The bulk of Pittsburgh’s free agent activity this winter has been additions to the bench. In fact, the only two major league contracts the Pirates have handed out to free agents thus far have been bench players. For a team that traded two of it’s best players, and struggled mightily in the rotation all season, that may not be the best strategy. That’s not to say the Pirates didn’t make good moves here.
Pittsburgh added Ramon Vazquez to a two year, $4 M deal. They followed that up by adding Eric Hinske to a one year deal for $1.5 M. Both players bring positional flexibility and power to the Pirates. Vazquez has played at all four infield positions in his major league career, playing in almost 150 games at second, almost 200 games at third, and almost 250 games at shortstop. Hinske has played the corner outfield positions, and the corner infield positions.
Vazquez has played in the majors since 2001, with a career .257/.322/.358 line, and a homer every 83.19 ABs. In the last two years with Texas, Vazquez has hit for a .260/.325/.402 line, with a homer every 42.86 at bats. In fact, 14 of Vazquez’s career 21 homers have come in the last two years.
Texas may have played a part in that, but his usage may have also played a factor. In his career, Vazquez has a .273/.346/.391 line against right handers, with all 21 homers coming in 1393 at bats. He has a .195/.229/.481 line against left handers, with no homers in 354 at bats. Vazquez has only received 124 at bats the last two years against lefties, which may attribute to his success, and lays the blueprint of how the Pirates should use him.
As for Hinske, the left hander has a similar situation. In his career, Hinske has a .254/.335/.438 line with a homer every 27.68 at bats. In the last three years he has a .240/.331/.440 line with a homer every 23.96 at bats, including a .247/.333/.465 line with a homer every 19.05 at bats last year for the Rays in 381 at bats. The average may seem low, but only Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, and Adam LaRoche finished with a higher OPS, and only Bay homered more frequently.
Hinske’s problem is similar to Vazquez, as he has a career .264/.347/.458 line against right handers, with a 25.86 AB/HR ratio, compared to a .219/.293/.365 line against left handers, with a 37.06 AB/HR ratio.
The Pirates also added Craig Monroe, who is pretty much a lock to make the team with the power he’s shown in Spring Training. I wrote about how Monroe could be in line for a starting job, which would bring Nyjer Morgan to the bench, but either way, that will cover spot number three.
The next spot on the bench is really the only big battle this Spring, and not because both players are putting up great performances. The backup catcher role will either go to Robinzon Diaz or Jason Jaramillo. My guess is Jaramillo, due to his defense, and you can read the rest about these two in my breakdown of the backup catcher battle.
The final spot is up in the air, but at this point I have Andy Phillips penciled in on my 25-man roster projection. Phillips provides positional flexibility, having played at first, second, third, and left field in his career. In his major league career he has a .250/.291/.384 line with a homer every 39.79 ABs. However, he only has 557 at bats in five seasons, mostly due to being blocked while in the Yankees system. In the last two years while at AAA, Phillips has shown some power, with a homer every 24.69 at bats.
I’m not counting on Steve Pearce winning a job on the bench. He will either win a starting job, or go to AAA to play full time. Garrett Jones is another option to make the team, having a great Spring, with the ability to play at multiple positions. Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz are also options, but with Ramon Vazquez backing up both middle infield spots, there might be no need for one of them. That points to Phillips winning the final spot on the bench.
Overall, the Pirates bench could be made up of five players who weren’t with the team last year in Vazquez, Hinske, Jaramillo, Monroe, and Phillips. The batting averages aren’t high, but each player provides decent power at his position, and for a team lacking power after the Bay and Nady trades, that’s a good thing. Maybe not as good as adding a quality starting pitcher, but a pinch hit homer when you’re trailing by one in the late innings is nothing to scoff at.