Breaking Down the Pirates’ Crowded First Base Situation

BRADENTON, Fl. – The first base position for the Pirates has been a mess for a long time. In the last several years, they’ve tried to counter this with various platoons, and none of those work out. Usually, the platoons are geared to have two specific players, with no one else in the running beyond depth options.

This year the Pirates made the switch from power to OBP on the left side, going with John Jaso to replace Pedro Alvarez. That’s the one side of the platoon which has a player locked in for the starting role. The rest of it is a mess.

There are two top options for the right side of the platoon. Michael Morse is returning this year, with the Pirates paying him about $4.5 M. They also have Jason Rogers, who they acquired this off-season in exchange for top 30 pitching prospect Trey Supak and top 50 outfield prospect Keon Broxton.

Then there are the guys who can play first base, but the fact that they can play first base only further crowds an already crowded scene. Matt Joyce was signed to compete for the fourth outfield spot, but wants to also work on transitioning to first base. Jake Goebbert is more of a first baseman who can also play the outfield, making him the reverse of Morse. Both of these guys are more depth options than anything, but could still win a spot on the bench. They’re also both left-handed, so they wouldn’t really factor in to the right side of the platoon.

The decision for the right side of the platoon would ultimately come down to Morse or Rogers. The Pirates could try to keep both on the roster, but that would require trusting them at different positions than first base. Michael Morse was taking grounders at third yesterday, but isn’t really an option there, outside of deep emergency situations. The position he could end up playing would be the outfield.

“I think what we’re going to do is get him in some outfield work,” Clint Hurdle said of Morse. “He’s played outfield in the past. Last year we were in a position where it wasn’t anything we needed to try and add to his task list coming in. We might run him around out there, get him involved with some drills, and see where he can take it. I’ve actually seen him play the outfield a little bit.”

Jason Rogers can also play two other positions, with questionable defense at each spot. He’s played third base and the outfield, and the Pirates plan on trying him at both spots this Spring.

“He has a little bit of a sample size of playing some outfield,” Hurdle said. “He’s played some third base, as well as first base. So we’re going to get him in those opportunities, work him out early, and then we’ll see what the games can present.”

If the Pirates can keep both players on the roster by putting them at new positions, it would make a lot of sense, but would also probably require a strong defensive option aside from Sean Rodriguez to balance out the lack of defense from the bench spots. This might make it difficult for Joyce and Goebbert to make the Opening Day roster, unless the Pirates are comfortable with Sean Rodriguez being THE defensive option (and the backup shortstop). If that’s the case, then one of those two could make the team, giving the Pirates a lot of offense from the bench. My guess would be that Joyce would get the job over Goebbert, since the latter has options remaining.

As for Rogers and Morse, the reason you want both of them making the roster is for their potential and the investment the Pirates made in them. In Rogers’ case, it’s a bit of both. He’s got a lot of power potential, plus some great numbers with the Brewers last year in a small sample size. You’d want to see if that can see a repeat in 2016. But the Pirates also invested a lot in him, sending out two good prospects, including one who could have helped the bench this year. It wouldn’t make sense to trade for Rogers only to send him to Triple-A (where they have another crowded infield situation, and where he’d be stuck behind Josh Bell).

My feeling on Morse is that you’d want to play him more for the raw power than the investment. The Pirates are paying him $4.5 M this year, but that’s what they would have otherwise paid Jose Tabata (who they dealt for Morse last year). That money was basically a sunk cost, and Morse has a better chance of helping the team than Tabata would have (Morse had a .782 OPS last year, plus a .351 wOBA and a 126 wRC+ off the bench, so he’s already helping).

Morse has the best raw power on the team. I’m talking Pedro Alvarez raw power. I’ve noticed this every time I’ve seen him take batting practice, whether it was hitting home runs into the incoming crowd at the center field entrance in Busch Stadium, or watching him hitting balls over the batter’s eye in deep center field at Pirate City (a wall that is about 30 feet high and 415 feet away). But the question with Morse was why couldn’t he carry that raw power into the game last year?

“You know when his last full season was where he hit well. He’s removed from that a little bit,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s reps as much as anything else. He didn’t get out of the box clean last year, and for whatever reason the plug got pulled on him early. The opportunities with us were limited. It wasn’t like he was playing everyday and getting five at-bats per night. So that would be the biggest reason why.”

