One area that causes me great concern regarding the Pirates is in the depth they have for the infield. The starters Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Clint Barmes are all fairly healthy individuals and their play is fairly solid at least in some aspects. However behind them the Pirates really do not have a whole lot. Traditionally two infielders get bench spots on the Pirates to begin the season and I am expecting that to be the case again this season. Once again this crop is fairly unimpressive but there appears to be five players with a legitimate chance of winning one of the bench jobs available. I thought it would be a good idea to review each players strengths and weaknesses and analyze why there is a reason for concern with each player.
Harrison is probably the most familiar of the 5 to Pittsburgh Pirates fans as he has been part of the Pirates bench for the last five seasons. He is a player who is easy to like because of his all out style of play. During the 2012 season we even were introduced to his mother on the Pirates broadcasts as she watched him play in games in his home town Cincinnati, he reaction when he got hit probably was something a lot of mothers can relate to. Harrison is an interesting player as he is a free swinger and he will really go deep into the count which means he walks a small amount of time but also means he doesn’t strike out very often. As for the other aspects of his game he is a contact hitter with limited power, has probably slightly above average speed and is a below average fielder. It is really a mix bag with Harrison.
Strengths: Harrison can play all over the field, logging innings last year at 2B, SS, 3B and the corner outfield. He is difficult to strike out and is very good at putting the ball in play. He has experience with the Pirates and appears to be a player Clint Hurdle likes. In addition his base running is fairly good and he can steal the occasional base.
Weaknesses: Although Harrison has played all over the field the only position where he looks even semi-decent defensively is third base. His inability to work counts causing his walk rate to be low which in return negatively affects his OBP. He is a contact hitter but the contact he makes is often of a weak variety as he doesn’t possess much power.
Overall: Harrison has a great chance to be a part of the Pirates bench this season because of his familiarity with the Pirates coaching staff, his ability to play several different positions and the simple fact he is on the 40 man roster. On the flip side the Pirates should consider going another direction because there is nothing Harrison really does that makes him stand out. With the exception of his ability to not strike out Harrison is at best average in every other aspect of the game. The ability to play multiple positions is a plus but his inability to play them well or even decently negatively effects his value. Overall the Pirates could definitely do worse than Harrison but should try to do better.
Mercer is probably the best defensive shortstop of this group and is also one who should be familiar with Pirates fans as he was drafted by the Pirates in 2008 and has remained in the organization ever since. He spent a rather significant amount of time in the majors last season but got very few at bats as Clint Hurdle gave him the Pedro Ciriaco treatment and he was mainly glues to the bench. Offensively it is difficult to get a read on just what Mercer will be able to do in the major leagues but in the minors he has been adequate with the bat. Mercer’s strike out and walk rates for his minor league career appear to be roughly average and he does seem to have at least a little power in his bat as he led the Pirates minor leagues in homers in 2011. Defensively speaking Mercer has only played 2B, 3B and SS but he plays those positions fairly well. As for the other aspects of his game he has about average speed and really doesn’t try to steal many bases although he will occasionally sneak one in there. At this point Mercer is sort of an unknown with a high floor and low ceiling.
Strengths: Mercer’s best strength is his defensive ability as he is the only one of the five candidates who is capable of even being an average defender at the shortstop position. He does have a few other pluses too though as he is probably one of the safer bets to not be completely useless on the bench and has shown at least some power in the minor leagues.
Weaknesses: The biggest weakness with mercer is that it is really not known how is bat will translate. He has struggled in his very limited sample in the majors but that came over quite a long-span with very inconsistent playing time. He also doesn’t have the ability to play the outfield although with all the Pirates options that shouldn’t be a large concern.
Overall: Like Harrison, Mercer’s strongest case for making the team is quite simply his familiarity with the coaching staff and his presence on the 40 man roster. He also has the additional benefit of actually being able to handle the shortstop position at a good level although with an all glove guy like Barmes starting on most days that is less of a concern than it would be otherwise. I currently have Mercer as my second infielder on the bench but I feel that his position is a lot less secure tha Harrison’s. I feel Mercer is probably the safest choice of this group as his glove will at least give him some value but his lack of experience may wind up hurting him.
The Pirates signed Inge to a minor league deal this offseason and because of the new CBA he will be able to opt out if he is not placed on the roster by late March. Of the 3 players I consider on the outside looking in when it comes to battling for the two bench spots I believe Inge has the best chance of winning one. Inge is clearly on the downside of his career but was still a valuable player to the Athletics last season and could still have some value for the Pirates. Offensively speaking he is a below average player who strikes out a fairly high amount and walks roughly an average amount. He is not a contact hitter but does hit for some power. Defensively his primary position is 3B and he has spent the majority of his career there although he has logged innings at 2B and in the corner outfield and was a catcher when his career began so he could probably serve as the emergency third option at that position which is a plus. He is a very good defender at 3B and ahs shown himself capable at the other positions. Baserunning wise he is below average and he really isn’t a threat to steal any bases. Inge is a veteran and has been around the league a long time and has more experience in the majors than his other four competitors do combined.
