Adam LaRoche - David Watson/Flickr.com
Last week, Alan Smodic kicked off Pirate Revolution's positional overviews series with a look at the organization's catching depth. Today, I'll start off our profiling of the Pirates' first basemen by examining the major-league talent.
In the fall of 2006, Dave Littlefield was known to have set two goals. He wanted to acquire a veteran right-handed starting pitcher to fill out a talented young rotation featuring Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell. He accomplished this by signing Tony Armas to a one-year, $3 million contract. He also wanted to acquire a left-handed power-hitting first baseman or right fielder -- his Lefty McThump -- and did so by trading Mike Gonzalez and Brent Lillibridge to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for Jamie Romak and Adam LaRoche.
With the signing of Armas and the acquisition of LaRoche, the Pirates hoped to build on progress made in the second half of their 2006 season and play more competitive baseball. LaRoche was expected to be the middle-of-the-order power hitter he seemed to have developed into the year before in a breakout campaign with the Braves. On Opening Day, he was cleaning up, sandwiched in the lineup by Jason Bay and Ronny Paulino.
The rest, they say, is history. LaRoche hit .133/.255/.265 in March before recovering to some degree in May and June and truly thumping during July and August. It was too little too late, however, as the Pirates were eliminated from contention by the point LaRoche showed up for the season.
The process repeated itself in 2008, as evidenced by LaRoche's .764 OPS in the first half of the season (as compared to a .975 OPS in the second half). While his 123 OPS+ was the second-best mark of his career, Lefty McThump left Pirate fans dissatisfied.
Jason Bay and Xavier Nady were dealt away in July, and Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez are likely past their career peaks. LaRoche remains in an interesting position as a still-useful player on a developing team, not quite old enough to be considered dead meat, but not quite young enough to be intriguing trade bait or part of a future solution. The situation is complicated by the Pirates' acquisition of his little brother, Andy, who joins a prospect logjam at third base that includes Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker.
There have reportedly been nibbles on LaRoche this offseason, but Huntington's price tag may be comparable to Jason Bay's last winter. LaRoche will never command what Bay did (nor should he), but he is coming off a less-than-ideal season. Management may hope that LaRoche rebounds to the extent that they can sell high on him at the trade deadline.
The tricky part is that as mentioned, LaRoche is a miserable hitter in the season's early months. Will clubs look at his presumably dismal pre-All-Star break 2009 numbers and try to buy low? Or will they see the second-half trend and value his contributions to a stretch run accordingly?
This much is certain: The Pirates will be faced with a decision soon. LaRoche is set to reach free agency after the 2009 season. The club will need to trade him, extend him or lose him to free agency by this time next year.
Drafted in the eighth round in 2005, Pearce wasn't on the Pirates' prospect radar prior to the 2007 season. It was then, as a 24-year-old, that he put up a monstrous .333/.394/.622 line with 31 HR and 113 RBI while playing with Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis. He went from starting the season at High-A ball to earning a September call-up. (He hit .294/.342/.397 in 68 at-bats.) John Sickels gave him a B+ grade and said "I think he can hit .280 at the major league level right now, with 20-25 homers in a full season. ... He should be a very good hitter."
In 2008, Pearce was forced back to Indianapolis to start the season, as his path to a starting spot in the bigs was blocked by LaRoche, Bay and Nady. While learning right field to add defensive versatility, he struggled out of the gate. In 386 at-bats with the Indians, he hit .251/.312/.417, muddying his status with the organization in the process.
After Nady was traded to the Yankees in July, Pearce received more major-league playing time. He hit .248/.294/.422 in 109 at-bats.
Pearce could be written off as a flash in the pan, but the Pirates don't have much young talent available at first base in the near term. Only Pedro Alvarez looms as a legitimate stud, and it's yet to be seen if he will be moved off third base. If LaRoche should be traded, it's likely that Pearce would receive the bulk of the playing time at first. As it stands now, he should make the Pirates' 25-man roster out of spring training as a corner outfielder and backup first baseman.
Adam Boeve, Garrett Jones
Boeve was drafted by the Pirates in the 12th round in 2003 and has served as minor-league filler at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Formerly an outfielder, he shifted to first base prior to last season in order to afford Steve Pearce playing time in right field.
Jones was signed to a minor-league contract today. He showed potential in his first appearance in Double-A in 2003 but has produced at mediocre levels ever since. In 2008 at Triple-A Rochester, he hit .279/.337/.484. Jones is a big (6'4", 245 lbs.) left-handed bat and could form an effective platoon with Boeve or Pearce.
Questions to consider:
- Is Adam LaRoche anything more than a good player on a bad team? Can Huntington bank on receiving enough production from LaRoche in the first half of 2009 to deal him for the package of prospects the GM covets?
- If LaRoche isn't traded, will the Pirates extend his contract? At what cost?
- Would the real Steve Pearce please stand up?
- Can Huntington convince John Russell that a platoon of Garrett Jones with either lefty-masher (Pearce or Boeve) is a worthwhile experiment?
- Are Delaney and Anderson anything to write home about?
- Will Pedro Alvarez make his big-league debut as a first baseman?
- Is Dustin Ackley a shoo-in as the Pirates' No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft?
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