Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pirates by Position: First Base

Ah, now here's an interesting position. The Bucs most legitimate major league home run hitter is a first baseman by trade, but is stashed in the outfield. The Bucs most proficient long ball threat in the minors mans the hot corner, but may be shifted to first.

Logjam? Well, probably not immediately, but eventually, something's going to have to give.

By all standard reasoning, Garrett Jones, 28, should be the Pirates' full-time first baseman come April. All he did in a few weeks of showtime was hit .293, club 21 dingers, and plate 44 runs.

True, he seems to have trouble when the bases are teeming with runners - a .152 RISP is pretty poor, even for Mario Mendoza - but with a full 2010 season to counter the adjustments he's seeing and find a comfort zone, that number should come around.

One more troublesome number is his righty-lefty split. He rakes against righthanders, with a .333 batting average and 1.046 slugging percentage. His line against portsiders, though, is .208/.698, quite a swing.

He's fairly mobile with a decent arm, so a 1B/RF split hasn't presented any major problems in the field, although spending full-time at one or the other can only improve his defense.

There doesn't appear to be much behind him. After a two-month audition, Steve Pearce, 26, showed he could handle the position between the lines, but came up short with the bat. He hit .206 with 4 yard balls, 16 RBI, and a .370 slugging percentage in 165 at-bats, not nearly the production that a corner infielder needs to provide.

But he does qualify as a potential platoon player; he hit .268 with a .519 slugging percentage against lefties this season, and .306 with a .591 slugging % during his big-league career.

Jeff Clement, 26, is a former first-round pick and has a reputation for launching long balls. His MLB production has been so-so, with a .237 average, 7 HR, 26 RBI, and a .390 slugging percentage in 219 at-bats, but he's a 20 homer guy in the minors.

He's also, by all reports, a designated hitter waiting to happen. Clement was a catcher in Seattle's system, but in 2008, the M's had him don the tools of ignorance for 292 innings. He allowed 5 passed balls and 18 wild pitches in that time, and threw out just 10% of the base stealers - 2 of 20 - that challenged him. To boot, he has a pair of cranky knees.

Needless to say, the Pirates are trying to convert him to first base. Clement had nine assists in 38 minor league games; for comparative purposes, Pearce had 30 in 42 MLB games.

However, Clement has some things to offset Pearce's mitt. He has hit .447 as a pinch-hitter for Seattle; Pearce has hit just .143 for Pittsburgh during their careers. And he is a lefty with some pop and Clemente Wall staring him in the face.

Either way, 400 at-bats between the pair aren't very many to judge a potential career by. But both are of the age that they should be challenging for time, and both have major holes to mend.

The wild card, of course, is 22 year-old Pedro Alvarez. The first rounder of 2008 hit .288 with 27 HR and 95 RBI between Lynchburg and Altoona, and added a few more as a member of the USA World Cup championship team that dethroned Cuba. He's a big dude, and somewhat range-challenged at the hot corner. A spot across the diamond is almost certainly in his future; the question is when.

Unless he hits the wall at Indy in 2010, he's ticketed for a mid-summer call to PNC Park. Our guess is that it will be as a third baseman; we wouldn't expect the Pirates to switch him without some winter league work. Perry Hill has enough gray hair, if he's still here.

The Pirates have decisions here; does Jones start at first or in the OF, and which corner does Pedro go to? Also coming into play, at least in the early weeks, is whether or not the Pirates decide to give Pearce or Brandon Moss some at-bats, which affects Jones' position.

The minor leagues are empty until the A level. Lynchburg's Matt Hague, 24, (.293 8/50), and West Virginia's Calvin Anderson, 22, (.274 12/64) are the best of the lot; neither is a sure thing. Jamie Romak, 24, has unhitched from his rising star; he hit .213 14/52 at Lynchburg, with a .325 slugging percentage.

Contractual issues: None of the players are approaching arbitration; Jones, Clement, and Pearce won't qualify until 2012 at the earliest. All have at least one minor league option remaining.


WilliamJPellas said...

'Twould seem that the one thing Pearce can do passably well at the big league level is hit lefthanders. Given that Neal Huntington almost certainly won't give up on Brandon Moss (due to political reasons, ie, trying to make the Jason Bay trade look better), the solution is obvious: platoon Jones and Pearce at first base, with Brandon Moss getting some AB's in RF when Jones is playing first. Moss could also pick up some playing time by spelling Lastings Milledge from time to time in left.

I would personally much rather see us bring in a "best of the rest" type of free agent---Rick Ankiel or a similar player---but I also think Moss is at least a bit better than he showed this season because he was coming off very serious knee surgery and I don't know that we saw the best he can do. Trouble there is, he might never be what he could have been with that severe a surgery; lots of guys have seen their careers end once they have a microfracture operation, and it's usually the last resort.

I don't believe in Pearce and have seen enough to draw that conclusion, but if we're going to tread water for another year while our first wave of kids gets here (Alvarez, Tabata, D. McCutchen, B. Lincoln, maybe 1 or 2 others), what the hey. We could always bring in a veteran 1B-OF righthanded stick, and there are plenty of those kicking around in the dumpster every offseason, but shortstop and the bullpen are more pressing needs, and if the front office moves boldly to address those needs this offseason, I can live with a 1B platoon for one more season.

Of course, the situation in the minors is quite depressing---as you documented, Ron---which is also why the door was open for a scrapheap pickup like Garrett Jones in the first place.

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, Will, I think a platoon system of some sort is called for until the corners get sorted out. JR doesn't seem to be that big a fan of platooning guys, though, so we'll see.

And I was a little surprised myself at the dearth of 1B'men in the system; the suits have pretty well ignored the position so far, and it's one you'd think there would be quite a few prospects.