For the past few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been relying on a platoon at first base, trying to get All-Star production for a fraction of the price. Each year the platoon has struggled due to one player in the duo playing below his career average platoon splits. This year, everyone in the platoon struggled.
The Pirates started the season with Travis Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez. Ishikawa won the job out of Spring Training, after Andrew Lambo struggled for a few weeks at the plate in his transition to the field. He hit for a .646 OPS in 15 games before the Pirates traded for Ike Davis to fill the left side of the platoon.
Davis started strong with the Pirates, posting an .862 OPS in the month of May. He then started to struggle, never posting an OPS over .747 in a given month, and falling below a .600 OPS in the month of June.
Meanwhile, Gaby Sanchez also struggled. The right-hander had a strong history of crushing left-handed pitching, but only managed a .746 OPS this season. Just like Davis, he was crushing the ball in May, posting an .898 OPS. He fell under a .600 OPS in every month after that, with the one exception being his .720 OPS in August.
By the end of the season, the Pirates had Pedro Alvarez getting time at first base, although the experiment was short-lived due to an injury that ended his season early. Alvarez was struggling with his fielding at third base, and his hitting also struggled, with just a .770 OPS against right-handers, compared to an .842 OPS last year, and an .833 OPS in 2012.
The Pirates also moved Tony Sanchez to first base down in Triple-A. That move was more a result of Elias Diaz needing time behind the plate. It was an interesting move, due to the fact that Sanchez has done well hitting left-handed pitching.
Overall, the first base position was easily the worst position for the Pirates this year. The group combined for exactly replacement level production, all while making a little over $10 M. Everyone remaining on the team is due a raise through arbitration, which means this off-season will provide a challenge for the Pirates to keep the players they think will bounce back, and get rid of the expensive players who might be starting their decline.
The Pirates will be going with some platoon combination in 2015. From the left-hand side, it will either be Pedro Alvarez or Ike Davis. From the right-hand side it will either be Gaby Sanchez or Tony Sanchez. My guess is that it will be Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez, although a lot of this depends on whether Tony Sanchez will be needed behind the plate, and what kind of trade value the Pirates could get for the other three players.
In the long-term, the answer at first base looks to be Josh Bell. The outfielder is making the move to first base this off-season in the AFL, and should be expected to continue that move next year. He should start off in Altoona, and could move up to Indianapolis by the end of the year. A conservative timeline has him making the majors by mid-season 2016, taking over as the starting first baseman.
Bell was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft, and was given a $5 M bonus after he sent a letter to all teams saying he wouldn’t sign if he was drafted. That letter was the reason he went in the second round, rather than the top half of the first round. At the time he had hitting tools that you could dream on, with the potential for plus power and plus average. He broke out at the plate in 2014, showing off that ability to hit for average, along with some power in his time in A-ball.
He looks like a guy who could hit 20-25 homers, and possibly more, along with a .300 average. That would definitely play at first base, and would make Bell a fixture in the lineup for years.
Before Bell arrives, the Pirates need another year and a half of platoon players. Which players they go with will be an interesting topic this off-season, since they’re in a position where none of the options, even the free agents, look strong.