If you look at what positions typically provide offense in baseball these days, you'll find first base and right field alternating at the top of the charts with left field close behind. That makes intuitive sense -- these are the positions where you can stash the big guys who can hit but aren't necessarily great defenders. The thinking seems to go something like this: If you can run and throw, they put you in center field. If you can run but not throw, they put you in left. If you can throw but not run, they put you in right. And if you can neither run nor throw, it's first base for you. There are exceptions, of course -- left fielders with good arms, right fielders who can go get ‘em with speed, and there are first basemen who have great range and hair-trigger reflexes. Still, if you have a slow slugger, this is the checklist -- failing all else, you can let him stand like a statue at first and pray that the other infielders are really accurate with their throws.
As a result of this, you'd think there would never be a shortage of pituitary cases to man the gateway. However, baseball goes through periodic down years at first just as it does at every other position. Somehow no one ever seems to notice this -- you sometimes hear about a lack of exciting young shortstops in the game, and the lack of promising catchers is an evergreen topic, but it's always assumed there is a ready supply of first basemen.
It's not true this year. Although overall first-base production still leads the ranks of positions, there are many teams that are getting relatively anorexic production at the position. There are six teams whose first basemen have not managed to post a .310 on-base percentage -- Brewers' first basemen have an OBP of .259. Ten teams, or one-third of the majors, have not had their first basemen slug even .410 -- Marlins' first basemen are slugging .341, a figure that would embarrass some utility infielders.
Given the paucity of solid first basemen (even the minor-league ranks are weak), the Pirates platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez hasn't been all that bad. Overall, Pirates first basemen have hit .260/.336/.432. Morneau has hit only .259/.315/.426 and left-handed pitchers have laughed at him for years (in 470 plate appearances over three seasons he's hit .206/.247/.277 against them). Sure, he's a former MVP (in an ill-considered vote), but concussions and other injuries have eroded his game to the point that he's not that the same player anymore. While it's laudable that the Pirates are doing everything they can to win the NL Central in this, their first season of relevance since the Barry Bonds-Bobby Bonilla days, adding veteran Marlon Byrd to patch their season-long hole in right field, is it possible that with Morneau they actually traded down?
Garrett Jones (Justin K. Aller )
It's a little more complicated than that. The Pirates' first base numbers are a bit deceptive in that Jones and Sanchez did a lot of their hitting early. The former hit .312/.365/.519 in April, but has hit .221/.278/.398 since, including .159 in August. Sanchez hit four home runs in April, slugging .551 on the month. Since he's hit .249/.357/.360. While Morneau has struggled with consistency all season long, but he can still hit right-handed pitching, averaging .282/.351/.485 over the last three years. He's got 15 home runs against right-handers this year, which is only one less than Jones and Sanchez have hit against them combined. Morneau has nine home runs in August alone, so there is also the hope that he has finally figured out this power-hitting thing again and could give the Pirates a potent final month.
Jones, always stretched as a regular, will be a useful power threat off the bench the rest of the way. Sanchez is a career .298/.396/.495 hitter against left-handed pitching; if Clint Hurdle is smart, nothing will change for him.
One of the risks that contenders take when loading up on veterans for the stretch run is that they (a) give away the farm to get them, and (b) get stuck with a declining asset for the following year. The Pirates have done neither. The Byrd deal cost the Pirates a solid middle-infield prospect and a possible bullpen arm, neither one of the team's best prospects. Morneau cost them organizational depth in the form of Alex Presley, a 28-year-old outfielder who has hit .261/.299/.419 in 699 major-league plate appearances. That Presley has been unable to grab a regular job with the Pirates over four years says all you need to know about him -- he's got a little pop in his left-handed swing, but he doesn't hit consistently enough to play a regular role in an outfield corner.
Alex Presley (Alex Trautwig)
That might not matter with the Twins, whose outfielders have combined to hit .229/.309/.376 this year. Their ongoing rebuilding left little room for an expensive, declining first baseman who is deep into baseball's equivalent of middle age. It was time to move on, and if Morneau's salary, contract status, and mediocre, wavering production ruled out a major return, at least they got something.
In both cases, the Pirates have acquired players who will be free agents at the end of the year. They won't be around to clog up the roster should prospects like outfielder Gregory Polanco or first baseman Alex Dickerson, both currently playing at Double-A Altoona be ready to come on line at some point next season.
It's worth noting that in moving from Target Field to PNC Park Morneau goes from a tough home run environment for left-handed hitters to another. The fit is not perfect. Still, this Pirates team has been light on left-handed hitting all season long. Neil Walker has been solid when swinging left-handed, and Pedro Alvarez is always a threat to hit a home run, though reaching base in a more general sense is less of a certainty. The Pirates had little to gamble but money (a month of Morneau's $14 million salary) and a player they didn't have a role for.
As pundits comment on the Pirates' acquisition of Justin Morneau over the next day or so, you'll see a lot of celebrating the Pirates being "all in." If "all in" means that this traditionally parsimonious franchise is willing to up the payroll for 30 days, well, that's something. If it's meant to indicate that they've made a major upgrade, that is far less certain. At best they've acquired a lottery ticket, one with perhaps more potential to pay off than fringy ol' Garrett Jones, but who also has an equal chance of only providing more of the same.
Still, general manager Neil Huntington and ownership have made the lottery ticket available to their team. That's not the same thing as prying an in-his-prime type like Giancarlo Stanton out of Jeff Loria's grabby little fingers, but that wouldn't have been possible at this time of year anyway. The Pirates have done what they can do. The team is doing all it can to lengthen this season's run. On August 31, that's all we can ask.