Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Spring Training Preview: The Infield

The Pittsburgh Pirates will be kicking off Spring Training this Thursday. To get ready for Spring Training, we will be previewing one set of positions each day this week, with the final group coming on Thursday. The first group to be previewed will be the infield.

Most of the other groups come with near guarantees for the roster spots. The infield is pretty much set, although the first base position is still up in the air. The Pirates could still possibly add a first baseman, and that possibility could exist until the very end of Spring Training. For now, here are the predictions based on the current Spring Training invitees.

Catcher

The Starter

Russell Martin is locked in as the starting catcher, one year after putting up an impressive season and looking like one of the best free agent signings of the 2012-13 off-season. If Martin can repeat that success, he will not only provide a huge boost for the Pirates in 2014, but will probably play himself into a huge contract next off-season, and out of Pittsburgh after the 2014 season.

Bench

The Pirates acquired Chris Stewart this off-season to be Martin’s backup. Stewart is an excellent defender who grades as one of the best pitch framers in the game, and has a fantastic arm. Paired with Martin, this will give the Pirates solid defense behind the plate in every inning, as long as both are healthy.

Depth

Tony Sanchez is the top depth option. He will start the year in Triple-A, and should be the guy the Pirates turn to if an injury occurs in the majors, especially if Russell Martin goes down. Sanchez is also the choice to take over if Martin departs as a free agent after the 2014 season.

Beyond Sanchez, the Pirates have invited three catchers to Spring Training as non-roster invitees. Nevin Ashley and Omir Santos were both added this off-season as minor league free agents. Neither player projects to start the season in Pittsburgh, but both should be depth options in the upper levels of the minors, helping out if Tony Sanchez gets called up, and serving as a number four or five depth option if the injuries pile up. Carlos Paulino was already in the system, and received an NRI for the second year in a row. Paulino is a great defender who can’t hit, so if he eventually is used as a depth option, it will be as a backup.

First Base

The Starter

As of right now, first base is up in the air. The Pirates look to be going with a platoon, and they’ve got Gaby Sanchez locked in to get at-bats against left-handers. The internal options against right-handers are Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuiness, and Travis Ishikawa. Lambo looks like the leader of the group, after hitting 33 home runs in 2013. McGuiness was acquired over the off-season from the Texas Rangers, and has shown some promise in his minor league career, with a good OBP and some pop in his bat. Ishikawa is strong defensively, and has some major league experience, but his offensive numbers have never been strong.

The Pirates could still turn to an external option during Spring Training. Guys like Ike Davis, Mitch Moreland, and Justin Smoak are seemingly available, or could become available if their teams continue to make moves. The price might come down on those guys as the season approaches, since there aren’t many teams looking for a first baseman right now.

Going into Spring Training, the projected platoon would be Andrew Lambo and Gaby Sanchez.

Bench

Currently the bench would involve the second half of the platoon, depending on whether a right-hander or left-hander is on the mound. If the Pirates added a full time first baseman, it would be interesting to see how they use Sanchez as a bench bat.

Depth

If Lambo and Sanchez start the season in the majors, then McGuiness and Ishikawa would serve as depth behind Lambo. The internal depth for Sanchez would be Matt Hague, who has done a good job in his minor league career of hitting left-handers. Hague was invited to Spring Training as an NRI, but doesn’t project to make the team unless Sanchez gets hurt. If the Pirates added an external first baseman, then Lambo would join McGuiness, Ishikawa, and Hague in Triple-A. That would create for a crowded situation, although the Pirates could give them all playing time. Lambo could get time in the outfield, Hague could play third base, and the other two could rotate between first base and DH.

Second Base

The Starter

Neil Walker will return as the starter. The only question is whether he will be involved in a type of platoon. I don’t see him being platooned in the same way as the first basemen, but he could get some time off this year against left-handers, which is an approach the Pirates took at times in 2013.

Bench

Josh Harrison looks to be the top option to back up Walker, and possibly take some at-bats against left-handers. This is a similar role to what Harrison had in 2013.

