Despite a recent report by ESPN’s James Stark that the Pirates are still actively pursuing trades for a first baseman, it is looking increasingly likely that they will enter 2014 without acquiring one.
Pittsburgh has been fruitlessly searching for a left handed complement to incumbent Gary Sanchez all winter, being linked at various times to the Mets’ Ike Davis, the Rangers’ Mitch Moreland, and the Mariners’ Justin Smoak, all of whom they are said to still be monitoring. But pitchers and catchers have already reported, making a deal unlikely. As such, Pirates fans should be prepared for a spring training competition between a trio of unlikely contestants: Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuinness, and Travis Ishakawa.
Lambo, 25, is probably the favorite for the platoon spot, despite the fact that just a year ago, the notion of Lambo contending for a major league job seemed almost absurd. Lambo had been ranked by Baseball America as the 49th best prospect in baseball as recently as 2009, when he was a 19 year old in the Dodgers organization, but he had fallen on hard times since then. He struggled to OPS’s of .717, .732, and .683 from 2009 to 2011 and missed all but 26 games of the 2012 season thanks to wrist surgery.
2013, however, proved to be the year, when the tools identified by Baseball America over five years ago finally came through. Splitting time between Double and Triple-A, Lambo smacked 34 home runs while getting on base at a .347 clip. More importantly for the Pirates, who need someone to split time with the right handed Sanchez, Lambo destroyed right handers, posting an OPS of 1.002 against them in Double-A, .945 in Triple-A. In a major league cup of coffee last september, Lambo posted a .703 OPS in 33 plate appearances.
The problem for Lambo, aside from his unproven track record, is that he is not a first baseman, he is an outfielder. Lambo has played 623 minor league games over the course of his professional career, just 41 of those games have come at first, and just 19 of those have come in the past four seasons. First base may be the easiest position to learn on the fly, but it is by no means a catwalk and this could turn into one of Pittsburgh’s more visually embarassing experiments. With Lambo’s offensive production not guaranteed, it’s possible that poor defense could thwart any potential value here.
Although Pittsburgh failed to nab any name brand first baseman, they did pick up Chris McGuiness from the Rangers, acquiring him for reliever Miles Mikolas.
McGuiness lacks Lambo’s prospect pedigree but has a more established line of success in the minors. He is a prototypical power/on base guy, posting a .243/.369/.423 line during a down year last season at Triple-A, and a .266/.366/.474 with 23 home runs at the same level in 2012.
That being said, the 25 year old first basemen doesn’t have the platoon splits that would make him attractive for the job of spelling Sanchez. Last year, he actually hit better against left handers (.949 OPS) than against right handers (.732 OPS), which is consistent with how he has performed over the rest of his career.
Although he is, a natural first baseman, the uninspiring splits and upside render him a secondary option to Lambo.
Unlike McGuiness or Lambo, Ishikawa actually has a relatively lengthy major league track record, having served as a semi-regular first baseman for San Fransisco and a pinch hitter for Milwaukee. He spent the majority of last season in the minors, where he hit .290/.389/.465 in 297 at bats between the White Sox and Orioles organizations. His splits fit the Pirates’ needs perfectly as he had .412 OBP and .498 Slugging percentage against right handers, far superior numbers to those against lefties.
The minor league performance may have prompted Pittsburgh to give the 29 year old journeyman a minor league deal, but that major league record is insipid at best. Ishikawa has not racked up more than 200 plate appearance since 2009, and his career slugging percentage – .398 – is inordinately low for a first baseman. With a .324 OBP, he is not an on base guy either.
An acceptable defender around the bag, he is something of a safe insurance policy if neither McGuiness or Lambo work out.