The Starling Marte trade means one thing; Josh Bell’s time with the Pittsburgh Pirates is likely limited. So if and when he is traded, who will take over the reigns at first base for the Pirates?
In a recent article written on this site, we pointed out that the Pittsburgh Pirates did not have a top ranked prospect at the first base position. While the position is usually extremely deep in terms of free agents and in the trade market, the future of first base for the Bucs could be up in the air. Right now, as it stands, who is the answer at first base for the Bucs in the next few seasons?
The first answer you’ll probably think of is Josh Bell. Bell is coming off an impressive season, and has improved in some way every season since his solid 2017 rookie campaign. He finished 2019 with a .277/.367/.569 line, 37 home runs, and a 135 wRC+.
He ranked just behind Braves’ All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman in wRC+ (138), and is a Statcast darling in terms of batted ball results. He ranked in the 90th+ percentile in hard hit rate, exit velocity, and xslugging. But unless the Bucs reach an agreement with Bell, the 27-year-old probably won’t be around when the Pirates return to competition. He is a free agent after the 2022 season. If the Pirates rebuild now, Bell could even be traded as soon as this season. After all, if he produces anything like he did with the bat in 2020, Bell will definitely draw some interest, and could even reel in a top 50 overall prospect.
The next player you might think of is former 1st round pick Will Craig.
Last season, Craig turned in a sub-par .249/.326/.435 with 23 home runs, and 26 doubles in 556 plate appearances at the Triple-A level. Not too impressive. The strong plate discipline Craig showed early on in his pro career has all but disappeared the past two seasons. He walked just 7.9% of the time, while striking out more than a 1/4 of the time (26.3%) and produced just a 92 wRC+.
His 23 home runs doesn’t seem all that bad on paper, but he ranked a distant 46th in the league. His power is all the less impressive considering that the minor league home run leader, Kevin Cron, hit 38 in 82 games, and American League Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez hit just as many long balls as Criag in Triple-A, but in just 56 games. Additionally, his slugging percentage ranked 42nd in the International League. In the Majors, I don’t see him being anything more than a Colin Moran type hitter (solid, but unspectacular platoon/bench bat), but with slightly more power, and a bit more versatile.
The closest in-house answer I came up with is 2017 17th round pick Mason Martin. Martin made his presence in the Pirates system known last season. He hit .254/.351/.558 with 35 long balls in 556 plate appearances. Although he might be just 20-years-old, he produced a wRC+ above 150 in both High-A Bradenton and Low-A Greensboro.
Unlike Craig, Martin hasn’t struggled with is plate discipline. He walked 13% of the time in Bradenton, and 10.9% of the time in Greensboro. He could cut down his strikeout rate a bit, but that might be the only thing lacking in the lefty’s offensive game. One of the main concerns is his glove work. Currently, MLB.com graded it out at 40, which is pretty bad even for playing first base. However, like I stated earlier, he is just 20-years-old, and did not start playing first base full-time in 2018.
Maybe the Pirates don’t have the long-term answer at first base in their system yet. Personally, I don’t see the Pirates being a serious contender until around the 2022 season. By then, Bryan Reynolds, Mitch Keller, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, and Ke’Bryan Hayes should be established MLB players, with Oneil Cruz, Quinn Priester, Brennan Malone, Liover Peguero and Ji-Hwan Bae should be on the mend to make the majors. All-Star first basemen like Anthony Rizzo and Freeman will be free agents, with Kris Bryant who is familiar with the position. I’m not saying that they will spend the money to acquire one of these top first base free agents, but it isn’t an impossibility.