BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew Lambo faced a tall task this spring. He had to continue his crash-course reintroduction to first base, he had to fight for a position on the active roster and he had to prevent one from influencing the other.
Lambo struggled at the plate and was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis Tuesday, clarifying the Pirates’ plans for first base. Non-roster invitee Travis Ishikawa will make the active roster and back up Gaby Sanchez.
“Andrew exceeded expectations defensively and showed up very well there,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “Offensively, the results obviously weren’t there. He faced a lot of fastball-count off-speed pitches. In our minds, the right thing to do to get him back on track was to have him start the season in Indianapolis.”
The Pirates had Lambo, 25, work at first base in winter ball and spring training in hopes that the left-handed batter could complement the right-handed Sanchez. Lambo had four hits in 42 at-bats this spring, none for extra bases.
“We talk all the time about not making emotional decisions based on spring training results,” Huntington said. “And that means good or bad. But, as we looked at a young player with some challenges remaining in front of him, we felt that the best thing for him was to start the season in Indianapolis.”
The Pirates hope a return to Indianapolis, where Lambo had 18 home runs and a .344 on-base percentage in 254 plate appearances last season, will stoke his confidence.
“Take a deep breath,” Huntington said. “Get back to being the guy that we believe he’s going to be. Hit fastballs to all parts of the field, stay through the off-speed pitches and get back to the confident hitter that does damage in the box. Sometimes, guys try to do too much. Seems like that certainly was the case with Andrew this spring.”
Lambo’s spring at-bats plus the 15 or so he got in minor league games at Pirate City, helped to prepare him for the type of pitching he likely will see because his reputation for power precedes him. The 32 home runs he hit last year between Indianapolis and Class AA Altoona have caused pitchers to avoid making a mistake with him.
“Not a lot of fastballs, especially, but a lot of breaking stuff behind [in the count],” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Soft, spin. So I do think there was an education process that he can take advantage of.”
Ishikawa, 30, is hitting .320 with three homers this spring.
The Pirates must make room for the left-handed batter on the 40-man roster by the 3 p.m. Sunday deadline for opening-day active rosters.
“Travis had a nice spring,” Huntington said. “He gives you a good quality professional at-bat, handles himself well around the base. If that’s where we end up, we’ll be comfortable with that.”
Ishikawa has a career .329 on-base percentage and .408 slugging percentage against right-handed pitching. He had a .340 OBP and .411 slugging percentage against right-handers in 2012, the most recent year in which he received significant number of major league at-bats.
Sanchez, 30, has a career .300 average, .399 OBP and .496 slugging percentage against left-handers.
“It’s not going to be a straight-up platoon,” Hurdle said.
“It’s not going to be, he plays against righties, he plays against lefties. Gaby’s shown the ability to hit some right-handers. We’ll see. We’ll fit that in.”
Ishikawa had a career-high 363 plate appearances in 2009 with the San Francisco Giants, the team that drafted him, but that fell to 173 in 2010.
He did not appear in the majors in 2011 and got 174 plate appearances in 2012 with the Milwaukee Brewers. He has a career .260 average and .324 on-base percentage.
The Pirates still believe Lambo can help them, but hope the option to the minors allows him to relax.
“This is a new experience for him, having an opportunity to make a major league club,” Hurdle said.
“How a guy internalizes that, how he works through that, you never know. But I do know this, now it’s going to be a difference. There’s an exhale.”
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.