Friday, January 23, 2009

Farm Fresh - First Base

Hey, this is another easy one - behind Adam LaRoche at first base is a whole lot of maybe, and that ain't good.

LaRoche just signed on the dotted line for $7.05M, a fair salary for his production. The good news is that he's been pretty productive - he's had 20+ homers and 85-90 RBI for the past three years, with a batting average ranging from .270-.285.

And being a lefty, LaRoche is built for the friendly confines of PNC Park, although when he's on, his power is more to the gaps. His glove is more than decent, and at 29, he's young enough to fit into the Bucs plans going down the road.

The bad news is that his bat doesn't warm up until the dog days. In the past three seasons, he's hit .251, .239, and .251 during the first half of the season (we won't even talk about April), and .304, .312, and .323 in the second half. And by that time, the Bucs are eating dust in the Central Division.

The Pirates wanted to sign him to a long-term deal last year, but the gap was so vast that they didn't even broach the subject this year. 2009 is his walk season, and you can be assured he'll stick his toes in the free agent pool in 2010.

So who is lining up behind him? Well, his back-up from 2008, Doug Mientkiewicz, is still unsigned and isn't really a long term answer any way. Looks like Steve Pearce, 1B turned OF, may be flipped again.

The 25-year old RH has hit .266 in 177 big league at-bats, but his 4 long balls aren't what the suits are looking for from a corner infielder. In 2006 and 2007, he smacked 57 homers during stops at every level from Hickory to Indianapolis, but only added a dozen for the Tribe in 2008. Will the real Steve Pearce please stand up?

Does he deserve a shot? The Bucco tribe is divided on that question, but it may be a moot point. If LaRoche heads to greener pastures at the deadline or off season, there may be no choice.

Andy Phillips will be in camp, and the 31-year old has been around the big league block. A Yankee prospect that lost out to Jason Giambi, he's played for three teams and batted 557 times with 14 HR and a .250 average. He's mostly been a third baseman in his MLB appearances, but has played first and second in AAA. But he's a utility guy all the way, not a replacement by any standard.

Huntington also brought in long-time Twin minor league muscle man Garrett Ford, but more than likely as Indy's first-sacker, not Pittsburgh's. The 29-year old LH has hit 20+ homers at AAA for three of the past four seasons, but only gotten 77 at-bats in the show, homering twice and hitting .266 - and that was two years ago.

The much jerked-around Neil Walker may add a first baseman's mitt to his growing collection of leather. He made the transition from catcher to the hot corner well enough to be named the best fielding 3B in the International League, so he shouldn't have much problem with the defensive part of moving across the diamond.

Like another switch-hitting catcher that was athletic enough to play the corners, Ryan Doumit, Walker may get a little love. But unlike Doumit, Walker's bat has yet to explode. He had his best power year in 2008, hitting 16 HR for Indy, but batting just .244.

Some folk think he was rushed to AAA last year and should have put in a full season at Altoona. True or not, this much is sure - Pedro Alvarez is on a fast track behind him, and Andy LaRoche looks immovable for the time being ahead of him. So it would make sense to give Walker another season at Indy and some quality time at 1B.

Jamie Romak, who was part of the LaRoche deal, has big time power but not much else. The 23-year old converted OF has 61 HR in his three minor league seasons, with 340 K in 1322 AB (26%), and in a couple of months at Altoona hit just .208 (his minor league lifetime is .255). And his glove and speed won't take him far.

But he does have the one thing a first baseman needs - a big stick. Romak's not ready for prime time, and how he adjusts to a whole season in AA may make or break his career. He's young enough, but has to quit missing so many pitches.

25-year old Miles Durham showed some spark last season, hitting a combined .293/18/81 between Hickory and Lynchburg, and following up with a brief but effective fall stint in Hawaii. Still, he's awfully long in the tooth for level he's playing at, so...

Altoona 1B Jason Delaney rounds out the list. The 26-year old hit .292, but has never reached double-figures in HR in four years of college and four years in the minors. And that's just not first base performance.

A couple of guys with a darkhorse pedigree are Calvin Anderson, 21, and Justin Byler, 23. Both are young, have some power, and are light years away from the show.

Maybe it's best if Pedro does eat his way to first base...


WilliamJPellas said...

The thing that jumps out at me in your survey of the Pirate first basemen is just how little talent there is at that position in the entire organization. Compared with what's behind him, Adam LaRoche looks like Albert Pujols.

That said, it seems to me there's a general dearth of talent at the first sack all around big league baseball at the moment. As you know, Ron, almost every position seems to go in cycles; the 1990s was "the decade of the shortstop", for example. For whatever strange reason, there aren't many good 1Bs around at the moment.

Which brings up an interesting question: should the Pirates overpay to keep Adam LaRoche, a good but not great first baseman, for another four years or so? Normally I'd say no. But given what's going on at the moment in big league baseball....I dunno. Your thoughts?

Ron Ieraci said...

Personally, Will, I'd offer him 3 years at $30M for the reasons you stated - a lack of talent in the system, a league-wide down cycle for the postiion, and his age.

The comparable I found for him is Nick Swisher. Swisher's 3 year line is 1592 at bats .246/81/242; LaRoche's line is 1547 at bats, .275/78/263. Both are considered pretty good glovemen.

Swisher is making $5.3M in 2009, $6.75M next year, and $9M in 2010. LaRoche is a year ahead of him in compensation, so I think he'd be worth $8.5M, $10M, $11.5 from 2010-2012. He's 29, so he still should have another contract in him.

In fact, you may have just given me today's post; thank you, sir!

WilliamJPellas said...

You're most welcome! :-D