While the Pittsburgh Pirates have a decent first base prospect in the pipeline, they need to find a solution at the position until he is ready next year.
First base was one of the most significant weaknesses of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the second half of the season. From July 15th through the end of the year, Pirate first basemen had -1.8 fWAR, the least in the league by 0.7 WAR. In terms of wRC+, their first basemen had a 35 mark, which means they were 65% worse than the league average batter. They were also 31% worse than the second-worst team.
In the last two weeks of the season, the Pirates were lining up Zack Collins and Diego Castillo at first base. Even when Michael Chavis was struggling to hit in the second half, at least he brought a decent glove. Collins could fake it at first base, but Castillo struggled greatly. Regardless, the Pirates need to find some potential solution at first base next season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates likely have Malcom Nuñez penciled into their first base spot at some point during the season. After being traded from the Cardinals to the Pirates, Nuñez batted .280/.385/.475 with a .378 wOBA and 135 wRC+. Nunez crushed six dingers in less than 150 plate appearances and had a .195 ISO. It also helped that he had a solid 22.4% strikeout rate and a fantastic 14.7% walk rate. He also reached Triple-A this season, in just his age-21 campaign.
But until Nuñez reaches the major leagues, the Pittsburgh Pirates must find someone to play the position. Unfortunately, the free agent market is barebones thin for first basemen. There are only about two starting caliber first basemen hitting free agency (three if you want to count Jose Abreu, but at this point in his career, he’s likely to finish out his playing days in Chicago), which includes Anthony Rizzo, who isn’t guaranteed to opt-out, and Josh Bell, who had another very up-and-down season.
The rest of the first base market includes veteran rebound candidates like Trey Mancini, Jesus Aguilar, Carlos Santana, Yuli Gurriel, Miguel Sano, and Brandon Belt. It’s one of the weakest first basemen free agent classes we’ve seen in a while. But if the Pirates feel that Nuñez (or Endy Rodriguez, for that matter) will be ready sooner rather than later, they could sign a veteran 1B just to hold the position over until he is ready.
Though the Pirates might find a better option internally, one option who could transition to first base is Blake Sabol. Sabol is a catcher by trade, and while he hasn’t played first base since his college days, the Pirates haven’t been afraid to move him around. He’s played a decent bit of corner outfield and designated hitter for the Pirate minor league affiliates. Heck, he didn’t become a full-time backstop until this year, and even then, he played about as many games out from behind the dish as he did behind it.
Sabol had a great season for Altoona and Indy, regardless of his position. On the season, Sabol slashed .284/.363/.497, cranking 19 long balls throughout his 513 total trips to the plate. Sabol did walk at a solid 10.7% rate but also struck out about a quarter of the time (25.1% strikeout rate). His overall production at the dish led to a .373 wOBA and 131 wRC+.
Another internal option could be moving Jared Triolo over to first base. Triolo is the best defensive infielder the Pirate minor leagues have to offer. Last year, he batted .282/.376/.419 for Altoona. Plus, he had a strikeout rate of just 17.6% and a walk rate of 12.7%. Overall, he had a .359 wOBA and 121 wRC+, but he was much better when the weather started to heat up. From June through the end of the year, Triolo had a .878 OPS, .385 wOBA, and 140 wRC+, including nine home runs in 312 plate appearances.
Although Triolo hasn’t played first base in his pro career yet, he has moved around the diamond, seeing time at shortstop and the outfield. He’s a fantastic defender at the hot corner, so he could likely make the transition across the diamond. At the very least, the Pirates would be getting a sure-handed glove over at first base if they decided to go down this route.
The Pirates need to find an actual answer at first base rather than using patchwork until a prospect is ready. At the very least, they need someone who can play the position somewhat effectively, as watching Castillo play the position was painful to watch. While the free agent landscape is bare bones, they should be able to find someone internally who can keep the seat warm until Nuñez or Rodriguez are ready.