One area that concerns me about the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates is the team’s bench. To me it just looks weak on paper and I have the feeling that has been the case for quite some time now. The Pirates depth or lack there of has been an issue for years and while it is steadily improving I believe some spots, especially the middle infield, are still lagging behind. My belief the Pirates bench was weak in past seasons, including 2012, was not really based on any research but rather jut an observational opinion. I decided to take a look at the numbers and see according to Fan Graphs WAR just how well the Pirates bench in 2012 stacked up to the other 4 teams remaining in the NL Central (Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs).
The first step to do this was determining exactly what a bench player was. I’m not merely looking for how well a team does with its pinch hitters but rather how well a team’s non-regulars do when pinch-hitting and when giving a regular starter a day off. Two obvious constraints came to mind one pitchers are obviously not bench players and bench players will not have as many plate appearances as starters. Using those two constraints I narrowed my list down to all non-pitchers and then eliminated anyone with 400 or more plate appearances. Four hundred was really just an arbitrary end point but it seems like a solid number for a regular starter, it represents roughly 60% of a 650 PA season meaning the player probably had to have played more than 50% of the time. Going even further I opted to eliminate any player with fewer than 50 PA. Players such as that likely didn’t have a chance to contribute much off the bench and were probably either short-term injury callups or September roster expansion players. These constraints limited the player pool to a manageable size for bench players but still left me with a few oddities such as Starling Marte and Rod Barajas being listed as bench players. Obviously those two and other like them are not bench players so I decided to look at the number of plate appearance the remaining players had per game played. A typical bench player should have a lower number because while they will make some starts a lot of their plate appearances will come as a pinch hitter or late inning replacement limiting their PA in those games to 1 or 2. Again I opted to choose an arbitrary dividing line of 3.3 plate appearances per game. It may seem random but it indicates that in at least a third of his games the player was receiving at least 4 plate appearances and to me that was a good enough dividing line. Finally I opted for one more constraint and that was removing all catchers. This may seem a little odd but typically speaking backup catchers receive a larger number of starts than a typical catcher and are often not used in pinch-hitting situations. In short catchers really don’t fit my standard ideal of what a bench player really is.
These constraints left me with a various number of players left for each team. The Reds had 4, the Cardinals and Brewers each had 7, the Cubs had 9 players and the Pirates topped the list with 10 such players. I looked at the total number of plate appearances each of these groups had and at the total number of WAR they produced on the season. The Reds were low and the Cubs were high but the other three teams all had right around 1200 plate appearances. So I decided to look at the stats on the basis of 1200 plate appearances which for the NL Central at least appears to be roughly the average number of plate appearances each “bench” received. The results can be seen below. I’ve also included the actual WAR and total number of plate appearances.
Cardinals: 5.1 WAR/1200 PA (5.4 WAR, 1263 PA)
Brewers: 1.9 WAR/1200 PA (1.8 WAR, 1118 PA)
Pirates: 0.8 WAR/1200 PA (0.8 WAR, 1255 PA)
Cubs: 0.4 WAR/1200 PA (0.5 WAR, 1538 PA)
Reds: -0.6 WAR/1200 PA (-0.4 WAR, 835 PA)
A little to my surprise the Pirates actually finished third. The Cardinals total was just incredibly insane and the Reds total was much lower than one would assume a successful team to be but then again they had very little reason to use it. For those of you interest the players included for each team I have listed below:
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Shane Robinson, Lance Berkman, Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers
Brewers: Nyjer Morgan, Cody Ranson, Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, Taylor Green, Jeff Bianchi, Edwin Maysonet
Pirates: Casey McGehee, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Drew Sutton, Matt Hague, Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Nate McLouth, Yamaico Navarro
Cubs: Bryan LaHair, Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Dave Sappelt, Adron Cardenas
Reds: Chris Heisey, Wilson Valdez, Miguel Cairo, Xavier Paul
In reality it is difficult to draw much from this. The Pirates bench wasn’t good but it was better than the Cubs and the Reds. That sounds good but the Cubs were awful in 2012 and the Reds used their bench only two-thirds of time that the Pirates or basically any other NL Central team did. One thing I did draw on was just how difficult it was to determine a bench for the Pirates and the Cubs. I had originally started out planning on picking the 5 most frequent bench players from each team but it became difficult to do that with the Pirates. Harrison and McKenry were easy picks but the next three proved impossible which is why I opted to go with the above formula. For the record the Pirates and Brewers would have been helped out the most if I would have included back up catchers in my analysis.
