Pittsburgh Pirates: A Look At The Options For First Base

What are the Pittsburgh Pirates' options at first base going into this off-season?
Mar 20, 2023; Clearwater, Florida, USA;  Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17)
Mar 20, 2023; Clearwater, Florida, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins (17) / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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Free Agents

One free agent first baseman who would be both cheap and worthwhile is Justin Turner. Last year, Turner batted .276/.345/.455 with a .346 wOBA, and 114 wRC+. He swatted 23 home runs while carrying a .179 isolated slugging percentage. Turner had an above average 17.6% strikeout rate, and a respectable 8.1% walk rate, even if it was slightly worse than league average.

Turner had primarily played third base for years, but logged 289.1 innings at first this past season. Despite rarely playing the position in the past, Turner graded out as a pretty good defensive first baseman with +3 DRS and zero OAA. However, keep in mind that he spent most of his season as the Red Sox’s designated hitter. He only saw time at first base semi-frequently.

Don’t confuse a cheap veteran with a washed up player. The reason Turner would be cheap is because that he recently turned down a $13.4 million option in order to receive a $6.7 million buyout. That means that anything over $6.7 million would surpass what his 2024 salary would be if he opted into his contract. It’s not out of the question that he would sign for as low as $8 million next season.

Many people want to see a reunion with Carlos Santana. The veteran first baseman left an impression on both Pirates fans and players. On top of that, he was a very solid player, and maybe the best combination of hitting and fielding since Kevin Young. Santana finished the year as a .240/.318/.429 batter with a .328 wOBA, and 101 wRC+, making him nearly exactly league average.

Santana provided solid power with a .189 ISO and 23 home runs. He also struck out at just a 16.8% rate, marking the 12th season in a row he has struck out less than 20% of the time. His 10.5% walk rate was also above league average, but it notably was the worst of his career.

The major concern with Santana is he turns 38 in early April. His raw power is on the decline, and at his age, and only had an 88.8 MPH exit velocity and 36.2% hard hit rate. How many more decent seasons Santana has left in the tank is unknown. 

While many people want to see Santana back in Pittsburgh, many more want to see Rhys Hoskins go from the Eastern PA to Western PA. Hoskins is all but certainly out of the cards for the Philadelphia Phillies. After stating that Bryce Harper would move to first base full-time, and Kyle Scwharber almost having to play designated hitter because of his horrid defense, the Phils no longer seem interested in a Hoskins reunion.

Hoskins missed all of the 2023 season due to a torn ACL. However, when he last played, he hit pretty well, slashing .246/.332/.462 with a .345 wOBA, and 122 wRC+. Hoskins had a 10.7% walk rate but struck out in just a little over a quarter of his plate appearances with a 25.7% strikeout rate. As usual, Hoskins was a power threat, going yard 30 times with a .216 ISO. But for Hoskins, this was a down season. His career average ISO is .250, while his career home run rate in 672 plate appearances, the total he had in 2022, is about 35 dingers.

Defensive metrics were mixed on Hoskins’ glovework. Defensive runs saved thought he was a good defender at +3 runs, as did UZR/150 at +0.8. However, outs above average was not kind in their review of Hoskins. He had -6 OAA, the lowest of his career.

Most estimations have Hoskins making somewhere around $15-$16 million in 2024. That should be more than within the Pirates’ price range. Last season, they spent $11.4 million to acquire both Santana and Choi. 

Another potential regular option comes in the form of Jeimer Candelario. Candelario has mostly been a third baseman throughout his career, but he could make the move to first base. After a rough 2022, Candelario rebounded to hit .251/.336/.471 with a .346 wOBA, and 116 wRC+. He only had a 22.2% strikeout rate and 9.2% walk rate, while hitting for the best power of his career. His 22 home runs and .220 isolated slugging percentage were career highs.

Candelario has graded out as about an average defensive first baseman throughout his career with +1 DRS and -2 OAA. He mostly suited up for the hot corner for the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, where he had -5 DRS but +2 OAA.

The best platoon option is Brandon Belt. The veteran 1B hit .254/.369/.490, .369 wOBA, 138 wRC+. He only stepped to the plate 404 times, but hit 19 home runs. While his 34.9% strikeout rate was a career worst, his 15.1% walk rate is the best rate he’s posted since 2016. Most of Belt’s plate appearances were taken against RHP, 365 to be exact, and owned a 146 wRC+ against opposite handed pitching. Meanwhile, he only had a 64 wRC+ in the 39 other PAs he took against lefties.

Belt split his time at DH and 1B, but was still a solid defensive player. He had -1 DRS but +1 OAA in 242.2 innings. While he may no longer be a Gold Glove contender like he was at the beginning of his career, he can still hold his own at first base.

There are a few other players to consider, like C.J. Cron, and Donovan Solano, as well as some rebound candidates like Juan Yepez, Rowdy Tellez, and Garrett Cooper. However, the Pirates need to aim higher than that. They need a reliable option, not a rebound candidate.