team would be if we had a manager who had a clue what he was doing most nights. We are a pretty good team now, but imagine if we had a manager who knew what he was doing! Again he leaves a pitcher in too long…and instead of leading 3-1 its now 3-3. Hurdle just isn’t a very good manager.

    • You’d pretty much have to buy in to the Morton “weak mental constitution” for that argument to play. Morton was cruising. Uribe hit a HR. Next batter hits a routine grounder that, if it were the 1919 White Sox, Aramis would’ve been banned for life for attempting to throw the game. Conforto then hits a pitch low and outside, in fact a couple of inches below Cervelli’s target. Charlie executed there. That Conforto managed to pull that ball into the RF stands simply points out that maybe Conforto earned his status as the Mets’ premier position prospect.

      If there’s any complaint to be had, it would be why Cervelli and Morton worked outside to Conforto for four straight pitches (all of which were arguably strikes) instead of busting one inside, which had been working for Charlie all night. But otherwise, I don’t think this is a game where you pin the issue on Charlie.

      • Completely disagree. It doesn’t matter that he “had been cruising” or that he executed a decent pitch to Conforto. You have that deep bullpen for a reason. You have, arguably, three closers in the pen…the point at which the tying run comes to the plate that late in a ball game you go to Soria. Furthermore, Charlie’s advanced numbers late in ball games are terrible. There is no reason after D’Arnaud reaches that Morton gets to stay in the game with Soria ready…we wouldn’t do that if it was the 9th and we shouldn’t have done that in the 7th. We have that deep pen for a reason.

    • Ha ha….OMG ! That is the dumbest comment I have seen here in a Llllooooong time. At least thanks for the laugh today.

  2. Sean Rodriguez might be the worst hitter on the team…i mean, honestly, he might even be worse than Florimon. I think there are probably pitchers who could out-hit him if given the same number of ABs.

  3. We all are banking on bridging till Bell arrives but this concerns me. His bat may be ready for prime time but he is essentially new to the 1b position. If this young man is counted on to take over and due to inexperience like Pedro plays poorly, will we rough him up as we do the Bull? Pedro is a battle tested veteran who through many struggles still shows up with a ball game attitude, will young Josh handle it or are we being overly optimistic he is our answer?

    • He will have another full year to learn 1B before its an issue, Pedro had only a few months barely to get acquainted with it, Bell will have 2 full years. If he can’t be at least average by then, he will deserve the criticism he gets

    • If Bell, Hanson, Taillon and Glasnow see significant time in 2nd half next year, I’d expect Bucs to take a step back and not be a lock for even 2nd WC. Then be a favorite for WS in 2017/18. And I’m OK with that.

      • The idea of AR taking grounders at first and possibly playing there is nuts. He has never played there at any level and could embarrass himself and hurt the team’s prospects. We already have four less than ideal options……..why add a fifth poor one? Morse and Alvarez deserve a chance to get hot and stay hot respectively at the plate. Morse performed under pressure in the past, so has Pedro. Tim’s analysis is dead on point on this situation. There is a glint of confidence back in Pedro’s eye and he can make a big difference if he keeps it up. Just when you thought he was done, he starts scorching a few.

        • The one thing ARam gives the team is a legit 4 hole hitter. The Pirates desperately need that hole filled. It will be a problem next year too. Eventually I could see Polanco or Bell being there but not till a few years from now. 2017 the soonest, maybe 2018.

      • I dont see how this can be. You would have to believe that Bell would be worse than Alvarez and Co at 1st and that Taillon and Glasnow would be worse than Morton, Locke, and Happ to come to the conclusion that if those players see significant time our team would not be in a good position. We are still the 3rd best team in baseball with players, likely, worst than the prospects you mention in those positions.

        • And that could easily happen. I wouldn’t expect Bell or Hanson to be better than Pedro or Walker in their first exposure to MLB.

          Let’s also remember that Bucs were 12-7 in Cole’s regular season starts in 2013. Bucs are 11-4 in Morton’s starts. Locke… well, yeah, they can probably do better than Locke.

  4. Pedro’s future is as a DH platoon in the AL. Hopefully he does well over the next 2 to 3 months so the Pirates can trade high on him.

    Ramirez and Ishi will be gone at the end of the season.

    Morse will be given the opportunity to show by a strong Spring Training that he deserves the full time 1B slot. Serpico will be retained for late inning defensive replacement at 1B, and as overall utility man. Walker will try out 1B in ST but will start the season at 2nd, ugh. If Hanson is ready by June and Morse is showing nothing Walker moves to first and Harrison / Hanson plays 2nd.

  5. The Pirates certainly have a hole here without an easy solution, use the least flawed option. That might be Alvarez for six to seven innings, pray his fielding doesn’t cost you, and then a later inning replacement. No real reason to try and get Ramirez into the lineup.

