First Pitch: An Important Part of Every Team That Rarely Gets Discussed

Spring Training kicked off today, which means that all of the focus will be on one thing: the Opening Day 25-man roster. This always gets a huge focus at the start of the year, and probably much more of a focus than it should. The baseball season is six months long, and the Opening Day roster is usually intact for about two weeks, at-most, before changes occur. Injuries happen. Players don’t perform as expected. Certain players from other teams become available. That’s why it’s better to focus on the big picture, and focus on everyone who could help the team throughout the year, rather than focusing only on the 25 specific guys who will be on the roster on Opening Day, and maybe for the first few weeks of the season.

This week I’ve been previewing the Spring Training position battles (Infield, Outfield, Rotation, Bullpen). One of the things I focused on with each article was the depth at each position. I didn’t want to just focus on the Opening Day roster, since that’s only relevant for a few weeks. Instead, I wanted to focus on guys who could be up the entire season.

In 2013 we saw how important depth was. The Pirates saw a ton of injuries to their rotation, and ended up having to turn to guys like Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez, Kris Johnson, Phil Irwin, and top prospect Gerrit Cole for starts. Those guys made up 33 starts, which is a full season from one rotation spot. Generally people only look at the first five starters, and project those starters for a full season of work. They might project other starters to get a few spot starts, but people don’t usually think of the 6-10 starters as guys who will start in 20% of a season’s games. It’s entirely possible that Jameson Taillon, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, and other depth options will combine for at least one fifth of the starts in the majors this year.

Likewise, there will be position players who take up anywhere from 10% to 50% of the playing time at any given position. That could be in a smaller role, like Josh Harrison hitting left-handers at second base late in the season last year, or it could be a bigger role, like Jordy Mercer taking over as the primary shortstop mid-season.

Most of the depth is going to come from Indianapolis. It’s way too early to give an accurate projection of the Triple-A roster. From the major league side, we don’t know who will be cut yet. From the minor league side, players haven’t even reported to camp yet. I usually don’t get an idea of where players will start the season in the minors until I see where they are actually playing in Spring Training. Even then, the Triple-A roster can change at the last minute with late Spring cuts. That’s what happened last year with Andrew Lambo, Matt Curry, and a few others who spent the Spring with the Triple-A squad, then were sent to Double-A after some late cuts. That said, here is an early look at the depth that could come out of Indianapolis at each position.

Catcher

Tony Sanchez is my projected starter in the majors for the 2015 season. When it comes to the 2014 season, he will start the year with Indianapolis, and serve as the top depth option if an injury occurs to either Russell Martin or Chris Stewart. The Pirates don’t project to get much offense from Martin or Stewart, but both project to have great defense. Sanchez profiles as a great defensive catcher, who excels at pitch blocking and is a good pitch framer. He does lack consistency at times with his throwing accuracy, although his arm is strong. He’s a good guy to have as a replacement starter if Martin goes down with an injury.

First Base

The Pirates project to open the season with a platoon at first base, and their minor league options project to be platoon players as well. I’m guessing Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo will be the Opening Day starters, with Sanchez being the guarantee from that combo. If the Pirates need a backup to Sanchez, then Matt Hague could be an option. He’s had a lot of success against left-handers in his career, but hasn’t done as well against right-handers. Chris McGuiness is the top option to back up Lambo, with Travis Ishikawa as the number three option. The Pirates can have all three playing everyday by moving Hague to third base with Indianapolis, and having McGuiness and Ishikawa split time between first base and DH.

If the Pirates acquire a first base option to face right-handers, then Lambo would also join this group. They could still give everyone playing time by shifting someone to the outfield.

Second Base/Shortstop

I’m listing the middle infield spots together, because the depth will come from the same guys. If the Pirates need to replace a starter in the majors, they will probably turn to their bench. Clint Barmes would take over at shortstop, and either Josh Harrison would take over at second base, or Jordy Mercer would shift over with Barmes playing shortstop. If an injury does occur to one of the starting middle infielders, then the depth out of Triple-A would probably be called up to take over a bench role.

Chase d’Arnaud projects to be the top depth option. His offense has struggled in Triple-A, with his success coming against lefties. He has a ton of speed and is a smart base runner. He’s got the range to play shortstop, but has had some issues with his throwing mechanics in the past. D’Arnaud isn’t a bad guy to have as your number three or four shortstop option. He’s also a candidate for second base.

Michael Martinez and Robert Andino are both non-roster invitees, and both should start the year in Indianapolis as bench players. I project that these two will take over as starters in Triple-A if the Pirates need to call up someone like d’Arnaud. The only way I see these two making it to the majors is if they really surprise with their numbers, or if the Pirates run into an emergency situation.

Third Base

The Pirates don’t have much depth at third base. And by that I mean they have next to no depth at the position. Pedro Alvarez might be the hardest player to lose to an injury in the majors due to the lack of depth here. It’s not that they couldn’t fill the spot. They could move Jordy Mercer over to third, or have Josh Harrison start. Either case would be an extreme overall downgrade offensively, since you’d basically be going from Alvarez to Harrison or Clint Barmes. The one consolation is that the Pirates would be fine defensively in any of these scenarios.

