Who’s on first for 2023 Pirates?

Can you can name the 10 first basemen who took the field for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2022? If so, you’re quite the knowledgeable baseball fan. After a strong finish in 2021, Yoshi Tsutsugo was signed by the Pirates for $4 million to anchor the position. Maybe he was playing through an injury in 2022 or maybe he was never really as good as he showed at the end of 2021. Whatever the case, he produced an anemic stat line of .171/.249/.229, 2 HR and 19 RBIs. Finally the Pirates released him on August 5.

Michael Chavis saw the most action at first base for the Bucs in 2022. Chavis produced a stat line of .229/.265/.389, 14 HR and 49 RBIs, not all of it as a first baseman. He was designated for assignment at the end of the season and elected free agency. It was a mildly surprising development. If Chavis didn’t produce the kind of numbers one would like to see from a regular corner defender — and he didn’t — he looked like he could at least be a useful bench piece.

Fixing a hole

In any event, the Pirates approach 2023 with a stated objective to improve on the won-lost record. They surely don’t want to duplicate the subpar production they got from first base in 2022. The first base spot has been identified as a position of need. The first baseman of the future, Mason Martin, doesn’t appear to be ready for the majors. At triple-A Indianapolis this season, he hit .210/.287/.410, 19 HR and 74 RBIs. Of deeper concern, he struck out 194 times in 541 plate appearances.

It seems the right course of action for the Pirates would be to sign an experienced first baseman for a year or two until Martin is ready. The ideal candidate should produce some offense while also mentoring the young players. However, nobody with the Pirates has said as much, and it would surprise nobody if they went the cheap route. As a public service, I’ve identified a few candidates:

Jesus Aguliar (free agent)

It seems Aguilar has been around forever but he will enter the season at age 32. Big, fun-loving and gregarious, Aguilar looks like a good fit for the culture manager Derek Shelton is trying to establish. The well-traveled veteran produced a stat line of just .235/.281/.379, 16 HR and 51 RBIs with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles in 2022. However, he’s only a year removed from a 2021 season where he produced .261/.329/.459, 22 HR and 93 RBIs for the Marlins. The Pirates would certainly be happy with that.

Aguliar’s best season came in 2018 with the Milwaukee Brewers, when, if you can stand to look at one more stat line, he hit .274/.352/.539, 35 HR and 108 RBIs. He hasn’t come close to those numbers since. Even so, he probably has something left in the tank, will be anxious to prove himself and shouldn’t be costly. As an added bonus, due to his time in Milwaukee, he’s familiar with the National League Central Division.

Josh Bell (free agent)

How likely is a reunion between Bell and the Pirates, who traded him after the 2020 season? Well, not very likely. He’s represented by super agent Scott Boras, who excels at gaining lucrative, long-term contracts for his clients. Bell has put up impressive numbers but can be maddeningly streaky and inconsistent. As a Pirate in 2019, Bell was an All-Star and hit .277/.367/.569, 37 HR and 116 RBIs. However, the bulk of that production came in the first half.

After joining the San Diego Padres at the trade deadline, he delivered a meager .192/.316/.271, 3 HR and 29 RBIs in 53 games. That lack of production may scare teams off from giving him a long-term deal. If I were advising him, I’d tell him to take a two-year deal somewhere and hope for two strong seasons he can parlay into a bigger deal. What better ballpark to do that in than the one where he had his best season? But I’m not advising him and the smart money is on Boras getting him a nice long-term deal. After all, Boras is the guy who got the Detroit Tigers to give the 275-pound Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million deal when nobody else was bidding for his services.

