The Pittsburgh Pirates have a problem. The team has four spots on the field which could require a platoon, due to the fact that they have so many players who can’t hit left-handers.
The obvious player is Garrett Jones, who is established as a platoon player at this point. In his career, Jones has an .851 OPS against right-handers, and a .590 OPS against left-handers. The Pirates acquired Gaby Sanchez last year, aimed at platooning him with Jones at first. So far that platoon has worked out great. Jones is hitting for an .833 OPS against right-handers, and only has three at-bats against lefties. Sanchez is destroying lefties, with a 1.223 OPS in 28 at-bats. Unfortunately he also has a .581 OPS in 29 at-bats against right-handers, mostly because he was getting a lot of at-bats as an everyday player early in the season.
The Pirates have a platoon going at first base. That takes up one bench spot, with another spot going to backup catcher Michael McKenry. This leaves three spots, and the problem is that the Pirates have three other positions which can be platooned.
I talked about the first position last night — right field. The Pirates are actually platooning Travis Snider. He has a career .664 OPS against left-handers in 194 at-bats. This year he has a .294 average and a .780 OPS against right-handers, and has been limited to only five at-bats against left-handers.
No one wants to platoon the next guy, but Pedro Alvarez is looking like he’s heading down that path. Alvarez has a career .628 OPS against lefties in 323 at-bats. That’s more than Snider, who is being platooned, and it’s more than Jones when the Pirates made the decision to platoon him. As I pointed out before the season, Alvarez had been showing signs of improvements the last few years. So far this year he has regressed from last year’s numbers.
You also can’t mention Neil Walker as a platoon player for two reasons. One is that he’s a switch hitter, and switch hitters don’t usually have platoon splits. Two is that he’s from Pittsburgh, and immune to criticism. The fact is that Walker has a .667 OPS in 421 at-bats against lefties, which is a number that has been inflated by success in 2010. He had a .602 OPS last year, and he’s 4-for-24 against lefties this year.
Technically the Pirates could use all of their bench spots for platoon roles. It would just mean that they’d have Snider, Alvarez, and Walker coming off the bench those days. The problem is that the Pirates hardly have anyone who can hit left-handers. That’s not just at the major league level, but in the minors as well. Let’s take a look at the options.
Russell Martin - It should say a lot about the lack of hitters who can hit lefties when you’re moving your $8.5 M a year catcher to other positions to make up for the problem. Martin has been playing third base to give Alvarez time off against lefties, and there has been talk that he could also play right field. So far this year he has a .788 OPS against lefties in 22 at-bats, and surprisingly has a .941 OPS against right-handers in 70 at-bats. Aside from Sanchez, Martin has been the best option against lefties. The problem, of course, is that you’re having to move your starting catcher around the field.
Brandon Inge - In his career, Inge has crushed left-handers. The recent numbers don’t look as good.
2010: .817 OPS in 138 AB
2011: .717 OPS in 98 AB
2012: .693 OPS in 115 AB
2013: .467 OPS in 15 AB
The 2013 numbers are a small sample size, but there is concern since Inge has slumped the last two years, and looks to be trending downward. He shouldn’t be someone the Pirates should rely on to solve the problem against left-handers, and his recent trend should earn him a short leash.
Jordy Mercer - I talked about Mercer this morning. He’s got some history of hitting lefties, and he could get some playing time filling in for Walker at second or Alvarez at third. He’s unproven at the major league level, and his numbers against lefties haven’t always been good, so he’s also not a guy you can count on.
Jose Tabata - He’s hurt right now, but he’s also very comparable to Travis Snider. He doesn’t have good career numbers against lefties, and has been hitting right-handers better this year.
Alex Presley - Similar to Tabata and Snider, he doesn’t hit lefties and does great against right-handers.
Felix Pie - He is actually starting to hit in Indianapolis, but has a career .513 OPS in 164 major league at-bats against lefties.
Jerry Sands - The problem right now is that he’s not hitting anyone. In his brief major league career he had a .904 OPS in 79 at-bats against lefties. Last year he had an .847 OPS in 155 minor league at-bats against lefties. In 2011 it was .894 in 165 minor league at-bats. In 2010 it was .943 in 131 minor league at-bats. So the trend is there, but in 2013 he has a .143/.278/.165 line in 91 at-bats, and isn’t even hitting lefties.
Andrew Lambo - Aside from the fact that he’s only in Double-A, Lambo also has poor splits. He has seven homers this year, but only one in 33 at-bats against lefties, and a .546 OPS against left-handers.