Strengths: Inge’s best strength and what separates him from the other four is his experience. He has been in the majors for several seasons and has been a part of winning clubs so a pressure pinch hit situation is less likely to get to him than any of the other players. He also would provide the Pirates with a little power off the bench and would provide them with possibly an adequate option to rest Alvarez against tough left handers and to pull him for defensive purposes late in games.
Weaknesses: Unlike the other four players Inge has no experience at the shortstop position meaning the Pirates would only have one bench option capable of playing that position if they kept Inge. He has also been on the decline the past few seasons and is a threat to bottom out this year. Defensively speaking last year was the first time he spent any time at 2B and before that he hadn’t played a position outside of 3B since 2008.
Overall: Inge isn’t on the 40 man roster and because of that he has a slightly uphill climb to make the team. I still give him very good odds but I think he starts behind Harrison and Mercer entering Spring Training. Inge is also a player this coaching staff is not familiar with which puts him at another disadvantage. His lack of flexibility in the field will also likely play against him. However the Pirates, specifically Clint Hurdle may see some value in his experience and because of that he has a chance to make the bench. Inge has also expressed a willingness to work on other positions outside of 3B so his flexibility issue will be slightly reduced. Inge could be a decent veteran presence on the bench but his declining numbers in recent years are cause for concern.
Ivan De Jesus
De Jesus was acquired by the Pirates as the fourth piece in the Hanrahan trade. Pretty much him and Brock Holt are just consider after thoughts in the deal and are considered to roughly cancel each other out as neither one projects to be much more than utility infielders. De Jesus is a relatively inexperienced major league player but he does have some considerable time in at AAA. He definitely has some upside but it is difficult for me to see him as anything other than a utility player at this point. De Jesus has put up some good offensive numbers in AAA but that very well may be a by-product of the PCL as those numbers have yet to translate to his limited MLB sample size. De Jesus offensive game is predicated around contact as he does not hit for much power and is just an average runner. His strike out rates have been high in the major leagues but they have been right around average to a little above average in the minors. His walk rates have been all over the place from very good to below average throughout his career so it is probably safe to assume he has about average plate discipline. On the defensive side he was originally a shortstop but injuries moved him to 2nd base and he is probably unable to be a regular shortstop now although he is probably capable of being a fill in for a game here or there. His defense in the majors has been poor but that is a small sample. Overall he is probably roughly an average fielder.
Strengths: The best asset De Jesus has going for him is that he is probably the best hope amongst the 5 bench candidates to be a solid two-way player. His defense is at least serviceable at shortstop and around average at 2B and 3B and his bat has shown potential in AAA. De Jesus is not the best player in any particular aspect but he also isn’t the worst and he probably balances out to have the best mix of any of the five competing.
Weaknesses: De Jesus biggest strike against him is that he hasn’t had success in his limited major league opportunities and that like Harrison there is really nothing he does above average. He has the skills to be a nice balanced utility player but without something to make him stand out it could be difficult for him to get noticed. So his biggest weakness is not a particular flaw but a lack of a true strength, essentially its a double edge sword.
Overall: De Jesus has only very minimal experience in the corner outfield meaning he is essentially limited to strictly infield duty but once again that shouldn’t be a real issue. As of right now he appears to be the Pirates fourth choice amongst the bench infielder candidates but he has opted to skip the WBC in an attempt to move up the chart and I think that is certainly doable. De Jesus isn’t on the 40 man roster, doesn’t have an out clause and has had little success in the majors in the past; all of that is working against him making the bench out of spring training. On the other side De Jesus has some potential with the bat and really lacks a glaring weakness in his game and when combined with his ability to handle shortstop better than Harrison and Inge it gives him a certain appeal which could allow him to find a home. If he doesn’t make it out of spring training there is a chance he could see Pittsburgh some time this season but that would be far from a guarantee.
Pirates fans are probably familiar with Chase d’Arnaud from his time with the Pirates in 2011. He was a bit of a fan favorite at the time and was seen as a spark plug for the offense while he was up in the majors. Truth be told though he really didn’t play all that well. He is a weak hitter and a below average fielder but yet he might have the highest upside of all the players listed. What sets d’Arnaud apart from the rest of this crowd is his plus speed a weapon that if he would ever be able to utilize correctly could make him a solid major league player. With the bat he displays very little power but has shown an ability to maintain a decent average in AAA. His strike out rates are right around league average which is probably a little high for a speed guy like him and his walk rate is also probably about average. Defensively he has played 2B, 3B and SS and he is below average defensively at SS although he is good enough that a team could get by with him there for an extended period of time and at the other positions he is right around an average defender. He has a small sample of major league plate appearances and has mostly struggled in that time. Currently he appears to be a distant fifth in the battle for the final two bench spots but if he can show he is capable of hitting decently his speed could make for a great asset off the bench for the Pirates.
