While the Pittsburgh Pirates may have solved their first base issues for the 2023 season, where will the team find their next long-term first baseman?
First base has been a consistent issue for the Pittsburgh Pirates for decades now. They haven’t had a first baseman string together two straight seasons with an fWAR above 2.0 since Jason Thompson in the early-80s.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates want to be competitive in the next year or two, they should figure out who will play first base rather than have a revolving door at the position like they’ve had for some time now, and even during the 2013-2015 playoff runs.
If you expect the Pittsburgh Pirates to find their next first baseman in the first round of an upcoming draft, you’re going to be let down. Keep in mind that first base is not a position many are drafted at. In the past three drafts, there have been more shortstops taken in the first round than first basemen taken in the last 15 first rounds.
Even some of the league’s best first basemen in the league like Freddie Freeman, Pete Alonso, and Paul Goldschmidt, played other positions late into their amateur careers. To put it in simple terms, the Pirates are more likely to find a guy who becomes a first baseman rather than one who already is a first baseman.
That doesn’t mean they won’t find a first baseman through the draft. They picked a first baseman late into the 2022 draft in Josiah Sightler. Sightler was the organization’s 15th round pick out of the University of South Carolina. Sighter finished off a nice 2022 campaign that saw him bat .300/.408/.629, cranking 15 home runs in just 201 plate appearances. Sightler had a solid 9.5% walk rate but struck out 20.9 % of the time. He’s also displayed make-up which could help him improve.
But the Pirates shouldn’t put all their stock into a 15th round pick to eventually become their regular first baseman, and I doubt they are. They still might find a first baseman in an earlier round of the draft, but again, early draft rounds don’t usually hold many decent first base draft prospects. That means the Pirates might find their next first baseman through trade.
They did acquire a first base prospect at the trade deadline. That’s Malcom Nunez, who was part of the deal that sent José Quintana and Chris Straton to the St. Louis Cardinals. Nunez looked good for the Pirate Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, batting .280/.385/.475 with a .378 wOBA and 135 wRC+ through 143 plate appearances. Nunez had a fantastic 14.7% walk rate and a solid 21.1% strikeout rate. Nunez was doing great leading up to the trade and had a .913 OPS, .396 wOBA, and 136 wRC+ from June through the end of the season.
Right now, Nunez looks like the best answer at first base. Endy Rodriguez, another prospect the Pirates acquired through trade, also is an option at the corner infield position. He’s logged just over 250 innings throughout his pro career at first but is a catcher by trade. Rodriguez may see time at first base here and there, but not as an everyday option. His long-term home is behind the plate.
The trade market changes year-in-year-out, so it’s hard to predict when there will be a first baseman with more than one year of control left on their contract put on the trading block. Depending on where they see themselves in the next 1-3 years, both Christian Walker and Seth Brown could potentially be on the free-agent market, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Pirates might be able to pull a change-of-scenery trade with the Boston Red Sox and send Kevin Newman to Bean Town for Bobby Dalbec, but this remains as one of the few players who are currently on the 1B trading block.
The free agent market is another potential source for a first baseman. This off-season’s first base free agent market is certainly not one the Pirates should be looking for a multi-year first base option, though. The only decent regular who hit the open market this fall was Jose Abreu, who signed with the Houston Astros. But the 2023-2024 free agent market projects to have at least two regulars in C.J. Cron and Rhys Hoskins, both of which present as decent regulars at the position. They could also resign one of the first basemen they have acquired in the past month. However, neither Ji-Man Choi nor Carlos Santana presents themselves as potential multi-year options.
The final option is to move a prospect to first base. Henry Davis is a catcher who has started to see time in the corner outfield grass. The Pirates’ 1/1 pick in 2021 has one of the highest offensive ceilings in the system but was taken out for a large portion of 2022 because of multiple hit-by-pitches. If the Pirates see Rodriguez as the regular backstop, then Davis could slide over to first base and relieve Rodriguez once or twice a week to keep him fresh.
First base is a hard position to predict, even just two or three years down the line. Most current first basemen started their pro careers out at other positions and eventually moved to first base, or played another position as an amateur, then were moved to first base once they were drafted or signed. But the Pirates do have a few avenues they could take between Malcom Nunez, getting Davis reps in at first base, exploring the trade market, or signing a first baseman next off-season.