One thing I do think we can take from this is that there is room for the Pirates to improve on the bench. It might be unfair to expect the Pirates or any bench to rise to the St Louis Cardinals level but if the Pirates bench can improve to around the Brewers 2012 level which was approximately 1.2 WAR there is reason to believe some ground could be made up. The Cardinals are likely to see some sort of regression from the great 2012 season from their bench so it is possible the Pirates by improving to just 2.0 WAR from their bench could pick up as many as 3-3.5 games on the Cardinals just with their bench improving and the Cardinals returning to a more normal level. Bottom line the point I’m trying to make here and in my post The Bottom of the Roster is that the Pirates can make up ground not only by having their big names like McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker and Marte perform better but also by making some small but noticeable strides simply with team depth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Pirates could pick up 4-5 wins compared to the Cardinals just by strengthening their depth and having the Cardinals return to a more normal level that the Pirates.
Garrett Jones: Garrett Jones nearly pulled off what would have been quite a rare feat I imagine. He led the Pirates in PA from a 1B and was only 1 behind Jose Tabata for most PA from a RF. However I see Jones as more a 1B than an OF so I’m covering him here. Jones had what can only be described as a great season for him. He struggled defensively some and seemed to actually get worse as a base runner but he brought his bat with him and provided the Pirates with a nice steady option for the middle of the order. Jones isn’t the ideal cleanup guy but with how he performed this season he was more than adequate. Jones will enter next season in his 2nd year of arbitration since he was a Super 2 candidate and while I wouldn’t say he is a non-tender candidate he is certainly someone the Pirates could consider selling high on and trading to another team for a missing piece say at catcher, shortstop or pitching. However it is my expectation that Jones will be back next season manning 1st base. Overal Grade: B+
Casey McGehee: Casey McGehee played a lot of 1st base for the Pirates, almost as much as Jones actually, and he was defensively sound at the position which was somewhat surprising given his limited experience there but McGehee struggled mightily with the bat. If you look at his splits McGehee performed very well hitting wise at 3rd base and as a pinch hitter (granted small sample size applies) but was bad at first base. He never really materialized as the right-handed platoon partner for Jones the Pirates envisioned and was dealt at the trade deadline. His tenure with the Pirates while disappointing needs to be taken with the fact he was never expected to do too much other than hit lefties decently and be a respectable pinch hitter and he was asked to do more than that. Overall Grade: C-
Gaby Sanchez: Sanchez came over at the trade deadline and replaced McGehee as Jones platoon partner. He struggled his first couple of games with the Pirates but quickly reverted back to putting up the kind of numbers he did in Miami/Florida the two years previous. These numbers are not spectacular but are solid enough for the small portion of the 1st base platoon. The Pirates were having Sanchez work on some 3rd base during the season and I imagine his work will continue into the offseason and he will attempt to not only be a right-handed alternative to Jones but to Alvarez as well. He has some 3rd base experience in the minors so I don’t foresee this being an issue but only time will tell. Sanchez will be a first time arbitration eligible player next season and I expect him to be retained. Overall Grade: C+
Alex Dickerson: Dickerson the Pirates third round selection last season played in A+ this year and put up solid numbers but that weren’t quite what you would hope for from an advanced bat first college player. This takes nothing away from what he did but more was definitely hoped for. Even with his not as good as it could have been showing Dickerson is a near lock to move up to AA and if he manages to improve on his numbers even a little bit there he will move into legit prospect territory. Dickerson is probably the Pirates best hope for a legit 1st base prospect in the near future.
Matt Curry: Curry’s season in a lot of ways was very similar to Dickerson’s. He had a strong showing in AA but it wasn’t quite what was hoped for an advanced college hitter repeating a level. He was still called up to AAA at the end of the season and should no doubt start the season there and with a good showing by him could even get a shot in the majors by the beginning of next season. Curry profiles as a similar player to Dickerson but doesn’t have the power potential, he could develop into an average major league 1st baseman though and that would be a huge improvement over what the Pirates have had in recent seasons.
Jose Osuna: Osuna was one of the 4 Latin American players making the jump from rookie ball to A ball this season. Like the other 1st base prospects I listed he did ok but not as good as was hoped. He is defensively limited to 1st meaning his offensive game will have to carry him and while the power potential is there he really has only shown flashes of it. He did have solid power numbers this season but that came in streaks and his overall line was not too impressive. Even with his struggles I believe Osuna has done enough to warrant a promotion to A+ next season where he will definitely be a break out candidate.