Strengths: As I’ve already said d’Arnaud’s best asset is his speed. He is probably the Pirates best base stealer and would be a nice player to have for pinch running situations. He also has the ability to play shortstop decently well and would be a perfectly adequate backup option defensively especially considering its an all glove player in front of him. Outside of his speed and ability to play shortstop d’Arnaud also has the advantage of being on the 40 man roster and having played for Hurdle. He did provide a certain spark while he was here in 2011 so with a solid spring it is possible Hurdle could consider that as a factor.
Weaknesses: d’Arnaud has many weaknesses but mainly it is his poor hitting that hold him back. If he could show himself to be even a decent hitter he has enough athleticism that he could be a solid contributor. Also working against him is his shaky defense at shortstop. d’Arnaud right now is a very one-tool specific player and that is usually a poor fit for most benches. He is going to need to show a more complete game in order to have any chance.
Overall: I would very much like to see d’Arnaud win one of the bench spots as his speed would be a nice weapon to have available on the bench. The fact that he is a shortstop, albeit a below average defensive one, is another reason it would be nice to have him around. Right now he is probably the longest shot of all five competitors but I think it is close enough that a strong spring performance could vault him into the conversation. His game right now is almost solely dependent upon his speed and that isn’t going to be enough; he needs to make an effort to be well-rounded and most importantly make some strides with his bat. If d’Arnaud proves capable of carrying over his average from AAA to the majors he could make for a solid bench player or maybe even a decent starter. If d’Arnaud does not show any improvements in his game during spring training he will head back to AAA and unless he shows something there he is going to be a candidate to be taken off the 40 man roster and would likely only see Pittsburgh as a pinch runner in September.
I thought a good way to summarize everything from above would be to rank the five players on a few different skill aspects.
Power: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Jordy Mercer, 3. Josh Harrison, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Ivan De Jesus
Average: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Brandon Inge
Contact: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Brandon Inge
Plate Discipline: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Josh Harrison
Speed: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Ivan De Jesus, 5. Brandon Inge
Base Running: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Jordy Mercer, 5. Brandon Inge
Shortstop Ability: 1. Jordy Mercer, 2. Chase d’Arnaud, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Josh Harrison, 5. Brandon Inge
Defense: 1. Jordy Mercer, 2. Brandon Inge, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Josh Harrison
Versatility: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus. 3. Chase d’Arnaud, 4. Jordy Mercer, 5. Brandon Inge
Experience: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Chase d’Arnaud, 4. Ivan De Jesus, 5. Jordy Mercer
Potential: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Jordy Mercer, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Josh Harrison, 5. Brandon Inge
Finally I would like to give the percent chance I think each has of making the team. Now remember there are two open spots and the Pirates are probably going to give both of them to two infielders but there is a not impossible chance they opt to go with a 5th outfielder instead of an additional infielder. Since there are two spots the odds add up to 200% and these numbers are really just my best estimate as of now. I have no real knowledge of the situation, it is pure speculation.
Josh Harrison: 75%
Jordy Mercer: 40%
Brandon Inge: 30%
5th OF: 25%
Ivan De Jesus: 20%
Chase d’Arnaud: 10%
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
Last season I called Pedro Alvarez the key to the Pirates season and in a sense he was. His 2012 campaign was vastly better than his 2011 one but still not a dominating performance so the Pirates performed better but still not good. Not much has changed in one year, Alvarez still appears to me to be the biggest key to the success or failure of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates need another impact bat in their lineup to go along with Andrew McCutchen and the person most capable of being that impact bat is Mr. Alvarez. It is difficult to say just what we should expect from Alvarez in 2013. He is a big power guy with a big strike out problem and those types seem to see a lot of fluctuation from year to year. Still I’m reasonably hopeful that Pedro will take another step forward and continue to grow as a hitter and all around player. I think we will see his ratios improve as I expect to cut down slightly on his strike outs while taking more walks. THese will not be vast improvements but I expect to see Alvarez drop his K% below 30% and possibly even get it down into the 28% range and I see his walk percentage eclipsing 10% and maybe even approaching 11%. These are not dramatic shifts but if they occur it will help Alvarez improve. The biggest test with Alvarez will be whether or not he can improve upon his long cold stretches, by improve I don’t mean have them disappear but have them not be so bad. It is ok if he goes two weeks and is a .600 OPS player but it’s another thing if he goes two weeks and is a .350 OPS player. Defensively I think we all know what to expect from Alvarez he will be a below average third baseman but I suspect he will continue to play passably enough where talk about him moving to 1st base can be delayed another season at least. On the power side I am expecting to see Pedro increase his total of 30 home runs from 2012 but only slightly finishing with somewhere between 32-35 home runs. All in all I see Pedro being a solid 3.0-3.5 WAR player for the Pirates in 2013 and I see him posting a triple slash of approximately .240/.325/.475.
