Pirates still in search of a first baseman

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Andrew Lambo shuffled to his right and backhanded a hard shot in the hole between first and second base.

"Lambo!" Neil Walker called across the diamond in appreciation.

Lambo returned to his position at first base. Gregory Polanco was in the box during batting practice, so every ball put in play had some extra juice on it, but those pulled to right field were moving especially quick. Polanco smoked another one to the hole, harder, but again Lambo reached it.

"Lambo!" came the shouts again, this time from everyone on the field, including manager Clint Hurdle, watching behind the batting cage.

This is life now for Lambo, the 25-year-old lefty who is trying his hand at first base after spending the majority of his career in the outfield. If Lambo can field effectively and the Pirates believe his offensive prowess in the minors last year will translate to the majors, he could begin the season in a platoon role with Gaby Sanchez. Not if Sanchez, however, achieves his goal, which is to become the everyday starter after a year and a half of platooning with Garrett Jones.

"Obviously you get some pressure but I don't really look at it like that," Lambo said. "I think it's exciting."

Lambo played 19 games at first base in the minors last season, making up almost half of his 41 games played there during a seven-year minor league career. This winter, he spent five weeks in Venezuela playing for Cardenales de Lara working on his defense at first base.

Lambo's curriculum covered everything from bunt coverage to pickoffs to throws, which represent a big change for outfielders moving in on the dirt. Rather than unleashing a heave with a crow-hop and a windup, infielders need quick, compact movements to make shorter, accurate throws. Lambo even changed the arm slot he used playing catch to warm up.

"You don't really think about it but you definitely have to make it a priority of reenacting a ground ball and executing the right way," he said.

Lambo made his major league debut last season. In 33 plate appearances spread across 18 games, he went 7 for 30 with one home run. In the minors, though, he hit 32 home runs between Class AA Altoona and Class AAA Indianapolis.

"We want to get him as many reps as possible here throughout spring training to see what we have," Hurdle said.

One answer to the first-base question has Lambo playing against right-handed pitchers and Sanchez against lefties. Sanchez, like any player on a major league roster, has other ideas.

"If it turns out that we're back in that platoon, we're back in that platoon," Sanchez said. "I'll help the team do whatever I need to do. But of course my goal is to always be an everyday guy."

Sanchez had a .361 on-base percentage in 320 plate appearances last season. He actually had more plate appearances against right-handers (194) than lefties (126). Against lefties, he had a .448 on-base percentage and a .539 slugging percentage, in line with his career marks of .399 and .496. Against righties, though, he had a .304 on-base percentage and a .315 slugging percentage.

"I think I did somewhat OK going in against righties playing every third game or whatever it was," Sanchez said. "For me, it's just that consistency of at-bats."

He said he felt comfortable against right-handers when the Pirates traveled to American League parks, meaning he and Jones were both in the lineup and he could string together five or six consecutive games.

Sanchez entered camp in good shape, the result of a new offseason workout that included exercises mirroring what Sanchez will need to do on the field. He trained near his home in Miami with Monica Swasey, who has also worked with Baltimore Orioles infielder Manny Machado, among others.

"He's a smart guy. He understood what he needed to do leaving and, as the winter's played out, the opportunity that's in front of him," Hurdle said.

More than a month remains before the season starts. The Pirates, keen observers all winter of the first-base trade market, could still deal for a first baseman, either a platoon partner or a full-time option. Seattle's Justin Smoak, Toronto's Adam Lind, the Mets' Ike Davis and Texas' Mitch Moreland all have manageable contracts, and their teams have alternatives at the position.

Free agent Kendrys Morales remains available, but he would cost the Pirates their first-round draft pick because he declined a qualifying offer. Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said no free agent was off the table, meaning Morales remained a possibility, but reiterated the team's value of high draft picks.

All winter, general manager Neal Huntington has voiced support for Sanchez, citing his performance against righties in 2010 and '11 -- including a .331 on-base percentage and 14 home runs in '11 -- as evidence that he can play every day.

"Knowing that they have the trust in my ability to be able to go out there and be an every-day guy, definitely sparks something in you," Sanchez said.

The situation will remain murky into March, when the coaching staff has seen enough competitive baseball to get a read on the competition.

Shortly after Lambo snagged the two hard-hit balls, Polanco roped a liner just to the right of Lambo's head -- the type of velocity you don't see in the outfield. Lambo moved to his left, away from the ball, and jabbed his glove at it, drawing good-natured laughter from his teammates.

"Here," Walker said, rolling a ball slowly toward a smiling Lambo at first base. "Try this one."


Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.

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