The Pittsburgh Pirates could potentially search an outside the box idea to resolve their first base issues by looking into Mitch Garver
First base is an issue for the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second year in a row. The Pirates are entering this off-season with Connor Joe and Alfonso Rivas at the top of the first base depth chart. This is far from a promising duo for a team that will likely look to push for a playoff spot in 2024. While there are a few potential options on the free agent or trade market, I propose one somewhat outside-the-box idea to consider.
That’s Mitch Garver. Garver is coming off a strong rebound season with the Texas Rangers. He played about half the season, appearing in 84 games and stepping to the plate 344 times, but posted excellent results with the bat. Garver slashed .270/.370/.500 with a .374 wOBA, and 138 wRC+. Garver, known for his power, smacked 19 home runs while having a .230 isolated slugging percentage.
Garver has consistently drawn walks at an above-average rate and put up a 12.8% BB% this past season. Of the few negatives you can say about Garver’s hitting ability, it’s his strikeouts. His 23.8% K-rate is below league average, and he has struck out in just over a quarter of his career plate appearances with a 25.6% strikeout rate. However, aside from that, there are very few flaws in Garver’s offensive game, and even then, when he is healthy, he can hit around .270 regularly, so he's not just a three-true-outcomes sort of hitter.
Raw power has never been a department Garver has struggled in, either. He had a 90 MPH exit velocity and a 42.1% hard hit-rate, both above the league average. He’s also posted better numbers in the past. But his 12.6% barrel rate was in the top 83rd percentile last season. Baseball Savant pinned both his expected wOBA (xwOBA) and expected slugging percentage (xSLG) at the 85th percentile or greater.
But here’s where the outside-the-box thinking comes from. Garver is primarily a catcher. Of the 2426.1 innings he’s played the field, 2368.1 of those innings were behind the plate. But Garver’s defensive ability leaves much to be desired. This past season, he had -4 Defensive Runs Saved and -0.5 framing runs in just 230 innings. Granted, from 2019 through 2021, he was considered an average defensive catcher, with +4 DRS and +0.2 framing runs. But again, nothing spectacular.
So, aside from mediocre defense behind the plate, why move Garver out from behind the dish? Garver has failed to play more than 100 games in a season since 2018 because of injuries. Moving him out from what is the most physically demanding position could help preserve his health. He’s suffered a few noteworthy injuries that likely affect his ability to squat down behind the plate and do a diligent job, including ankle and back sprains, a groin contusion (ouch), and a flexor tendon in his throwing arm. Since arriving in Texas, he’s played more games as a DH than a catcher.
Garver isn’t completely unfamiliar with first base, either. He has played the position for 51 innings at the big league level. He’s spent a significant more amount of time over at the corner infield position throughout his minor league career, with 337 innings logged at first. The issue is that Garver would have to re-familiarize himself with the position, as he hasn’t suited up for the position once since 2021. There might be some growing pains, but some of these could be covered by replacing him late into games with Rivas if needed.
This could also be a potential multi-year solution at first base. Garver is slightly older, as 2024 will be his age-33 season. But a two-year deal with an option for a third year would not be a significant risk. The average annual value for the two years could come out to around $12-15 million, which for his offensive upside, would be a bargain.
Even if Garver isn’t a very traditional answer at first base, it is something to keep in mind. Moving him out from behind the plate will likely help him stay healthy, and his bat would be a massive boost to the Pirates’ offense. We will see how the Pirates approach first base this winter, but I think Garver would be a great unconventional way of solving the issues.