Harrison plays all over the field but the only position he really looks comfortable at defensively is third base. He is officially competing for a bench spot but seeing as he has been the on the team the last two seasons he appears to be a player Hurdle likes so I expect him to once again be a part of the Pirates bench. In reality the Pirates need to be doing better than Harrison on the bench. He is a decent guy to have around in AAA but last season he led the Pirates in pinch hit appearances and that should not happen. Harrison has little power and is weak defensively so his value comes from his contact skills and since he only hit .233 last season he had essentially no value at all. Harrison doesn’t walk but on the plus side he tends to be hard to strike out. He is a free swinger who usually makes contact. I’m hoping Harrison sees a drop in playing time but considering the Pirates really don’t have a lot of other quality middle infield bench options I suspect he will still get around 250 PA in 2013. I expect Harrison will see an improvement in his average and get it up to around .250 which should at least give him some value to the Pirates. Despite my dislike for Harrison I expect we will see a slightly better year from him in 2013. Assuming he can get his average and walk rate up his versatility could make him a semi-decent bench player assuming the Pirates don’t use him as the top bench option. Like I said I expect he’ll receive around 250 PA but that is too mcuh, ideally he’ll be limited to around 150-175 and if he is and he posts a .250/.300/.350 slash line he could be an ok 25th man. Bottom line what I’m expecting from Harrison is non-horrible 25th man production but playing time deserving of a more important bench piece.
Inge appears to be Harrison’s main competition for a bench spot. In theory both players could make it but since neither really plays shortstop, at least play it well, I think it is an either or situation. Inge brings to the table better defense and a little more power than Harrison but isn’t quite as versatile having spent almost all of his playing time at third base. Now he does have some time in the outfield corners, a few innings at second and was a catcher not all that long ago so he does have some versatility. As of now I don’t expect Inge to make the team and as he appears to be in the declining portion of his career that isn’t a bad thing. If Inge were to make it I could see him providing similar value to what Harrison would albeit in a different way. Realistically if he were to make the team a line of .220/.280/.350 would be a fairly good estimate taking into account his recent seasons. Value wise there isn’t much difference between Inge and Harrison but skill wise there is. Inge has an out clause in his contract if he isn’t on the roster by late March, I’m not sure if he will use it or not but if he doesn’t I would assume we would see Inge playing third base down in AAA for most of the season.
Russell Martin, Michael McKenry, Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson
Barring injury or something else unforeseen I think it is safe to assume the 17 above players will be making the Pirates opening day roster. The roles of most of these players are also known as Martin, Walker, Alvarez, Barmes, Marte and McCutchen all figure to be regular. On the pitching side Burnett, Rodriguez and McDonald will be the top of the rotation and Grilli, Melancon, Hughes and Watson figure to form the back of the bullpen. Of the remaining four players McKenry will serve as the backup catcher, Jones figures to platoon at 1B, Snider will make the team due to being out of options and his potential and Karstens will either serve as a starter or a swingman for the pitching staff. Snider currently projects as the starting right fielder but even if he loses that job he will have a spot on the bench.
Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, Bryan Morris
Sanchez is fairly close to a lock to start the season platooning with Jones but he does have an option remaining so it is possible the Pirates could opt to send him down to AAA and take a look at a player like Jerry Sands. I know some will argue with me including Jose Tabata here but he has a fairly lengthy contract and is out of options so it would be rather surprising to see the Pirates DFA him without at least giving him a chance to serve as a 4th outfielder. He isn’t guaranteed a spot but I would count on him getting one. Bryan Morris is out of options and is a potential back of the bullpen reliever. If the Pirates were to DFA him there is little doubt some team would claim him. Due to the uncertainty of the final three bullpen spots and Morris’s upside it seems unlikely that he will not make the team.
Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano
Not much to say here. Early reports seem to suggest that Morton will start the season on the 60 day DL and that Liriano will begin the season on the 15 day DL. When healthy Liriano will definitely be guarenteed a spo but I’m not sure I can make the same statement about Morton.
40 Man Roster Players Not Competing for a Spot
Phillip Irwin, Stolmy Pimentel, Tony Sanchez, Hunter Strickland
Fairly straightforward here. THe above 4 players are on the 40 man roster but don’t have the polish needed to help the major league roster right out of camp. The only one who may be ready to serve some sort of role is Sanchez but there are already two catchers locked in on the roster leaving him with no room.
NRIs Not Competing for a Spot
Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Erik Cordier, Ryan Reid, Lucas May, Carlos Paulino, Ali Solis, Jared Goedert, Anderson Hernandez, Darren Ford
Again fairly obvious here that none of the above players have a chance of making the major league roster out of Spring Training. Most of these players were added to be roster depth and will be playing most if not all of 2013 down in AAA. The rest are prospects the Pirates wanted to get a look at.