Wil Myers (team option)

For 2023, the Padres have a $20 million option on Myers, which can be bought out for $1 million. With the Padres having big commitments to Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., the buy-out seems more likely. The 10-year veteran has been a solid, if not superstar-caliber, performer. Over 2016-17, his best seasons, he hit 58 homers and stole 48 bases. However, Myers is coming off a season where he’s produced just .261/.315/.398, 7 HR and 41 RBIs. Then again, he appeared in only 77 games. At just 31 years old, he’s not through yet but is probably not worth the option price to the Padres. He has postseason experience and would likely be a respected voice in the Pirates’ clubhouse. He is one of the better fielders on this list, too.

Miguel Sano (team option)

The Pirates discovered Sano in the Dominican Republic when he was a 15-year-old shortstop and went by Miguel Angel Sano. Then-Pirates scouting director Rene Gayo said Sano was the best prospect he ever saw. At the time Sano was projected to be a combination between Albert Pujols and Hanley Ramirez. The Pirates developed a relationship with him early on and were thought to be favorites to sign the young star. However, somehow the relationship between the Pirates and his agent soured, and Sano signed with the Minnesota Twins.

In the minors, Sano grew and filled out. He came up with the Twins in 2015 as a third baseman. Since 2020, he’s mostly played first base. Thus, he never became the next Ramirez. He never hit like Pujols, either, but neither has anybody else. Regardless, the Twins certainly have nothing to complain about his production.

In eight years, Sano has produced a career stat line of .234/.326/.482, 162 HR and 418 RBIs. He’s also struck out 1,042 times in 2,859 plate appearances. Injuries limited him to just 20 games in 2022. The cost-conscious Twins have a $14 million option on Sano for 2023. It seems more likely they’ll pass and give him the $3 million buyout instead.

It would be ironic if Sano, who almost became a Pirate as a hotshot teenager, would finally join them in the role of mentor and cagey veteran. Sano would be reunited with Shelton, who was the Twins’ bench coach in 2018-19. Despite the alarming strikeout rate, Sano at his best would provide some much-needed power in the Pirates’ lineup. At age 29, he’s probably not finished yet.

Frank Schwindel (free agent)

Schwindel was a long-time minor leaguer, mostly in the Kansas City Royals’ organization, who put up some strong minor-league numbers, including four seasons with at least 20 homers. He never got an extended look in the majors until 2021 with the Chicago Cubs. In 56 games that year, he hit an unsustainable .342/.389/.613. He was their opening-day first baseman in 2022, but hit a dismal .229/.277/.358. The Cubs, having seen enough, released Schwindel on September 18. At age 30 with limited major-league experience, one would think he’s not what the Pirates are looking for. On the other hand, the Pirates like to take low-risk chances on guys who have fallen on hard times after having some success.

Mark Vientos (trade candidate)

Vientos, 22, was a second-round draft pick by the New York Mets in 2017. Over 2021 and 2022 in the minors, he hit 49 home runs. Despite his youth and power-hitting ability, the Mets have given him just a brief look with the big club and are said to be ready to move on from him. The reason is the difficulty finding a position for him. Vientos was originally a third baseman and has recently been tried in the outfield and first base. He is considered a well-below-average defender at each position. A team like the Pirates should find him intriguing and willing to help him with his defensive shortcomings, or at least overlook them. If he doesn’t pan out in the field, he can serve as a designated hitter.

Daniel Vogelbach (team option)

How about a reunion with Vogelbach? The Pirates signed him to be their designated hitter in 2022. He rarely saw action in the field, but when he did, he didn’t embarrass himself. He was traded to the Mets a few days before the trade deadline. The deal was unexpected, given the Pirates didn’t have a good candidate to replace him. Vogelbach produced for the Mets, hitting .255/.393/.436. His contract calls for a $1.5 million club option that can be bought out for $200,000. For the Mets, exercising the option seems like a no-brainer.

However, their fans and front office can’t be happy with their early exit from the playoffs. Changes may be forthcoming, just for the sake of changes. If one of those changes involves parting ways with Vogelbach, the Pirates should consider bringing him back. He enjoyed his time in Pittsburgh and was popular with his Pirates teammates because of his sense of humor and ability to teach young hitters.

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