Bucs mulling over current, future options at 1st base

September 27th, 2022

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates possess several promising pieces. Bryan Reynolds was an All-Star last year, and David Bednar was an All-Star this year. Ke’Bryan Hayes might be the game’s best defender, and Oneil Cruz might be the game’s tantalizing talent. They, along with several other potential-filled young players, stand to serve as the foundation of Pittsburgh’s next winning team. But going into next season, there’s a need that requires addressing: first base.

“We’ve looked at a bunch of people there,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We will continue to look at people there. It’s an area that, going into the offseason, we will talk about. We have. We’ve tried different people there. I think we will continue to do that. But I do think it’ll be an area that we focus on during the offseason.”

Prior to Monday’s 8-3 win over the Reds at PNC Park, Michael Chavis, the team’s primary first baseman this season, was designated for assignment. Chavis provided durability and pop, but he hit just .229/.265/.389 and was a net-negative defender by outs above average. He wasn’t the only first baseman who has struggled to produce this season.

Yoshi Tsutsugo, the Pirates’ Opening Day first baseman, hit .171/.249/.229 with two home runs in 50 games before being designated for assignment in August. Along with Chavis and Tsutsugo, Josh VanMeter, Bligh Madris, Zack Collins, Yu Chang, Ben Gamel, Kevin Padlo, Daniel Vogelbach and Diego Castillo have spent time at first base.

Coming into Monday, that first-base group as an entire unit has hit .198/.257/.316 with 20 home runs across almost 900 plate appearances. Their .572 OPS is the second lowest of all position groups, trailing only the .543 mark of the catchers, a position more defined by defense than offense. Miguel Andújar, who has played 17 1/3 innings at first base in the Majors, might become the 11th and see some time there before season’s end.

“He's going to get out there with [bench coach Don Kelly],” Shelton said of Andújar, who had a hit, a walk and a sacrifice fly in his Pirates debut. “We're going to find out where he's at. ... He'll probably play out in the outfield a little bit. I think we want to get our eyes on him. Have [first-base coach Tarrik Brock] get his eyes on him and Donnie get his eyes on him over at first. But I wouldn't rule it out."

There are no quick fixes here. Pittsburgh’s active roster does not feature any primary first basemen. Mason Martin had a fantastic April at Triple-A Indianapolis, but he is hitting .212/.288/.414 across 132 games this season. Collins, who has played less than 100 career innings at first base, stands to receive the lion’s share of playing time at the position for the remainder of the season.

“They’re trying to get me comfortable over there,” Collins said. “Obviously, the No. 1 overall pick was chosen here, and he’s a catcher. I assume that I won’t be catching as much as I would like to, but at the same time, I’m looking to get into the lineup every day and get as many at-bats as possible.”

Among prospects in the organization, Malcom Nunez, who the Bucs acquired in the José Quintana trade along with Johan Oviedo, appears to be the Pirates’ best long-term option. Nunez has broken out this year, hitting .262/.366/.466 with 23 home runs across 118 games at Double-A and Triple-A. In 2019 and '21, by comparison, Nunez hit .254/.326/.372 with 11 home runs. As well as Nunez has performed this season, he will likely begin next season with Indianapolis.

On the free-agent front, there are a couple players who could serve as a bridge to Nunez for the time being. Jesús Aguilar and Carlos Santana are a pair of veterans who will hit the open market following down seasons and won’t command much. Miguel Sanó might be an option as well; the Twins likely won’t pick up Sanó’s $14 million club option following a season in which he played just 20 games due to a left knee injury.