Matt Hague could be an option in an emergency, although he struggles against right-handers and he isn’t as good defensively as Mercer or Harrison. Chase d’Arnaud has also played third in the past. He would be another huge downgrade offensively with good defense. Basically anyone the Pirates would turn to would be a big downgrade offensively from Alvarez, at least from the power standpoint. Their best bet would be to find someone who is good defensively, and swaps power for the ability to get on base. However, there aren’t any options like that who are projected to be with Indianapolis this year at third base.

Outfield

The big depth here is Gregory Polanco, who projects to make it to the majors in the second half of the 2014 season. Polanco is one of the top prospects in the game, and the top prospect in the system. I project that he will make a jump to the majors similar to the one that Andrew McCutchen made in 2009. His advanced approach at the plate will make it easier for him to have immediate success at the plate. He also brings a lot of value with his speed, base running, and defense. Polanco projects to take over in right field in the second half, but he’s a huge replacement to have if McCutchen or Starling Marte go down with an injury at some point.

Jaff Decker is an early season replacement option for the right field platoon if Travis Snider or Jose Tabata get injured. Based on their injury histories, I’d say it’s highly probable that Decker will see the majors this year. Chris Dickerson will also be an option. I’m guessing that the Opening Day outfield for Indianapolis will include Dickerson, Decker, and Polanco. Things could get interesting there if the Pirates add a first baseman and send Andrew Lambo down. That would mean that Lambo would also be an outfield depth option.

Rotation

As I mentioned above, the rotation depth will probably take up one full rotation spot’s worth of starts. Most of those starts will come from Jameson Taillon, who is projected to come up mid-season, and could come close to the 19 starts that Gerrit Cole made in the majors in 2013. Some of the starts could come from guys like Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel, who project to open the season in the Major League bullpen. But the Pirates will get starts from their Triple-A rotation.

I project the Opening Day rotation to have Taillon, Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Phil Irwin, and one of Casey Sadler or Nick Kingham. Locke, Cumpton, and Irwin will be the top candidates for early season starts. I’d say the preference would probably be in that order, but in reality the depth starters largely depend on who is available to pitch when the team needs a starter. If the Pirates need a starter on a Wednesday, and Jeff Locke isn’t scheduled to pitch until Friday, then they’d have to turn to someone lower on the depth chart. That’s a big reason why it’s good to have multiple options available.

Bullpen

The bullpen depth could come from one of two avenues. It could come from actual relievers, such as Duke Welker or Jared Hughes, or it could come from some of the starters above. Generally a team will turn to relievers first, to maintain starting pitching depth. Welker and Hughes would be the top options to make the majors if the team needs a reliever. Beyond those two, there are several non-roster invitees. Jake Brigham, Cody Eppley, Jay Jackson, Josh Kinney, Daniel Schlereth, and Adam Wilk could all be options at various times throughout the year, although it’s hard to say which players from that group will step up and have enough success to be considered a major league option.

Generally the NRI guys don’t have much success. Last year the Pirates got relief appearances from Ryan Reid, Kris Johnson, Mike Zagurski, and Jose Contreras. Reid and Johnson were the best of the group, although their contributions were minor compared to the depth options at other positions.

Links and Notes

**With Spring Training starting this week, now is the perfect time to get your copy of the 2014 Prospect Guide. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as scouting reports and future potential ratings for every player.

**Clint Hurdle: “We’re always going to rely heavily upon developing our own talent”. That’s just truth for a small market team like the Pirates. In the article I talked about a few guys who could be up in 2014.

**Pirates Sign Yao-Hsun Yang; Invite Him to Spring Training

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Bullpen

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Draft Preview: Prep Pitchers

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I think the question mark at 3B should Pedro get injured in any way would be Neil Walker. He played a lot of 3B at AA and AAA, and his athleticism will allow him to make that move and we could backfill at 2B with Barmes/Mercer. It would create a big hole in the lineup without that power LH bat, but the depth we have with re-signing Barmes (at a very club-friendly rate) provides mobility.

    My biggest concern is not how many quality SP/RP we have assembled, but that we are stacking them up awaiting a possible need during the season. I know that we are going to make a move with Wandy Rodriguez and Francisco Liriano at some point in 2014, but we still have others who have pitched well during brief stints in the majors such as Gomez 81 IP as a SP/RP and Cumpton 31 IP in 5 Starts. With Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham getting close, guys like Gomez and Cumpton are nice insurance policies, but could they have more worth to the club as trade bait? News is just coming out about Iwakuma of Seattle possibly missing 8 weeks or more to injury. We will find room for Stolmy Pimental on the active roster; Jeff Locke in reserve, and Justin Wilson is still a possible LHSP. Wow, whoever thought that at one time we would be talking about having too much pitching? The Rotation is getting set with Cole, Liriano, Morton, and Volquez and how many more do we need in waiting? I think that NH is going to be a very busy guy during ST.

