Mason Martin, Will Craig, and the Future Battle For First Base in Pittsburgh

Anyone can play first base.

That’s the line of thinking that has existed for as long as I’ve been alive.

It’s what makes first base a last resort for so many players, and what makes first base a first alternative for so many pitchers or catchers turned to the rest of the field.

The same line of thinking led to Josh Bell moving to first base, after he was forced out of the Pirates’ crowded outfield alignment around the end of 2014.

Bell is proof that you can put anyone at first base, but not just anyone can play the position well.

So when looking for replacements for Bell in the Pirates’ system, I could go deep into other positions and find guys who could move over to first base, figuring the defense will be easy for them. Oneil Cruz is a great example. I’ve got him projected for the outfield, but I can see a scenario where Cruz is the first baseman in Pittsburgh. Having that kind of range at first base would be exciting to see, and would allow the Pirates to get creative with their defensive alignments.

But I’m not going to discuss Cruz today (he will get some discussion in the right field article this week).

Instead, I’m going to focus on the two upper-level first base prospects in the system who can play the position, and who have the best shots at replacing Josh Bell, who is eligible for free agency following the 2022 season, and likely will be gone before that point.

The first prospect is Mason Martin, who is our projected first baseman of the future. Martin was drafted in the 17th round by the Pirates in 2017, in a year when their outfield depth in the lower levels was strong. The GCL Pirates that year had Lolo Sanchez, Cal Mitchell, Conner Uselton, and Jeremias Portorreal, who all received outfield priority over Martin. The Pirates moved Martin to first base almost immediately, and he’s developed into a guy who can handle the position. He might not provide positive value, but he has enough ability to not seriously detract from the bat.

The bat is what stands out for Martin. In 2019, at age 20, he combined for 35 homers between two levels of A-ball. His walk rate is consistently in double-digit percentage points, with the only downside being his lower average and higher strikeout rates. Martin has worked in the last year on being more selective, and having a more mindful approach with the pitches he chooses to attack. The lack of a 2020 season didn’t allow us to see what he could do with this approach during the season. He should get a shot at Double-A in 2021 to show what he can do, with a chance to be in Triple-A by the end of the year.

If the 2021 season goes well for Martin, he could be in the mix at first base in Pittsburgh at some point in 2022.

I wrote yesterday about which version of Josh Bell would show up in 2021. The two most likely versions are the 2018 Bell who was bad defensively and average offensively, leading to about a 1 fWAR. The 2019 version is more preferred, still with bad defense, but good enough offense to make Bell an above-average first baseman.

For Martin to improve over either of these possibilities, he’s going to need to cut down on strikeouts and improve his batting average. Even without massive changes to that part of his game, I think he could have the same 1-2.5 WAR possibility range as Bell. Martin has the chance for impact offense with his bat, mostly driven from his pull-heavy power potential from the left side, which will play well in PNC Park. He doesn’t need the average to improve, as long as the power is still there and the walks supplement the lack of hits. The defense won’t provide much, or any positive value, but Martin’s bat could propel him to the same totals we’ve seen from Bell, and possibly better.

The main alternative to Martin is Will Craig, although it doesn’t seem like Craig is really in the mix for this Pirates front office. Craig was drafted in the first round in 2016 by Neal Huntington. He was called up for his MLB debut in 2020, but only received four at-bats over two games in 14 days in the majors.

Craig has better defense at first base than Martin, to the point where he could provide some positive defensive value with his skills. He was drafted as a strong contact hitter with power potential coming from his size. Thus far in his career, he’s yet to see the complete package. He made better contact in the lower levels, but not enough to justify the lack of power. He increased his power in 2018 and 2019, but the average and walk rates both plummeted.

The offense from Craig has the chance to be very similar to the offense from Martin. In either case, you’re looking at a weak average, decent OBP, and power leading the offensive value. Martin has better power production right now, making him more likely to reach this offensive upside. Craig’s power is all a dream contained within his frame, and while that dream could become a reality, it’s unlikely that the power would be combined with his old contact and plate patience skills. Craig turned 26 yesterday, while Martin is 21 years old, making Martin the more likely guy to improve.

Craig has the advantage on defense, needing to either improve his power production, or improve his contact and plate patience skills with his current power.

Martin has the power advantage, and needs to improve on defense, while making the same improvements to play up his contact and plate patience skills. The difference is that Martin’s current power allows his offense to play without the boost in average or OBP.

What are you banking on for the future at the position? Craig improving his power to surpass Martin’s total value, or Martin improving his defense to surpass Craig’s total value?

Or just Oneil Cruz towering over the first base bag?

Mason Martin photo courtesy Pittsburgh Pirates