Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining the First Base Situation
By Noah Wright
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of options they could use at first base in 2021, but with nothing set in stone yet, let’s take a look at all their options.
For years it seemed like the Pittsburgh Pirates had a revolving door at first base. Then for a while, Josh Bell held down primarily duties at the corner infield position. In 2020, with the designated hitter, the Pirates were able to utilize both Bell and Colin Moran at first base.
However, in all likelihood, there will be no DH for the 2021 season at the very least. So what could the first base situation look like?
The switch hitting slugger Bell is probably the first option for the Pirates. After a strong 2019 season that saw extremely high peaks and extremely low valleys, Bell again was extremely inconsistent in 2020. His first 107 plate appearances yielded a .186/.243/.268 line, and 41 wRC+. However, Bell turned things around in the second half. In Bell’s last 116 plate appearances saw him bat .262/.362/.459 with a 116 wRC+.
Bell was still crushing the ball with a 91.7 MPH exit velo and 42.9% hard hit rate. However, much of his struggles can be attributed to his groundball rate jumping from just 44% in 2019, just 1% above the league average, all the way to 55.7% in 2020. Still, with a 10.7% soft contact rate, the 19th lowest among 142 qualified batters in 2020, all Bell really needed to do is get the ball in the air more.
Overall, that second half production, and his batted ball rates wouldn’t put into question too much his candidacy for regular time at first base. However, Bell was horrid defensively and makes you think twice before sliding him over at first. First base is usually somewhere where you can hide a below average defender, however Bell is noticeably bad. At first base last year, he had -1 DRS, -0.7 range runs above average, and -2.9 UZR in just 285.2 innings. His -22.5 UZR/150 shows just how bad it would have been had he played an entire season at first base. The Pirates tried to hide Bell as often as they could with the DH spot, placing him there 21 times.
Between 2018 and 2019, Moran was the primary third baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he mainly split his time in 2020 between first base and designated hitter. Last year, Moran had his best offensive season yet as a Pirate. In 200 plate appearances, the former Astro prospect hit .247/.325/.472 and 114 WRC+.
Moran saw noticeable improvements in his power as his isolated slugging percentage was .225 (previously just .142 in 2018-2019), and his walk rate jumping to 9.5% (previously just 7.1% in 2018-2019). Another encouraging stride Moran made was his hard hit rates. Moran’s exit velocity averaged out at 91.9 MPH, which was in the top 89th percentile of batters last year, and his 47.2% hard hit rate ranked in the top 86th percentile. He also made soft contact less than 10% of the time with a 9.4% rate. Like with Bell in 2019, Moran had handful of peaks and valleys throughout the year.
Unlike Bell, Moran served as a solid first baseman. He posted 0 DRS and -0.3 UZR, but +0.1 range runs above average. Across a full year at first, his UZR/150 was -5.7. Not bad for a guy who had previously seen just 68.1 professional innings at first coming into 2020. There’s almost no reason to see Moran over at third again with 2020 National League Rookie of the Year candidate Ke’Bryan Hayes, and utility men Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker on the roster.
Right now, there is a possibility that Bell gets traded. With two years of control remaining and the Pittsburgh Pirates likely not going to have him around when they’re back in competition, trading him seems like the route they’re going to go down. Right now, Bell probably has the upperhand in getting regular time at first base, but if he is traded, what are the Pirates’ other options?
Well, Will Craig might make a nice platoon with Moran over at first. Moran hit righties for a strong .258/.340/.516 line and 128 wRC+, but lefties for a .231/.286/.365 line and 76 wRC+, so it would make sense for the Pirates to platoon Moran. Craig appeared in four plate appearances in 2020, but didn’t reach base once.
The former first-round pick has struggled to really find his spot in the minors. He started off as a batting average and on base guy, but has recently transitioned to a power guy at the cost of his plate discipline. At Triple-A in 2019, Craig hit just .249/.326/.435 line, he hit 23 home runs with a 92 wRC+. He also struck out 26.3% of the time, a single season career high, and walked just 7.9% of the time, just 0.2% higher than his career low. He’s essentially become an all-or-nothing type of hitter, and FanGraphs doesn’t rank him within the team’s top 45 prospects anymore. However, he does have a solid glove at first and it’s worth at least seeing what he can do.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t want to use Craig, they do have a few other options. Phillip Evans could always slide over to first base for the Pirates. Evans had collected 14 hits including three extra base hits and five walks in his first 45 plate appearances before a hard collision while playing first base ended the super-utility man’s season. Still, he was to serve as a “put me anywhere” kind of role in 2020, and will probably serve that role once again in 2021.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates want to scour the free agent market for another first base option, the open market has many low cost options like Justin Smoak, Jake Lamb, Pablo Sandoval, Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt Adams, and Jay Bruce. However, that seems unlikely.