NRIs With Little Chance to Make the Team
Matt Hague, Brad Hawpe, Felix Pie, Kyle Waldrop, Mike Zagurski
The above players do not have zero chance of making the team but the odds of them doing so appear to be highly stacked against them . The Pirates have a lot of options for 1B/OF making it unlikely any NRI at one of those positions will stick and the two pitchers I listed above, Waldrop and Zagurski, appear to be pretty far down on the pecking order.
40 Man Roster Players With Little Chance to Make the Team
Clint Robinson, Chase d’Arnaud, Victor Black, Andrew Oliver
Once again the above 4 players all probably do have a chance to stick with the Pirates but that chance is very minimal and it is likely all of them will start the season off serving as depth in AAA.
All of this leaves me with 15 players competing for the final spots. Looking at the spots open we have 2 bench spots, 1 rotation spot, 1 bullpen spot and 1 other pitching spot (rotation or bullpen depending on where Karstens goes).
Bench Spots Competition
Josh Harrison, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus, Brandon Inge
To me with Snider and Tabata taking the roles as the third and fourth outfielders it appears unlikely that Presley or Sands will stick given the Pirates preference to have two reserve middle infielders on the bench. For this reason I think the competition is really down to Harrison, Mercer, De Jesus and Inge for the final two spots. As of right now the favorites would have to be considered Harrison and Mercer due to the fact they are on the 40 man roster but the other two definitely have a fighting chance. The Pirates seem to have a fondness for Harrison so I would be very surprised to see him not make the team although I do believe it would be for the best if he did not. If we assume Harrison is on the team it becomes almost a necessity that the other bench player be capable of playing shortstop which leaves us with De Jesus and Mercer. As I said right now I have to lean towards Mercer.
Rotation Spot Competition
Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez
I’m going to approach this assuming Karstens will begin the year in the rotation but that is not a given. Assuming this is the case these three players are competing for one spot. Due to his lack of experience in AAA and the fact the Pirates will probably opt to start the year with two lefties in the rotation I find it difficult to envision McPherson making the team. That leaves Locke and Sanchez competing for the final spot. Before knowing of Sanchez’s opt out clause I would have said the spot will definitely go to Locke but the fact the Pirates could lose Sanchez if he isn’t on the roster means that a strong spring showing will definitely force him into the conversation. Still as of right now I’ll give the slight edge to Locke
Bullpen Spots Competition
Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Duke Welker, Justin Wilson, Kris Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez
Leroux and Gomez are both out of options and on the 40 man roster which would ordinarily lead me to believe they are the favorites for the final 2 spots but I think the Pirates will end up carrying two left handers meaning one of them, at least will be out. Mazzaro seems to be a long shot given that he is an NRI and there is little separating him from Leroux and Gomez but he definitely has a chance. Welker is intriguing but he has some control problems that probably need to be worked out in AAA. I don’t see two of the lefties I listed making the bullpen so that leaves Leroux and Gomez competing for 1 spot. As of now I have to assume the Pirates see more in Leroux and that he will get the nod but that could easily change. As for the last spot I see Kris Johnson as a long shot in this competition. If Sanchez were to make the rotation I think Wilson takes the job but if Sanchez shows some promise and doesn’t get a rotation spot I feel the Pirates keep him as the second lefty. As of now I have Sanchez penciled in to that role but it could easily change.
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
C: Michael McKenry
CI: Gaby Sanchez
MI: Jordy Mercer
OF: Jose Tabata
U: Josh Harrison
1: AJ Burnett
2: Wandy Rodriguez
3: James McDonald
4: Jeff Karstens
5: Jeff Locke
CL: Jason Grilli
SU: Mark Melancon
MR: Tony Watson
MR: Jared Hughes
MR: Bryan Morris
LR: Jonathan Sanchez
LR: Chris Leroux
C: Tony Sanchez
IF: Ivan De Jesus
IF: Brandon Inge
1B/OF: Jerry Sands
OF: Alex Presley
SP: Kyle McPherson
RP: Jeanmar Gomez
RP: Justin Wilson
* Next in line should an injury occur in spring training and/or top competitors for the opening jobs.
One aspect of the game the Pirates have struggled with a lot in past seasons is production, both offensively and defensively, from the bench. Pirates pinch hitters hit well below league average and with a team that isn’t exactly full of superstars this is a big problem as production is essentially needed from everyone. Well as we sit here more than two months away from opening day we have a good handle on 4 of the Pirates 5 bench spots.
McKenry will definitely start the year as the backup catcher and if he can replicate his performance from 2012 he will be a very good asset off the bench and should even allow the Pirates to rest Martin on a fairly regular basis.
As things stand right now Sanchez will likely platoon with Garrett Jones at 1B but since Jones will take up the lion’s share of the playing time he will usually be on the bench. At the very least he is a good right handed stick for the bench and he has the upside of returning to his 2010-11 form and returning to his average major league 1B form.
