We all know how bad the Pirates have been over the past week. They’re not actually the worst baseball team in the history of the sport, which is sort of what they’ve played like, but they’re certainly a long ways from anything good. That’s not a bad thing; the team currently assembled in Pittsburgh is mostly a hodgepodge of utility guys, platoon players, and short-term fill-ins that are in Pirate uniforms to prove some kind of long-term usefulness to the club beyond 2009. That probably seems harsh, but it is what it is. This club is geared towards the future and the guys that are here right now are going to have to play their way into bigger roles.
Since that’s where the team is at, starting this week I’m going to look at each of the positions in field, who mans the positions for the Pirates right now, what sort of value that player might have in the long-term, and what the future of the position might look like. Think of it as a sort of roadmap that leads away from the Road to 17. Follow after the jump, and I’ll start with first base and third base, as the futures of the two positions are likely intertwined.
Who’s there now and where are they going? Currently Steve Pearce and Garrett Jones are splitting time here. I know I’ll take flak for saying this, but I think Pearce has a future as a platoon/pinch-hitter/fourth outfield guy. Since his recall on July 23rd, he’s hitting .265/.368/.510 and on the season, his OPS is 100 points higher against lefties. He’s not a starter, but I think he could be a decent bench guy on a good team. Jones … well … let’s say that I’m OK with riding Jones to see where he takes us, but since hitting his tenth homer on July 24th, he’s hitting .224/.297/.397. He’s significantly less valuable than Pearce as a backup because he’s mostly limited to first base and because he’s left-handed just like whoever he’d end up backing up there (meaning that he couldn’t spell Alvarez or Clement against a lefty like Pearce could). If Jones can improve his outfield play, he could make for a nice left-handed pinch-hitter and spell what’s likely to be an outfield full of right-handed hitters, assuming he can keep hitting, of course.
What’s the future? Jeff Clement gets the first crack at being more than a stopgap first baseman. He’s off to a downright Garrett Jonesian start at Indianapolis and some of his minor league numbers indicate that he can hit well enough for a first baseman, if he can learn to play the position (which is not a given). If he doesn’t work out (or even if he does), Pedro Alvarez may end up at first. Alvarez can certainly hit well enough for a first baseman, but given that the outfield may be lacking a bit in home run power, I’ve got to think that having Clement and Alvarez in the lineup together is the most appealing path for the front office right now.
Who’s there now and where is he going? Andy LaRoche is at third and will presumably be given the chance to stick there until Pedro Alvarez is ready. For as much crap as LaRoche gets from Pirate fans, his defense has made him at least interesting at third base for now. If you use Wins Above Replacement as your metric for measuring player performance (and WAR is considered by a lot of people to be the best way to do that right now), LaRoche has actually been about as valuable to the Pirates as Jason Bay has been to the Red Sox (you can read the WAR methodology here, but LaRoche’s defense is much better than Bay’s and the replacement threshhold is different for third baseman than it is for left fielders). This is much more an indictment of Bay’s defense and declining offense (he’s never going to see a .900 OPS again) and an attempt to get people to look beyond home runs and RBIs when evaluating players and trades than it is me trying to praise LaRoche. His 1.2 wins above replacement is still not particularly good. His bat has got to get better to make him a useful major league player and not a defensive replacement. He’s shown flashes of being capable of that (he was great in May with an .869 OPS and he’s been pretty good so far in August at .767) and he’ll deserve the chance he gets to prove that he can be better, but if he’s not making strides by the All-Star break next year (which is where I’d tentatively place Alvarez’s ETA), it’s not going to happen.
Who’s the future? Ideally it’s Alvarez. He’s destroying the ball in Altoona right now and more or less restored his super-prospect status after his uglyish stint in Lynchburg. As per the discussion above, his bat plays better at third than it does at first, especially if we have another power hitter playing first base. If Alvarez literally can’t play third base, which seems like a distinct possibility, I’m not sure that we have an obvious answer at third base in the system. LaRoche would almost have to duplicate his numbers from May across an entire season, which would sort of make him like Freddy Sanchez in 2006, and while that’s possible, I’m no longer holding my breath for it. There’s also Neil Walker (check out Colin Dunlap’s great piece about him in today’s PG), but he’s got to hit for way more than eight games in Indy to be considered for a starting role. I’ve got other places in mind for both Walker and LaRoche, which I’ll get to later in this series.
As things stand right now, the Pirates have to want these two positions to belong to Jeff Clement and Pedro Alvarez in the future. The two of them represent the sort of left-handed power potential the club hasn’t had since Brian Giles and given that the outfield is likely to be manned by a bunch of right-handed hitters, this would provide them with some nice balance in the lineup. Neither is a sure thing. Clement is obviously a bit of a gamble with his 26th birthday coming in ten days and no signficant Major League hitting on his resume. Alvarez has turned his season around but his strikeouts and ability to play third base are still a little worrisome. That’s not to say I don’t think he’ll be a good hitter, just that it’s still possible that he becomes more of a Carlos Pena type than the Evan Longoria/Ryan Zimmerman type that the Pirates hoped they had in the draft last year.