Bob Smizik: About first base and right field

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The Pirates keep on winning -- 5-1 last night over the Arizona Diamondbacks to move within six games of first-place Milwaukee. But no matter how frequently the victories come the criticism doesn’t stop.

There’s nothing greatly wrong with that. A good fan base shouldn’t just stand around and nod approval of what its team does. It should be questioning management on all fronts. We’ve had a lot of that on this site lately and it’s time to address it.

The Pirates make mistakes. All teams do. But they are taking too much unfair criticism for offseason moves they did not make at two positions. Let’s take at look at those:

First base: My take on the Pirates’ 2014 plan for this position was this: It was Andrew Lambo’s job to lose. The backup plan was Gaby Sanchez. The backup plan behind that was Ike Davis, who the Pirates had reason to believe would be available even after the season started.

Lambo was richly deserving of the opportunity. He hit 32 minor-league home runs last year and had a .922 OPS at Class AAA in 224 at bats. To give that figure some perspective, Gregory Polanco’s OPS at Class AAA this season was .945 in 248 at bats with only seven home runs.

It made perfect sense for the Pirates to give Lambo first crack at the job. Which is why they were not active, although they played around, in the free-agent market for a first baseman.

The Pirates long have felt Sanchez might be able to be a full-time first baseman. By most accounts they are wrong. They gave Travis Ishikawa a brief shot and then traded for Davis on April 18, when the season wasn’t three weeks old.

There were all kinds of options talked about during the winter -- James Loney, Mitch Moreland, Justin Smoak and Davis. Smoak is having a terrible year. Moreland was having a terrible year before injury ended it. Loney is having an OK year with Tampa Bay. He has fewer home runs in the same number of at bats as Sanchez and Davis and with a lower OPS. Loney has six more RBIs than Davis and Sanchez. He also has 42 more at bats with runners in scoring position than they do, which explains his edge in RBIs (all stats through Tuesday).

None of the above players would have been a better choice to play first base than the platoon the Pirates now employ.

The much-mentioned Justin Morneau is having an outstanding season at Colorado. But his OPS numbers from 2011-13 were .618, .773 and .734. Consider those numbers and then consider that in 101 at bats with them last season, Morneau had zero home runs and four RBIs and the Pirates would have been out of their minds to offer him a substantial contract. It is hard to believe some people are critical of the Pirates for not signing Morneau.

Right Field: My opinion was the Pirates should have been aggressive in finding a right fielder and not worry about blocking Gregory Polanco. They did not share that opinion. They felt Travis Snider and Jose Tabata could handle the job. They could not. However, Josh Harrison turned a bad situation into a good one by moving those two players pretty much out of the picture by early May.

So if the Pirates made a mistake on how they handled right field, it mostly affected the first month of the season when they were 10-16. The 4.35 ERA of the Pirates starting rotation in April had a lot more to do with the team’s poor record than who was in right field.

The Pirates were not the only team that put untested players in the field to start the season.

• The Cincinnati Reds lost leadoff man Shin-Soo Choo, who had the fourth highest on-base percentage in MLB last year at .423. They did not seek to replace him from outside their organization but instead gave the job to Billy Hamilton, who had a .308 OBP at Class AAA. The Reds went with a player whose minor-league numbers paled next to Lambo’s.

• The Reds also did not go outside the organization to replace starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who left via free agency. Instead they put Alfredo Simon, a 33-year-old journeyman who hadn’t started a game since 2011, into the rotation. His record as a starter with Baltimore in 2011 was 3-8 with a 4.96 ERA.

• St. Louis gave the second base job to Kolten Wong, a top prospect, despite the fact he hit .153 in 59 at bats with the Cardinals last season. Even though he had a return to the minors and is currently on the DL, Wong has the most playing time at second base for St. Louis this year.

The point: Attempts to paint the Pirates as cheap and/or stupid are out of line. What the Pirates did -- keep the jobs in house -- was nothing out of the ordinary and common practice in MLB.


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