The Pirates Bench Shows the Real Problem With This Team, and It’s Not the Bench

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a horrible bench right now. That includes Michael Martinez, Brent Morel, and Jayson Nix. Morel has a .372 OPS, Nix has a .284 OPS, and Martinez has a .363 OPS. Some of those guys have even been getting starts, due to various struggles and injuries the Pirates have seen.

The Pirates have had some problems lately, leading to a 7-10 record in August, and a recent six game losing streak. The bench illustrates this problem, although it’s not as simple as “they’ve got a bad bench.” The problem can be seen when you ask “why do they have a bad bench?”

Brent Morel was recently added to the team as an extra bat when Charlie Morton went on the disabled list. It’s unlikely that Morel will remain on the team when Gerrit Cole returns tomorrow, giving the Pirates a full rotation. The rotation has been a big issue lately, dealing with a lot of injuries and struggles. Cole has obviously missed time, although the Pirates were able to win without him. Morton has struggled recently, and is now on the disabled list. It’s hard to say how much the recent injuries led to his struggles. They’ve also seen issues with Jeff Locke and Vance Worley recently. If you’re not a top of the rotation pitcher, you’re going to see occasional struggles. Unfortunately, the Pirates are seeing this from a lot of pitchers all at the same time.

Jayson Nix was added to the team to give the Pirates an option at third base, due to the struggles from Pedro Alvarez. Nix hasn’t been just a bench player, but has started a lot of games. The better option to replace Alvarez as a starter would be Josh Harrison, leaving Nix fully in a bench role. However, this hasn’t been possible, due to injuries.

Nix has started nine games this month. Three of those came at third base, with Harrison playing in the outfield to replace the injured Andrew McCutchen. The other six came at second base when Neil Walker was out. Harrison played third base during five of those games, with Travis Snider playing left-field.

Nix has only started one of the last four games, playing second base. That was due to the need for Walker to get a day off. However, Brent Morel started at third base yesterday, and Nix could get similar starts going forward due to the injury to Jordy Mercer. The shortstop has missed the last four games, and Josh Harrison has moved over to start at short, leaving third base to Pedro Alvarez once again.

Then there’s Michael Martinez, who has been replacing Clint Barmes as the backup middle infielder for over a month. Martinez has started a few games with Walker and McCutchen out, playing second base in all of his starts.

McCutchen is expected to return today. Clint Barmes had his rehab transferred to Indianapolis yesterday, and could return in a week or two. Gerrit Cole returns Wednesday, which will remove the extra bench spot. When all of these guys return, the Pirates won’t need to be turning to guys like Nix, Martinez, and Morel. Those players probably won’t even be on the active roster, and definitely won’t be getting starts.

When everyone is healthy and productive, the Pirates have a good bench. Josh Harrison could start at second, third, or in the outfield. Instead, he’s primarily starting at third base, due to the struggles from Alvarez. And with McCutchen and Walker missing time recently, he has also been needed at the other two positions, putting Nix and Martinez in Harrison’s old role. Things will only get better when Jordy Mercer returns to games.

Travis Snider has turned into a good option off the bench lately, and his performance has softened the blow with McCutchen missing time. When McCutchen returns, Snider will give the Pirates a good bat off the bench.

Clint Barmes has never been a fan favorite, but he has superior defense at shortstop to Michael Martinez, and has been better offensively. The appreciation for Barmes might have gone up with all of the injuries forcing guys like Martinez and Nix on the roster.

The first base platoon takes up a bench spot, and while that platoon hasn’t been working well, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez aren’t bad options in their specific situations late in games as pinch hitters. The other bench spot is taken up by Chris Stewart, who has disappointed with his defense this year, but surprised with his offense.

If you look around the league, it’s not uncommon to have poor bench options, especially if you’ve got injuries that force you to turn to Quad-A players. The San Francisco Giants, also in the Wild Card race, have Travis Ishikawa on their bench. They recently had Dan Uggla for a brief time period. They’ve got Joaquin Arias and Matt Duffy, who both have an OPS under .500. Those guys are on the bench largely because Brandon Belt is injured, and Brandon Hicks struggled. That has led to recent starts from Adam Duvall (.588 OPS) and Joe Panik (.669 OPS).