  6. Ishikawa does not do enough to justify his continued existence on the 25 man roster. We could use a guy like Hanson or Broxton, just to provide a better bat and speed off the bench. Hanson could also spell Walker from time to time.

    • Ishi is the only LH PH at the moment. Hanson might get a September call up, but they won’t start his clock for a few weeks exposure in August.

    • Hanson is a top 5 prospect. They’re not going to bring him up just to sit on the bench and get an occasional start.

  7. Why not dump most of the first base garbage at the end of the season and move bad back Walker to first base next year. Kang at third, Mercer at short, Harrison at second and Walker at first. It saves Walker’s back and his fielding range doesn’t matter as much. Might hit for more power with an easier position to play. Sign him for 2 more years at the end of the season. If he doesn’t pan out next year, then you are no worse off than this year except Isihikawa , Morse and Alvarez are gone. To me that is addition by subtraction.

    • You would still have to pay Morse $8M for one season whether he’s on the team or not, and who is the taker for a trade? So Morse will either be on the team, or a more expensive replacemnt for Tabata in AAA.

    • This team will be better after Walker and Alverez are gone. In a couple of years Hanson will make everyone forget about Walker. I’m a little more skeptical of Bell because the power hasn’t shown up yet and he is learning first base.

  8. 10-5 in the last 15 games, 5-2 so far in the stretch of facing 3 division leaders….and we lose ground in the wildcard situation and the division. Losing 2 of 3 to STL will do that to the division part, but losing some of your lead on CHC while playing 10-5 is nuts.

    On the flip side, i suppose CHC is going “how the hell can we win nearly all our games in nearly two weeks and still be behind PGH?” Crazy division

  9. Pirates will never win it all with Pedro on the team. Hope he is traded in the off season for some A ball prospect that has potential. Can’t see getting anything better in return for him. But look what they got for snider. He should go to the AL where he can hit and not worry about the glove.

    • Pedro is streaky. He’s been hitting very well for the past couple of weeks. If he can continue this, I think they definitely have a shot at winning and he could have at least some value to an AL team.

    • Exactly the right comparison with Travis Snider…I was thinking the same thing. IF Pedro can continue to hit for the remainder of the season you would think he could bring back even a little more than Snider because he will have shown, maybe, some of his previous potential.

  10. A comment posted on BD about Alvarez; “With a nice pick and a few quality defensive plays, with BA of 0.310 and 0.444 and OPS of 0.919 and 1.333, for August and the last week, respectively. Can that guy show up for September and October?”
    Maybe the Pirates will get lucky and see Pedro sustain this streak for the rest of the season

    • All being equal, his defense in April and May was embarassing, now it’s just below average. He probably hasn’t been the “worst first baseman in baseball” for the last two months, and his hitting has been actually not bad all season honestly from an unbiased pov. I am not a Alvarez fan, but he hasn’t had many at bats this year where I knew he was going to K after the first pitch, unlike previous years. His AB’s against lefties have been way better all year too, even if it doesn’t show up much in the OPS

    • And IF that is the case then the Pirates, actually, would have the potential to get some trade value out of him.

      • I’d like to see the Pirates keep him next year. He is playing for a contract. Some players have thier best years when playing for thier next contract.

  11. Alvarez is on a pace to hit possibly 25 HR, and his bat has to stay in the lineup whenever possible. The grand experiment has not cured his defensive liabilities, and it is painfully apparent that bottom-feeding is no way to find an adequate first baseman. Josh Bell has proven to be defensively capable of moving right into that spot in 2016. He will not be a 25 HR guy immediately, but his bat will play.

    • He still needs a lot of work, but I thought he has quietly been a little better offensively. I’m actually optimistic he can finish his Pirate career on a high note. A) So they can play into October and B) They can somehow avoid the non tender and get something back.

    • Unless he has improved considerably defensively since moving to Indianapolis, no, Bell hasn’t proven he is capable of being the 1st baseman regularly in Pittsburgh next season. Actually Jose Osuna is a better defensive 1st baseman than Bell at this time.

  12. They have a real need for a legit 1B for next year. None of these guys are the answer after this year. We have to struggle through 2015, but there better be a plan for improving the position next season. No way can they go to spring training with Pedro as the starting 1B.

    • See #Josh_Bell_in_June…they’re not going to make a major move this off-season with their best hitting prospect potentially ready by mid-season

    • If Morse can recapture what he showed last and most of his career he would be an adequate bridge to Bell. If he would have a year anything like he did here in DC he would be an excellent bridge even to the point of giving the Pirates the luxury of taking their time with Bell

  13. I think Morse deserves a little better look-see than what he’s getting. As far as ARam, pinch hitting might be his future.

      • Or what Steve Blass called “a four loss win,” where just when you’re about ready to give up on a guy he does something good, and you hang on to him a little while longer….

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