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Ask BD: The future of the Pirates' infield

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

It's possible that this article will end up being premature. The entire body of one-day-at-a-time cliches, baseball related or otherwise, would seem to dictate that the middle of a pennant race is a singularly inappropriate time for speculation about the future (if you lived through the last twenty years, feel free to reread the phrase "pennant race" while giggling uncontrollably). And with more than a month separating us from the hot stove season, it's worth remembering how quickly things can change. At the beginning of August, for instance, the Legend of J.A. Happ wasn't even a twinkle in its figurative mother's eye.

But I'm comfortable looking dumb in retrospect--there's no other healthy way to live. And this (the Pirates' infield) is a subject we've been discussing for a long time without an obvious solution. The most recent edition of Ask Bucs Dugout featured several questions on the topic--two are listed below:

Tooele Dave: What are the odds that (a) Neil Walker is a Pirate in 2016 and (b) Pedro Alvarez is a Pirate in 2016?

Dan H: Who do you see getting the majority of the Pirates’ ABs at first base in 2016? Josh Bell? Pedro / Walker? Someone else? Outside acquisition?

I think I can answer the part (a) of Tooele Dave's question pretty easily: 95%+. Neil Walker made $8M this year, and while the popular perception is that he's having a bit of a down year, if he plays to his projections for the rest of the season he'll end with 2.4 WAR. In other words, Neil Walker is the same guy he's always been, and even with a substantially raise in his third arbitration year is likely to be more than worth his contract for 2016.

There's a possibility that the Pirates deal Walker in the offseason (hence 95% as opposed to 100%), but I certainly wouldn't bet on it. Barring a significant collapse in 2016, Walker will receive a qualifying offer following the season, which means that if he does leave he'll return a first-round pick for the Pirates. Trading Walker wouldn't be completely without precedent--the Angels made a similar move last winter when they dealt Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney--but it would be surprising.

The more interesting question here is how the Pirates plan to handle first base next season. In the wake of the latest Pedro Alvarez-inspired existential crises, I've heard several ideas--everything from moving Neil Walker to first base to promoting Josh Bell at the beginning of the season. The way I see it, there are essentially three options in play:

  1. Non-tender Pedro (his trade value is probably negligible) and acquire an external replacement.
  2. Non-tender Pedro and move Neil Walker to first base.
  3. Offer Pedro arbitration, hope that his defense improves, and have him return as the starter in 2016.

In order to address the entirety of the situation, we need to both consider how the Pirates front office is likely to behave during the coming offseason and realistically evaluate the internal options at the Pirates' disposal (especially Alvarez).

With regard to the former, it looks as though the Pirates could have the following options available to them at the start of 2016 (bolded players expected to make roster/receive significant playing time):

C: Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Elias Diaz, Tony Sanchez

1B: Pedro Alvarez, Travis Ishikawa, Andrew Lambo, Michael Morse, Josh Bell

2B: Neil Walker, Josh Harrison, Alen Hanson

3B: Jung-Ho Kang, Josh Harrison

SS: Jordy Mercer, Jung-Ho Kang

LF: Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo, Travis Snider, Travis Ishikawa, Jaff Decker, Keon Broxton

CF: Andrew McCutchen, Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker

RF: Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison, Jaff Decker, Keon Broxton

SP: Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Vance Worley, Radhames Liz, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault

RP: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero, Jared Hughes, Radhames Liz, John Holdzkom, Rob Scahill

I've tried to make the list fairly inclusive--this assumes, for example, that the Pirates choose to offer arbitration to Travis Ishikawa (very unlikely), don't DFA Tony Sanchez (also unlikely), keep Michael Morse around (probable, but not a sure thing), and hang onto Jaff Decker (50/50). The only players I've removed are upcoming free agents.

Let's start with a pretty basic observation about the Pirates' front office's modus operandi: prospects aren't going to start the season in the majors. More generally, they're not going to be promoted until June. The way that service time and the arbitration system currently work, it just doesn't make sense--ask the Braves if they wish they'd delayed Jason Heyward's promotion by a week or two. So guys like Bell, Hanson, Kingham, Taillon, and Glasnow aren't going to be options for the first half of 2016.

Looking at the roster above, it seems to me that there are basically two places the Pirates could make a meaningful acquisition this winter: the rotation and the infield. The catching situation is set. The outfield is set. The bullpen could use another lefty, but nothing that will cost significant money.

This may all seem tangential to the '2016 first base' question, but it's important to understand the situation in which the front office will be operating in free agency. They probably aren't going to spend a huge amount of money, and what money they *do* spend should address the team's two biggest needs.

Now take a look at a list of 2016 free agents, courtesy of Cot's Contracts.

