Bob Smizik: Pirates' first-base problem remains unsolved

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Upon the occasion of free-agent first baseman James Loney officially signing his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays last week, a sports reporter covering the event tweeted the following: ''MIL, PIT, HOU, TB made similar offers. ‘I felt this was going to be the best option and this is where I wanted to be.’ "

The first sentence was the reporter summarizing Loney’s comments, the second sentence was an Loney’s actual quote. In regard to the first sentence, it can only be hoped the word "similar" was used in a very broad sense. No one who follows the Pirates wants to believe the team was actually in hot competition for Loney, when his contract was for three years and $21 million.

Tampa Bay is one of the savviest operations in MLB, but paying Loney that kind of money for that long of a time does not figure to enhance the excellent reputation of general manager Andrew Friedman.

Consider these 2011-13 statistics: Over that time, Loney had a .764 OPS against right-handed pitching and a home run every 44 at bats. Those numbers for former Pirate Garrett Jones were an OPS of .810 and a home run every 21 at bats. Jones signed for half the annual dollars and for one fewer year than Loney.

But while passing out praise to Huntington for abstaining on Loney and holding on to his dollars, it’s also time to wonder how this cautious strategy will play out long-term. The number of first basemen on the market is dwindling and the Pirates do not have one to play regularly against right-handed pitching -- despite the small fan clubs developing for the likes of Andrew Lambo, Travis Ishikawa and Chris McGuiness.

Lambo might have been a favorable option in the days when the Pirates were expected to lose 90 games. He’s not, if they expect to win 90 games.

The lone first baseman with anything approaching established credentials who is believed to be readily available is the Mets’ Ike Davis, who brings with him a highly erratic and disappointing 2013 season and a salary that is expected to be around $3.5 million in arbitration. There’s a lot not to like about Davis. But there are some things that are pretty good about him -- like 32 home runs in 2012.

So while Huntington’s hard-to-get act might seem sensible as the Mets attempt to acquire top prospects for Davis, it’s also a strategy that might leave him without a platoon first baseman to share the position with Gaby Sanchez come April. The Orioles and Brewers also have been linked with Davis.

The lack of respect some Pirates fans have for Davis is mystifying considering how much love so many have been showing for Lambo. It’s true, Lambo hit 32 home runs in Class AA and Class AAA last season. But Davis hit 32 home runs in MLB in 2012. Yes, Davis had a monstrously disappointing first half last year, which resulted in him being briefly sent to the minors. But Lambo had multiple disappointing minor league seasons. There’s a reason he spent all or parts of five seasons stuck in Class AA.

Then there's this: Although Davis has 1,488 career MLB at bats and Lambo has 30, they are separated in age by only 17 months.

Summing up: Davis' credentials are vastly superior to those of Lambo and he's only a bit older. Yet some, if not many, would prefer Lambo. This is the classic case of some people being mesmerized by the "prospect" label on a player. (It’s also a telltale sign of PSS -- Prospect Separation Syndrome.)

The ideas held by some that Ishikawa, who has a minor-league deal with the Pirates, or McGuiness, recently acquired after being designated for assignment by Texas, could even adequately fill such a role is dreaming.

Huntington was correct in not immediately plunging ahead for a deal for a first basemen when free agency did not work for the Pirates. But staying with his cautious hand, while once admirable, could prove costly.


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