Pittsburgh Pirates and the First Base Carousel of the 2010s

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action against the Chicago Cubs during game one of a doubleheader at PNC Park on September 15, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 15: Pedro Alvarez #24 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action against the Chicago Cubs during game one of a doubleheader at PNC Park on September 15, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) /

The amount of first basemen the Pittsburgh Pirates had in the 2010 decade was unbelievable, so lets go over each and every one of them.

Oh boy, this is a long one so strap in. For most of the 2010s, the Pittsburgh Pirates never had a steady first baseman. Even when they were in the playoffs in 2013 to 2015, they never had one guy who consistently was considered an answer at the position.

In 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates opened the decade with a former 1st round pick at first base – Jeff Clement. Clement was a 1st round pick, and 3rd overall selection by the Seattle Mariners in the 2005 draft. Yes, Clement was selected before players such as Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Jay Bruce, and a bunch of other names the Mariners probably wish they had taken instead.

But the former catching prospect didn’t last long as the Pirates primary first baseman. In 2010, he played just 54 games and stepped to the plate 154 times. He racked up just 29 hits, and struck out 37 times. He did have 7 home runs, but Clement struggled on defense having -0.2 defensive WAR.

Clement didn’t appear in the Majors again until 2012 with the Pirates, where he played in 23 games and received 24 plate appearances, none of which he did anything too productive in. For the rest of 2010, Garrett Jones took over the primary duties of first base where he hit for a weak .247/.306/.414 with 21 home runs and a 94 OPS+.

After Clement, the Pittsburgh Pirates went out to sign Lyle Overbay. Overbay was the first baseman in Toronto  for quite some time, and the Pirates were quite familiar with the first baseman as he broke out with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2004. From his 2004 season up until 2010, Overbay hit for a solid .274/.358/.451 line and 112 OPS+ and averaged about 40 doubles a season. He also put up some solid defensive numbers at first base during these seven seasons as well (+25 DRS, -1.2 UZR, -0.2 UZR/150). But he was not nearly as productive in 2011 with the Pirates. In his 391 plate appearances in Pittsburgh, Overbay hit just .227/.300/.349 resulting in an OPS+ of 82. His defense also was awful with -4 DRS and -2 total zone runs above average.

At the 2011 trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired former Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs All-Star Derrek Lee from the Baltimore Orioles. Lee replaced Overbay who was subsequently released on August 5th. Lee was outstanding in his short time with the Pirates. In his 113 plate appearances, Lee had 34 hits, 7 of which were home runs. Overall, he hit .337/.398/.584 with a 173 OPS+. But the 36-year-old decided to hang up the spikes following the 2011 season. Although there were talks about him coming back in 2012 with the Brewers, and in 2013 with the New York Yankees, Lee hasn’t appeared in an MLB game since the end of the 2011 season.

So, again, the Pittsburgh Pirates needed to find a first baseman. In came Casey McGehee from the Brewers for relief pitcher Jose Veras. Like with Overbay, the Pirates were familiar to McGehee since he was the Brew Crew’s primary third baseman in 2009 to 2011. Despite his .626 OPS and 69 OPS+ in 2011, McGehee was a productive batter in 2009 and 2010. In both seasons, the third baseman hit .291/.346/.477 with 39 home runs 58 doubles and a 119 OPS+/118 wRC+.

Defensively, he was awful at third base with -22 DRS, -9.5 range runs, a -12.8 UZR and -8.8 UZR/150 between 2009 and 2010. He did show improvement in 2011 (+4 DRS, 9.9 range runs, 7.0 UZR) but that doesn’t mean he didn’t struggle in his first two big league seasons. The move to first base did help McGehee defensively as he had +2 DRS and +2 total zone runs above average in Pittsburgh, but his bat never bounced back to his 2009-2010 heights offensively. McGehee hit just .230/.297/.377 with an 86 OPS+. He was traded that July to the New York Yankees for relief pitcher Chad Qualls.