Depth

Chase d’Arnaud could compete for playing time at second base, but will probably start the season out of Triple-A as a depth option for both middle infield spots. The Pirates signed Michael Martinez as a minor league free agent, with an invite to Spring Training. Martinez probably won’t see the majors unless there are several injuries that require the Pirates to go deep in their depth. If the Pirates run into problems at second base, then Jordy Mercer could slide over, with Clint Barmes taking most of the time at shortstop.

Shortstop

The Starter

Jordy Mercer took over as the primary starter last year, and will resume that role again this year.

Bench

Clint Barmes was brought back for the bench this year, but I’d expect him to get some playing time. I’d estimate that he’ll get 30-40% of the time at shortstop, between getting 1-2 starts per week, and late inning work when the Pirates have a lead.

Depth

Chase d’Arnaud would be the top depth option for both middle infield positions. Michael Martinez would also be a depth option here, and Josh Harrison could play shortstop in an emergency. Alen Hanson received an invite to Spring Training due to the fact that he’s on the 40-man roster, but he doesn’t profile as a guy who will make the majors at all this year. He could have a shot in 2015, but expect him to spend most of the 2014 season in Altoona.

Third Base

The Starter

Pedro Alvarez is the starter here, and should get most of the playing time at third base. An argument could be made for a platoon, but the Pirates don’t have a good platoon option to pair with Alvarez.

Bench

Josh Harrison could back up third base when he’s not backing up second base. He’s also a platoon option for either position, although the Pirates would have one of Walker or Alvarez playing in that scenario. An interesting possibility here, if the Pirates add a full time first baseman, would be for Gaby Sanchez to platoon with Alvarez.

Depth

There isn’t really any depth at third base. If Alvarez goes down, then the Pirates could turn to Harrison, or have Jordy Mercer slide over to third, with Barmes playing shortstop. Matt Hague could play third in an emergency, but is only strong against left-handers. The best bet would be Mercer.

Projected Infield

C – Russell Martin (Chris Stewart)

1B – Andrew Lambo (Gaby Sanchez)

2B – Neil Walker (Josh Harrison)

SS – Jordy Mercer (Clint Barmes)

3B – Pedro Alvarez

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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  • Cato the Elder

    While I think Harrison is fine as a backup utility infielder, he derives most of his value from his versatility (and the fact that he is cheap). I see nothing to suggest that he would realistically be a platoon option. I suppose his left handed splits last year might suggest that he is very good against left handed pitching, but those gaudy numbers (350/381/600; wRC+175!!!) were put up in 40 ABs, when the year prior he put up 198/231/341; wRC+ 54 in more than twice as many ABs. He had a wRC+ of 59 in 62 AB the year before that. So I really wouldn’t put too much stock in last years splits. Frankly, the best you could say is that 160 ABs doesn’t really tell you very much about a hitter, but it is hard to get excited Harrison as a platoon option when Harrison has put up essentially the same numbers as Walker vs. LHP.

    • Kevin_Young

      How scary is the thought of him as a backup third basemen…

  • honusty

    Does Mercer have a good enough glove to be a starting shortstop? Can he hit righties?

    • Andrew

      I second these questions, wasn’t Chase d’Arnaud favored over Mercer at short when they occupied the same level.

      • jg941

        Chase d’Arnaud has not done Chase d’Arnaud any favors. I think the Bucs’ SS position was his to lose……and he lost it. We’ll see if he shows up to ST this year with something to prove.

        I’d be surprised if he even survives on the 40-man much longer, although he still has one option left to burn if/when they send him down in ST.

