The other day, Buster Olney tweeted that some executives see regression in the Pirates’ immediate future. Projection systems seem to be in agreement, and Dave talked about this very thing as soon as the Pirates were eliminated from last year’s playoffs. Nobody thinks the Pirates are going to go back to being terrible — there’s way too much talent there — but people see them more as fringe contenders than NL Central favorites, and it’s not like they’ve had the most constructive offseason, with the biggest move to date being the loss of A.J. Burnett.
Of course, the offseason isn’t over. The Pirates might still be able to get Burnett re-signed, which would be a significant improvement. They’re another one of those teams in a high-leverage position on the win curve, so any kind of improvement should be pursued. And with that in mind, right now the situation at first base involves Gaby Sanchez and unknown others. You probably know that Gaby Sanchez is a real player, but he’s never done much to draw attention to himself, and he’s not a regular. It seems like the Pirates are ripe for a first-base upgrade. But then, what’s really available to them?
Someone asked me in a chat not long ago to identify a good first baseman the Pirates would be able to acquire. I didn’t have an answer, and it’s not because I was being deliberately unhelpful. Let’s run down the top projected first basemen for 2014, according to Steamer, and note why an acquisition would be unlikely or impossible:
- Joey Votto — franchise player
- Miguel Cabrera — franchise player
- Paul Goldschmidt — franchise player
- Albert Pujols — too expensive
- Adrian Gonzalez — not going anywhere
- Freddie Freeman — franchise player
- Edwin Encarnacion — too good, on a potential contender himself
- Prince Fielder — perceived franchise player
- Anthony Rizzo — valued building block
- Allen Craig — valued building block
- Chris Davis — franchise player
- Brandon Belt — developing franchise player
- Nick Swisher — on a potential contender himself
- Eric Hosmer — on a potential contender himself
- Matt Adams — valued building block
- Mark Teixeira — too expensive
- Corey Hart — on a potential contender himself, just acquired
- Mike Napoli — just re-signed, highly valued
- Logan Morrison — on a potential contender himself, just acquired
- Mark Trumbo — perceived franchise player
- Adam Lind — starting DH on a potential contender
Everyone else is projected for 1.4 WAR or lower than that. Sanchez is one of the guys projected for 1.4 WAR. Not everyone above would be impossible to acquire, but they’d all be stretches. Maybe Morrison would be available, but his projection is also exceedingly optimistic. It’s pretty evident that if the Pirates want to get better at first base, they’re not in position to make a major splash. Anything they’d do would be a more minor transaction.
Now, Sanchez is a guy with a big career platoon split. Even after you regress it, he’s eminently playable against lefties. The Pirates, I’m sure, would love to have an everyday first baseman, but failing that, they could just platoon Sanchez with a left-handed bat. Andrew Lambo is in the system, working out at first base, and the Pirates recently added Chris McGuiness. But what are alternatives on the market?
There was recently a rumor that the Pirates are interested in Kendrys Morales. Morales is a proven good hitter, and he seems to have an almost non-existent market. In the past, he’s been a reasonable defender at first. But lately he’s also primarily been a DH, and he has that draft pick attached on account of the qualifying offer extended to him by Seattle. It’s hard to see the Pirates as an actual fit unless Morales’ price were to dip particularly low. Sanchez, in theory, would be able to give him days off, but Morales still seems like a better fit for a team like the Orioles.
The Pirates have sniffed around Mitch Moreland. Moreland is currently in line to bat quite often for a contending team in Texas, and he owns a career WAR of 2.1 over more than 1,500 plate appearances.
Morrison might be gettable, especially if the Mariners sign Nelson Cruz, but right now he’s in line to bat quite often, and he owns a career WAR of 1.0 over just about 1,500 plate appearances.
Justin Smoak might be gettable, especially if the Mariners sign Nelson Cruz, but right now he’s in line to bat quite often, and he owns a career WAR of -0.1 over almost 2,000 plate appearances.
The Mets have been dangling Ike Davis all offseason long. They weren’t able to find a match with the Brewers, because the Mets wanted more value than Milwaukee was willing to give up. Davis has been a below-average player since the start of 2011, and it’s meaningful that the Mets are so prepared to ship him off and give time to Lucas Duda.
Mike Carp isn’t in line for a lot of playing time in Boston, and rumors from a few months ago indicated that the Pirates expressed interest. Several teams, however, expressed interest, and the Red Sox reportedly wanted quite a bit in return. Carp is coming off a strong offensive season boosted by a .385 BABIP.
Somewhat interestingly, the Astros recently designated Brett Wallace for assignment. He’s 27 and he bats left-handed, and while he owns a negative career WAR, he’s also been slightly above-average against righties and especially so the last three years. Last season in Triple-A he posted a .952 OPS and he’s readily available at this very minute. He’s interesting, in large part because he wouldn’t cost talent in return.
But here’s the bigger point: there’s not a ton out there. There certainly aren’t many sure things, and while the Pirates could use this year’s version of last year’s Mike Carp, the Red Sox might want too much, and this year’s Carp isn’t likely to be as good as last year’s Carp. There’s no one worth giving up significant value for. And a guy the Pirates already have is more than a little interesting.
Andrew Lambo hasn’t played much first base, but he’s been working at it over the winter. The goal is for him to simply become passable, and then there’s real upside in his bat. We can skip over Lambo’s whole history. He’s 25 years old and left-handed. Last year he hit well in Double-A, then he posted the very highest isolated slugging percentage in Triple-A. His combined line was .282/.347/.574, and while his game basically comes down to power, he has a lot of it, and it can make up for a lot of deficiencies.
Yeah, he strikes out quite a bit. His contact rate in Triple-A was 0.8 standard deviations below the mean. But he’s not a free swinger — his swing rate in Triple-A was 0.6 standard deviations below the mean. He does have a sense of the strike zone, and when he hits the ball he hits the ball hard. The Pirates, in theory, would be able to protect Lambo from facing too many tough southpaws. If the Pirates are looking for a 2014 version of 2013 Mike Carp, they might already have it. When considering any acquisition, they have to wonder: is this new guy better than Andrew Lambo would be?
The Pirates don’t need to commit themselves to Sanchez and Lambo right away. Lambo doesn’t have to make the opening-day roster, so the team could put him in Triple-A to see if he can sustain his improvements, at the plate and in the field. But Lambo is sufficiently interesting and sufficiently talented that the Pirates shouldn’t need to give up much value for a part-time lefty bat. There’s only so much to be gained, and it isn’t hard to see how Lambo could hit for enough power to offset his various shortcomings. Maybe I’m too positive about a guy who hasn’t proven a thing outside of the high minors. But sometimes lower-budget teams have to take chances, and if the Pirates can’t find something for cheap, they seem to already be in position to go cheap.
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