Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pirates: First Base

If there's one position the Bucs can strengthen from the outside, the Gateway Base would be the one.

The Pirate FO can thank its lucky stars that their trawling of the huddled masses populating baseball's twilight zone pulled up Garrett Jones, because Adam LaRoche was the only steady presence - and that was briefly - there since the latter days of Kevin Young's career. Remember Randall Simon, Brad Eldred, Daryle Ward, Sean Casey, Xavier Nady and company?

Jones, 29, proved a competent banger with 42 HR in two seasons, though his glove wasn't the caliber of LaRoche's and his hitting splits (.282/RHP/.210/LHP) screamed "platoon player." And for a spell, it looked as if that may be what was going down, although at the time, it didn't involve Jones.

The much maligned Steve Pearce, 27, a nifty gloveman and a guy that drove the ball in the minors, split time with Jeff Clement, 27, in May, and in a very small sample put together a .276/.395/.414 line while raking LHP.

Clement wasn't ready for prime time, as his .201/.237/.368 line showed, but he did bop seven homers in 144 ABs and fielded the position better than expected, considering his quick switch from catching.

Pearce had ankle and knee injuries that finished his season, and Clement went to Indy and had knee surgery of his own, necessitating Jones to jog in from right and hold the fort at first base.

The Pirates were planning on an eventual Jones/Lastings Milledge platoon in RF and Clement/Pearce tag team at first in 2010, providing a lineup with some pop against righties and decent OBP/gap power against lefties. It didn't quite work out that way, and 2011 promises to start out in flux, too.

Jones looks like the heir apparent next season through default, although both Clement and Pearce are expected to be ready for camp after their visits to the chop shop. John Bowker, 27, also got a couple of games in toward the end of the season,

The Pirates will face some make-or-break decisions in camp. Clement, Pearce and Bowker are all 27 and out of options (Jones is out of options, too), and the team risks losing whoever doesn't make the 25-man roster in 2011.

Not only do the Pirates have to hash out who to shoehorn on the roster, but they'll do it knowing that there is no immediate help on the horizon from the farm.

The Pirates were empty at the position except for Pearce in the minors before the new bosses took over. The FO recognized that and drafted first basemen Matt Hague (#9 - 2008), Calvin Anderson (#12 - 2008), Aaron Baker (#11 - 2009), Matt Curry (#16 - 2010) and Jared Lakind (#23 - 2010) in last three drafts. All but Lakind were college players; the FO hoped to fast-track them through the organization.

Hague, 25, is the best of the crop and should start out in Indy in 2011. He's got a good eye, putting the ball in play and drawing some walks (career .300 BA, 12% K rate, 9% BB rate), but is more a gap hitter than power stick. Hague's also an excellent guy with the leather.

The Oklahoma State grad had 15 HR and 81 RBI for the Curve last season, and has to keep up his offensive numbers to rate a look at the show. Now he strikes us as a Steve Pearce type player, though without gaping righty-lefty splits. Still, for a power corner position, Hague hasn't shown the muscle to be a serious, every-day MLB candidate.

TCU's Matt Curry, 22, is a 6'2", 235 pound LH hitter and College World Series hero who got off to a strong start at State College last season, hitting .299/.421/.477 with 7 HR and 29 RBI, walking a lot (16%) and K'ing a lot (20%). He showed pretty good range, too. But the sample is awfully small; Curry will have to keep on at West Virginia/Bradenton next year to prove 2010 was for real.

Baker, who turned 23 in September, hit 18 HR at West Virginia with 73 RBI, but average (.253) and K's (115) are a problem, as is his defense. The lefty will have to step up his game to get on the radar; he'll have to work to hold off Curry.

Anderson, 23, is young and raw. He was drafted out of Southern University, and has moved a step at a time through the minors. Anderson shows a little pop, but the big guy (6'7", 240 pounds) struggles with the glove and with K's. He may repeat at Bradenton in 2011, as his .259/.328/.352 line and 11 HR don't suggest that he's ready for AA ball.

Lakind, 18, is a Texas high school kid who signed this year for $400K. He joined up late and got a little action in the GCL; he could be in State College next season. Lakind is projected to be a 1B/RF corner type with 20+ HR potential.

The Pirate minors don't have a guy ready to step in and play, and in fact have a little problem with Baker, Anderson, and Curry being the same age and creating a logjam at the mid-level minors, always problematic when the suits are trying to evaluate talent.

In the long term, Pedro Alvarez will likely end up the Bucco first baseman, and if the FO drafts Rice 3B Anthony Rendon as expected, that will only help to accelerate the transition. That will be a big move for the Pirate organization.

They need power out of their infield corners more than most teams because of the PNC Park layout and how they've chosen to defend its spacious pastures, using what amounts to a two-CF alignment and so removing a power bat from the LF corner.

In the short term, the team will either have to run a platoon at first or go hunting for an every-day guy. Of all the positions, outside of pitching, we believe this is the most likely spot the Pirates look to upgrade for the upcoming season.

The free agent crop includes Garrett Atkins (31), Derrek Lee (35), Adam Dunn (32), Carlos Pena (33), Nick Johnson (32), Paul Konerko (35), Jorge Cantu (29), Adam LaRoche (31), Aubrey Huff (34), Xavier Nady (32) and Lance Berkman (35).

Age isn't a problem; the Pirates are probably looking for a two or three-year deal at the longest. But some of these guys are already making big money with declining production and others are best suited as DHs, so caveat emptor. Pena is clearly the guy that should interest the FO the most; Nady could be a cheap fallback.

There may be a possibility of an interesting non-tender candidate or two; James Loney leads that class. Their deadline is December 2nd.

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