First Base Preview

Feb 25, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso (28) poses for a photo at Pirate City. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 25, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso (28) poses for a photo at Pirate City. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports /

Here at Rum Bunter we’ll be doing a series of position previews before the season starts, and the first position being that of first base, which has been a storyline almost every year. The last few years first base has been a constant, revolving door with very little production and great inconsistency. The first base depth has also lacked in years, with the best options in Triple A mostly being minor league fillers such as John Bowker. This year looks like it can either be a massive flop or massive success due to the risk – be it calculated – by the Pirates free agent signings.

Last year’s starting first baseman Pedro Alvarez hit .243/.318/.469 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs in his 150 games and 491 plate appearances. However, his often inconsistent bat and troubling defense made the change seem more and more likely as the year went on, and so did the $8 million he was projected to make in his final year of arbitration. General Manager Neal Huntington always lays claim to the almost tiring phrase “payroll flexibility” but in this case, the phrase was carried out in a way to gain more flexibility in savings. And on December 2, 2015 that change was made. The Pirates now had an empty hole at first base and it seemed like the yearly “will the Pirates find a half decent first baseman” question came up again. And then on December 23 that question was answered with the signing of John Jaso to a two-year/$8 million deal.

Feb 25, 2016; Bradenton, FL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso (28) poses for a photo at Pirate City. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports /

Jaso, lastly with the Tampa Bay Rays, is a converted catcher and his transition over to first base has been followed closely this spring. Jaso is not a player that will bring eye popping power, he won’t hit the ball into the river, but he brings a consistent bat with the ability to get on base at a high clip. Last season Jaso hit .286/.380/.459 in 70 games, after being injured on opening day sliding into second base – two batters into the home half of the first. He’s battled concussions and that wrist injury he suffered last year over the course of the past few seasons, but he has still produced a respectable slash line of .272/.364/.421 in the 239 games he was able to play in. Jaso also brings along the ability to walk more and strike out less than league average. His walk rate has been 11.6 percent and strikeout rate of 17.8 percent over the last three years. Jaso looks like he will be the table setter in the new sabermetric developed lineup the Pirates will be running out everyday. If he performs like he has always done on offense – getting on base better than most – Jaso will be a big addition to the Pirates. If he can just play league average defense over at first, he’ll be an even better addition.

Jaso will likely platoon with Michael Morse over at first, presumably until Jung Ho Kang returns and then at that point David Freese will likely come over and platoon with Jaso. Morse had a season to forget last season, hitting only .231/.313/.336 with only 5 home runs in 98 games and 256 plate appearances. An incredible down year for the big, strong first baseman. But when he came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers in a trade (he never played for LA) he joked that the reasons for his struggles was because he wasn’t away from his wife. In Miami, Morse hit .213/.276/.313 in 53 games, as he also missed time with a finger spring. But in Pittsburgh, Morse was able to hit .275/.390/.391 in 45 games and 82 plate appearances. He’s not going to be the player that he was from 2010-2012 when he played in Washington, but he’ll probably be closer to the type of player he was in 2014 with the San Francisco Giants or his rookie season with the Seattle Mariners in 2005. His career .273/.335/.472 slash against left-handed pitchers is something the Pirates are relying on to help make the platoon an above average first base duo. His defense won’t win games – it’s slightly below league average even – but it is still a big boost compared to Pedro Alvarez’s defense last year.

David Freese will begin the season as the Pirates starting third baseman and when Jung Ho Kang returns from the disabled list, which will likely be the end of April or beginning of May, and then he will slide over and pair with John Jaso at first. The soon 33 year old has had his highs – World Series hero in 2011 and huge home run off of Gerrit Cole in game 5 of the 2013 NLDS – but this is a new challenge for him. He’s played a total of 21 innings at first base in his big league career and he will be making the switch over to first mid year. He didn’t have the luxury of having all of Spring Training to work at first, something Jaso did, Freese will just be thrown into the fire just like Aramis Ramirez was late last season. Ever since his 2012 All-Star campaign in 2012, Frees has hit .260/.328/.394 in 393 games, which is well short to the the .296/.363/.446 he hit in his first 328 games. In all likelihood Freese will be that major league average bat he has been while providing average defense. But the thing that sticks out most for him, and the reason he’ll likely be the first base platoon with Jaso, is the fact he crushed left handers. He has produced a career .297/.368/.460 slash in 694 plate appearances. Freese gives the Pirates another solid platoon option with Jaso, and this platoon situation is better than the one of 2013, Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones, 2014, Gaby Sanchez and Ike Davis, and 2015, Pedro Alvarez and Sean Rodriguez.

Jason Rogers was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for Trey Supak and Keon Broxton, and he will likely start the year in Triple A Indianapolis, due to the signing of David Freese. Rogers is another guy who has played third before and can provide flexibility, but most of his time has been spent at first base. Defense is not his calling card, but according to Fangraphs, he did have a 5.1 UZR/150 last season, which is considered above average. More than likely, his UZR/150 and defense as a whole, will fluctuate on the negative and positive sides of league average. But the Pirates brought Rogers over from a divisional rival to do one things, hit. In his career, Rogers has hit .286/.358/.429 in a very small sample of 94 games and 169 plate appearances. His minor league track record is rather solid, hitting .290/.372/.466 in 546 games and 2294 plate appearances. Having the 28-year-old right hander is a nice insurance policy incase Morse or Freese go down with injury or if one of those two fall flat on their face.

The Pirates also have one of their top prospects waiting in the wings in Indianapolis in Josh Bell. The 2011 second round pick was moved to first base after Gregory Polanco burst on the scene. Last year’s move saw Bell struggle with the glove as he produced 21 errors in 1300 chances and 1163.1 innings since he made the move in the 2014 Arizona Fall League. This will be year two at first base for Bell, and hopefully he’ll show the much needed improvement. The home run power has not shown up the way many fans have wanted to see, but his .305/.371/.450 slash line in 373 minor league games and 1622 plate appearances is encouraging. Bell’s bat will play on the major league level and as his defense improves, he’ll be closer and closer to getting the call up at some point, whether it be this year or next.

Unlike years past, the Pirates have quality depth at first base with multiple options they can turn to. With Freese and Jaso leading the charge most of the year, the Pirates look like they will have their best first base production since Adam LaRoche was taking the field every day for the club. Jason Rogers will prove to a be a valuable depth option in case of injury and Sean Rodriguez can even fill in at first every now and then if needed.

*Numbers from