Matt Hague - The hit collector has gotten a lot of hits against lefties, but he’s not a platoon guy. He’s usually around an .800 OPS in the minors, so I’m not sure if he could maintain that in the majors.
Jared Goedert - He only has a .200/.320/.341 line in 85 at-bats this year, but he does have a .780 OPS against lefties. Last year Goedert had a 1.068 OPS in 125 at-bats against lefties in the minors. In 2011 it was .966 in 127 at-bats. In 2010 it was 1.002 in 153 at-bats. The problem is he doesn’t have any time in the majors. During Spring Training I had a scout tell me that Goedert would make a good platoon partner with Pedro Alvarez if the Pirates decided to go that route.
Chase d’Arnaud - He’s on the 60-day DL, but is starting baseball activities, and could start a rehab assignment later this month. He won’t be eligible to return until June. D’Arnaud has always had a platoon split in the minors, so he could be an option when healthy. Here are his numbers in the minors.
2012: .664/.799 (RHP OPS/LHP OPS)
The Pirates could use platoon options at third base, second base, and right field. Unfortunately they only have one guy who can be trusted in a platoon role — Russell Martin — and it’s not like Michael McKenry is a lefty masher (.649 OPS in 112 at-bats in the majors). So by moving Martin around, you’re just filling one hole while creating another. Not to mention you downgrade the defense behind the plate. So here are the options for each position.
Third Base – Martin, Inge, Mercer, Hague, d’Arnaud, Goedert
Martin would be the top option, although that creates a problem behind the plate. I don’t trust Inge, due to his declining numbers. Mercer and d’Arnaud are unproven in the majors. D’Arnaud has the better numbers against lefties of the two. Hague isn’t really a platoon guy, but has the numbers that make him worthy of this list. Goedert might be the sleeper here, since he has great platoon splits in the minors. The problem is that he doesn’t have any major league experience.
Second Base – Inge, Mercer, d’Arnaud
See the comments above for each player. I personally would like to see Mercer getting some time here, or at third base. When d’Arnaud is healthy I think he would be worthy of a shot too, with Mercer and d’Arnaud playing second and third.
Right Field – Martin, Inge, Sands
Guys like Tabata, Presley, and even down to Lambo aren’t options. Martin comes with the problem of creating the hole at catcher. Inge has the same issues that were mentioned above, plus his defense isn’t the best in right field. Sands would be perfect if he continued his career numbers in the majors. Unfortunately he’s in a big slump in Triple-A.
The Pirates don’t have a Gaby Sanchez at any other positions. They’re having to move Russell Martin to different positions, which as I’ve shown creates a problem behind the plate. McKenry struggles against lefties, and his defense is worse than Martin’s. I don’t trust Inge, although the Pirates do and I feel that could be a mistake.
The best options seem to be Mercer, d’Arnaud, Goedert and Sands. Of those three, only Mercer is a realistic short-term option, and he isn’t even proven in the majors. D’Arnaud is out for at least one more month, and also isn’t proven. Sands is slumping, and again isn’t proven. Goedert isn’t proven in the majors, and his overall numbers are bad in Triple-A, but he could fill that role of a third base platoon mate with Alvarez. He has also played some games at second base and right field, but he’s been primarily a third baseman throughout his career.
The thing about a platoon is that it’s not going to look flashy. People tend to look at names and overall numbers when judging platoons. The problem is that names are irrelevant, and the only numbers that matter are the ones that apply to the platoon situation. The side of the platoon that hits left-handers is usually at a disadvantage. They can’t hit right-handers, so they’re limited to bench duty and they aren’t a big name. Also, since they can only hit left-handers, their overall numbers look poor, since they see major struggles in two-thirds of their at-bats.
When I say the Pirates should consider guys like Mercer/d’Arnaud/Sands/Goedert over Alvarez/Walker/Snider, it inspires no confidence. The fact is that the latter group has the name power, and they have the ability to pad the overall numbers due to their hitting against right-handers. The former group doesn’t have either of those, but they have what is most important to this discussion — the ability to hit lefties. That’s something Alvarez/Walker/Snider haven’t shown.
The Pirates don’t have any strong options for the left-handed side of the platoon, and all three of those guys are young. They might want to consider giving a bit more time to guys like Alvarez, at least against easy left-handers. But if the current trends continue, and if no progression is made, the Pirates should start thinking about a solution. That could either be some of the lesser internal names, or acquiring a low-key addition on the trade market, who wouldn’t cost much but would help fill a big need on the Pirates offense.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.
**Be sure to check out the new podcast: P3 Episode 2: The Returning Pitchers, The Hot Start, and a Robby Rowland Interview.