The St. Louis Cardinals have Mark Ellis and his .495 OPS. The trade of Allen Craig put Shane Robinson and his .382 OPS on the bench.Daniel Descalso has a .538 OPS. Their big injury is to Yadier Molina, which forced the need for A.J. Pierzynski as a starter.

The Pirates would have a good bench if that bench was Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Clint Barmes, one of the platoon guys, and Chris Stewart. Unfortunately a lot of injuries, and the poor performance from Pedro Alvarez, have turned the bench into Jayson Nix, Michael Martinez, Pedro Alvarez, Brent Morel, Davis or Sanchez, and Stewart. And that’s the big problem with this team, especially lately. The bench is a symptom of the Pirates’ struggles, and not the cause. The cause of the struggles is that they’ve had injuries to Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer, combined with continued struggles from Pedro Alvarez. This bench is a temporary issue that will hopefully be resolved — along with the recent struggles — when everyone is healthy again at the same time.

When you add those injury issues with the recent struggles from the rotation all at once, plus the usually steady Mark Melancon and Tony Watson blowing games on back to back days, then it’s clear to see why the Pirates are in a slump. Everything is going wrong right now. It’s amazing that they’re only 7-10 this month, and not worse, all things considered. The good news is that this is temporary, and a lot of the problems on this team should start to be resolved when McCutchen returns today and Cole returns tomorrow.

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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  • RoundTripperKipper

    I hope he can come back and be back to MVP form rather quickly. This month feels like 1993-2012.

    • Bryan Graham

      Unless he can pitch, it won’t matter.

  • lonleylibertarian

    Maybe I was watching a different game last night – but the problem was not the bats on the bench – it was the gloves on the field. Defense is not sexy and blogging/posting about it is even less sexy. After giving up the two solo homers Worley gets a ground ball to third that Alvarez fields easily but goes for a base hit – next batter hits a ball up the middle that most major league 2nd basemen knock down and the better ones turn into a double play. The game SHOULD have been 2-0 with the Bucs coming to bat…

    I thought Worley did a great job saving the bullpen – and even getting a double.

    Calling starters “shaky” and ignoring the fact that the Bucs rank dead last in defense in the NL is wrong – you can and should do better in providing a balanced view of things Tim.

    • deacs

      I think defense is clearly part of it, clearly, but you don’t think some of the work by Chuck, Locke and Worley is shaky?

      • Ron Loreski

        Morton, Locke, and Worley are pitching like exactly what they are…mid to back end starters. The hitting and defense NEEDS to step up when these guys are on the mound. But we’re getting the opposite, that’s the problem.

      • lonleylibertarian

        Yes – pitching has a share of the responsibility – no defense can stop the two HRs Worley gave up – but if you want your pitchers to “pitch to contact” which is what the pirates stress then you had better be at least A good defensive team.

        DRS – or defensive runs saved is one measure of relative effectiveness by position here are the year to date numbers – the first is the NL leader at the position – the second is the pirate number…

        C 10/10
        1st 11/-6
        2nd 14/-9
        SS 19/9
        3rd 17/-6
        RF 31/-2
        CF 28/-6
        LF 9/7

        So the Bucs are sound at catcher ss and LF – the RF number is Polanco and should be positive with.a bit more experience in RF.

        Otherwise this team has not had a defense that helped its pitching – in fact they have given back enough runs to suggest defense cost between 3 and 5 wins so far…

        Finally, these numbers are with the Bucs highly touted shifting – just think how bad things would be if they played straight up defense

        • Andrew

          Shifts plays are removed from UZR and DRS ranking, thus the rating are agnostic to the impact of shifting.

    • Andrew

      You are correct the Pirates rate poorly by UZR 15th in the NL, but DRS ranks them 4th, FRAA projects them to be 7th rest of season and park adjusted defensive efficiency, 17th in the MLB.

      I have no issue with the conclusion that the Pirates are below average to poor defensively. What are you advocating? Pedro and 13.3 runs below average at 3rd, Nix or Martinez at 2nd over Walker?

    • leowalter

      lonely, I am right with you ,( believe it or not ! ) Walker not knocking that ball down was sooo costly, and nobody said a word about it. Then when he threw the DP relay away, Blass had the ….err …guts to try to blame it on Alvarez’s footwork yet ! Unbelievable. But once Hanson is ready defensively for MLB, they will still have a problem with the middle infield play.

