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Jim Sankey: Extra Innings: Pirates should have kept Santana

Jul. 31—The sad sack history of Pirates first-base performers was reversed last November when the team signed the now-37-year-old Carlos Santana to a one year, $6.725 million contract.

"Carlos is a pro who is always ready to play and will add consistent at-bats from both sides of the plate and quality defense," said Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington, citing the switch-hitter's previous 13 seasons in the majors. "We look forward to welcoming Carlos to our team and clubhouse."

Santana's signing ended decades of not much to brag about at first base dating back to Three Rivers Stadium. In the previous 22 seasons, the best of the bunch had been Craig Wilson, who played first for PNC Park's first six seasons, but then his competition wasn't exactly All-Star, Hall of Fame, MVP or Rookie of the Year quality.

Yet even socking 94 home runs during those six seasons was not enough to make Wilson the regular starter. Also getting time at first during Wilson's tenure were Carlos Rivera, Randall Simon, Daryle Ward, Rob Mackowiak, Ty Wigginton, Joe Randa and Jose Hernandez — again not exactly crème de la crème.

Others who have had shots as Bucco first basemen are Sean Rodriguez, Michael Morse, Jason Rogers, John Jaso, Travis Ishikawa, Ike Davis, John Bowker, Josh Phelps, Corey Hart and Brent Morel.

Some were Pirates who had other positions, but were tried (with little success) at first: Pedro Alvarez, Josh Bell, David Freese, Aramis Ramirez, Jordy Mercer, Xavier Nady, Rod Barajas and Ryan Doumit.

Others were late-season rentals, past their prime: Sean Casey, Doug Mientkiewicz, Adam LaRoche, Derek Lee and Justin Morneau.

Others included Andy LaRoche, Matt Hague, Bobby Crosby, Casey McGehee, Steve Pearce, Andrew Lambo, Jeff Clement, Brandon Wood, Brandon Inge and the notorious Will Craig — the only player ever to try run down a batter, chasing him back from first base back toward the plate.

Things were so bad from 2009-17 that the Pirates had nine different starting first baseman on opening day: in order, LaRoche, Jones, Overbay, McGehee, Sanchez, Davis, Alvarez, Jaso and Bell.

In 2021 and 2022, those who played at first base included Colin Moran, John Nogowski, Phillip Evans, Craig, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Nick Gonzalez, Adam Frazier, Ben Gamel, Michael Chavis, Michael Perez, Jacob Stallings and Cole Tucker (in 2021 alone), with Josh VanMeter, Bligh Madris, Zack Collins, Diego Castillo, Yu Chang, Daniel Vogelback and Kevin Padlo getting the call in 2022.

So people generally reacted favorably last November, as the decades-long reign of the worst position "talent" all ended with the signing of Santana.

At the time of last week's trade to intra-division rival Milwaukee, baseball's top active switch-hitting home run leader led the Pirates with 94 games played, RBIs (53) and doubles (25), and was second with 12 homers. Defensively, he leads all MLB first basemen with six defensive runs saved and has been suggested as a probably Gold Glove finalist.

Obviously, he needed to be gone, banished for disrupting the lonnnnng history of relative incompetence at first base.

The Post-Gazette's Jason Mackey reported last week that manager Derek Shelton "raved about what the veteran first baseman meant to his young a developing" players. Santana was brought in to be a mentor to those players, which he has done.

"He provided leadership on the field and off the field," Shelton said. "Obviously, he played as well defensively at first base as just about anybody in baseball until now and was having really productive at-bats, and really was a stabilizing presence in the middle of our lineup, which is really important when you have young players."

With more youngsters on the team than ever, Santana batted .304 with three homers (including a game-winning blast), three doubles, and eight RBIs during last week's six-game West Coast junket. It became obvious to nobody that the organization should shed the exemplary leader in favor of yet another middle infielder, an 18-year-old "prospect" who has a questionable chance to be productive at about the same time as many of the team's current youngsters will approach free agency.

Admittedly, Santana is not the future of the Pirates, but his present offers a better chance to impact the current crop of young Bucs who are trying to stop the eternal trading for tomorrow as part of an endless rebuild,

Front office moves like this one only perpetuate fans' sighing as they murmur, "Same old Pirates."