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Jeff Clement Penciled in at First

The Post-Gazette has an interesting item about Jeff Clement and the first base job. The Pirates seem not to mind that some of their top targets for extra corner players (Xavier Nady and Rick Ankiel in particular) are unlikely to sign until late in the offseason. This means they're probably relatively happy with the players currently at the top of their depth chart (Clement at first, and Garrett Jones in right) and want an extra guy mainly to provide competition and to guard against a flameout by Clement or someone else. 

This seems sensible. As a fourth-outfielder / insurance policy, Nady is actually fairly interesting to me, since he's right-handed. But Ankiel is a lefty like Clement. And it's not really clear that Nady or Ankiel are better than Clement right now anyway. ZiPS, for example, predicts Clement will have an .801 OPS next year. (Incidentally, it also predicts Matt Capps will have the lowest ERA on the staff. Oops.) Nady is at .780. I don't think a ZiPS projection for Ankiel has been published yet, but Bill James has him at .763. 

Now, both Nady and Ankiel would be doing the Pirates a service by keeping Jones out of the outfield, so they provide more defensive value than Clement probably would. And certainly projections can turn out to be wrong, particularly with injury magnets like these three guys, etc. etc. etc. (Don't think you're being original by pointing that out, either.) The point, though, is that if the Bucs have resigned themselves to second- or third-tier free agents like Nady and Ankiel (as is probably appropriate at this point), they're right to not feel much urgency about this. Clement might well end up being better than the available options anyway, and if things get bad, there's also Steve Pearce, Delwyn Young and Brandon Moss--and possibly Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez--to fall back on. An additional benefit of starting Clement is that the Pirates can control his rights for several years if he succeeds, and since Tabata and Alvarez could begin to complicate things staring in about July, it behooves the Bucs to see what they have in Clement.

The best reason for the Pirates to sign a free agent outfielder or first baseman is not to replace someone currently penciled into the starting lineup, but to guard against a complete failure, and I don't just mean by Clement. Not to take a shot at someone who thoroughly proved me wrong throughout 2009, but last season Jones played like he knew how to fly. Maybe he really can fly, but given his lengthy and undistinguished history, the Pirates also have to consider the possibility that instead of flying his legs were just moving really fast for a few seconds, like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. Clement, Jones and Lastings Milledge should all be in the starting lineup, but if possible there should be legitimate fallback options too.