    • IC Bob

      I agree to a point but lets be honest there is no way Pedro gets that hit in the first (even if the ball fell in his glove he would have chucked it into the stands or right field). The bench is a huge issue when the only viable bench hitters are Davis and Sanchez. The 6th inning The braves take out the starter bring in a LH to face Davis and the Pirates had no choice but to let Davis bat or blow the whole bench and PH Sanchez. Nix and Martinez were not options because they stink. Now where Tim is wrong is their is no excuse when there are players all over baseball going through waivers that could be huge upgrades to the three bums Morel, Nix and Martinez. Tim brings up the Giants but at least there guys are trying to find the right combos. None of the guys we brought up have every hit above 220 and that includes AAA as well as the majors. Huntington has had opportunities to get guys like Hill for Arizona or possibly Darwin Barney with the Cubs but has chosen not to pursue those guys. Instead we have guys who can’t play defense and can’t hit. Its a disgrace that the GM has let it become this at this time of year with all the available options out in the market place. I love what Huntington has done long term but he has a lot of work to do when it comes to supporting his team when they are competing.

      • NMR

        Tells Tim he is wrong>suggests own solution that includes Darwin Freaking Barney

        Amazing.

        • S Brooks

          Although in his (meager) defense, Barney is an excellent fielder. Nix is not only a black hole at the plate, he’s been poor in the field as well. DRS would have Barney as a 3 run upgrade over Nix at 2B, inning for inning, and UZR suggests much more than that.

          The cost would have been something close to Heredia or Borden (Jonathan Martinez is 20 in low-A ball, mid-3 ERA with a 1.20 WHIP, better K and BB rates than Heredia, better walk rate than Borden without the Ks).

        • IC Bob

          What I am referencing is Barney was a player we could get for free. As bad as he is he is ten times better then Nix at everything. There were and are a bunch of players available, I would have loved to ahve gotten Hill he can play third and second and short in a pinch. Has the ability to hit with power and is known for being a cluch player.

          • NMR

            Might want to check out Andrew’s post below.

      • indybucfan

        You want to trade for an overpaid Hill as a temporary solution and a 180 hitting 2nd baseman?

        • IC Bob

          At this point I am not worried about his salary I am worried about his skill level.Supposedly the Pirates have all sorts of money (remember we were going to get Price). So paying for 20% of a season contract should not bankrupt Nutting and if we make the playoffs the return could be huge for Nutting. I am not saying lets sign Hill to an extension.

          • indybucfan

            Well, I wouldn’t touch a guy with his contract for a temporary fix. He’s in the first year of a 3 year 35 million dollar contract. On top of that he’s 32 years old and his numbers aren’t that impressive.

      • Andrew

        Darwin Barney was acquired on July 30th, Neil Walker was hurt August 1st, Mercer later. Aaron Hill is hitting .234 with .656 OPS and is owed $24 million over the next two years, doesn’t see like a great temporary injury replacement.

        • NMR

          Facts and whatnot…

          • bucsws2014

            I was for acquiring Barney and it had nothing to do with Walker. But it did have to do with Barmes. I wanted Barney for this year AND next.

        • IC Bob

          Maybe Hill doesn’t fit our needs at the moment but that doesn’t disqualify the fact that there are a boat load of players out on waivers that we ignored for fiscal reason so we could have Nix, Martinez (who thankfully is gone) and Morel (who thankfully will be gone) for 10 days.

          • Andrew

            At the trade deadline, Marte had just started rehab and Martinez and Morel were on the roster. Martinez was replacing Barmes who averaged about 30 PAs per month before injury.

            What were you willing to give up to get guy likely to get 30-40 plate appearances a month? You could argue they should have gotten someone Prado but where does he play, Harrison is at 3rd, and McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, and Snider in the outfield.

            There aren’t a bunch .700 OPS middle infielders sitting on revocable waivers and if there are they probably are owed about $25 million in future salary.

    • jalcorn427

      For once we agree. I”l say this, Pedro Alvarez has no business playing 1B right now. It was a circus on at least 4 plays over there last night. Its not like he is outhitting Davis/Gaby. If you want to start Pedro put him at 3B instead of obvious zeros like Morel/Nix and live with the occasional error. There is no reason to further disrupt what has been poor infield defense with Pedro learning on the job.

