While Josh Bell was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman in 2019, he’ll likely see most of his time at designated hitter. So who gets to play first base in 2020?
This year, there will be a designated hitter for all MLB teams. Last year, Josh Bell was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ primary first baseman. The switch hitter played 1160.2 innings at the position but was mainly there for his bat. Bell has been one of the worst defenders in baseball the past two seasons at first base. Among first basemen with at least 1000 innings at the position since the beginning of 2018, Bell is last in DRS (-21), UZR (-12.1), and is 4th to last in range runs above average at -4.9.
With the designated hitter, Josh Bell likely won’t be seeing much time, if any at first base. Not only will this massively improve the Pirates defense, but also lessen the risk of Bell getting injured, something he suffered at the tail end of 2019, and keep him fresh, as he suffered from some fatigue in June and July.
If Bell isn’t going to be the first baseman, a position he collected over 2000 innings at since 2018, who will be the team’s primary first baseman? Well how I see it, there are currently three options.
The first is Jose Osuna. Osuna arguably has the best shot at opening the year as the team’s primary option at first base. Osuna produced overall average numbers with the bat in 2019. Through 285 plate appearances, the most playing time he has seen in his career so far, Osuna had a .264/.310/.456 line. That all resulted in a 97 wRC+, 100 OPS+, and .320 wOBA. However, there is some room for improvement. Osuna had an expected batting average of .274, while he had an xWOBA of .328. Osuna only struck out 16.8% of the time, which is much lower than the league average of 23%. Although Osuna isn’t any sort of outstanding fielder, he’s a massive improvement over Bell. At first base, Osuna has -1 DRS, and a -3.8 UZR/150. In comparison, Bell has a career -8.8 UZR/150.
A good platoon option might be current third baseman, Colin Moran. Like Bell, Moran has been an awful defender at third base. Since becoming the Pirates’ primary hot corner defender in 2018, Moran is last in third base DRS (-32), third to last in range runs above average (-11.7), and in UZR/150 (-12.2) as well.
But unlike Bell, Moran’s bat hasn’t made up for the lack of defensive skill. In 2019, Moran batted just .277/.322/.429 with 13 home runs. All told, he had a 97 OPS+, 94 wRC+ and .315 wOBA. Moran doesn’t really look like a bat with much improvement in it’s future right now, as he was in the bottom 33rd percentile in exit velo, had a .267 xBA, .316 xWOBA, and 84 deserved runs created plus.
Moran might make a nice platoon partner with a right-handed batter, as he is more effective, albeit still not really all that good, vs RHP than LHP. Moran has a career .281/.338/.429 line vs RHP, but a .236/.276/.354 line vs LHP. With Ke’Bryan Hayes coming up, he’ll likely push Moran out of third base this year, which would push Moran across the diamond.
One last name that could be a potential option to see an extended amount of time at first base is Will Craig. Craig only hit .249/.326/.435 line at Triple-A with 23 home runs and doubles. Overall, not great production that resulted in a 92 wRC+ and 94 DRC+ along with a .329 wOBA. Plus with reverse splits the past two seasons, meaning he is better vs RHP than LHP, he wouldn’t be all that great of a platoon partner for Moran. However, it would be a slight, albeit small, upgrade over Moran vs RHP as he hit .250/.321/.454 vs RHP in 2018 and .255/.330/.459 vs RHP in 2019.
But the organization seems to question Craig’s ability at the plate as they left him off the 60-man roster, instead opting to keep him as more of a depth option by placing him on the Taxi Squad. After all, how can you not put into question his ability at the plate when he only had a 92 wRC+, and .761 OPS at Triple-A during one of the most hitter-friendly eras in baseball history, and declining plate discipline the last two seasons?
Craig has seen a worrisome rise in his strikeout rate go from 19.6% in 2017, 23.3% in 2018, and now at 26.3% in 2019 while seeing his walk rate dip below 8% in both ‘18 and ‘19. Currently, he doesn’t even rank within the top 50 of Pirates prospects per Fangraphs. However, he did win the Minor League Gold Glove for first baseman in 2019, so he obviously would be a defensive upgrade.
For now, the Pirates will likely give Jose Osuna most of the playing time at first base. I could see him being a solid .270/.320/.450 batter, with a dozen home runs. Overall pretty solid production to go with a decent glove. But given Osuna’s spotty history at the MLB level, him getting off to a slow start could open the door for Moran or Craig. Plus moving Osuna to a bench role might end up helping the team in the long run as he excelled in that role last year.
For the next year or two, a combination of Osuna/Moran/Craig will do just fine. The Pirates probably aren’t going to be in competition until 2022, so trying out guys is something they should be doing. There’s room for failure right now. After all, the long term answer at first base is probably top prospect Mason Martin who’s ETA is 2022.