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First Pitch: Are the Pirates About to Repeat a Mistake From the 2006 Season?

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As of right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going into the regular season with Travis Ishikawa as part of their first base platoon. There are still three days for this to change before Opening Day. The Pirates could also try to make a move after Opening Day, with minimal damage, depending on how many games they play with Ishikawa. But the fact that they’re planning on going with Ishikawa, even with the possibility of a change, gives a reminder to a bad period in recent Pirates’ history.

I can’t help but look at this move, as well as some of the other moves this off-season, and see shades of the 2006 Pirates. In 2006, the Pirates had Freddy Sanchez coming off a year where he hit for a .291 average and a .736 OPS in 453 at-bats as a rookie. Instead of giving Sanchez the starting third base job in 2006, the Pirates signed Joe Randa to a one year, $4 M deal. Randa was coming off a season where he had a .256 average and a .698 OPS in 223 at-bats. That wasn’t the only move the Pirates made to block young players. They signed Jeromy Burnitz, blocking Nate McLouth in similar fashion.

As far as mis-management, it’s hard to compare to the 2006 Pirates. That was a team that should have been rebuilding with young talent like Sanchez, McLouth, and Jose Bautista. Instead, they acquired Sean Casey, Joe Randa, and Jeromy Burnitz at the start of the year.

The 2014 Pirates are in a different situation. They’re not rebuilding. They’re coming off a year where they made the playoffs. They’ve got a strong young team, with a lot of guys still at the age where they can be expected to improve or maintain their current production levels. Clearly you can’t compare what Neal Huntington has done with what Dave Littlefield was doing. Huntington’s plan can be seen, even if you don’t agree with it or think that it will have the same success that it did last year. Littlefield didn’t really seem to have a plan.

But that doesn’t mean Huntington is flawless. And in looking at the Ishikawa situation, it seems like he’s making a “2006-level” mistake, at least from a player evaluation standpoint.

Travis Ishikawa shouldn’t be the answer at first base against right-handed pitching. Neither should Gaby Sanchez. Both have historically low numbers against right-handers, and neither player is at an age where you could expect those numbers to improve. The top option heading into camp for the job was Andrew Lambo, but he lost the job with a poor Spring performance. I don’t put much stock in Spring numbers, but I could see the reasoning behind the demotion of Lambo for reasons behind the numbers.

Even if Lambo did deserve to be demoted, that doesn’t explain why Ishikawa is the top option. Lambo’s struggles weren’t something that just appeared in the last week. They’ve been taking place all Spring. They were taking place when the Pirates optioned Chris McGuiness to the minors. If Lambo was a risk to go down, then why was McGuiness one of the early cuts, and given no chance at the job? He didn’t have the best Spring numbers either. However, these decisions shouldn’t be made on such a small sample size. There’s a bigger sample at play here, and that’s the career numbers of Ishikawa and Sanchez against right-handers.

When it comes to their performances against right-handers, Ishikawa and Sanchez are the equivalent of going with Joe Randa over Freddy Sanchez. You don’t trust the rookies, so you go with a veteran, even if that veteran gives no indication that he can be productive. Lambo and McGuiness aren’t necessarily Sanchez, since neither has the experience or the Major League success he had. But if the alternative is poor play against right-handers from Ishikawa and Sanchez, then the Pirates can only gain from giving the young players a chance.

It’s possible that the Pirates don’t go with Ishikawa, and instead make a trade. That said, I don’t see how they got to the point where the only alternative to a trade was putting Ishikawa in the platoon, or making Sanchez an everyday first baseman.

You might even be able to make a similar argument here for the Edinson Volquez signing. He has been struggling this Spring, right after the Pirates paid him $5 M to be in the rotation. I give the Pirates a pass to try and work their magic with Volquez, since Ray Searage and company have had success with a lot of pitchers in the past. But if this experiment doesn’t work, then it would be easy to look back and say that the Pirates should have gone with an internal option like Brandon Cumpton or Stolmy Pimentel, rather than trying a one-year reclamation project.

I don’t get too worked up over the fact that the Pirates have holes at first base and the number five spot in the rotation. Every team around baseball has holes on their roster, even the contenders. A big difference between myself and the people who do get worked up about these spots is that I would be fine with either Lambo or McGuiness getting a shot at first base. I also think that Searage has done enough in the last few years to have a shot with Volquez. But that’s just me speaking as someone who always watched pitching coaches like Dave Duncan or Leo Mazzone take guys off the street and turn them into good starters. You don’t get to that point by playing it safe. You get to that point by taking a shot on guys like Volquez, and turning them around. The Pirates could fail with this, and that would look bad, but they deserve the shot.

Where I probably agree with pretty much all Pirates fans is that Ishikawa makes no sense. Lambo or McGuiness might fail, but at least there’s some upside. Ishikawa could fail, but if he doesn’t, it’s not like the Pirates will see a lot of upside. If he plays up to his career numbers, then he’s got similar value to Garrett Jones in 2013. That production wasn’t good enough for the Pirates last year, leading them to make a trade for Justin Morneau, and Morneau wasn’t exactly good while he was in Pittsburgh. The Pirates didn’t think Ishikawa’s upside was good enough when they were contending last year and that production was coming from Jones. I don’t see why they’d think the same production from Ishikawa one year later would help them get back to the playoffs.

There are still a few days left. The Pirates could make a trade, avoiding a situation where Ishikawa is in the first base platoon. I think they need to make a trade. But this is a position they shouldn’t have been in, in the first place. For all that the Pirates have done right to get to this point, it’s concerning that they’d ignore a large sample of stats that say Ishikawa and Sanchez shouldn’t be playing against right-handed pitchers. Instead, they constantly talk about Sanchez as a guy who might turn that trend around at age 30, while putting themselves in position to have Ishikawa start against right-handers, despite the career struggles. And I can’t help but think of that decision to go with Joe Randa back in 2006 — a decision that flew in the face of the stats that said it was a bad move, and ended up briefly blocking a younger player who had more upside than Randa.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**Pirates Make Starling Marte Extension Official; Contract Details

**Jameson Taillon to Get a Second Opinion on His Elbow on Monday

**Pirates Option Brandon Cumpton to Indianapolis

**Pirates Reassign Kyle McPherson and Nevin Ashley

**Pirates Trade For Minor League Outfielder Keon Broxton

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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