On the day before Thanksgiving the Pirates made a somewhat surprising decision of designating former 1st Round Pick Will Craig for assignment to make room for Colorado Rookies pitcher Ashton Goudeau. Following these corresponding moves Pittsburgh was left with only two players in contention for the starting First Baseman to begin the 2021 season, which is exactly the same number as it was prior to Craig being removed from the 40-Man. In essence this transaction lets us know more about General Manager Ben Cherington’s view of Will Craig’s ability to contribute to the future of the Pirates than it does about anything else.
Over the past two minor league seasons Craig had accumulated 43 home runs and 99 total extra base hits, while being awarded with a Minor League Gold Glove at First Base. However, he saw his average dip to below .250 in consecutive years, his strike out rate rise from 13.5% in 2016 to 26.3% in 2019 and his walk rate nearly cut in half; landing at 7.5%. Once a regular in the Top 10 of Pirates Prospects, Craig found himself falling down and off some lists due to the regression he experienced as he moved his way up through the Pirates Farm System; and as our own Gary Morgan pointed out a little over a week ago, there are at least a couple of players who could easily supplant him as the potential First Baseman of the future. However, this still doesn’t settle the debate for the Pittsburgh Pirates First Baseman of the Present.
With Major League Baseball currently operating under the assumption that the National League will be without the Designated Hitter in 2021, both Colin Moran and Josh Bell have fairly valid arguments as to who should be fielding opposite the hot corner for the Pirates. Although none of the reasons have much to do with actually fielding ability. Sure, Moran is slightly better in defensive metrics at the position, but it’s not like a 0 DRS and 0 OAA is going to blow anyone away. Also, if he committed errors at the same pace as he did in his limited work there, it would work out to be only slightly less than his horrific performance at Third Base the previous year; 11 to 14.
Offensively, Bell and Moran have each shown that they are more than capable of justifying a spot in the starting lineup; at least during certain stretches of their respective careers. Prior to the 2020 season Colin Moran was a consistently near league average batter, with a .277 AVG in both 2018 and 2019 to go along with a wRC+ of 102 and 94. He also displayed decent power with double digit homers in both seasons. However, in 2020 Moran began the year by slashing .333/.385/.875 with 4 home runs in his first 24 at bats, before reality sank in as he proceeded to hit .228 over his next 127. Luckily for him some of the power stuck around as he hit another 6 homers and 20 total extra base hits, but saw his once astronomical numbers slip to .247/.325/.472 by the end of the season. Nevertheless, he finished with a career high 114 wRC+.
On the other hand Josh Bell had a disastrous 2020, only managing to slash .226/.305/.364 with 8 home runs. He also saw his K% balloon to 26.5%. As of right now now his near historic first half of 2019 feels like a lifetime ago. After batting .302 with 27 homers and 30 doubles prior to the All-Star Break, Bell managed only 10 additional homers and a .233 average over the last 3 months of the season. Frankly, at this point I don’t even need the superstar version of Josh Bell back and would settle for either his 2018 (.255 AVG, 26 HR and 108 wRC+) or 2017 (.266 AVG, 12 HR and 111wRC+) form.
So, what will be the deciding factor(s) as to who will find themselves at First Base on Opening Day at Wrigley Field this upcoming season? Well, first off both are arbitration eligible with Moran estimated to make between $1.9 and $3.3 million, while Bell will be due somewhere in the range of $5.1 to $7.2 million. It is possible, but not very probable, that Cherington could choose not to tender a contract offer to one or more surprisingly, neither of them.
Assuming that he does, the next factor to consider is the trade rumors that have continued to swirl around the two 1st Base candidates. Most of this speculation is caused by the very question we are attempting to answer in this article; one position, two players. One could say Moran improved his trade value with his hot start to the season and the ability to play multiple positions, while Bell sabotaged his by pigeon-holing himself as designated hitter who’s lackluster, and often uncomfortable, performances at the plate over the past year and a half. Obviously both players still have trade value that must be weighed by Cherington before he would actually pull the trigger. So, while I am not ruling out the possibility, I would need to see the potential return for each player, as well as a list of the interested teams, before ultimately make a decision as to whether or not it was a realistic option for the Pirates. For now these rumors will remain pure speculation, not that any of us have a say in the matter.
The final factor is the role(s) that each of them could play on the team if it was not the decided they would be the starting First Baseman for at least 2021, as well as any other teammates that could fill a similar role. Simply put, for Bell, there is no other role. Without the Designated Hitter as an option, Bell is a First Baseman or nothing. I have seen it suggested that Bell move back to his original, right field, position; a spot that he hasn’t patrolled since 2016 and that he honestly doesn’t have the range to play anymore. Plus, if the power returns and the average stabilizes, we aren’t really having this conversation.
As far as Moran is concerned he has shown that he can play a league average First Base and Third Base in a bind, along with some experience at Second and in the Outfield. This gives the Pirates some choices as to where Moran can be deployed in a regular or utility/bench role. Currently there are a few players with similar versatility as Moran on the roster in the forms of Phillip Evans and Erik Gonzalez. Yes, Erik Gonzalez has experience at First Base at the Major League level. Evan’s has a short, yet impressive, resume for the Pirates, as well as more years of control. Gonzalez is more defensively sound than Moran and has shown some offensive potential, but overall Moran has displayed more overall value as it pertains to WAR (1.1 to .4); although not overwhelmingly. In addition to this they are projected to receive similar contracts in arbitration; which make me start to think we should be debating Gonzalez versus Moran. However, I think we can save that discussion for another time….maybe.
Truthfully, if Josh Bell is on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster come April 1, 2021, he will be standing at First Base. Supposing he is not, Colin Moran more than likely slides into his spot because my gut reaction tells me he gets the nod over a Gonzalez or Evans. Now, assuming they are trying to make room on the roster for all four players and assigning appropriate roles, I see Bell as the obvious, Moran as the next safest bet, Evans a close third and Gonzalez being the most expendable; which I guess settles that debate. My reasoning for Evans, and technically Moran, over Gonzalez is potential. Moran showed an increase in power, a career high .225 ISO, that is tough to ignore, whereas I think Cherington wants to give Evans a longer look due to his track record of being an above average hitter throughout the Minors and the extra years of control.
Unfortunately, all of this is just conjecture as it currently stands. We are still waiting for the Arbitration Deadline on December 2nd, with a long off-season and the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season still ahead. At the moment we all have to sit, wait and wonder about the next steps the Pirates and Cherington will take in, hopefully, building a contender at PNC Park.