I think this is a fairly valid question. The Pirates currently have three guys on their team who could conceivably be their first baseman of the future: Garrett Jones, Steve Pearce, and maybe even Pedro Alvarez. I've taken a sabermetric look at how likely it is that the Pirates, once they are ready to at least be a mild competitor, will be able to win enough baseball games without good power in their first baseman's bat.
To examine this, I'm going to look at A's first baseman Daric Barton. Oakland is a decent team, very average for the Major League level. All over the diamond, their lineup doesn't scream either "great" or "terrible."
This is an applicable discussion to the Pirates since Barton, much like Pearce, doesn't have good power but is also a very slick fielder who has good defensive value. Pearce has similar potential to Barton at the plate, and neither is bad with the bat. They are almost exactly the same size. The question is about if they have enough power to help an average team win.
If Pearce works out perfectly, I think someone like Barton is about what his upside is.
I submitted this for the FanGraphs community section, but I'm not sure it'll get through.
Daric Barton is obviously not a stereotypical Major League first baseman. He's not particularly big (6-foot-nothing, 218 lbs.), doesn't hit for power, has more bunts dropped down (9) than home runs (4), and is generally more well-regarded for his defensive contributions than those at the plate.
To the naked eye, Barton is a very serviceable starting first baseman. That's a point not likely to be disputed by the vast majority of fans and "baseball men." The question, though is this -- Can an average team with Daric Barton anchoring first base progress to be a serious contender in the American League?
I'm a fan of Barton's, but my stance is that it cannot.
The Oakland Athletics are 34-37 and comfortably behind Texas and Los Angeles as the third best team in the AL West. Barton has added 1.3 WAR this season, which is solid but still behind the American League first basemen average of 1.67.
His most unique value is in the field where he has posted a 0.2 defensive value, well ahead of the -1.48 that the 11 qualifying Junior Circuit first basemen have averaged. While he may outclass all others not named Justin Morneau in the field, his defensive value is even downplayed a bit in the AL, where the absolute worst fielders are just used as designated hitters.
Offensively, Barton's numbers are just fine, but they'd be much better if he were a catcher or middle infielder. Average offensive value for AL first basemen is an incredibly high 13.02. Barton's value this season has been measured at 7.8. Again, that's plenty respectable (overall league average for qualifiers is about 5.65), but it's not going to cut it when other players on contending teams at the same position in your league include Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko, and Morneau. That's with Carlos Pena having a down season and Justin Smoak yet to come near his potential.
Barton is an above average big leaguer in every facet, but he isn't offensively dynamic enough to help teams get past some of the ridiculous power they put at first base. A first baseman like him is best suited for a team that has great power all over the diamond. The A's don't have that kind of pop (13th in the AL in homers), which will make it tough for them to contend without more home run power. It's hard to establish that with a first baseman who is 11th in the AL in dingers.
The National League has different averages, but I still say the Pirates will need Alvarez or Jones to be their first baseman. I like Pearce just fine, but in a league with Pujols, Gonzalez, Howard, Votto, Berkman, Davis, and the like, you need some serious slugging from first.
What do you think?