1/15/2014 3:41 P.M. ET
Pirates can't overlook hole at first base
Bucs will keep eye on spring developments in search of offensive upgrade
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
The primary of the many, many messages Clint Hurdle, a known admirer of the motivational mantra, will press upon his Pittsburgh Pirates when they report to camp in Bradenton, Fla., a month from now is that 2013 cannot be a one-and-done moment in the sun.
It needs to be the start of something, the first of a series of October entries for a once-moribund franchise newly brought back to life.
Alas, that message has not exactly been backed by the Pirates' winter activity, or lack thereof.
The dirty truth about the 2013 squad is that it survived and thrived in the face of a ho-hum offense that was, in fact, the only October entrant to average fewer than four runs per game. Yet the Bucs have done little to augment that offense this offseason, and time is running thin.
The foremost issue, as any Pirates fan will quickly point out, is first base, and, in the defense of Neal Huntington and Co., the options in this area have been woefully thin from the beginning.
We saw hesitance on the part of the Pirates to dive in too deep into the bidding for Mike Napoli, free agency's best available option, and that's understandable not just because of Napoli's strikeouts or potential physical concerns but because of the widely held assumption that he'd re-sign with the Red Sox, anyway. That's precisely what transpired.
Kendrys Morales is still out there, and for good reason, given the Draft pick compensation attached to his name. Draft picks are obviously the lifeblood of small-market clubs, though, under the right circumstances, I'd argue that the Pirates, in their current position, shouldn't let the 25th overall pick get between them and a guy who plugs a meaningful hole.
Alas, Morales is not the right circumstances, limited as he is with the glove. He's not a good fit for the National League.
Beyond that, the Pirates had the option of re-upping with Justin Morneau, but, as Pittsburghians learned last summer, that would have been an acquisition with more name value than actual performance value. Better to let the Rockies pay $12.5 million to find that out. Same goes for the Rays' allocation of $21 million over three years for James Loney, who faded after a fine first half last season. Mike Morse, who landed in the Giants' outfield, was another guy who endured a second-half skid.
It might be that the Pirates' best option in the free-agent hunt was Corey Hart, who went to the Mariners for $8 million. That could wind up being one of the best bargains of the winter or a futile waste of funds. Only Hart's left knee knows for sure.
Anyway, a critique of the Pirates' inaction is incomplete without the notable caveat that there simply hasn't been a whole lot worth acting upon in the open market.
The trade market has, similarly and, I'm sure, frustratingly, bore no fruit, and that's also understandable in these market conditions. General managers reappraised their trade assets in light of a free-agent market that quickly spun out of cost control, asking a king's ransom for even average pieces.
That situation will evolve in the coming weeks, and certainly before Opening Day. And as it evolves, the Pirates need to be particularly proactive, because their current first-base forecast isn't acceptable.
Gaby Sanchez's past productivity against left-handed pitching is a strength the Pirates plan to tap into, but they know full well that Sanchez can't be trusted against the other 75 percent of the pitching population. They also know that it might be asking a lot of the late-blooming Andrew Lambo to survive and thrive in a regular big league role. He slugged 32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season, and the Pirates could certainly use that kind of pop, but strikeouts are part of the package, as is adaptation to a level where he's logged just 33 plate appearances. You don't rule out Lambo becoming a legit weapon at first, but you can't count on it as a given, either.
The Pirates acquired Minor League veteran Chris McGuiness in a trade with the Rangers that reads as a "spaghetti, meet wall" kind of move. McGuiness gets on base but doesn't hit for much average or power.
The trade with the Rangers that Pirates fans would much rather see is one involving Mitch Moreland, and that can't be completely ruled out, either. As it stands, Moreland is a man without a clearly defined role on a Rangers club that has already exceeded its budget with the acquisitions of Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo. And now that Derek Holland is on the mend from microfracture surgery, it will be interesting to see if Texas does dangle Moreland in a bid to add depth to the pitching staff (Robbie Ross or Tanner Scheppers could shift out of the bullpen and into the rotation, possibly creating a relief need). The Pirates do have trade chips in a group fronted by Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham, and, more to the point, they were rumored to have discussed a Moreland-for-Justin Wilson swap at the Winter Meetings.
Thus far, the Pirates have been hesitant to part with any of their chips as they've investigated the likes of Ike Davis, the intriguing-yet-iffy option on the Mets. He'll go into camp competing with Lucas Duda, and the Pirates will undoubtedly have an eye on both guys. The Mariners could deal Justin Smoak, but you'd have to be a firm believer in change of scenery to give up anything of substance for Smoak. To date, he's given little reason to believe reality will ever resemble the projections.
I find it hard to believe the Pirates will break camp without doing something -- anything -- to improve their first-base outlook, even slightly. But at this stage, it appears it's going to take patience and creativity within the confines of camp.
We've seen in the recent past many examples of clubs -- particularly the Oakland A's -- who win without a stash of stars but with a lineup simply lacking any significant holes. The Pirates have a Grade A star in Andrew McCutchen, an emerging star in Gerrit Cole, some really nice pieces around the diamond and plenty of reason to think Gregory Polanco can improve their outfield and their offense this summer.
But they've still got that hole at first base, knowing full well that an improvement in run production is in order if they're truly going to build upon 2013. Here's hoping they act accordingly between now and Opening Day.