picked up three hits in his first two games with Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
On Friday, in a transaction that was long anticipated yet failed to come to fruition over the winter, the Pirates shored up their hole at first base by acquiring Ike Davis from the Mets. The former first-round pick was immediately thrust into action by Pittsburgh, starting both weekend games at first base and going 3-for-9 with a double, a walk and three strikeouts and scoring three runs. But that wasn't enough to help the Pirates snap out of their current funk, which has seen them lose their last three series to division rivals, going 2-8 over what amounts to half of the young season.
First base has been a weak position for the Bucs since they traded Adam LaRoche in July 2009. In the four seasons that followed, the team attempted to complement Garrett Jones, who bounced between first base and rightfield while hitting a mere .194/.236/.321 against lefthanded pitching, with Jeff Clement, Lyle Overbay, Derrek Lee, Casey McGehee, Gaby Sanchez and Justin Morneau. This offseason, the team non-tendered Jones coming off a .233/.289/.419 performance that saw him reduced to a pinch-hitting role after the acquisition of Morneau, who also departed via free agency. That left the righthanded Sanchez, who had hit .250/.350/.400 for Pittsburgh in 450 plate appearances as a part-time player over the previous season and a half, as the incumbent and first base at the top of the Pirates' off-season to-do list.
Davis, a lefthanded power-hitter whom the Mets made the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft but had since soured on, seemed like one of the top candidates to fill that hole in Pittburgh. However, the only first baseman the Pirates traded for over the winter was minor leaguer Chris McGuiness. As a result, they opened the 2014 season with a first-base platoon of Sanchez and lefty Travis Ishikawa, a 30-year-old non-roster invitee on his fifth organization in three years since his original team, the San Francisco Giants, gave up on him after failing to give him a single major league at-bat in 2011. Ishikawa started 12 of Pittsburgh's first 14 games, hitting .226/.265/.419, but Sanchez homered twice against righthanded pitching last Monday and started the rest of the week. With the acquisition of Davis, Ishikawa was designated for assignment; all told, Sanchez and Ishikawa combined to hit .203/.238/.475 before the latter's demotion.
At this early stage of the season, the Pirates' other unfilled offseason hole, rightfield, has been a bigger problem than first base, as has shortstop and the pitching staff. The Pirates' rightfielders (Travis Snider and Jose Tabata) are hitting .217/.270/.289 on the season. Their shortstops (Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes) are hitting .215/.278/.321. Their starting rotation ranks 11th in the National League with a 4.27 ERA, and their bullpen is tied for the major league lead with five blown saves. It was the bullpen which was Pittsburgh's downfall in Davis' first two games, with Jason Grilli blowing two straight saves by giving up home runs to Ryan Braun each time out.
Injuries and bizarre fluctuations in production caused the Mets to sour on the now-27-year-old Davis, but his bat could help compensate for the lack of production coming from rightfield and shortstop. The son of former Yankees and Twins reliever Ron Davis, Ike looked like an emerging star after a solid rookie campaign in 2010 and a hot start to 2011, but he suffered an ankle sprain that May that surprisingly proved to be season-ending. He hit 32 home runs and drove in 90 upon his return in 2012, but had a meager .227 batting average that dragged his on-base percentage down to .309. Last year, he hit his way back to Triple A by early June, then managed just four home runs in 170 plate appearances after his return a month later before an abdomen strain finished his season at the end of August, leaving him with just nine home runs and 33 RBIs over 103 games.
With the Mets this year, Davis started at first base on Opening Day, but had drawn just four more starts since, one of them coming in a game in which now-starting first baseman Lucas Duda was the designated hitter. It will be interesting to see what he can do with regular playing time, a new coaching staff and a ballpark that is friendlier to lefthanded hitting (but harder on home runs). It's a classic change-of-scenery play by Pittsburgh, which may be why the Pirates waited so long to make the move; they needed New York's price to come down.
As it played out, the Mets got Davis for minor league reliever Zack Thornton, a 25-year-old righty pitching in Triple A with solid peripherals but who was not a notable arm in the Pirates' organization, and a player to be named later. That player will reportedly be one of the Pirates' 2013 draftees, who can't be traded until June, and thus should be the key piece going to New York. With that player's identity a mystery and Davis under team control through the 2016 season, it could be a long time before we can properly evaluate this trade. But the first test will be whether or not Davis can help Pittsburgh climb back into contention in the National League Central, where they already trail the Brewers
by six games despite the season being just three weeks old.