The Pirates were rather active around the deadline making 3 trades in the last 16 hours or so and giving fans and columnists a whole lot to talk about. The trades have will likely have varying level of impact and I will give my opinion on them. First let’s start with the last two deals of the day the two minor ones.
Pirates Get: Gaby Sanchez, Kyle Kaminska
Pirates Give: Gorkys Hernandez, comp pick
On the surface this doesn’t look like a bad move. Hernandez has little vlaue to the Pirates right now and as an all defense guy has little trade value. Kaminska is a minor league pitcher who has put up some good peripherals but who also has a lack of value. This really comes down to the comp pick for Sanchez. I really like Gaby Sanchez and is a guy I profiled as someone I would like to see the Pirates make a move for to help the team next year. However as we would find out later the Pirates didn’t pick up Sanchez to help out starting next season.
Pirates Get: Chad Qualls
Pirates Give: Casey McGehee
This one I don’t get. McGehee isn’t super valuable but Qualls is a pretty bad reliever. With Juan Cruz coming back from the DL and Bryan Morris appearing ready in AAA trading for a guy like Qualls seems very odd. He doesn’t improve the club. As far as losing McGehee that is not a huge blow but replacing him with Sanchez for this season seems a little odd.
To me these two trades essentially boil down to McGehee and the comp pick for Sanchez. I was fine with Sanchez for the comp pick as he hit for a nice .260/.334/.419 line over the last 3 seasons. He was a great guy to platoon with Jones next season and he would have came at a very cheap price with a chance as regaining his form as a functional starting 1B. However throwing McGehee into this trade makes it less impactful. At best Sanchez is going to be as good as McGehee this season. Not a huge deal but very odd.
Pirates Get: Travis Snider
Pirates Give: Brad Lincoln
This was one I wasn’t sure of as first as I’m now very worried about the bullpen next year as it appears possible that none of Lincoln, Grilli or Hanrahan will be a part of it. However relievers even one as good as Lincoln has been are relatively easy to replace where as power hitting corner outfielders are hard to find. In his time in the majors Snider has posted some decent but not great numbers (.735 career OPS) even with those numbers he would be an upgrade over Presley and Sutton. However at only 24 years old Snider has a lot of room to grow and looks like he may be turning a corner having posted good numbers in AAA this seasons and good numbers in his limited time in the majors. This definitely hurts the bullpen a lot next season and basically makes it a must for the Pirates to resign Grilli and add another good arm before next season but it comes with a huge possible upside.
These aren’t moves you traditionally see contenders make but as a small market the Pirates need to act differently and acquiring a good bounce back candidate for next year in Gaby Sanchez and a high risk high reward guy like Snider for basically one very solid relief pitcher and some spare parts are moves that make sense. Now as far as moving McGehee for a player likely to be DFA’d when Cruz returns I’m not sure of the thought process there.
Something has been bothering me about the Pirates for the last few weeks but I figured in time it would play itself out but so far it has not. The make up of the Pirates bench really confuses me. Currently it has the backup catchers McKenry, one of Presley, Jones or McGehee depending on the SP and 3 middle infielders. Now call me crazy but I really don’t see the need or rationale for carrying 3 middle infielders on the bench. Ideally you would like to really have only one but I can understand keeping two. The Pirates bench is no doubt a weak spot right now and there are three ways to fix it.
1.) A direct trade aimed to help the bench. Pretty straight forward target a bench player in a trade
2.) Acquire a starting player which in turn will push current players (McGehee and Presley) to the bench.
3.) Call up help from AAA. There isn’t much down there but Clement looks ready to help and if an outfielder is needed Hernandez and Tabata await in the wings.
My preference is to acquire a corner outfielder which would push Presley to the bench and push Jones and McGehee back to their platoon with Jones getting the majority of the playing time and McGehee being a bench bat. To make room for this extra player I would send Harrison or Mercer to AAA. In addition I would also like to see Jeff Clement called up to add a little pop to the bench. He could start an occasional game at 1st when we wanted to go lefty heavy but would primarily just be a PH. He would replace Sutton. This would leave a bench of:
C: Barajas/McKenry (I’m in favor of making this a 50/50 split)
MI: Mercer (or Harrison)
Pedro Alvarez: Here it is the key to any success the Pirates may or may not have in 2012. The team as constituted has several holes but none are more apparent than the lack of a true cleanup hitter. The Pirates have little chance of finding such a player externally and their internal options are extremely limited. The only such player who exists in the system is one Pedro Alvarez. After a strong rookie campaign Alvarez posted an abysmal 2011 and right now no one really knows what to expect from Alvarez in 2012. He could bust or he could break out. The guess here as is often the case is that it will be somewhere in between. I foresee a slight improvement of his rookie numbers but not the 30 homer year he is certainly capable of. My prediction for him is 23 HR and a line of .250/.330/.480.