The problem here is that Morse won’t get regular playing time with the Pirates in 2016 either. If he’s the only right-handed first base option, then he’d still struggle to get a lot of starts. And even if he is passable at third base and the outfield, he won’t be stealing time from any of the starters at those positions. But Hurdle also felt that Morse was close to snapping out of his in-game power funk last year.

“When he’s shown the ability to go out there and put some quality at-bats together, earn the playing time on the field and get those reps, he’s shown some good things,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s still there. It’s just wherever the opportunities come, and the reps come with it. You’ll see more of it when he gets comfortable. I thought he was getting comfortable with us, and I thought if the season would have continued, if there had been a second half to the second half, I think you would have seen some power come into play.”

In Morse, you’ve got a guy who was one year removed from a .196 ISO, and who signed a two-year, $16 M deal last season. You’d hope he can bounce back from the low power year in 2015. With Rogers, you’ve got a guy who posted a .145 ISO last year, while hitting for average and getting on base during a small sample size. In this case, you’d hope the one year wasn’t a fluke. But in both cases, you’d want to give them playing time to see if they can either repeat their success, or bounce back from their down year.

Another issue with the first base crowd would be the defense. Morse isn’t bad defensively, but he’s not great. Rogers is in the same category. Jaso is learning the position, so it’s going to be a rough transition at the start of the year. Last year, the Pirates eventually relegated Sean Rodriguez to being the late-inning defensive replacement at first base, due to the poor defense from Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates are hoping to avoid that this year.

“When we initially signed him, it was to move all over the field,” Hurdle said of Rodriguez. “As the season went on, it morphed into the situation it became. So we’ll be looking to move him all over the place [in 2016]. One of the interesting things about Sean is he took balls everyday, multiple spots. You can probably count the times on two hands in 180 days that he took balls at first base. Practice. He’d go over there once in a while. He’s a gifted defender, so we’re looking to move him around on the diamond and in the outfield.”

It’s a good that Rodriguez isn’t also in the mix here, as that would have given the Pirates six guys who needed playing time at first base in Spring Training, or seven if you count Josh Bell. But even without Rodriguez, that’s a lot of guys who need playing time, especially when the priority for playing time should be on getting Jaso enough work to get comfortable at the position. You can expect the Pirates to use the minor league games at Pirate City to get additional work for the rest of their guys.

“We need to get Jaso good reps on the field,” Hurdle said. “We’re very involved in our backfield work when guys aren’t involved in games. We can go back and re-create some situations, whether it be in the backfield at McKechnie, or we get them involved in simulation games early over here in the afternoon. Josh Bell, we do want to take a look at him and see what he can do. He’s going to be out of camp earlier than most. We’ll try to feed him some reps.”

A high OBP catcher converting to a new position. Two all-bat, no defense guys trying to learn new positions just to get additional playing time. Two other guys who can play first base, but might have more value for their outfield work. This is far from a sure thing to work out better than the previous first base platoons have worked. But if the Pirates can play this situation right, they’ll have plenty of offense from the first base position this year, along with some extra offense from the bench. As for whether they can avoid Sean Rodriguez falling back to the defensive first baseman role, I’m not so optimistic that this could happen, considering the defensive skills of all of the top options for the position.

  • dgarshaw@gmail.com
    February 29, 2016 10:04 am

    Tim, recently I have been concerned about the future of
    Pedro Alvarez. For a few years, I have questioned Pedro’s dedication to the
    game. He refused to play winter ball early in the career and I have never read
    or seen anything to indicate he did much off-season to become a better player.
    I was not disappointed to see him released, but now my heart goes out to him.
    Is he now paying the price for his work ethic? Does his golf swing prior to his
    entering the batter’s box impact his all too frequent failure at hitting the
    ball? Have you any idea where he might sign and when? Admittedly, I am a mixture
    of sympathy and cynicism.

  • And to think they could have made all of this easier if they had just kept Walker and put him at first. Good lord – same amount of transition, less new blood, same on base and power (except for Morse’s power) —– just stupid

    • I’d argue different amount of transition, since Jaso has tried 1B before (not very much, but he’s seen it). Plus there’s a decent track record of catchers making the move. And it’s not like Neal was ever a whiz with the glove.

      You’re correct with the less new blood thought. But I’m not sure that’s a positive or a negative. Sometimes a little change of personnel can go a long way.