It appears as if Travis Snider is going to get first crack at starting in right field which means the out of options Jose Tabata will be relegated to the bench. It is possible Tabata will receive some playing time in the OF especially if the Pirates sit Snider against lefties but he appears likely to be the usual 4th outfielder. He has shown some decent OBP skills in the past and if he can refind his stolen base ability he could be an interesting option, otherwise he is probably just another averageish bench player.
Although the Pirates technically have Jordy Mercer and Ivan De Jesus who will be competing with Harrison I find it difficult to believe the Pirates will not keep Harrison in the majors. Harrison gives the Pirates a very flexible player who can play 2B, 3B, SS and even a little RF. He isn’t really a good hitter but he has shown some decent contact skills so he does have some value.
The last spot basically comes down to another middle infielder on the bench, which is how the Pirates usually go or another 1B/OF type who will give the Pirates a better bench offensively. Mercer and De Jesus are the top candidates should a 2nd middle infielder be carries and Sands and Presley appear to be the top candidates should another 1B/OF be carried.
There are pros and cons to carrying either one but I think considering how Ciriaco (2011) and Mercer (2012) were wasted on the bench the Pirates need to strongly considering carrying a better offensive option and of the two main candidates the left handed Alex Presley appears to be the best option as the 4 people I previously have mentioned are all right handed. Another option I think the Pirates should strongly consider is bringing in a middle infielder from free agency but with my preference for him to be a left handed batter the only two real options appear to be Adam Kennedy or Kelly Johnson. Johnson has gotten little interest in the free agent market and if the Pirates could convince him to come be part of the bench and an insurance policy for Walker’s back he could be the perfect addition to the Pirates bench. Johnson would need to be willing to try to be a little more versatile than just 2B as he would probably be asked to dust off his OF glove and maybe even take some reps at 3B. Kennedy on the other hand plays 1B, 2B and 3B and would be another decent add although his bat is a little weak. Johnson would provide some power for the bench and Kennedy would probably be not much more than an average left handed bench stick.
Heading into this offseason the Pirates seem to have a lot of positions set on the 25 man roster but that obviously doesn’t mean that there are not spots that could and should be upgraded. Trying to upgrade these positions the same ways as in year’s past (signing middling free agents) is probably not the best way to solve these problems as is evident by the failures of the last several years. So a new direction is needed and that could possibly include trades, NRI signings, Rule V draft, internal solutions, international signing, etc. My preferred strategy for the Pirates this offseason is to be minimally active in traditional free agency and instead focus on finding players through other means. Still free agency can not be entirely ignored and the idea of going for just one upper level free agent should also be considered. With all that being said I have found six positions that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be well served to upgrade. So in no particular order the positions are:
1. Starting Pitcher
5. Corner Outfield
Now I will go over the type of player I believe the Pirates should be looking for at each position and I’ll give the best fit of the available free agents and where necessary I’ll give an example of the type of player the Pirates should look to acquire via a trade. Again I’ll reiterate I’m not necessarily advocating acquiring these players just giving an example of the type the Pirates should be looking for.
Starting Pitcher: The way I see it the Pirates have only AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez locked into the rotation to begin next season. James McDonald should also probably be in there some where but his end of the season struggles make him a question mark. Karstens is the other obvious candidate but he has durability/injury issues. The rest of the candidates, Locke, McPherson, Leroux, VandenHurk, Wilson, etc seem best suited for 5th starter or depth duty for now. So with three question marks of some variety in the rotation starting pitcher is an obvious need. In fact if the Pirates decide to go the route of one decent sized free agent signing I hope it is in the rotation as a Gavin Floyd or Edwin Jackson type could do a lot to help stabilize the rotation. However I am advocating different strategies this season so a trade for a good starter would be a good thing to consider as would a signing of a high upside risky pitcher. For example the pitchers I see fitting into this category are Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana and Scott Baker. All 3 of those pitchers have a ton of upside and could get a reasonably large sum in free agency but conversely all 3 have significant faults which could drop their respective prices making them prime targets for the Pirates.
Bullpen: The only two players who should be considered near locks for the Pirates bullpen are Jared Hughes and Tony Watson. I also expect Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux to be part of the pen but they aren’t guarantees but we will say the Pirates are looking for 3 players to fill out the pen. Hanrahan of course is someone who could take one spot but I think the Pirates will and should trade him, hopefully doing so fills one of the other holes. Resigning Grilli should be another move the Pirates consider but I wouldn’t go with a big salary for him, I think my max would be 2 years at 4 million per season. To fill the other spots I think the Pirates should do what they have done the past few seasons which is scour for players like Jose Veras or Juan Cruz or even select someone in the Rule V draft. Waiver claims and low-level trades could also work. It is always difficult to predict which relievers will be available for low salary contracts or NRI but some names I like are Kyle Farnsworth, Randy Choate and Jon Rauch. Internally guys like Justin Wilson, Duke Welker and even Chris Resop are candidates to fill out the bullpen.