At the 2012 trade deadline, the Pittsburgh Pirates also acquired McGehee’s successor at first base. The Pirates sent outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to the Miami Marlins for 2011 Natonal League All-Star Gaby Sanchez. Sanchez had put up solid numbers in his 2010 rookie season and 2011 All-Star season, combining to hit .269/.346/.437 with 38 home runs and a 111 OPS+ and 112 wRC+ in 1,304 PAs. But 2012 had been a different story. Before the trade, Sanchez had an abysmal OPS of just .556 and OPS+ of 49. Sanchez did bounce back to around league average following the trade hitting .241/.323/.397 in his final 130 plate appearances of 2012, resulting in a 99 OPS+.

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So going into 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates had Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones lined up for primary first base duties. Sanchez got more playing time at first base, and did not bat bad either. From the beginning of the season up to the beginning of August, Sanchez had hit .239/.353/.411 with a 119 wRC+. Sanchez walked at an extremely high rate of 14.6%. Jones also wasn’t doing awful with a .255/.303/.431 line and 106 wRC+.

Regardless, the Pirates thought they could get an upgrade at the position. At the August waiver trade deadline, they went out and acquired former Minnesota Twins AL MVP Justin Morneau. Morneau had batted for an outstanding line of .298/.372/.528 with a 138 OPS+ and 113 wRC+ from 2006 to 2010 and averaged 32 home runs per 162 games, but concussions had taken a toll on his overall performance. In 2011 and 2012, Morenau hit just .254/.317/.403 with a 98 OPS+/101 wRC+. 2013 looked like more of the same as he was batting .259/.315/.426 with 17 long balls with a 102 OPS+ with the Twins before the trade.

The Pirates sent outfielder Alex Presley and pitcher Duke Welker to Minnesota for the first baseman, but Morneau’s power all but evaporated once he arrived in Pittsburgh. In his next 92 plate appearances, Morenau had just four extra base hits, all of which were doubles. His slugging percentage was just .312, and his OBP far outweighed that at .360. Overall, he produced a .260/.360/.312 line with the Pirates, but at the very least he did walk (13) more than he struck out (12).

But Morneau was just a rental, and there was no reason to pursue a guy who put up a sub-.700 OPS with the Pirates. So the plan was to make outfield prospect Andrew Lambo the primary first baseman. Lambo had shown immense power in the minors in 2013. In 501 plate appearances (247 at Double-A, 254 at Triple-A), the powerful outfielder slammed 32 out of the park, had a .574 slugging percentage and .292 isolated slugging percentage during the season. Plus with all three outfield spots being blocked by MVP Andrew McCutchen, 2013 breakout star Starling Marte, and top 10 prospect Gregory Polanco looking like the team’s primary outfielders for 2014, they wanted Lambo to get playing time somewhere.

Entering spring training, Lambo got reps at first base, but his bat didn’t come around during training. He had just four hits, in 42 at bats, and finished March with a .269 OPS. But do you know who had an outstanding Spring Training? Travis Ishikawa. Ishikawa was a minor league singee by the Bucs who batted .257/.329/.428 with a 100 OPS+ across 174 plate appearances in 2013. Seen as nothing more than a bench bat or infield depth, Ishikawa forced himself into the conversation as the team’s Opening Day first baseman when he had nine hits, 3 home runs, and six walks in 31 plate appearances.

Ishikawa won the job over Lambo, but his time as the team’s primary first baseman was short lived. Ishikawa played just 15 games and got 38 plate appearances in his first stint in Pittsburgh before he was released nearing the end of April. Ishikawa only had seven hits, including a double, a triple and a single home run, and struck out 11 times.

So to replace Ishikawa, the Pittsburgh Pirates decided to make a trade with the Mets for one of their former top prospects, Ike Davis. Davis had shown tons of potential early on in his career, batting .252/.336/.461 with a 118 OPS+ and blasting 58 home runs, including a 32 home run 2012 campaign, from 2010 to 2012. But in 2013, Davis put up a .205/.326/.344 line in 337 plate appearances, and 89 OPS+ and 91 wRC+. He did walk 15.1% of the time, but his power completely disappeared. Going into 2014, slugger Lucas Duda had passed him up on the depth chart, so Davis was shipped to Pittsburgh on April 18 for Zack Thorton and Blake Taylor.

In Davis’ last home run as a Met, he hit a walk off grand slam, and in his first home run as a Pirate in his third game, he hit another grand slam. But Davis’ big blast onto the scene was short lived. For the rest of 2014 after the trade (397 plate appearances), Ike hit just .235/.343/.378 with 10 home runs, and finishing with a 103 OPS+. The one silver lining out of his tenure was 14.4% walk rate.