Casey McGehee: I have already covered McGehee at 1st base because that is where he will end up getting most of his playing time but he was also bought in to be the backup plan for Alvarez. The hope is that with the occasional exception of a spot start or maybe facing some tough lefties (with Nick Evans at 1st) that there will be little need for McGehee to appear at 3rd base. However if the need arises I expect him to perform better than the Harrison/Wood duo of last season.
Josh Harrison: Harrison will be given a chance to win a major league bench job but due to his lack of experience at SS will probably only stick if the Pirates decide to carry an extra infielder at the expense of a 5th outfielder. I expect him to start the season in AAA but with d’Arnaud, Mercer and Navarro all ticketed for AAA there may not be room for him to get regular starts in the infield. The Pirates could try to get him time in the OF but unless Lambo is held back in AA that does not seem too likely. Harrison will probably be needed to fill in sometime in the majors and when he does he should be rather serviceable.
Yamaico Navarro: Acquired this offseason for Brooks Pounders Navarro immediately vaults to the top of the Pirates 3rd base prospect rankings. This is more proof of how sad the state of the Pirates 3rd base prospects is than it is praise for him as a prospect. Navarro is a decent prospect and will be given a chance to win a job in the majors but if he doesn’t he will play in AAA. Like Harrison the crowded infield could force him into the outfield but once again the outfield appears pretty full. Navarro is likely to get a chance at some point this year and with more experience at SS than Harrison he could even be the first infielder in line for a call up. Being a new guy in the system I really do not know what to expect from Navarro but my guess here is that he will be in the Harrison mold and will be capabale of being a decent bench guy. His defensive skills and strike zone awareness will make him a slightly better option than Harrison though.
Elevys Gonzalez: Gonnzalez has hit well at every level but lacks the power to be a legit 3rd base prospect. His bat would play well in the middle infield but his defense there is suspect at best. He should start the season in AA but with Farrell possibly repeating the level he may slide over to 2nd to begin the season (assuming Cunningham isn’t promoted). There is no reason to believe he will not continue to hit at a decent clip but on the flip side there is little reason to believe his power and/or defense will improve. Essentially what we have in Gonzalez is another utility type player in a similar mold to Harrison and Navarro.
Eric Avila: Avila was the Pirates best 3rd base prospect headed into the 2011 season but he struggled mightily in A ball. In fact his struggles were so bad that me listing him as the Pirates 3rd best third base prospect is probably on the optimistic side. He displayed some power in the GCL the previous season but that all but evaporated last season. On the plus side he did make strides on his defensive game. Avila will likely repeat A ball this season and while it would be surprising to see him not improve on his numbers from last year, he will have to have a huge season to get back into the legit prospect status.
Summary: Third base is probably the Pirates weakest position from a prospect standpoint so that makes it even more important that Pedro Alvarez succeeds. Looking at the talent the Pirates have down on the farm and ignoring the possibility of McGehee returning to 2009-10 form the only chance the Pirates have to get good production from 3rd base this year or in the immediate future is Pedro Alvarez. I hate to put so much on one player’s shoulders but in reality it’s the case. The production the Pirates get from third base this season is going to have a major impact on whether this club has a shot break the streak and in the end that all comes down to Alvarez. Don’t let us down Pedro, we are rooting for you.
Garrett Jones: As of right now it appears Jones will be the larger part of a platoon at first base, meaning he should start roughly 70% of the games. Last season as part of a platoon in right field Jones did his job posting a .808 OPS against right handed pitching. There is no reason to think that Jones should not put up similar numbers this season. Jones is not a player you want starting everyday but as part of a platoon he could prove to be a useful player. I am expecting him to produce similar numbers to last year, maybe actually slightly above meaning I could see an .820 OPS against righties and a .770 OPS overall. He will also provide the power we know he is capable of (15-20 HR). Bottom line Jones will do what any sensible person would expect him to do.