Catcher: Let me start by saying unequivocally that Rod Barajas should not be brought back at any price. Now as for McKenry he is a decent part of a catching tandem but give him anymore than 90 starts and I have a feeling things won’t be looking so good. So obviously some help is needed for him. Eric Fryer and Tony Sanchez are the internal options but Sanchez could use more time in AAA and Fryer well just isn’t that good. There are bound to be some available catchers that can be acquired via a trade such as Hank Conger and the Pirates should seriously consider that route but if they want to go the free agent route there is a pretty decent free agent market for catchers. Napoli is obviously the best available but is not someone the Pirates should ideally locate a lot of money to. Other catchers such as Russell Martin, Kelly Shoppach and David Ross make sense as well. I wouldn’t rule out a trade here but I think I would prefer going after a catcher like Shoppach and using the trade resources to go after some of the other needs.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes wasn’t as bad this season as most Pirates fans would lead you to believe. He had an awful April and May but was exactly what the Pirates should have expected to get the remainder of the season. With all that being said Barmes production shouldn’t have locked down the shortstop job for next season. The Pirates could look at free agency for an answer but the pickings are slim. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta headline the class but Peralta may not even reach free agency and Drew is coming off a season argubly worse than Barmes. Still something needs to be done to address the shortstop problem because at the very least another solution is going to be needed in 2014. If the Pirates choose to go the trade route I hope they look for someone who has good on base skills and could hit near the top of the lineup. Players like that are rare from the shortstop position and are usually pretty expensive in terms of salary and what it would cost to acquire them via trade. One name that sticks out to me who by all accounts isn’t available but I imagine could be for a good offer is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie can play good defense and has consistently put up a good OBP. If the Pirates can acquire a shortstop in that mold that is the way to go otherwise when considering the options available through free agency sticking with Barmes and adding in more Jordy Mercer to prepare him for 2013 is probably the way to go.
Corner Outfield: The toughest need to really explain. Let me start by saying I am assuming Garrett Jones will split time with Gaby Sanchez at 1B meaning he will only play in the outfield sparingly if at all. If the Pirates decide to make him a OF the need for a corner outfielder greatly diminishes but the need for a 1B to compliment Gaby Sanchez increases, however I’ll ignore that possibility for now. The Pirates production from the corner outfield this season sans Jones was awful. The Pirates received the 2nd worst offensive production from LF this season and were only marginally decent in RF thanks to Jones playing there about half the time. This would seem an obvious spot to upgrade but yet it isn’t. The Pirates have 4 players vying to man these two positions with 3 of them being 24 years old (1 of the 3 will be 25 for all of next season). The Pirates have a ton of youth and potential to fill these 2 positions in Marte, Snider, Tabata and Presley but not much actual success to go on. I would assume Marte has got to be given a chance in one corner due to the fact he has the highest upside of the bunch and had the best season of the four last year. The other spot is where the need comes into play Snider will be playing next season at 25 years old and Tabata will be playing most of it at 24 years old. The two of them look like they could make a decent platoon in RF but with the uncertainty in LF this is not something the Pirates should count on. If the Pirates wanted to make a big splash for an offensive player this is where they should do it. A player like Angel Pagan makes a lot of sense as he could come in play a OF corner and hit atop the order. However due to the youth and potential the Pirates have here I’d rather see a big splash investment go to the pitching side and this be solved with a less splashy option. I envision the type of addition that makes the most sense is a veteran outfield who has good on base skills and who wouldn’t mind being a 4th outfielder but is capable of being a borderline starting option. The two players in free agency that best matches this description are Juan Pierre and Reed Johnson, however I am not too enthused about either of them. Just to give an example of the type of player I’m talking about I’ll mention David DeJesus. Now I doubt the Cubs will actively be looking to move DeJesus but a player like him capable of playing all 3 positions in the OF and maintaining a .340+ OBP is exactly what the Pirates should be looking for. If they can’t find one and they don’t choose to make a big splash I think the best option is to play Marte in LF, have Snider and Tabata platoon in RF, have Presley available in AAA and be open to using Jones in the outfield once again. That may not seem like a great option but neither is bringing in a middling free agent.