There are two starter-caliber free agent options at first base--Chris Davis and Mike Napoli (as much as I'm sure everyone would enjoy a Garrett Jones reunion). Davis will cost a draft pick to sign, and he's also likely to command a heftier contract--both in terms of years and dollars--than the Pirates can afford. I've long been a fan of Napoli's game, and I think he'd be a clear upgrade over Alvarez. But he's right-handed, which means he can't platoon with Morse, and he's an older player with injury concerns. He's also potentially earned himself another payday with his strong second half after falling victim to the wrath of the BABIP gods during the early part of the season.

There are a couple of semi-interesting second basemen--Howie Kendrick and Daniel Murphy are both useful veterans, but in general the free agent market is pretty barren on the right side of the infield. Which means that finding a replacement for Pedro (or Walker, if he slides over to first base) in free agency would be a tall order.

Contrast this with the starting pitchers available. The Pirates were reportedly interested in Brett Anderson last winter, and you have to think they'll at least kick the tires on him. The ageless Bartolo Colon is available--it's amazing that he's able to consistently replicate his mechanics without dislocating his artificial hip. Mark Buehrle (a spring chicken compared to Colon) is also around.

Potential reclamation projects like sinkerballers Jhoulys Chacin and Justin Masterson are available while Yovani Gallardo, Mike Leake and Jaime Garcia are quality groundballers who will be free agents. Wei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Marco Estrada don't fit the Pirates' mold for starting pitchers, but they're non-awful and will be on the market. Ian Kennedy and Jeff Samardzija are past targets who could be available. The Pirates could even bring back J.A. Happ.

And this doesn't even mention the top-flight starters on the market (Cueto, Price, Greinke). The point being, this is a very, very deep class for starting pitching, and a very weak one for infielders. If the Pirates are trying to acquire a steady starter or two to bridge the gap to Glasnow/Kingham/Taillon, they'll likely be able to do so--more than that, they'll likely be able to pick from a variety of interesting targets.

But unless they're willing to pony up for Chris Davis, it will be very tough for them to sign an upgrade at first base. Nor are there many attractive trade targets at first base--Adam Lind is still pretty much it.

All of which makes me think that the Pirates will spend their money on starting pitching this offseason, not a first baseman. Not necessarily out of preference, but because there just aren't many options available. If you need to rent a truck to move your stuff, but the rental place only has bikes, no amount of wishing and hoping will add two extra wheels and a pickup bed.

So if it's going to be difficult to acquire a new first baseman, why not just move Walker over to first? After all, Josh Harrison is a better defensive second baseman than Walker (1.0 vs. -6.3 UZR/150), while Walker would almost certainly be a better defensive first baseman than Alvarez.

I don't have a problem with a Walker/Harrison/Kang/Mercer lineup--you could make a reasonable argument that given the significant bump on defense it would be better than our current infield. But my concern (and the Pirates' concern, I'm guessing) with such an arrangement is that we would then be without a single quality backup at second base, third base and shortstop--an injury would be disastrous. All the Pirates' depth is in the form of first basemen who don't project as adequate starters (Lambo, Morse, etc). Nor, to my knowledge, has anyone asked Walker how he feels about all of this.

Which brings us to our final option--keeping Alvarez.

The case for keeping Alvarez is pretty simple: his defense has nowhere to go but up.

Because it's been awful. Historically awful. If you take every qualified season over the last ten years (2006-2015), Pedro's having the second-worst defensive season for a first baseman on record.

First, let's all pour one out for poor Mike Jacobs.

Maybe there's hope--Hosmer, at least, has evolved into a competent defensive first baseman, as has Freddie Freeman. But the rest of this list is littered with the least-flattering of comps: short-career players like Jacobs and Garko, aging sluggers like Sexson, Konerko,  and Glaus, and of course the immortal Andino-traumatizing Mark Reynolds.

Alvarez is still a powerful hitter--his average FB/LD batted ball velocity is 98.4 MPH, good for third in the game. But 'powerful' isn't synonymous with 'good.' I've been complimentary of Alvarez in the past, but at this point he pretty much is what he is: a slightly above-average hitter who's easy to mistake for a dominant player because chicks dig the longball. Think about the perceived gap in hitting skills between Alvarez and Walker, then consider that Alvarez has yet to meaningfully outperform Walker (by wRC+) a single year they've both been in the league. If Walker doesn't have the bat for first base, neither does Alvarez, and the only reason that isn't the majority viewpoint is the stereotype that first basemen have to be big, lumbering sluggers.

Personally, I don't have a great answer for whether the front office is likely to keep Alvarez around. He's not much more than a replacement-level player at this stage, but we aren't exactly awash in credible alternatives. And, well, predictions are hard, especially about the future.

I suppose if pressed I'd have to give Pedro a (completely arbitrary and unscientific) 30% chance of being on the roster for Opening Day next year. For his sake, I hope he'll find his way to a nice American League team where he can DH and never, ever have to stand in the field with a glove on his hand. At this point, it would probably be best for everyone.