      Same on-base is wrong. Against RH pitchers, Neal had a .344 career OBP. Jaso has a .366. Against LH pitchers Morse has a .335 career OBP (which has been declining) and Neal has a .317. I’m assuming Neal would want to play every day.

      Power you’re correct on, but it’s not as much as you might think. Walker’s career ISO/SLG is .159/.431, Jaso’s is .155/.429 against LH. Again, if you platoon Walker, his numbers are better.

      However, the main difference is we got all 3 of these guys for what Walker is making this year (including Rogers). So we can play the one who gives us the best option, have more flexibility, and get On Base more.

      • I will concede all the stats, but I will say this about Walker defensively – I am pretty sure the numbers bear out that if he could get to the ball his glove was pretty good. First has less range than second (even a heavily shifted second baseman on the Pirates). Walker has a pretty low error rate, and I would take that at first. Jaso only has 3 games there so I am not going to give that as previous experience. As for the catchers making the transition argument you could say 1. Walker used to be a catcher (a stretch I know), and middle infielders are generally considered to be high IQ players so the transition to first regarding bunts, plays involving the pitcher and other first base specific issues (which second basemen are tangentially involved in anyway) would be easier for him to grasp. In addition you could also try the argument that he is used to seeing the ball from about that same angle in the field. These aren’t arguements that I think bear any more or better weight than yours, I just point them out as things that are as likely as “catchers make good first basemen”.

        One the money front – you are right, but we can’t fit all three of them on the roster so I’m not sure what that buys us.

        • all fair points…..

        • We can agree to disagree about Walker. Your points are all correct as well. I’m sure he could be an average to slightly below average defensive 1B. My point on Jaso was if he saw 5 innings of work at 1B in the majors, I’m sure there were practices where he also got work in. So he at least has seen it. How much that matters is probably negligible after a few months of practice, as you said.

          The reason I replied is offensively I’d rather see Jaso than Walker.

          And the money thing helps us because you have three chances to have someone break out. Last year their ONLY solution at 1B was Pedro, and it kind of burned them. Now you have 3 players. If one breaks out with the bat, he’s in. If another converts to above average defense, you have a late inning replacement. If none of the above happens, you have Bell to rely on too. They might not all 3 start in the majors, but if Rogers is tearing the cover off of the ball in AAA again, and Morse reverts to early 2015, Rogers will be in the lineup.

  • One thing that stands out in this article to me is the fact srod is solid defender at 1b even without a lot of reps last year. With the playing time last year he has the potential to be even better there this year. I hate his bat and ideally the Pirates 1B regardless of defense hopefully will have 60 xbh and an .800 ops And we won’t have to worry about him playing more than an inning or two twice a week there.

  • What is the real trade value for Morse? Is there a market for him at all?

  • Is it possible that the Pirates are stockpiling hitters anticipating the DH to be a rule change for the NL as soon as next year?

  • I think the wild card in this is Morse – I would get him a ton of ABs in spring training – and in April, if he gets his power stroke back you go with him as the right hand platoon partner. If his “in-game” power does not return – but he is hitting for a reasonable average you keep him on the roster – but give Rogers the right hand bat part of the first base platoon.

    If his bat struggles with a reasonable number of ABs you can DFA him – he is a classic sunk cost – no need to give him ABs if you really think Rogers can hit.

    In any event Morse is only going to be around this year – baring some sort of disaster he has no role beyond 2016 with the Bucs

  • srod still might be the first base closer.

  • I don’t understand anything with Jason Rogers. The interest, the trade, the optimism. None of it.

    • Have you watched him play?

      • With the Brewers a few times. I guess I look at all the assets dumped into 1st base over the years, and to me he’s just another name.

        • I thought the Rogers deal made sense. You get Josh Bell’s platoon partner for the next few years at very low cost. Better than looking for a vet like Cory Hart or Michael Morse every years at inflated $.

    • Rogers has raked at every level. I’m not going to hold it against him that he was old for his levels because he he was drafted in almost the 30th round- he got to the majors the HARD way. And when he got there(SSS or not) he raked. He passes the eye test in my opinion as far as the bat is concerned. It took Pham a long time to get to the majors and his #s in the PCL transferred over pretty well to MLB.

      What is it about Roger’s bat you DON”T like?