Bench: If there is one theme to what the Pirates need to do this offseason it is they have to get deeper. Deeper in the rotation, the bullpen, the lineup, the minor leagues and the bench. This past season the two Pirates who received the most pinch hit appearances were Josh Harrison and Jeff Clement. Both of them struggled and Clement for one shouldn’t be back. Going into next season the Pirates bench figures to include a backup catcher say McKenry, T Sanchez or an outside addition, Gaby Sanchez, a young middle infielder say Mercer, Holt or Harrison and a 4th outfielder say Snider, Tabata or an outside acquisition. That leaves one final spot which this past season belonged to Harrison. Harrison should absolutely be given a chance to win a spot on the bench but only the reserve middle infielder job. The Pirates should allocate some resources to improving this spot with offense being a key focus. Just looking at free agency the Pirates could choose to go for a pure pinch hitter and sign a 1B like Jason Giambi or Carlos Lee. Or since they seem to have a desire to carry at least 4 middle infielders at all times a guys like Maicer Izturis or Adam Kennedy could be pursued. Or they could carry 5 outfielders on the roster (which with Jones on the team seems like overkill) and get a player like Austin Kearns, Raul Ibanez or Reed Johnson. The other option is of course to go with a Mike Fontenot or Jeff Baker type who can play all over the field but that would likely sacrifice offensive production. It is very difficult to speculate on who else the Pirates may be able to acquire here so I’ll just leave it at that but something needs to be done to improve the Pirates bench.
Pedro Alvarez: Alvarez received the wide majority of at bats for the Pirates from third base this past season. We seen flashes of his brilliance when he got on some unbelievable tears which elevated him to one of the most feared hitters in the game to his bottomless pits where he couldn’t hit anything and was thought of as essentially an automatic out. Pedro is probably always going to be that type of hot/cold player but the key is to make the cold stretches not so bad and by the end of the year Alvarez had made progress with that. There is no doubt about it Alvarez just has gobs of potential and can be the middle of the order bat the Pirates are still desperately lacking. Going into next season will not be very different from this one the most important player to the success of the Pirates will once again be Pedro Alvarez. Along with his big power spike this season came some improved but still shaky defense. It appears Alvarez may eventually have to move over to first base but right now he looks the part of a capable third baseman and until the Pirates have a reason to move him (ie just terrible defense or a stud replacement) he should remain there. There is no reason to not think that Alvarez will be the starting third baseman next year and probably occupying a spot in the middle of the lineup. As for this season I give him an Overall Grade: B+
Josh Harrison: This season Harrison finally got a chance to settle into what will undoubtedly be his primary role in the majors, utility player. Harrison also played some 2B, SS and OF this season but seems most comfortable at 3B which is why I am listing him here. He was defensively solid everywhere except the outfield and even there he appeared to be slowly getting more comfortable. Harrison won’t wow you with his defense and is probably a little suspect at shortstop but as a fill in he is perfectly capable. The problem Harrison had this year was that his bat was rather weak. He had a few hot stretches but overall posted a .624 OPS which isn’t going to be good enough to establish himself as anything more than a fringe bench option. Harrison was the Pirates top pinch hitter this season which admittedly is a role he shouldn’t have but nonetheless he struggled in it. This offseason one thing the Pirates must address is the depth of their bench and by doing so it could end up costing Harrison a spot on the major league roster. I still think he finds a way to sneak in there though. Overall Grade: C
Eric Avila: The Pirates are very weak prospect wise at 3rd base which allowed Avila to stick around as one of the better 3rd base prospects in the system despite a season and half of poor play. Avila’s 2011 season and first part of 2012 were pretty bad but a strong showing coupled with a power spike at the end of the season has him back atop my 3rd base prospect rankings and has him once again as a prospect to watch heading into next season. Next season will be a big test for Avila to show that he has found his power stroke and is once again a legit prospect. Due to the lack of 3rd base depth in the system Avila should open next season in A+ as the starter and with a good showing should easily be promoted to AA as there is no one blocking him.
Eric Wood: The other two 3rd base prospects I’m going to list were both selected in this past draft and the one who has had the best start to his career has been Eric Wood. Wood was selected in the 6th round of this past draft and was sort of a mystery. He appeared to be an overdraft with the idea of saving money by going way underslot but while he did sign for underslot it wasn’t by a huge sum. He was drafted as JuCo player so he is much closer to a high school age player than he is a college age drafted player. He was known to have some power when the Pirates drafted him and he displayed that power during his debut in rookie ball. The Pirates promoted him at the end of the season to A- ball where he struggles some but the sample size there is rather small and the bigger point is this is a move the Pirates usually make when they are considering sending a player straight to full season ball the following year. I expect Wood to start the season as the starting 3rd baseman in A ball and really get a chance to establish himself as a legit 3rd base prospect.
Kevin Ross: Ross was officially signed as a shortstop but spent no time at that position this season and is widely considered someone who won’t stay at the position anyway. His future seems to be at either 2B or 3B but I see him more as a third baseman which is why I have him listed here. Ross signed late into the signing period and due to this he didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot. He struggled initially but put up a very strong stat line in August to end the regular season. Ross does have some power potential but has some work to do with his swing. He is probably more of a project right now than a prospect but due to the Pirates current state of 3rd base prospects he is definitely an interesting name to keep an eye one. Ross will almost definitely return to one of the short season leagues next year but which one is still a bit of a guess and will probably depend on how he does in extended spring training and by who the Pirates draft next year.
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)