February 25, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: First Base

Article By: Jim Falbo | @BuccoSharkTank

For my first series of articles I will do a brief position by position analysis of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

First Base:

The most frequently discussed topic among Pirates fans this off season, besides the A.J. Burnett saga, has been the 1B situation. The Pirates were very active in their search for a 1B this off season, they made a very competitive offer to James Loney, but he ultimately chose to sign with the Rays. They looked into signing Logan Morrison but he signed with Seattle. They have inquired about trading for Mitch Moreland, Ike Davis, Justin Smoak, and Adam Lind, however nothing materialized. They have been in contact with Kendrys Morales and his big stick, but his 2010 ankle injury sapped him of his range and made him a defensive liability. Beyond his defensive issues, Morales has a 1st round pick attached to signing him (before the 2014 June Amateur Draft). These concerns make it unlikely that he signs with the Pirates.

Gaby Sanchez came to camp lighter, in better shape, and eager to prove he can handle playing 1B everyday. Defensively, Gaby has proven to be more than capable with the leather, but the problem with Sanchez is that he has struggled against right-handed pitching during his career. In 1415 PA against RHP’s Gaby owns a career hitting line of just .242/.313/.389, 90 wRC+, and 35 HR. This line suggests that he should have limited exposure to righties. Gaby derives most of his value from the damage he does when a southpaw is on the mound. In his 566 PA against LHP’s Sanchez has slugged a robust .300/.399/.496, 145 wRC+, and 19 HR.

To put those numbers into perspective here are the MLB leaders in wRC+ against LHP from 2008-2013. (minimum 500 PA)

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That list is not too shabby, Sanchez is clearly a dominant force against left-handed pitching. Based on his career splits, Gaby is a clearly best served as a platoon player.

Andrew Lambo was once the Dodger’s top prospect, and Baseball America’s 49th overall prospect. But a 2010 suspension involving a “drug of abuse” as well as several seasons of uninspiring performances, dimmed his once bright MLB future. In 2013, a 24 year old Lambo began his season playing in AA Altoona, where in 247 PA he torched the opposing pitchers to a batting line of .291/.351/.559, 146 wRC+, and 14 HR. Though the performance seemed to be a breakthrough for Lambo, he was an old player for AA, and his numbers were met with skepticism. Only a stellar performance after a promotion to AAA Indianapolis would indicate whether or not he had improved.

After his promotion, Lambo smashed AAA pitchers for a batting line of .272/.344/.589, 153 wRC+, and 18 HR. In both of his 2013 minor league stops Lambo struck out at a high rate (24.3% in AA, 26.4% in AAA) , but his power surge was real. The only question was whether or not his power would translate to the big leagues?

Lambo made his MLB debut on August 13, 2013, but only received 33 PA’s over the rest of the season, hitting .233/.303/.400, 98 wRC+, and 1 HR. With such a small sample size, the jury is still out on whether Lambo can carry his power over to the major leagues and be a regular contributor to the 2014 Pirates. Couple that with his transitioning from OF to 1B and you get why many Pirates fans are very anxious to open the season with Lambo as the front runner to get the lion’s share of the 1B platoon going into 2014.

Lambo has played 41 games at 1B over the course of his minor league career and also played 1B in high school. That’s not exactly MLB experience, but Lambo isn’t a foreigner to the position, so this isn’t a Jeff Clement type transition. If Lambo puts in the appropriate amount of defensive work at 1B this spring, he should be fully capable of playing an adequate 1B when the season opens. Hiccups and occasional lapses should be expected, but he should improve during the season as he gains more game-time experience.

As for Lambo’s splits vs. LHP/RHP, I will point you to his aggregate 2013 minor league totals. In 143 PA vs. LHP, Lambo hit .246/.317/.484, 9 HR, and a 26.6 K%. He had 358 PA vs. RHO, and put up an impressive line of .296/.360/.601, 23 HR, and a 24.9 K%. What can be derived from those numbers is that Lambo hits righties better than lefties, but wasn’t overmatched against LHP’s, and maintained the ability to hit for power against them. If he can transition these skills to MLB, he will be a welcome addition the Pirates lineup in 2014. Unless the Pirates are able to secure a more productive player at 1B during spring training, Andrew Lambo is the Pirates best option to open the 2014 season platooning with Gaby Sanchez.

Here are Andrew Lambo’s career MLB and MILB statistics:

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Depth Options:

Beyond Sanchez and Lambo, the Pirates have signed MLB veteran Travis Ishikawa to a minor league deal, and traded reliever Miles Mikolas to Texas for Chris McGuiness. Ishikawa has yet to prove he can put up adequate numbers for a MLB 1B after 859 big league PA he has posted a line of .260/.324./398, although he has put up a good AAA line .283/.377/.511. McGuiness has only 34 uninspiring MLB PA, but has shown good on base skills in the minors with a line of .257/.372./.437. These two should start the season as AAA depth splitting 1B duties for Indianapolis. For those wondering about Matt Hague, he should begin the season in Indianapolis splitting time at 3B with the newly acquired Brent Morel.

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