Casey McGehee: He will likely be the smaller half of the 1st base platoon meaning he should receive about 30% of the starts. McGehee is the great wildcard here. If he puts up numbers similar to 2011 the Pirates will once again have below average production from first base. However if he puts up his 2009/10 numbers he can supplant Jones and become the everyday first baseman. Chances are though that the results will be somewhere in between meaning he will be a useful platoon partner for Garrett Jones. I am thinking there is a good chance McGehee posts an OPS against left handed pitchers in the upper 700s or even above 800. With McGehee’s power (10-15 HR in a part time role) combined with Jones the Pirates could manage to get league average production from their 1st baseman, although slightly below is the safer bet.
Nick Evans: Evans was signed as an NRI this offseason and I believe he has a good chance of making the major league team but that is under the assumption the Pirates actually decide to carry a fifth outfielder. Evans has never put up outstanding numbers in the majors but even so I think he could be as good a platoon partner for Jones as McGehee. Evans’s bat lags behinds McGehee’s but his defensive ability at 1st base would make him an asset for the Pirates. Using Evans and McGehee against left handed starters instead of Jones and Alvarez has its advantages but I don’t see the Pirates going that route. Should Evans start in AAA I am not sure of where he would play unless Lambo is held back so my hope is he gets a chance to showcase himself of the bench. I feel he could be a viable player off the bench but it remains to be seen if he will get a chance.
Jake Fox: Like Evans, Fox was signed as an NRI this offseason. He too will be given a chance to compete for the 5th outfield job assuming again the Pirates keep 5 outfielders. If he doesn’t make the major league team I am not sure where he fits into the Pirates plans. The roster at AAA seems pretty full and while it could supports one of Evans or Fox it probably cannot support both. I am assuming the Pirates are going to release one of these two or are counting on somebody opting out. My guess is that Fox decides to opt out.
Jeff Clement: The resigning of Clement came as a slight surprise to me. The only I could figure was the Pirates are figuring on neither Evans or Fox starting in AAA and needed a back up 1st baseman/DH for AAA. That is the role Clement will likely fill in 2012 and while I am rooting for the guy and think he has a chance to be successful in this position I do not see a future for him with the Pirates. I actually think Clement will do well this season and might even put up similar numbers to what Bowker did last season but at this point I would be shocked if the Pirates even considered him an option for the majors.
Alex Dickerson: Dickerson was drafted in the 3rd round of this past year’s draft and is the Pirates best 1st base prospect. He has a good bit of power and has the potential to one day become a force in the middle of the Pirates order. However that is years away and as for this season he will likely start off in A+ with a chance to be promoted to AA by midseason. Considering he is an all bat prospect and will be playing in a hitter friendly stadium I am expecting huge numbers from Dickerson while in A+. I hope the Pirates do not hold him back too long but with the prospect the Pirates have in the upper levels I see him staying in A+ for most of the season.
Matt Curry: I’m not sure what to make of Curry, personally I have never been too high in him but seeing how he dominated A ball last season made him look somewhat promising. He will likely repeat the AA level this season and with Dickerson on the way he will need to put up numbers right away to avoid being an afterthought. To be honest I just don’t see that kind of production coming this season he will adjust and put up better numbers but they won’t be eye popping and he will begin to lose his prospect status.
Matt Hague: I wasn’t sure if I should consider Hague organizational depth or a prospect. Hague appears ready for the majors but since he has yet to play a game he is still a prospect. In the end since I already had three organizational depth guys and since the Pirates are light in 1B prospects I included him here. Hague doesn’t have a ton of upside projecting as a Casey Kotchman type 1st baseman at best. I see him more as a corner utility player in the mold of Eric Hinske. However as far as this season goes I see him once again putting up strong numbers in AAA but unlike last year I see him getting a chance in the majors. I believe there is a decent chance the Pirates try to move Jones at the trade deadline and if they do the Pirates will give Hague a chance to prove himself (assuming McGehee and Alvarez aren’t both mashing). Hague will do respectably but it won’t be enough for him to lock down the position.
Summary: Overall I think the production from Jones/McGehee will prove to be near major league average. That will prove to be the best production the Pirates got from the 1st base position in years but obviously there will still need to be upgrades. Hague will be given the first shot to fill the position but I don’t see him as the long term answer. I have high hopes for Dickerson but unless he gets a chance to prove himself in AA and actually does so the Pirates have no choice but to try and find a long term solution for 1B by any means necessary (draft or trade). There is potential for decent albeit not spectacular production from 1st base for the Pirates this season but the future of the position is hazy and clearing it up should be one of the top priorities for the Pirates this season.