SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Acquiring a first baseman was at the top of Ben Cherington’s to-do list at this time a year ago.
The Pittsburgh Pirates general manager wound up getting two. He traded with the Tampa Bay Rays for Ji-Man Choi and signed Carlos Santana as a free agent.
However, Choi and Santana were both traded during last season. That leaves Cherington looking for another first baseman.
The only difference this winter is that adding starting pitching is the Pirates’ top priority.
“We’d like to add to our position group, but we’ve devoted more energy to the pitching early on in the offseason,” Cherington said this week at the Major League Baseball General Managers Meetings. “I think we’re interested in adding at (first base) and we’re looking at a wide range of options. We need to score more runs. First base would be one potential area to add some offense.”
The Pirates were 22nd among the 30 major-league teams in runs scored this season with an average of 4.27 a game. Their .707 OPS also ranked 22nd.
The first basemen were at least adequate in 2023 as they combined to hit .246/.340/.435 with 21 home runs. However, there are few options for the position on the current roster.
The two most notable in-house candidates are Connor Joe and Jared Triolo. The Pirates do not have anyone in their farm system who looks like a potential long-term answer at first base.
Joe is coming off a solid season offensively in which he had a .247/.339/.421 slash line and 11 home runs in 131 games. However, his defensive runs saved count was minus-2 in 53 games at first base.
Triolo opened some eyes as a rookie this year, hitting .298/.388/.398 with three homers in 54 games and finishing with zero defensive runs at first base. Primarily a third baseman, Triolo can be an above-average defender at first base, but his power is lacking as he has hit just 31 home runs in 1,683 professional plate appearances.
Catching prospect Endy Rodriguez has played some first base in his whole career. However, it seems the Pirates prefer that he stay behind the plate.
Free agency is the route Cherington is likely to take to find a first baseman.
One player who makes sense for the Pirates is Santana. When the veteran switch-hitter returned to Pittsburgh in September with the Milwaukee Brewers, he made it clear there were no hard feelings about the trade and would be open to a reunion with the Pirates.
Another intriguing option is Rhys Hoskins, who is a free agent after missing the past season while recovering from knee surgery.
The 30-year-old right-handed hitter has hit at least 27 home runs in each of his four full major-league seasons. He also led the National League with 116 walks in 2019 and has a .353 career on-base percentage.
Jeimer Candelario is another free agent who could be a fit for the Pirates. However, he is expected to land a contract of at least three years, and it is difficult to imagine the Pirates wanting to go in long-term on Candelario, even though he is 29.
The Pirates could take a flier on a veteran such as Brandon Belt, Garrett Cooper, Joey Gallo or Donavan Solano. With his ability to play second base – another unsettled position for the Pirates – Solano might pique Cherington’s interest.
Then there is potential Hall of Famer Joey Votto, who is available at 40 after spending his entire 17-year career with the Cincinnati Reds. Cherington was complimentary when asked about the Pirates’ interest in keeping Votto in the National League Central but also predictably noncommittal.
“What respect we have for him and his career,” Cherington said. “Obviously, we’ve seen him up close and personal the last few years. We’re all great admirers. I’m sure he has a lot of good choices to make, and he’s earned the right to make that choice.”
Two more first basemen — the Brewers’ Rowdy Tellez and the Washington Nationals’ Dom Smith — might become free agents next week if they are not tendered contracts by their teams by the Friday deadline.
The 28-year-old Tellez had a down year in 2023, hitting .215/.291/.376 with 13 home runs in 105 games. However, the taciturn Tellez blasted 35 home runs only a year ago, is still youngish, and his left-handed pull-hitting batting stroke could play well at PNC Park.
There would also be a lot of incentive for Tellez to have a good year as he is eligible for unfettered free agency next year. Plus, his nickname is Rowdy, which derives not from wrestling legend Rowdy Roddy Piper, but because Tellez did an inordinate amount of kicking while his mother was pregnant with him.
It’s a good story, just like Tellez could be a good fit for the Pirates.