The Pirates’ ZiPS projections came out today, and it’s generally a rosy picture. If you give Pitching Genius Ray Searage some hope with Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, and Allen Webster in the back end of the pitching rotation, and have a little hope in the Jordy Mercer’s bat, you could see league-average or better production all around the diamond. Even if you don’t believe those arms can do it, the team has Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon this year in the minors, perhaps ready to contribute further.
In any case, it looks like more of the same from the Bucs, except for one glaring situation: first base. Michael Morse is fun, Michael Morse has power, but Michael Morse is projected to be a replacement-level first baseman.
It appears, from recent comments made by general manager Neal Huntington to Rob Biertempfel, that the Pirates don’t have much money. Using arbitration projections for their current roster, they might have as little as $5 or $6 million to spend on first base, if they retain their $10 million closer Mark Melancon. How do they find a platoon partner for the right-handed Morse for that kind of scratch?
They had a left-handed first baseman that was projected to make $8 million next year, so we have to do better than Pedro Alvarez. The team is at $85 million in salaries right now, even counting the fact that they have Morse for free, basically. They spent $90 million last year.
The free-agent market is not going to be kind. Mike Napoli and Steve Pearce are right-handed. Corey Hart is right-handed and the Pirates just got an up-close look at the state of his career right now. Sean Rodriguez has been rumored as help, but he’s also right-handed.
There’s really only name on the free-agent market that might make sense for the Pirates and might come to town for the sort of money they are offering: Justin Morneau. He’s left-handed, and though concerns about his concussions are legitimate, they also drove down his market price to the point where the Rockies spent $750,000 to not spend $9 million on him this season. So he should cost less than $8 million.
By the projections, adding Morneau could push their production from first base to a full win. Steamer has him worth more than a half a win, at least, and that’s with a marked down turn in defensive and offensive value. That’s fair — he’s 34 — but flat production could make the pairing of Morneau and Morse within shouting distance of league average.
Cheaper, non-regular lefty first basemen include Kelly Johnson and Matt Joyce. Though the 31-year-old Joyce possesses relative youth compared to the other options in this aisle, and could bounce back to be better than any of the names mentioned so far, you’d have to convince him that he can handle first baseman. Ask Ron Washington how easy that is. You could throw David Murphy in this paragraph, but if you’re going to ask an outfielder to play first for the first time, you’d start with Joyce just for the upside at the plate, is my guess.
Huntington also mentioned the trade market. In fact, the genesis of his complaints about player salaries was the fact that increasing salaries is also making trades more difficult, as teams ostensibly ask for more in return for their cheap talent. So let’s assume from those comments that he also doesn’t want to pay top-shelf trade prices for a new first baseman.
The White Sox are willing to eat much of the $13 million they owe Adam LaRoche, but if you’re going with late-30s first baseman coming off bad seasons, you might as well take Morneau, who will only cost cash and no players. LaRoche is also more clearly the worse defender of the two.
But scanning the arbitration-eligible first basemen in the game, you hit a problem quickly: the good ones will cost a lot to get, and the bad ones don’t seem much better than free agents. Try prying Brandon Belt free from the Giants, see if you even have the prospects to do so. The Mets still need Lucas Duda. Logan Morrison has been available for most of his career, it seems, and the Pirates haven’t bit.
If you believe in a Brandon Moss bounce-back, fueled mostly by better health in his hip, he might be the most attractive target. He’s only 32, and he’s projected to make less than Alvarez would make, and produce more. He loves first base, and the Cardinals, especially with another signing, could easily make him redundant, with Stephen Piscotty and Matt Adams on the roster.
The other name on the trade market, Mitch Moreland, is projected for that magic $5.6 million that fits our budget best. The Rangers have a first baseman in Prince Fielder and, in Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara, two very exciting young outfielders who are close to the major leagues. This seems like a fit, but you’ll remember those Huntington comments when you check in on the rumors page for Moreland: Pittsburgh is apparently “not motivated” to move a young catcher to the Rangers for the right to pay Moreland. Also, why spend a minor league catching prospect when you also have a minor league first baseman who is close to the bigs in Josh Bell?
Perhaps the Pirates wait for the Cardinals to make their next move and then call about Moss. Perhaps they’re talking to Justin Morneau. If Matt Joyce is cool with first base, then he’s probably on their radar.
But there’s one left-handed player left who is younger than the oldest of these options, better offensively than anyone we’ve mentioned so far, has experience playing the position, and offers the potential of a win and a half of production that would boost the Pirates to average all over the field. His name is John Jaso.
Maybe his days catching are done because of the concussions, but he’s an athletic player that was once called the best baserunner in the Tampa organization and has played in the outfield as recently as last year — he is likely to be better defensively than LaRoche and Morneau, who are also three years older than he is. Jaso has played five innings at first, which means he’s taken throws at first and taken infield practice there. It won’t be foreign to him.
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He doesn’t fit your traditional slow-footed designated hitter profile. And though he doesn’t have the power of that same DH, he makes up for it with good plate discipline that has left him 20% better than league average for his career.
And for the Pirates, he’s a lefty first baseman with some upside who is not inspiring rumors and could be available for $5 million, since he made $3.2 million in his last year of arbitration last year. He won’t cost a prospect, and he could help patch up the worst hole on the field. Plus, he’d return dreadlocks to the field in Pittsburgh, which is fun, if not valuable by traditional metrics.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.