BRADENTON, Fl. – It’s rare for a team to make a move this late in the year that will impact the Opening Day roster. That’s exactly what the Pirates did yesterday when they signed David Freese to a one year, $3 M deal. Freese will be the Opening Day starter at third base with Jung-ho Kang expected to miss the start of the season. When Kang returns, Freese will move from third base over to first base, where he will be the right-handed platoon option, opposite John Jaso.
“We felt like it was the right move to make,” Neal Huntington said. “Kang, we’re still projecting mid-to-late April. He wants to come back earlier. If he comes back mid-to-late April, then we’ve had David Freese at third base for a good chunk of time. If there’s a setback, then we’ve got an established Major League ready third baseman ready to step in for a longer period of time.”
Huntington and Freese both talked about how this didn’t suddenly happen, and how the Pirates had been pursuing Freese for a long time this off-season. Freese had been watching the Pirates for a longer amount of time, admiring what they have been able to do the last few years, and especially noticing when he was with the Cardinals. Of course, the last time Freese saw the Pirates, he hit the two run homer in game five off Gerrit Cole that ended up being the winning run. So has he gotten a chance to talk to Cole yet?
“No, that hasn’t come up,” Freese said, laughing. “Two years, especially in this game, is a long time. The runs that we had in St. Louis that I was a part of, that feels like forever ago. I know what these guys have done the last three years, and it’s awesome to watch. They obviously have an attitude that understands winning, and what it takes. It’s great to be a part of it. I know there’s unfinished business here, and that excites me.”
Freese looks like a great addition for third base depth. He’s been a 2.0+ WAR player in four of the last five seasons. He’s in his age 33 season, but is coming off a year where he hit for a .743 OPS. He’s stronger defensively at third base than Harrison, but Kang will be the better option offensively and defensively when he returns. And Freese understands that he’s only keeping the position warm until that return takes place.
“Whenever Kang gets back, whatever my role is, I’m cool with it,” Freese said. “I love being here already. I’m going to probably take some reps at first, and continue to stay ready for third. With the NL, you can pinch hit and get some at-bats, and maybe go to the AL and there’s an extra spot in the order. I’m here to do whatever Clint wants me to do, and try to get back to the post-season with these guys.”
The question is whether Freese will be a good option at first base when Kang returns. Again, on offense he’s not a bad option. He has a career .826 OPS against right-handers, and outside of last season, he’s been over an .800 OPS against lefties every year. He also provides added depth on the team at third base later in the year, where their depth is easily the weakest spot. On defense at first base, there would be some questions.
“He’s played a little bit of first base in the past,” Huntington said. “We do anticipate that he’ll be able to make that transition over there. And then obviously he’s available if Kang does take longer than we expect. If it’s longer than late-to-mid April, we’ve got an incredible insurance policy there. He’s a veteran right-handed bat that’s been a winner, that’s been on championship calibre clubs, and wants to be a Pirate. Wants to join this group and help them take that next step forward.”
The question mark is whether he can handle first base. He’s played first base in the past, but only 21 innings in his MLB career, and not since 2011. So once again, the Pirates are taking a guy with limited first base knowledge, and putting him at the position.
“It’s a transition,” Freese said about the move. “If I start getting some reps over there, it will be alright. I played on the other side. Just kind of the opposite field I guess. And you have to work the bag a little bit more over at first. I think for that part, it’s just going to be about the timing of how plays occur — choppers in the four hole, what to go after, what not to, and that type of stuff. That’s just going to come with time, and I think I’ll transition pretty well.”
With Freese at first base, the Pirates don’t have much room for Michael Morse and Jason Rogers. Neal Huntington said that Morse will be the right-handed platoon option on Opening Day, while Rogers could still make the bench. After that, Freese will take over for Morse, and that might make it difficult for the team to carry both players on the bench, along with Freese.
“We do like what we’ve seen out of Jason at third base, and feel like he can fill a role there,” Huntington said. “We just felt like David Freese made us better, in the short-term and over the course of a season. Once Kang gets healthy, we’ll have to see where everybody else is health wise, the configuration of the bench, who is playing well, who is healthy, and who fits, and we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
This move makes you question why they added Jason Rogers in the first place. Huntington said that this deal wasn’t made because of something they saw this spring with Rogers, but that it was an ongoing conversation. Still, the move being made now means that Rogers is the number three option at third base (or number four, if you count Harrison), the number three right-handed option at first base, and I don’t know how far down he is on the outfield depth chart. That’s good depth to have, but the Pirates paid two top 50 prospects to get him.
Granted, they can’t predict the future, and couldn’t predict that they would have gotten Freese on this deal. But even without Freese, there wasn’t a big role for Rogers. He was competing with Morse for the first base job, wasn’t a realistic option to start at third base, and wasn’t a guy who should factor into the outfield mix. Beyond 2016, he wouldn’t factor in at first base with Josh Bell, and had an even smaller chance at third or outfield with all of the Indianapolis prospects coming up. He now becomes a very expensive depth option.
As for Freese, there will certainly be questions about his defense at first base as he makes that transition. But this is a quality MLB hitter who can provide strong defense at third while Kang is out, and strong depth off the bench. He strengthens the lineup in the short-term, and strengthens the depth of the team in the long-term this season. That’s something the Pirates could use, and it’s exactly what Freese was looking for.
“I wanted to go to a place where I had a chance to win first and foremost,” Freese said. “But to get in there and have an opportunity to play a little bit, this is a good spot.”