BRADENTON, Fl. – The first base position for the Pirates has been a mess for a long time. In the last several years, they’ve tried to counter this with various platoons, and none of those work out. Usually, the platoons are geared to have two specific players, with no one else in the running beyond depth options.
This year the Pirates made the switch from power to OBP on the left side, going with John Jaso to replace Pedro Alvarez. That’s the one side of the platoon which has a player locked in for the starting role. The rest of it is a mess.
There are two top options for the right side of the platoon. Michael Morse is returning this year, with the Pirates paying him about $4.5 M. They also have Jason Rogers, who they acquired this off-season in exchange for top 30 pitching prospect Trey Supak and top 50 outfield prospect Keon Broxton.
Then there are the guys who can play first base, but the fact that they can play first base only further crowds an already crowded scene. Matt Joyce was signed to compete for the fourth outfield spot, but wants to also work on transitioning to first base. Jake Goebbert is more of a first baseman who can also play the outfield, making him the reverse of Morse. Both of these guys are more depth options than anything, but could still win a spot on the bench. They’re also both left-handed, so they wouldn’t really factor in to the right side of the platoon.
The decision for the right side of the platoon would ultimately come down to Morse or Rogers. The Pirates could try to keep both on the roster, but that would require trusting them at different positions than first base. Michael Morse was taking grounders at third yesterday, but isn’t really an option there, outside of deep emergency situations. The position he could end up playing would be the outfield.
“I think what we’re going to do is get him in some outfield work,” Clint Hurdle said of Morse. “He’s played outfield in the past. Last year we were in a position where it wasn’t anything we needed to try and add to his task list coming in. We might run him around out there, get him involved with some drills, and see where he can take it. I’ve actually seen him play the outfield a little bit.”
Jason Rogers can also play two other positions, with questionable defense at each spot. He’s played third base and the outfield, and the Pirates plan on trying him at both spots this Spring.
“He has a little bit of a sample size of playing some outfield,” Hurdle said. “He’s played some third base, as well as first base. So we’re going to get him in those opportunities, work him out early, and then we’ll see what the games can present.”
If the Pirates can keep both players on the roster by putting them at new positions, it would make a lot of sense, but would also probably require a strong defensive option aside from Sean Rodriguez to balance out the lack of defense from the bench spots. This might make it difficult for Joyce and Goebbert to make the Opening Day roster, unless the Pirates are comfortable with Sean Rodriguez being THE defensive option (and the backup shortstop). If that’s the case, then one of those two could make the team, giving the Pirates a lot of offense from the bench. My guess would be that Joyce would get the job over Goebbert, since the latter has options remaining.
As for Rogers and Morse, the reason you want both of them making the roster is for their potential and the investment the Pirates made in them. In Rogers’ case, it’s a bit of both. He’s got a lot of power potential, plus some great numbers with the Brewers last year in a small sample size. You’d want to see if that can see a repeat in 2016. But the Pirates also invested a lot in him, sending out two good prospects, including one who could have helped the bench this year. It wouldn’t make sense to trade for Rogers only to send him to Triple-A (where they have another crowded infield situation, and where he’d be stuck behind Josh Bell).
My feeling on Morse is that you’d want to play him more for the raw power than the investment. The Pirates are paying him $4.5 M this year, but that’s what they would have otherwise paid Jose Tabata (who they dealt for Morse last year). That money was basically a sunk cost, and Morse has a better chance of helping the team than Tabata would have (Morse had a .782 OPS last year, plus a .351 wOBA and a 126 wRC+ off the bench, so he’s already helping).
Morse has the best raw power on the team. I’m talking Pedro Alvarez raw power. I’ve noticed this every time I’ve seen him take batting practice, whether it was hitting home runs into the incoming crowd at the center field entrance in Busch Stadium, or watching him hitting balls over the batter’s eye in deep center field at Pirate City (a wall that is about 30 feet high and 415 feet away). But the question with Morse was why couldn’t he carry that raw power into the game last year?
“You know when his last full season was where he hit well. He’s removed from that a little bit,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s reps as much as anything else. He didn’t get out of the box clean last year, and for whatever reason the plug got pulled on him early. The opportunities with us were limited. It wasn’t like he was playing everyday and getting five at-bats per night. So that would be the biggest reason why.”
The problem here is that Morse won’t get regular playing time with the Pirates in 2016 either. If he’s the only right-handed first base option, then he’d still struggle to get a lot of starts. And even if he is passable at third base and the outfield, he won’t be stealing time from any of the starters at those positions. But Hurdle also felt that Morse was close to snapping out of his in-game power funk last year.
“When he’s shown the ability to go out there and put some quality at-bats together, earn the playing time on the field and get those reps, he’s shown some good things,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s still there. It’s just wherever the opportunities come, and the reps come with it. You’ll see more of it when he gets comfortable. I thought he was getting comfortable with us, and I thought if the season would have continued, if there had been a second half to the second half, I think you would have seen some power come into play.”
In Morse, you’ve got a guy who was one year removed from a .196 ISO, and who signed a two-year, $16 M deal last season. You’d hope he can bounce back from the low power year in 2015. With Rogers, you’ve got a guy who posted a .145 ISO last year, while hitting for average and getting on base during a small sample size. In this case, you’d hope the one year wasn’t a fluke. But in both cases, you’d want to give them playing time to see if they can either repeat their success, or bounce back from their down year.
Another issue with the first base crowd would be the defense. Morse isn’t bad defensively, but he’s not great. Rogers is in the same category. Jaso is learning the position, so it’s going to be a rough transition at the start of the year. Last year, the Pirates eventually relegated Sean Rodriguez to being the late-inning defensive replacement at first base, due to the poor defense from Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates are hoping to avoid that this year.
“When we initially signed him, it was to move all over the field,” Hurdle said of Rodriguez. “As the season went on, it morphed into the situation it became. So we’ll be looking to move him all over the place [in 2016]. One of the interesting things about Sean is he took balls everyday, multiple spots. You can probably count the times on two hands in 180 days that he took balls at first base. Practice. He’d go over there once in a while. He’s a gifted defender, so we’re looking to move him around on the diamond and in the outfield.”
It’s a good that Rodriguez isn’t also in the mix here, as that would have given the Pirates six guys who needed playing time at first base in Spring Training, or seven if you count Josh Bell. But even without Rodriguez, that’s a lot of guys who need playing time, especially when the priority for playing time should be on getting Jaso enough work to get comfortable at the position. You can expect the Pirates to use the minor league games at Pirate City to get additional work for the rest of their guys.
“We need to get Jaso good reps on the field,” Hurdle said. “We’re very involved in our backfield work when guys aren’t involved in games. We can go back and re-create some situations, whether it be in the backfield at McKechnie, or we get them involved in simulation games early over here in the afternoon. Josh Bell, we do want to take a look at him and see what he can do. He’s going to be out of camp earlier than most. We’ll try to feed him some reps.”
A high OBP catcher converting to a new position. Two all-bat, no defense guys trying to learn new positions just to get additional playing time. Two other guys who can play first base, but might have more value for their outfield work. This is far from a sure thing to work out better than the previous first base platoons have worked. But if the Pirates can play this situation right, they’ll have plenty of offense from the first base position this year, along with some extra offense from the bench. As for whether they can avoid Sean Rodriguez falling back to the defensive first baseman role, I’m not so optimistic that this could happen, considering the defensive skills of all of the top options for the position.