      • One fair question is what his BABIP does going forward. He saw terrible BABIP luck in his first stint, then fantastic BABIP luck last year.

        I dont think its clear what a “typical” BABIP will look like for him, and that drives his value at a bat first position. .320-.330 BABIP with a .140-.150 ISO would be fine with his patience at the plate.

      • To tell you the truth, I don’t think he’ll get the regular ABs.

        And I’m of the opinion, that provided Josh Bell takes another step forward, he sees the lionshare of the ABs in August/Sept.

        An injury and another guy or two sucking and we both could be wrong, so I’m not too invested in this to be honest.

      • “And when he got there(SSS or not) he raked.”

        Yeah, about that…

        From April through August, Rogers limped along at a .236/.308/.358 (81 wRC+) pace over 117 PA.

        In September, Rogers exploded going .435/.500/.630 (210 wRC+) for the month with a completely sustainable .563 BABIP over 52 PA.

        So more accurately, he “raked” for a month. That month was September. September is the month we know yields the least predictive results.

  • Im so glad you didnt mention Florimon as the backup SS. Id rather see C Barmes than Florimon.

  • I totally forgot about Supak being in the Rogers deal. That was a steep price to pay for a bit player with a crowed roster. I hope PBC as a plan. IMO that crowded option with 4-5 bit players scares me. But I will wait to see it play out.I hope we don’t end up with a Inge/Pie/Lambo/Snyder gumbo pot.

  • The scenario that scares me is one where Florimon, Morse and Joyce all make the team and they use Rogers option to send him to Indy. Just my opinion but I think there’s about 70% chance or better Florimon makes opening day roster. In which case you have Joyce, Rogers and Morse battling for 2 spots. Joyce does profile as decent 4th outfielder option and Morse and Rogers look sort of redundant. In that scenario my fear is they don’t want to lose an “asset” and send Rogers down and hold onto Morse to start season.

    I could live with both Morse, Rogers and Florimon on opening day roster and Joyce sent to Indy until an injury or his play forces him back up to Pittsburgh(not sure when his opt out will be)

  • I don’t think like an MLB manager or GM, but what here’s what I would do:
    SRod is the primary backup at 3B, SS, 2B.
    Joyce is the primary backup OF (assuming he gets his stroke back – I really liked him with the Rays).
    Obviously Stewart is the backup C.
    Keep Rogers and Morse as the main PH.
    While it’s true we wouldn’t have a strong defensive backup SS, I don’t think we really need one. We have 3 guys that can play SS if Mercer gets hurt during a game or needs a game off (SRod, Harrison, Kang). If Mercer were to be out longer, then I would bring someone up and send down Rogers (if Mercer is on the DL, then no need to do that).
    But I wouldn’t base my roster decisions on “Gee, what happens if 2 guys get hurt in the same game” scenarios.
    One of the Pirates’ strengths is that 7 of the starting 8 are strong on defense (1B is the only exception) and Mercer is the only starter that you might need to PH for during a game (other than Jaso vs. a LHP late in the game). And with guys like SRod and Harrison, there is a lot of position flexibility as well. We can afford to have 2 offense-only guys on the bench.

    • I have a feeling Florimon makes opening day roster. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think he has an option and I doubt they want to risk losing him again via waivers. I think last year he did slide through waivers but that was pre-Kang injury and they seemed confident Kang could fill in at SS. Because if they lost Florimon and then let’s say Jordy goes down for 3 months who is your SS? Ngoepe? That might not be horrible thing but I doubt Pirates want to to take that chance.

      I can’t see them wanting to use Kang or Srod as a SS for more than just a game or 2 at most.

      • I don’t think Kang will play short. He didn’t have the range before his injury, don’t think it improved.

    • But, can we afford only two left handed hitters on the ML rooster? Both of them would be starters. Lot of right handed pitchers.

    • except Rodriguez is not “seen” as a player whom can defensively backup shortstop. And not even Kang himself has stated a thought that he “could” even play shortstop again, and Harrison is a downright awful shortstop as much as I love him at 3rd or 2nd

      • I mean- you might as well say Morse can play shortstop, I mean he was drafted as one right? …… we need to get more realistic, this is not MLB ’17 for PS4

  • I saw “Hague” in the photo caption and for the briefest moment thought, “Man, first base is even more crowded than I thought…”

  • Allot of what ifs here. When Bell is ready he needs to be in the bigs.