  • emjayinTN

    Tim: I have not bought into the Andrew Lambo story just yet, but identifying him as the leading LH hitting candidate for 1B adds quite a bit of pressure for the boy. Since Chris McGuinness has played more than 600 games at 1B in the minors and posted a .998 fielding %age last year at AAA, I would see him as being the leader of the threesome of he, Lambo, and Ishikawa based solely on his ability to play strong defense at the position. He has not exhibited the power of Lambo, but he does hit well with excellent rates of contact, with Neil Walker-type power. I hope to see reports of how Lambo is adapting defensively at 1B, but the Player, Coach, Instructor, and observer in me cannot accept that a kid can adapt to such an important position with so little experience at the position in the minors (49 games over 7 years?). I see him as drinking from a fire hose right now, and having to think his way through it rather than just reacting naturally. If we like his bat and he shows the ability to grasp the position transfer, I see a better long term plan for him as a full time 1B by allowing him the time to develop his infield skills at 1B at AAA. From there, it will be up to him to force his way to PNC by keeping the hot bat, while developing defensive prowess at 1B. A good saying by the old timers in the game is “the ball will find you” meaning that if you try to hide someone in the infield, the ball will find them at the worst possible moment.

  • leadoff

    One scenario that is never talked about is moving Martin to first base on occasion, the Giants do it with Posey and lots of catchers have done it over the years. If Martin is good enough to play SS or 3rd base, he can play some 1st base. Of course a move like this usually rests on the managers shoulders.

    • honusty

      Martin’s OPS was .703 last year. Why would you want to play him at 1B?

      • leadoff

        I think a graph of his OPS would be more useful than the final number. IMO, if he got more relief from catching, he would not have worn down as much as he did last year and as a fill in his propensity to get big hits would still be there.

  • skliesen

    Lambo is the next GI Jones. Get on board with it, because it’s happening for better or worse.

    • leadoff

      I don’t see any reason why Lambo can’t hit as many Home runs if given the same chance as G.I. Jones did in 2013.

      • skliesen

        The better question is can Lambo hit anywhere near the 33 he hit last season with all of his AB’s coming with the Pirates?

  • leadoff

    IMO, the versatility of the Pirate infield is a big deal, Mercer, Barmes, Harrison, Walker (if necessary) and Sanchez gives you some nice options if someone goes down. I don’t know if Pedro ever played 1st base and I am not advocating that he move to first base, but it would not be a bad idea IMO if he took some reps in ST.

  • piraddict

    Tim,

    How do you compare this pre Spring Training infield to the roster a year ago, better or worse?

  • Cecil.

    Tim, I know Lambo has an option left. How about McGuiness?

    Assuming they perform about the same in the spring, and barring a further acquisition, what do you think of the likelihood of Lambo in AAA to learn first and McGuiness in Pittsburgh (as emjay said)?

    • jg941

      McGuiness has two options left, Lambo has all three.

  • ballparkfranks

    I predict that Ishiikawa is the LH 1Bman out of spring training. I also predict that Gaby gets more than a few starts at 1B against certain righties (not a true platoon) in the early part of the season. I think that Hurdle will want the seasoned player to start the season versus the untested youngster.

    I think that the Pirates will want Lambo to get game reps at 1B in AAA and be sure his bat is in full swing before inserting him into the platoon role. If Lambo excels in AAA I can see him coming up as soon as a month into the season.

    • jg941

      Remember, Ishikawa is no youngster – he and Gaby are both 30. So, if he’s your guy, he shouldn’t be sitting against righties – that would mean that Ishikawa isn’t really the right platoon answer, or that they are simply mis-managing the use of the platoon itself again.

      Gaby’s numbers against both hands are what they are, and the team should try to take advantage of them as religiously as possible. If they plug in a lefty platoon partner with Gaby, and then they have to sit that partner against RHPs in favor of Gaby, then that just means they dropped the ball on finding the right platoon partner.

      • ballparkfranks

        I think it came out last season that they look at more than the simple left-right matchup when determing who will be in the starting lineup. Maybe Gaby hit righties that throw in the low 90′s with a slider as a secondary pitch, but he doesn’t hit righties that throw 95 with a big curveball. Maybe Ishiikawa hits those guys that Gaby struggles with. That would be a perfect platoon.

        I lean more towards Hurdle starting the season with the veterans that have been there before. No rookie jitters coming out of the box. Not sure if that is the right idea, but it is something I can see Hurdle doing.

  • JRIcentral

    I’m convinced we’ll still trade for a lefty 1B! There are a few options available, and we have no room for one of our relievers (out of options). It just makes too much sense…