Bucs begin search for first baseman
Club exploring in-house options, trades and free agents
PITTSBURGH -- Over the past six seasons, the Pirates have trotted out six starting first basemen on Opening Day. On April 3 at PNC Park, they'll make it seven.
Pedro Alvarez is officially a free agent after the Pirates declined to tender him a contract Wednesday. Given Alvarez's unreliable defense and struggles against left-handed pitching, the Pirates opted to cut ties with the powerful slugger when they couldn't work out a trade to send him elsewhere.
"We felt we were better served to reallocate the resources elsewhere on the club," Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said. "We'll look to continue to explore the free-agent and trade markets, see what we might be able to do to back-fill now that we have an opening at first base."
So who will it be? Who will follow Jeff Clement, Lyle Overbay, Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Travis Ishikawa and Alvarez? Here's a look at their existing options, available free agents and the trade market.
By the end of the 2016 season, the solution might be Josh Bell, ranked by MLBPipeline.com as the best first-base prospect in baseball. Bell has played only 35 games above Double-A, so he will start the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. He is not necessarily a finished product yet, either, as he is still working on his defense at first base and learning to consistently translate his raw power into game power.
If the season began tomorrow, Michael Morse would be the answer. Acquired before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline in exchange for Jose Tabata, Morse is entering the final season of a two-year, $16 million contract. The 33-year-old struggled with the Marlins last season, but hit well in limited time for the Bucs.
The Pirates have reason to believe Morse will bounce back from his performance in Miami, as he batted .279/.336/.475 with 16 homers and 61 RBIs for the Giants in 2014 and finished last season with a .782 OPS in 45 games for the Pirates.
No matter what, Morse figures to at least be in the mix at first base next year. Given his relatively neutral career splits against right- and left-handed pitching, he may even be given the job without a platoon partner. Still, a left-handed platoon partner would provide some valuable insurance.
That probably isn't Jake Goebbert, Pittsburgh's first free-agent signing this winter. The 28-year-old is a left-handed hitter, but he has only played in 51 Major League games and primarily served as a corner outfielder in the Minors. Goebbert has Minor League options remaining, so he doesn't have to make the team out of Spring Training to remain in the organization. He might be more of a replacement for Andrew Lambo than a fill-in for Alvarez.
Huntington has all but ruled out the idea of Neil Walker moving over to first base.
Chris Davis is the biggest name available, but he figures to be well outside of the Pirates' price range. After that, their options are somewhat limited. With Morse on board and Bell waiting in the wings, they really only need a one-year, part-time solution.
Mike Napoli and a few former Pirates -- Ike Davis, Ishikawa, Justin Morneau and Steve Pearce -- might be among the most logical free-agent fits in this category.
This isn't a particularly robust market, either. But just before the Trade Deadline, ESPN.com reported that the Pirates "checked in on" Adam Lind, James Loney and Adam LaRoche, all of whom appear to still be available.
LaRoche, the last Pirates first baseman to draw consecutive Opening Day starts (2007-09), is coming off a rough season with the White Sox and is carrying an expensive contract.
The Brewers' Lind and the Rays' Loney, both linked to the Pirates in previous years, would seem to make more sense. Lind offers a more potent bat, while Loney is well-regarded for his defense.