A Recent History of Pittsburgh Pirates First Base Difficulties
Last season the Pirates brought in John Jaso to be the lef-handed bat in the first base platoon. Like with Pedro Alvarez, first base was not Jaso’s original position. Prior to joining the Pirates, he had spent his entire career as a catcher in the American League.
Unlike with Alvarez, however, the transition went much smoother for Jaso. He proved to be average to below average defensively with -3 defensive runs saved and a -2.3 UZR/150. Given the horrendous fielding, the Pirates had from Alvarez this had to be considered a win for the Pirates.
From the plate, Jaso proved to be a minor disappointment in 2016. He had been brought in to bat leadoff, however, his on-base percentage dipped from .380 with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015 to .353 in 2016. Additionally, his walk rate went down from 13 percent in 2015 to 10.4 percent in 2016. Not helping matters was a significant slump in the middle of the season. Jaso signed a two-year deal and will be back with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017. Because of this, he figures to be in the mix for playing time at first base at least to start the season.
Lots of Options
In addition to Jaso, six other players started at least one game at first base. David Freese and Josh Bell primarily getting the start when the Pirates faced a lefty pitcher. While Freese is under team control through the 2019 season, he has primarily played third base throughout his career.
Additionally, he is already 33-years old. Because of this, he is unlikely to be considered a long-term solution at first base. Additionally, both he and Jaso may be needed to play third base this season due to uncertainty surrounding Jung Ho Kang’s status. The ideal result for the Pittsburgh Pirates would be that Josh Bell becomes the long-term solution at first base.
When the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Josh Bell in the second round of the 2011 Draft he was as an outfielder. In fact, he could still be utilized in the outfield out of necessity due to the possibility that the Pirates could still trade Andrew McCutchen. As of now, though, the plan is for Bell to be the Pirates everyday first baseman for the 2017 season.
There are still some question marks regarding how this will play out, though. Bell is a switch hitter but it is uncertain how well he will hit left-handed pitching. He had a slash line of .211/.304/.211 against lefties, albeit in only 23 plate appearances, at the Major League level in 2016. Additionally, his fielding thus far has been Alvarez-esque. In 150.1 innings at first base in 2016, Bell had -3 defensive runs saved and a -32.8 UZR/150.
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Bell, of course, still has plenty of time to improve these aspects of his game and become a more complete player. In fact, his rookie status is still intact. Ideally, he sees significant growth in his game during 2017 and matures into a capable everyday first baseman.
With Bell under control through 2022, there is potential for Pittsburgh to have a permanent first baseman for six seasons. The last time the Pirates had a “primary starter” at first base for that many consecutive years was from 1997-2002 when Kevin Young held the role. However, it could turn out that Bell needs to be utilized as part of another platoon. A worst-case scenario, another Pedro Alvarez situation can’t be ruled out either.
*Stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference!