It’s a two-run game against the Washington Nationals in the top of the ninth inning, runners at the corners, nobody out. (No thanks to an earlier defensive miscue from shortstop Alika Williams.)
David Bednar procures a chopper from pinch-hitter Keibert Ruiz to first baseman Alfonso Rivas. Too slow to get a double play, and the run scores, but at least you get an out somewhere, right?
Rivas fields it cleanly in time to get Luis Garcia on his way to second, who does not run exceptionally well, but he hesitates. Now, more than halfway to second base, he turns and throws to David Bednar covering first. The runner is safe. Pirates challenge, call stands.
The indecision, whatever induced it, costs Rivas and the Pirates. Not only does the run score, but there are now runners at first and second and there is still nobody out.
Ultimately, it didn’t cost them the game, which they won by the skin of their teeth, 7-6, and it’s not a necessarily a routine play, but one that a professional first baseman at this level is expected to make. You have to get an out there somewhere.
But Rivas is not an adequate MLB first baseman.
In fairness to him, his glove work is not terrible, it’s far from it. But when you’re carrying a WRC+ of 80, which is a whopping 31 points lower than league average at the position, you need to make that play every single time and then some to be remotely tolerated by anyone.
The Pirates have had the single-hardest time filling the position of any team in baseball since 2021. As of Sept. 14, they’ve used 25 different players there, six this season. Over that same span, the Oakland Athletics have used 21, the Colorado Rockies 15, the Kansas City Royals 13, and the Nationals 10.
Even the bottom feeders of the league don’t have this much trouble nailing down one of the theoretically easier positions to fill.
Of those 25 players, the only one who has seen significant playing time at the position and has a WRC+ over 100 is Connor Joe (102). That’s still more than eight percent short of the league average of 111 for the position.
With a few exceptions, the organization seems to be in perpetual need of a first baseman. Almost every offseason they need to allocate time and resources to find who they’re going to play there next year before going right back to square one. They need a solution here that lasts longer than just one year.
Internally, there’s the aforementioned Connor Joe, whose bat doesn’t really profile that well there. There’s also Jared Triolo, who has a fine glove, but once again the bat doesn’t play at all there.
It would be pretty unreasonable to expect that Malcom Nunez, after being hurt for a large swath of this season and largely unproductive when he has managed to play for AAA Indianapolis, can come up and immediately produce in 2024 at an MLB level.
And no, they are not sticking Henry Davis’ arm at 1B or trying out Andrew McCutchen there. Not happening, nor should it.
Once more, the answer likely lies outside of the organization. It’s a thin market positionally, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t respectable options out there. First base is headlined by Rhys Hoskins coming off a missed season due to an ACL tear, Brandon Belt and former Pirate Josh Bell should he opt out of his 16.5-million-dollar player option.
Josh Bell with his 150th career homer!— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) September 6, 2023
Players that will likely require real money over multiple years to lure to Pittsburgh. The kind of money we don’t see the Pirates hand out to bats from outside the organization every day. The investments often required to build around the players a team already has.
Carlos Santana was fine enough for what he was, but as unopposed and even supportive of bringing him back in some capacity as I am, a 94 WRC+ first baseman is far from a hot commodity among teams with serious playoff aspirations.
There’s also the trade market.
The A’s aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Ryan Noda will be 28 next year and with how long the A’s figure to continue rebuilding they may decide it doesn’t make sense to gamble that the on base talent they uncovered in the rule 5 draft will still be useful to them in 2026 or 2027.
A trade for a solid first baseman will require a commitment of a different kind. Leveraging the depth of the farm system that the rebuild has given you to fill the holes on the MLB roster.
Yes, those are things MLB teams can do. As long as it’s been since we’ve seen them from the Pirates, they can and should be done by a team looking to make the step into real contention.
To have a successful 2024 the Pirates can’t rely on a carousel and find themselves in the exact same position this time next year: looking for a first baseman who is anywhere near a competent hitter or one that knows where to throw the ball when it’s hit to him or how to simply step on first base.