There aren’t very many people who are comfortable with what the Pittsburgh Pirates are preparing to trot out every day at first base once the 2014 MLB regular season starts. In fact, other than general manager Neal Huntington, I doubt anyone is comfortable.
Consider that the Pirates are coming off their best season as an organization since 1992. Remember that owner Bob Nutting told the team and the fanbase that he would spend the money necessary when the team was good enough to compete. Unless the Pirates’ front office can pull off a trade in the next nine days, they will be opening the season with a combination of either Andrew Lambo or Travis Ishikawa and Gaby Sanchez as a first base platoon.
Sanchez will hit against lefties while Lambo or Ishikawa will get the majority of the at-bats, hitting against right-handed pitching. On the surface, a platoon situation makes sense. Sanchez was a .333/.448/.539 hitter against southpaws in 2013 while he hit just .2o4/.304/.315 against right-handers. He isn’t the problem.
The problem is going to be either Lambo or Ishikawa. Lambo is an unproven player who has struggled for much of his professional career. The 2013 season was a breakout year for him, as he hit 32 home runs in the minor leagues, but he also struck out over 25 percent of the time. Betting on Lambo to be even an average hitter in the majors is a risk the Pirates shouldn’t be comfortable taking.
Ishikawa is having an impressive Spring Training, making a very positive impression on the Pirates’ coaching staff. In 21 plate appearances, he is hitting .333/.429/.667 with two home runs. Unfortunately, Spring Training stats can’t be relied on as a true indicator of a player’s talent.
In his career, Ishikawa is a .260/.324/.398 hitter with a 92 wRC+. He’s just slightly below average offensively. Against left-handed pitching, he is a career .262/.329/.408 hitter. Sure, Ishikawa seems like the best internal option for the Pirates, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the team should turn to him.
Lambo is the younger player with way more upside. The Pirates know what they have in Ishikawa. If the team doesn’t decide to acquire a player like Mike Carp, Ike Davis or Justin Smoak, then they should give the job to Lambo. Even though Ishikawa is unlikely to get the job, his spring numbers are at least making the Pirates decision to cut him very difficult.