The Pirates' Tony Sanchez, left, celebrates his solo home run with teammate Andrew Lambo.
By Bob Smizik / Special to the Post-Gazette
February is coming hard, and right behind it is the start of spring training. Which means, ladies and gentlemen, your starting Pirates first baseman appears to be Andrew Lambo.
It’s possible that Neal Huntington, correctly described by MLB.com’s Tom Singer as the ''clandestine general manager,’’ might pull off a stunner of a trade and acquire a first baseman of some experience to platoon with Gaby Sanchez. But based on Huntington’s actions and words it looks like Lambo, a left-handed hitting rookie with almost no experience at first base, is the man.
Appearing on ‘Starkey and Mueller’ on The Fan last week, Huntington was asked if Lambo were a legitimate option at first base. He said:
''He is. Andrew played a lot of first base in high school. The Dodgers (his original team) moved him to the outfield. We kept him in the outfield but off and on kept working him at first base. He spent a lot of time down in winter ball working at first base.
''And if those 34 home runs he hit in the minor leagues last year as a 24 year old can translate, we’re going to give him every opportunity in the world to show what the bat can do. He’ll probably get the majority of his work at first base in spring training.
''. . . He could be a really good fit there long term.’’
As regular readers know, I have maintained the Pirates, now as a contender, could not afford to open the season with a gamble like Lambo at such an important position. Which means right about now I should deliver a critical rant against Huntington’s stance.
Not today. My belief remains the Pirates should have spent some of the additional revenue they will have this year to upgrade either right field or first base. To date, they’ve not done so. But I also see from where Huntington is coming. The Pirates always will be toward the bottom of the spending ladder in MLB, which means, extra money or not, they cannot easily bypass the kind of minor-league performance Lambo had in 2013.
When a team such as the Pirates has a player who hit 32 home runs -- 18 at Class AAA, 14 at Class AA -- it’s probably a good idea to give him a look. Whether that look should be as the primary first baseman is another matter. But Huntington also said something else worth repeating.
''As a small market team, as a team that’s going to have to put together some imperfect rosters, we’re going to have to continue to find opportunities for young men.’’
Acknowledging the existence of an ‘imperfect' roster is not something Pirates fans want to hear, especially considering the additional revenue the team has at its disposal this year -- at least $20 million.
To describe Lambo’s career as having stalled prior to last season would be an understatement and it’s one reason to have misgivings about his ability to step in and do the job. From 2009 through 2012, he had 1,108 at bats in Class AA and hit 29 home runs. That’s a home run every 38 at bats in Class AA. That is not what teams expect from a middle-of-the-lineup bat. But something clicked last year. In addition to his home runs, Lambo had a .910 OPS at AA and .933 at AAA.
He also had 127 strikeouts in 444 at bats, which is a 28 percent rate. He also batted .233 with one homer in 30 at bats with the Pirates.
At the moment, the Pirates only other option at first base is Sanchez, a right-handed hitter. He performed adequately against right-handed pitching in 2010-11, but was abysmal the next two years. Presumably, left-handed hitting Chris McGuiness, designated for assignment by Texas in December, is the next man up if Lambo falters.
In 2010, Jeff Clement batted .276 with two home runs in 58 at bats in spring training and was handed the first base job. He surrendered it about two months into the season with an OPS under .600. It is not comforting to know that Clement had a considerably better minor-league resume than Lambo.
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