The question of the Pittsburgh Pirates offseason: who's on first?
Even more than the question of if A.J. Burnett will return to the team, the first base issue has come up seemingly each time a first baseman has been taken off the market. So far, the Pirates have seen their former first basemen Justin Morneau and Garrett Jones sign with Colorado and Miami, respectively, while the team tendered arbitration to Gaby Sanchez, who at best is a platoon option good at hitting left-handed pitching while playing a decent defensive first base.
The option who intrigued most Bucco fans early on was James Loney, who ended up re-signing with the Tampa Bay Rays for three years and $21 million. Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune later reported that the Pirates and Rays made a similar offer to Loney.
Trade talks swirled as well with names such as Mitch Moreland, Adam Lind, Justin Smoak and Ike Davis being tossed around. The Toronto Blue Jays wanted Neil Walker in exchange for Lind, which killed any chances for a deal between the two. Davis has underachieved recently and would be a very risky gamble, whereas Moreland and Smoak have been forced out of jobs with the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. However, they would still require the Pirates giving up something of value in a trade.
For the sake of this discussion, we'll assume the Pirates don't end up trading for a first baseman. They had ample time to discuss trades involving these players at the winter meetings in early December and didn't find any offers to their liking. This leaves the Pirates with essentially two options.
For being the top remaining free agent first baseman, Morales comes with a lot of baggage. First, the Pirates would be subjected to draft-pick compensation, meaning they would have to give up their first round pick in order to sign him. He turned down a $14 million qualifying offer, which likely had more to do with his agent Scott Boras than it did himself, but alas, he remains on the market with the dreaded compensation tag attached to his name.
There are doubts as to whether or not Morales can still play first base on a daily basis, as he has gone through multiple knee injuries and spent much of last season exclusively as the Mariners designated hitter.
But, he is a switch hitter and he can absolutely rake when he's on. Playing his home games at one of the worst hitters parks in America, Safeco Field, and trapped in one of baseball's most putrid offenses, Morales put up all-star numbers and proved that his career is nowhere close to its end. He managed to hit 23 homers, drive in 80 and maintain a .785 ops, all three would qualify as top-three offensive numbers on last year's Pirates. His numbers would see a bit of natural upswing being surrounded by Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez as well as having the opportunity to take swings at PNC Park's short right field porch while batting from the left-side.
On the flip side, there is Andrew Lambo. The Pirates don't have to give up any dollars or players to plug him into their lineup, and he is coming off a tremendous season in the Bucs system. It is very believable that a platoon of Lambo and Sanchez would be at least as productive as Jones/Sanchez was for most of last season, if not slightly more productive. Lambo doesn't provide the track record that Morales does, but he is younger with much less of an injury history. His ability to play the outfield should allow him to transition to first base seamlessly, although it isn't a given as most make it out to be.
Morales will put up better numbers than Lambo no matter where he ends up next year, however, the Pirates front office likely views the platoon of Lambo/Sanchez as more valuable for their price tag than Morales is for his, which includes surrendering the Bucs first round pick in next June's draft.
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