Sanchez took a platoon role again in 2014, but wasn’t nearly as productive as he was in 2013. His walk rate dropped to just 7.9%, and overall, he had a wRC+ of 93 and OPS of .679. That’s a 25% drop in wRC+ and an 83 point drop in OPS.

We’re far from done yet with the Pittsburgh Pirates revolving door at first base, so let’s just recap up to this point. The Bucs have started every season since the start of 2010 with a different first baseman. In every season, they have also ended the season with a different first baseman. So far, we have talked about 10 different players who at one point were considered the Pirates starting first baseman.

2015 would be different though. They would start the year and end the year with the same starting first baseman. Shifting over from the hot corner would be former 2013 All-Star Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez struggled in 2014 both with the bat and injuries. He finished the year with an OPS of just .717 and 101 OPS+. But his big issue was making the throw from third base to first base. However, Alvarez was just a year removed from a season where he blasted a league leading 36 home runs, and hit for a much better .233/.296/.473 line and 115 OPS+.

So Pedro moved across the diamond to first base, and his bat did bounce back. He hit .243/.318/.469 with 27 home runs and a 113 OPS+/112 wRC+. But defensively, he was just as bad at first base than he was at the hot corner. Alvarez had -14 DRS, -11.6 UZR, and a -23.1 UZR/150. It was easily one of the worst seasons defensively by any first baseman in history. Although he wasn’t that bad of a batter, Alvarez still finished with a sub-1 WAR because of his awful defense.

But Alvarez rarely finished a game he started at first base. He finished just 37 of the 119 games he started at first. Utility man Sean Rodriguez may have batted for a .642 OPS and 76 OPS+, but his first base defense was outstanding. In 326.2 innings, Sean-Rod had +2 DRS, .4 UZR, 2.7 UZR/150 and a 0.5 range runs. He started just 12 of the 102 games he appeared at first base, meaning he was regularly replacing Alvarez at first late into games.

The Pittsburgh Pirates let Alvarez walk in free agency, so we move on to our next first basemen. During the 2015-2016 off season, the Pirates signed two corner infielders who would both see time at first base, John Jaso and David Freese. Jaso was making the transition from catcher to first base to avoid the risk of concussion. The Pirates really liked Jaso’s ability to get on base. From 2012 to 2015, Jaso had a .373 OBP and 12.8% walk rate. But overall, he was still a pretty good batter with a 128 OPS+.

Freese on the other hand was coming into 2016 looking to bounce back after three straight disappointing seasons with the Cardinals and Angels. The 2011 World Series hero had batted .257/.323/.420 in 2015 with a 109 OPS+. But up to that point in Freese’s career, he had seen just 21 innings at first base. But he would make the transition slowly as he would start the season as the team’s primary third baseman until Jung Ho Kang recovered from a brutal slide from Chris Coghlan the year before that put him out of commission for quite some time.

Jaso got the most playing time at first base for the Pirates in 2016 playing in 748 innings at the position. Jaso did what the Pirates wanted him to do, get on base. The lefty hit .268/.358/.413 with a 10.4% walk rate. He also didn’t produce awful fielding results either with -5 DRS, but 0.4 range runs and -0.5 UZR. Freese on the other hand batted .270/.352/.412 with 13 long balls. Although most of his playing time came at third base, Freese played 341.1 innings at first base, racking up +2 DRS, -0.7 UZR, and a -6.2 UZR/150.

Finally, the Pittsburgh Pirates put a stop to the merry go around that was first base for the first seven seasons of the decade. In 2017, Josh Bell broke out as a solid rookie. In 620 plate appearances, the switch hitting slugger blasted 26 home runs to go with a .255/.334/.466 line. He posted a 109 OPS+/108 wRC+. Despite his poor defense (-4 DRS, -3.2 UZR), Bell, in 2017, might be the long term answer at first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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From 2010 to 2017, the Pirates had entered the year with eight different players who could claim they were the Pirates’ primary first baseman. In most of those seasons, the team ended the year with a completely different player starting at the position. Today, we have talked about 15 different players that at one point were an every day option at first base for the Pirates.