Pittsburgh Pirates: Long-Term Options at First Base
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a good first baseman in quite a while, but who could the team put at 1B in the long run?
The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had a really good first baseman in a very long time. The last 1B to put up a 3.0+ fWAR was Kevin Young in 1999. The last Pirate first baseman to put up an fWAR of 2.0 or greater in two straight seasons was Jason Thompson in 1982 and 1983. First base is usually a position that fills itself out. Most 1B’s were drafted or signed internationally from other positions. But what is Pittsburgh’s next long-term first baseman?
In my opinion, the best potential first baseman in the system is Dariel Lopez. Lopez has had a big power breakout in 2022. He’s slashing .294/.333/.500 with a .368 wOBA, and 122 wRC+. Lopez already has 19 home runs in 385 plate appearances. He had just a dozen homers in his first 604 plate appearances. Lopez has also been great since the start of summer. The infield prospect has hit .330/.360/.549 with a .399 wOBA and 141 wRC+. He’s hit 13 home runs throughout this 247 plate appearance stretch, which, again, is more than he hit in over double the plate appearances he had in 2019-2021.
He has mostly handled the hot corner for the Grasshoppers this season but did play some first base in his 2019 rookie season. He’s even seen time at shortstop. He’s an athletic guy for his size but lacks the range you want to see from a shortstop/second baseman. Corner infield is his long-term home, and with better defensive options at third base already on hand, both in the minor leagues and major leagues, Lopez is my favorite option for first base long-term. He gives you the instincts of a 3B/SS at first base.
But there is some downside. Lopez has a walk rate of just 4.9% and a strikeout rate of 25.5% this season. Granted, he has been better recently, striking out just 17.9% of the time, but still having the poor 4.8% walk rate since the outset of July. But the lack of walks is concerning at the very least. While I would pencil him in as the Pittsburgh Pirates next long-term first baseman, I wouldn’t fully commit to it until I see if he can continue to produce at Double-A with that concerning of a BB:K ratio.
While I think Lopez is the best answer at first base long term when considering offensive upside and defense, I do like Malcom Nuñez’s bat more. Acquired in the Josè Quintana trade, Nuñez hit .255/.360/.463 with a .366 wOBA and 110 wRC+ through his first 350 trips to the plate. He crushed 17 long balls, a single-season career-high, while having a .208 isolated slugging percentage. So far, since joining the Pirate Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve, Nunez has five hits in 22 trips to the plate, including a home run, and just four strikeouts opposed to just three walks.
Nunez could hit for more contact. He doesn’t strike out all that much and consistently makes quality contact. His .279 batting average on balls in play falls shy of his career BAbip of .320. If he fell somewhere in the middle, like .300 this season, he’d probably hit somewhere in the .270-.280 range.
Nuñez has a feel for contact, power, and plate discipline. Those are three things you like to see from any position player prospect. But where he lacks polish is his defensive skills. Unlike Lopez, Nunez isn’t a slow shortstop converting to first base. Nunez is a 30-grade runner with mediocre defensive prowess at both first base and third base. He does have a strong arm but isn’t nearly fast enough to play left field. Nunez’s best position might end up being designated hitter with some first base sprinkled in.
The Pittsburgh Pirates might find their long-term first baseman among one of their catching prospects. Endy Rodriguez has an ample amount of time logged at first base. Moving to first base has always been a possibility for Henry Davis because of his lack of defensive prowess behind the dish. Abrahan Gutierrez has started to see time at first base this season because Greensboro opened 2022 with both Davis and Rodriguez on the same roster. Catcher, first base, and designated hitter could be a revolving door with the same players in order to keep each other fresh.
Although I think the Pirates will end up using designated hitter to keep their catchers rested, especially in the event that both Davis and Rodriguez continue to hit and develop. That’s two bats you want to keep in the line-up regularly. But I think either Nunez or Lopez end up as the Pirates’ long-term first baseman.
Nuñez has the lower-risk bat. He consistently puts up a healthy strikeout rate, has greatly improved his plate discipline this season, and hits for power. I like Lopez’s power-upside. He has more power than Nuñez, but the lack of walks mixed with the so-so strikeout numbers is worrisome. But moving him to first base would essentially be moving a slow shortstop to first base.
Nuñez will see the major leagues first. He’s already at Double-A, and with his quality numbers there right now, he might even see some innings at Triple-A at the tail-end of 2022. He’ll definitely be in the majors by next year. Lopez, on the other hand, is still with High-A Greensboro. We may see him at the end of 2023 and Nuñez in early 2023 if he’s healthy and keeps performing.