    • gregenstein

      There is no point in moving Walker to 3B. What difference does it really make if Walker is at 3B and Mercer at 2B or if they’re flipped? Miniscule. Walker’s the starting second baseman. He’s not moving nor should he.

    • marty

      If Pedro gets hurt, God forbid, move Mercer to 3B. No brainer.

  • Blue Bomber

    Tony Sanchez as 2015 starting catcher? Seems like the Pirates should have the money to extend Martin? Not sure why they wouldn’t at least try.

    • gregenstein

      They had the money to extend AJ Burnett and didn’t. I like Martin a lot, but one thing I agree with Tim about is that small market teams need to trust their farm hands. I don’t agree with him on the timing of such things all the time, but in this case I do.

      Sanchez looked ready last year. The only reason he’s not the starter this year is because Martin was already under contract. Hopefully the money saved by not spending on Martin will be used to help the team in other ways.

  • skliesen

    I am a HUGE fan of NH and his contributions to the franchise I love. However, I find it alarming there is virtually zero depth at 3B. If Alvarez should go down for a significant amount of time, it could undermine an entire season.

    This is definitely the Achilees heel of the organization otherwise ripe w quality depth and top notch talent.

    • stickyweb

      skl, I think people overestimate the problem if Pedro gets hurt. It’s not much different than if Walker gets hurt, or Jordy for that matter. Barmes will play everyday and Jordy either slides to 3B or 2B as needed. Either way you’re substituting Barmes’ offensive (while improving the overall D) for Pedro’s or Walker’s. And Walker’s OPS+ and offensive WAR weren’t much different tha El Toro’s. I think that gets overlooked because of the HRs, but the rest of Pedro’s hitting is pretty miserable.

      So were just as well off if Pedro get’s hurt as we are if Walker does. Or since we’d have to watch Barmes bat every day, I should say we’re just as screwed.

  • piraterican21

    Two quick comments, if anyone should get extended it should be Liriano, my dark, and I mean dark rotation depth, Adam Wilk

    • Rick

      I hope Liriano can continue with his success but I would not extend him right now. He has never shown success 2 years in a row. Let’s see what he does the first 6 weeks of the season first.

  • pburns11

    Tim why is it assumed Polanco will play right field? He is probably the best center fielder we have, but I wouldn’t move McCutchen. I think Polanco should play left and Marte play right. If Polanco does play right field this year do you think they will swap next year?

    • Pie Rat

      From what I’ve heard Marte has a much stronger arm. At PNC left field is deeper than right.

      • buster09

        Pie : Marte has a stronger arm than Polanco,but not ” much stronger “,not from what I saw of them. I would say that Marte is marginally stronger,but sometimes he gets the rainbow brain fart that I never saw from Polanco.

  • https://profiles.google.com/105668650510920614054 Brian Bernard

    Tim,
    I strongly agree with your assessment in this article and it’s something I’ve had many many arguments with my friends over through the years.
    Depth has always and continues to be under-rated in my opinion to the success of all sports teams.

    I must nit pick one thing about it though – if for any reason Andrew Lambo is in AAA – he should have one and only one glove in his bag and that’s the 1b mitt. He isn’t going to compete for a starting OF spot and his focus as you’ve noted in past articles about Bell, should now be exclusive to 1b now that his ‘hitting’ has been established and his future positional role determined and clear.

  • piraddict

    The answer to the loss of LH Power if Pedro should fall to injury is Andrew Lambo at 1B. Mercer/Harrison would take over defensively but Lambo would move into Pedro’s position in the lineup.

    • stickyweb

      addict, I’m pretty bullish on Lambo myself, but’s let’s see him hit his 2nd MLB dinger before we bat him cleanup.

      • piraddict

        Agreed Sticky! My comment was more focused on” this is what the Pirates power alternative would be” rather than “this is a really great alternative”. Lambo has the potential to work out fine, but he has a high variability in potential outcomes at this point in time. I look forward to him proving that he deserves to be on the field, but that’s really up to him.

        • piraddict

          I should also have added that I am not sold on Pedro at cleanup yet either. I very much want him to be there, but his OBP to date doesn’t justify that. His power is obviously legit, but if he isn’t on base the 5 and 6 hitters can’t drive him in, hurting the overall run scoring performance of the team. 2014 is a defining year for Pedro. Will he be a Willie Stargell or a Dave Kingman? Again, it’s up to him!

          • stickyweb

            Good point. Chicks dig the long ball but most of us know there’s a lot more to it than that. Pedro does need to take a step forward, especially with pitch recognition and plate discipline, as does Marte. I think both can do so, but we’ll see.

          • Rick

            When Pedro has hit in the 4 spot before, it has not been good. He has to get his OBP higher than it has been. I believe if he could just hit in the .260 average range that he could hit 40 to 45 HR’s.

  • impliedi

    As for 3rd base depth, I was really hoping the Pirates would have taken a flyer on Ian Stewart, but I saw that the Angels signed him to a minor league deal a couple of weeks ago.

    I know he’s been hurt the last few years, and has gotten a bad rap for the whole Twitter thing, but I certainly would have given him a minor league deal and give him a chance to win a bench spot in spring training.