I want to preface this by saying that I don’t place much value on Spring Training numbers. There are some stats that can provide encouragement, such as John Raynor’s high batting average, and Garrett Jones hitting two homers in his first 15 at-bats. There are some stats that cause you to worry, such as Kevin Hart’s four walks in one inning. I’d classify Jeff Clement’s 1-for-13 performance in that second category.
Coming in to Spring Training, it’s been a big assumption that Clement would be given the starting first base job, regardless of his performance. I never believed that, as you can see by his status in the Spring Training tracker. I also feel that most people are uncomfortable with Clement starting the season as the Pirates’ first baseman mostly due to learning a new position. So far, all reports say that Clement hasn’t had much trouble defensively at first base, but his 1-for-13 performance brings up an interesting situation.
Should the Pirates send Clement to AAA if he’s not hitting in Spring Training? The big test for Clement was supposed to be his defense, and there’s aren’t any problems in that area so far. There’s also a major roster crunch, with Ramon Vazquez, Delwyn Young, Brandon Moss, Steve Pearce, Brandon Jones, John Raynor, Neil Walker, and Jonathan Van Every competing for the final two bench spots. Vazquez, Young, Moss, and Raynor need to make the team or else the Pirates could potentially lose them. Vazquez is considered a lock due to his salary, leaving one spot.
Sending Clement down would move Garrett Jones to first base, and put Ryan Church as the starting right fielder, opening up one more bench spot. The Pirates could even come to their senses, eat the Vazquez contract, and keep Young, Moss, AND Raynor. But at what cost?
There’s not much need to send Clement to AAA. In 1343 at-bats at the level, he’s hit for a .279/.368/.492 line, with a homer every 22.76 at-bats. Even outside of the PCL, his numbers were respectable after the trade, with a .772 OPS and a homer every 14 at-bats in 98 at-bats at Indianapolis. If his defense is good enough for the majors, then sending him down for more experience at AAA isn’t going to help. The Pirates need to give him a chance to prove himself against major league pitching, and that’s not going to happen in Spring Training.
If you keep Clement up, what do you risk losing? I wouldn’t mind Moss going. He’s good defensively, but poor at the plate. I like Delwyn Young as a hitter off the bench, but he’s poor on defense. Raynor is a wild card, as he was a former top prospect, and could still be productive in the majors. He could be a combo of Delwyn and Moss, as in a good hitter off the bench with good defense.
If you send Clement down, what do you risk losing? You get to keep an extra guy from the Moss/Young/Raynor group, but you lose Clement. Clement is projected for a .264/.342/.460 line with 17 homers in 402 at-bats by CHONE. That’s 23 homers in a 550 at-bat season. I’d certainly take that at first base. Meanwhile, Ryan Church, who would replace Clement in the lineup if he is demoted, is projected for a .268/.337/.408 line with 9 homers in 377 at-bats, or a 13 homer pace in 550 at-bats. Based off the CHONE projections, the downgrade would take the Pirates from an .802 OPS/23 homer guy to a .745 OPS/13 homer guy.
With Church, you’ve got a good hitter off the bench, who can provide good defense. You may lose Moss or Young, but you’ve got a stronger bench, and the lineup is stronger if the CHONE projections come true. By sending Clement down, you keep as many players as possible, but in the end you’re potentially sacrificing production in the lineup, and weakening the bench, all so you don’t lose a defensive only player like Moss, or an offensive only player like Young.
The downside to any decision is that you don’t know how it will play out. Maybe Young develops defensive skills, or Moss starts hitting to his original potential, making both players starter quality. Maybe Clement doesn’t hit up to his projections. Maybe Church exceeds his projections. Maybe Raynor struggles in the jump to the majors. What I do know is that, with Jose Tabata in the wings, the window for Jeff Clement to show us what he can do is small. We’ve seen what Moss and Young can do. I don’t want to deny Clement his chance just to preserve as many bench options as possible.