Even with the extra wild-card team additions a couple of years ago, making a return trip to the postseason isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world to do. Half the teams that made the playoffs in 2012 didn’t get there in 2013, and a similar scenario is likely to occur this season. The Pittsburgh Pirates are a strong team with a bright future, but if they want to avoid being one of the teams on the outside looking in, they need to upgrade at two spots — first base and starting pitcher. There are myriad options for the latter, particularly A.J. Burnett, whom the team is still waiting on to decide whether he will come back to the Steel City or retire. But for the former, there is really one desirable option: Kendrys Morales.
Last season, the Pirates ranked just 19th in wRC+ as a team at first base. Gaby Sanchez is capable of crushing left-handed pitchers, but he is basically Rey Ordonez against right-handed pitching. The Pirates acquired Chris McGuiness earlier in the offseason ostensibly to help fill that void, but McGuiness will be entering his age-26 season in 2014, and he has just 34 major league plate appearances on his résumé. (The Pirates will be his third organization.) He didn’t reach Triple-A until age 25, and when he did, he didn’t exactly set it on fire — he hit just .246/.369/.423 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Banking on him should definitely not be Plan A. Although Sanchez hits lefties extraordinarily well and plays decent defense, he can’t be trusted to play every day. The Pirates need more.
They can get more in Morales.
Morales has his flaws, to be sure, particularly on defense. But hitting right-handed pitching is not one of them. Over the past two seasons, he has posted a 117 wRC+ against righties. That’s not star-level, but it is a lot better than the Pirates hit against them in 2013, when they posted just a 97 wRC+. And even that is misleading, as the two Pirates hitters who fared best against them were Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones, and both were jettisoned in the offseason. Sanchez, the one remaining first baseman, posted just a 73 wRC+ against righties and has posted just an 80 wRC+ against them in his time in Pittsburgh.
It is especially important to have a first baseman who can hit righties when you look at the starting pitcher composition of the Pirates’ foes in the National League Central. There are a bevy of great left-handed starters in the game today, but none of them resides in the NL Central. As it stands now, here is how they will break down:
Projected starting rotations for NL Central teams
CHC — Samardzija, Jackson, Wood, Rusin, Arrieta, Villanueva/Coleman
MIL — Lohse, Gallardo, Peralta, Estrada, Thornburg, Hellweg/Fiers
STL — Wainwright, Wacha, Lynn, Garcia, Miller, Martinez/Kelly
CIN — Cueto, Latos, Bailey, Leake, Cingrani, Reynolds/Corcino
Just four of the 20 starting pitcher slots are projected to go to southpaws, and no teams are slated to have a lefty at the top of their rotation. Furthermore, much of the depth behind them will be right-handers as well. This makes having a first baseman who is competent against righties that much more important.
Defense may be an issue, of course. It has been four seasons since Morales logged 1,000 innings in the field. (He has started 28 and 31 games defensively the past two seasons.) He might have played more frequently, but the presence of Albert Pujols in 2012 when Morales was with the Angels, and the Mariners’ strong desire to see whether Justin Smoak could be productive in 2013, made it unnecessary for Morales to log more time in the field. With Sanchez available for late-game duty, it should be less of a concern than it would be if the Pirates didn’t have him there for depth.
Morales does come with draft-pick compensation attached, but not all first-round picks are created equal. Back in 2005, Rany Jazayerli found that while a top-five pick — which the Pirates had for a number of years — would reach the majors more than 85 percent of the time, a pick in the 20s reached the majors around 70 percent of the time. The calculus has likely changed a little bit over the past decade, but probably not by much. This year, the Pirates’ first-round pick would be 25th overall. And while they would also lose some of their draft budget as well, it’s still far from the end of the world. Seven of the 10 players ranked as the top Pirates prospects by Baseball America were either signed as international free agents or were drafted outside of the first round. That is a credit to the Pirates’ scouting and player-development team and shows that they are capable of finding the gems that it takes to build a robust farm system.
Forfeiting a draft pick and having to dole out a large contract would be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for a non-star-level player, but Morales’ market is likely much more modest at this point. At the offseason’s outset, it was assumed that players like Morales and Nelson Cruz would find paydays in excess of $50 million, but that no longer appears likely. Morales’ price is probably more like two years, $20 million, and that makes him a much more attractive option.
This isn’t to say that Morales is the only option for Pittsburgh. Trading for players like Ike Davis of the Mets or Mike Carp of the Red Sox would be potentially great moves as well. But the Mets have demanded a high price for Davis, and the Red Sox aren’t exactly shopping Carp. In other words, it takes two to tango, and any player or players the Pirates relinquish in a deal with either club may be just as valuable as the player they would draft this spring, especially when you consider where the Pirates are right now on the win curve.
A first-round draft pick will no doubt help keep the farm system stocked, but the Pirates’ window for contention is likely the next four years, maybe five. The Pirates have to balance how much value that potential pick will provide in that time frame versus how much Morales could provide in the next two to three seasons. Perhaps Morales would bring in less value, but if it is even close, signing him should be a no-brainer. Sanchez can hit lefties just fine, but they are in short supply in the NL Central, and the only other option the team has is an untested, 26-year-old non-prospect. The Pirates need to do better if they want to experience another Buctober.
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