The Pirates have gone with a platoon approach to first base for many years, struggling to find answers for the position. With the outfield locked up for the long-term, they opted to move Josh Bell to the position last year, hoping that would provide the long-term solution. Bell was slated to arrive this year, and did so in the second half. However, the second half of the season left questions about how the Pirates would handle their first base position going forward.
The overall results from the first base spot weren’t bad. The Pirates had a 3.7 fWAR, which ranked 11th in the majors. They were 14th and 12th respectively in wOBA and wRC+. Those stats are a bit misleading though, since they include the total results of everyone playing the first base position, and the Pirates didn’t exactly have a regular first baseman.
The plan at the start of the year was to go with John Jaso as the primary guy against right-handers, with Michael Morse going up against lefties, and David Freese eventually taking over that role. Morse was quickly released after eight plate appearances, and Freese made the jump over after Jung Ho Kang returned, while still getting time at third base throughout the year.
Jaso started off strong, hitting for a .304/.369/.441 line in 180 plate appearances over the first two months of the season. This didn’t last, as he slumped in June and July to a .198/.291/.275 line in 148 plate appearances. His defense wasn’t great, but a big improvement over Josh Bell, who was putting up great offensive numbers in Indianapolis, but struggling defensively. Bell arrived for a series in July, putting up some impressive offensive numbers as a bat off the bench. By the middle of August, Jaso’s struggles led to Bell arriving and taking over the bulk of the first base duties.
Bell didn’t become an everyday first baseman though. After a few weeks in that role, he started switching back and forth between first base and right field. In his final 22 games, he was a right fielder 15 times, and a first baseman seven times. That includes his final nine starts in right field. The end of the season was probably due to Starling Marte being out, and Gregory Polanco missing some time. But before that, during the short time that Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco were healthy at the same time, he received seven starts at first, and six in right field.
Meanwhile, Jaso revived his hitting, with a .307/.413/.568 line in 104 plate appearances over his final two months. He also started eight of the final nine games at first base for the Pirates, after making only about two or three starts a week prior to that, once Bell arrived.
David Freese also got playing time throughout the year. When he wasn’t filling in for Jung Ho Kang at third base, he was getting starts at first. He started eight games at first base in September, which was just one fewer than Bell started. And in the time when Kang and Polanco were healthy in September, Freese started six games at first, compared to seven for Bell (and four for Jaso).
The Pirates got some good offense from Bell, but poor defense. They got better defense from Jaso, but his offense was inconsistent, with the slump in the middle of the season. Freese had better defense than both, and offensively had a good start to the year, but saw his offense slump down the stretch.
You have to wonder if the Josh Bell experiment at first base is coming to an end, or being scaled back. I don’t know if I’d read much into the final ten games, since there were a lot of injuries to consider. But before the injury wave hit, Bell saw his playing time split between first base and right field. Granted, there were still injuries to consider at this point, but looking forward, I don’t think the Pirates will be able to play Bell at first base on a regular basis if they want to give playing time to Freese and Jaso.
Freese was extended and is under team control through the 2019 season, but he’s not going to get a lot of starts at third base. So I could see Bell making a few starts in the outfield each week, with the other starts coming at first base. You could probably get five starts a week like this for Bell, and four starts a week for Freese, but there would be no place for Jaso to play, which isn’t a long-term concern, as he’s only under contract through 2017.
In the long-term, you’d have to wonder how much Bell’s defense will impact his ability to stick at first. His bat looks like it belongs in the majors, but the defense is removing some value. This time last year, I was writing about how the Pirates got poor defense from Pedro Alvarez in the majors, and Bell in the minors. Alvarez went on to spend most of his time in 2016 as the DH in Baltimore. He saw an improvement of about ten defensive runs (as in, he didn’t have a chance to lose an extra ten defensive runs), which gave him an extra win in value. It could be a similar situation for Bell, where his defense removes a win from his offensive production.
There aren’t a lot of good replacement options in the minors. Jason Rogers was acquired last off-season, but also doesn’t have great defense, doesn’t have the bat that Bell has, and wasn’t really in the mix this year. Jose Osuna could reach the majors as a bench player, but he doesn’t have the bat that Bell has, and his defense isn’t good enough to make up for the difference. Edwin Espinal has some potential, but is another guy who doesn’t have great defense, and who can’t match Bell offensively.
The better first base options are in the lower levels, although they’re both playing third base at the moment. Will Craig, the first round pick in 2016, projects as a first baseman in the long-term. The Pirates will stick with him for as long as possible at third base, hoping he improves there. I talked with scouts who saw him play first base in college who said he would be fine at the position, and the Pirates had him getting some early work this off-season. I don’t know yet how much of an upgrade he’d be over Bell, but he’s got more offensive upside than the first three guys mentioned.
I think the best defender of the group could be Connor Joe, who is also currently playing third base, and also some outfield. Joe played first base in 2015, due to a back injury the year before. He looked promising at the position, showing some good range and athleticism. He struggled at third base this year, which is understandable, as he hadn’t played there since high school. Offensively, he had a strong second half, with an .814 OPS in the final three months. He carried his hitting over to the playoffs, and continued hitting the ball hard in instructs. He was hitting the ball hard the first two months of the year, but the stats didn’t match the production.
I’d give Joe less of a chance at sticking at third base than Craig, but he also has the corner outfield spots that he could move to before a move to first base is necessary. Although, in this system, first base might be more of a need than the outfield. Joe could be the best defender of this group, due to his athleticism, but would need to continue his strong hitting in order to be an option for first base in the long-term.
Of course, adding the designated hitter to the NL could solve a lot of problems at first base, with Bell taking over that role, Freese playing mostly first base with a spot start at third, and Jaso getting the extra time in 2017, along with a guy like Osuna or Joe taking over beyond that.
There’s also the possibility that Josh Bell could improve his defense going forward, since he’s only had two years at the position. This seems unlikely, at least in the sense that he’ll become a good defender, or a guy who won’t lose value due to his defense. But if he can improve to Jaso’s level, this becomes less of an issue, especially if his hitting continues to improve, and I don’t think we’ve seen the best offense from him yet.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.