    • I hope Bell spends the full year in AAA working on his defense and power stroke.

      • Piraddict – I think that looks like the plan to me. I don’t see Bell up this year. The Bucs have added too many contingencies for him to bubble through. I don’t think ALL of those plans will fall through. I think Jaso, Morse and Rogers all are intriguing players.

        Pirates look to be angling toward more firepower off the bench and a deeper bullpen as the upgrades for this season. I think that might be enough to balance the weaker (at least first half) starting rotation.

        -Wabbit

  • Jason Rogers needs to be on opening day roster. I couldn’t care less about his option. He can help this team. I think the guy is for real.

  • The bench looks strong with both Morse and Rogers. When Bell comes up from AAA, there will be a very interesting competition for playing time. Seems like Morse would be a trade option then if he is playing well or is Rogers going down to AAA a more likely reality? Depth is always good, so we can let that situation play out.

    • clem: The Pirates made a big investment in Jason Rogers this past off-season and they made an even bigger investment in Josh Bell when he was drafted. Therefore, Jaso, Morse, and whoever else may be seen as a utility player will be gone before either of those young guys is sent back to AAA once they put on a Pirate uni. The Pirates just have to find a good place for Rogers where his defense will not be as big a detriment, but he can flat out hit.

      • I love what I’ve seen of Rogers bat. Short, effortless stroke. Really good plate discipline for a big guy.

      • Its also not a major investment into Morse to stop them from cutting ties quickly. Gave up Tabata and money, but the salary of that deal doesnt (according to a few reports from Dodger sites and sportrac) have LAD paying a big chunk of that salary.

        • Yep, lets cut ties with the player whom has the most power on the 25 man roster.

          • Debatable. That seems to take more of his past than where his power is actually at now.

            Morse has power, but his middle ground performance doesnt seem to be a 25-30 HR guy at all. Id say if he got Cutch/Kang/Marte paying time, he’d be 3rd or 4th on the HR tally.

            • Regardless, I don’t think we can make light of the fact that Mike Morse is the only actual 1st baseman on the 40 man roster right now until at least one of the converts prove to actually be able to play the position at the Major League level.

            • I don’t see how it could be debatable honestly other than semantics in terms of what “power” means and i’m not getting into that discussion. Historical homerun power or raw power, he wins in both places, and while Kang may have more, that hasn’t been proven as of yet.

              • The last time Morse was healthy and played similar innings as Kang, 2014, he posted 16 HRs. 1 more than Kang.

                So yeah, Kang has proven he’s got Morse power. Its not semantics, its just looking at the actual production of Morse over the last 2-3 years and realizing he’s go power, but not clearly any better power than half of lineup.

                • You are cherry picking one year Luke, you can’t use 2-3 years of production when player A has 1 year in MLB and player B has only had significant playing time 1 out of 3 years.

                  • Im picking the last healthy year for Morse and the only ML year for Kang.

                    If i wanted to cherry pick, i could have made Morse look far worse. I cherry picked his most recent year with similar at bats, how dare i.

                    What you cant do is act like Morse is likely to be suddenly different than he has been the last 1-3 years. Meaning best case is a healthy 15-20 HR hitter, and that fine value. But Kang is a younger guy who just popped the same level of HR totals. Im not arguing Kang is clearly better, but he’s at a far better point in his aging curve than Morse when projecting forward.

                    • Luke, do you ever notice how your point mutates as the discussion goes on. Half the time I lose track of what we were originally talking about. In this case POWER. Yes, Kang has power, but he hasn’t shown he has more power than Morse- quite likely they are very similar. They both have more power than Cutch quite honestly despite Cutch’s ability to hit 20 or so 3rd row homers over the course of the year…… Marte does have good power at times, but its so ridiculously inconsistent I don’t know where to put him on the list. I’ll amend my original statement to “arguably” because the fact that he’s in on the conversation still proves my point as to why you don’t give him away

    • It would be- if we could afford to have Morse and Rogers both on the roster- which we can’t, since it would mean having no backup shortstop, which simply will not happen. There is another shoe which will have to fall. Having either Morse or Rogers on the bench rather than both, makes the bench offense quite weak since it will include 2 zero bat players when most teams only have one of those. If matt Joyce makes the team, that would help balance things out, having defensive backups at defense first positions and offensive backups at offense first positions

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