      • jalcorn427

        Thankfully Ike is back at 1B tonight; can’t believe I typed that. We now get the Polanco on the bench for Snider era!

    • William Wallace

      Amen brother – this defense is pitiful. Guys are playing out of position and the hallowed rookie looks lost at times in Right. I wonder if Roberto was rolling his eyes?.

    • cabbo80

      Oh thank goodness…the wise sage I have searched my entire life. Please lonley post the link to your enormously popular Pirate website so we may all prosper with your “balanced view.” Do you have any riveting barbs on dancing with the stars? Due tell.

      • lonleylibertarian

        Feel free to scroll by my posts – I could care less whether you read them or understand them… I have yet to see any blog or columnist point out two pretty hard to dispute facts…
        1. Thanks to Rickie Weeks, NW is the Second to worst defensive second baseman in the NL
        2. Cutch and the team would be better served with Marte or Polanco in Center and Cutch in Left.

        It takes less than ten minutes to uncover this – but it is easier to blame Worely for “a bad start” than it is to point out he was I’ll served by the gloves behind him

        • csnumber23

          Agreed! I love Cutch and want him to be a Pirate for life but Marte should be the CF and Cutch in left.

  • Arik Florimonte

    Analysis is sound. My complaint would be that the guys we got for depth in AAA turned out to be terrible. Not even passable at the plate. I would rather have seen Tabata come up…we know he can hit .300 from time to time. Those guys were automatic outs, as bad as pitchers at the plate. I think NH is generally a good GM, but I think he made a mistake in not bolstering the depth. Maybe that’s a luxury that a “small market” team can’t afford, but I think more likely it was a miscalculation rather than the result of a conscious decision.

    • Lee Young

      Can Tabata play 3b or SS? That is where we needed somebody. We had 3/4 of our IF wiped out with injuries and throwing yips.

      • Arik Florimonte

        I’m not saying Tabata would have fixed the INFIELD — as you cleverly noted, he’s not an infielder, I am saying he would have replaced pinch-hit PA and the OF innings. The less time on the field for those 3, the better.

    • lonleylibertarian

      My understanding is there is no chance of Tabata ever putting on a pirates uniform. Off field issues that led to 1. His DFA 2. Nobody claiming him

      • csnumber23

        Absolutely! Please no more Tabata ever! To your point about the defense, just think there are several I argued with on this site that wanted to dispose of our best defender(Starling Marte) who some on this site called a liability on offense. Yeah he really looks like a liability with .775 OPS and 23 steals. Notice my sarcasm

        • lonleylibertarian

          Part of me wonders if one reason the BMTIB did not want AJ back is they knew he would not tolerate the kind of defense the Bucs continue to put out on the field – my guess is he would have done a few weeks of behind closed doors complaining – but he would have imploded after the disaster that was last nights first inning.

          What I find odd is that the data is out there – the PLAYERS all know Walker is having an awful year at second. That the first base platoon is both no hit AND NO FIELD. That teams take advantage of Cutch’s weak arm every chance they get. AND that Pedro is an above average FIELDER at third – his throws are awful – but he gets to a lot of balls that nobody else the Bucs have can get to.

          wonder why we don’t see any media articles on the topic?

          • Andrew

            It’s a conspiracy!

            Short answer, random variation. Why where there no articles about McCutchen being a terrible clutch hitter because of his .060 point difference between hitting with base empty and runners in scoring position last season?

            Long answer is you are using one of the several defensive metrics and using it in way that the creator of that metric explicitly stated not to use it. Your constant parsing of data to find some number to defend Alvarez has become laughable.

            Alvarez is not an above average fielder. That is the fallacy of composition, first his UZR range rating is below average, -4.1 for his career, and his -10,2 UZR error rating this season is the 3rd worst since UZR debuted in 2003, thus he is no longer at 3rd.

            Walker is poor fielder and has been but for his career, this season rates particularly bad however in spite of this he is on pace just below a 3.0 WAR season, there aren’t many 3.0 WAR second basemen waiting around to be signed, what are you proposing be done with Walker?

            McCutchen, was rated +6.9 last season and -11.1, these rating can vary a lot season to season thus don’t read too much into single season samples. For is career he is -4.5 UZR/150 and under an ideal situation Marte would be in center but looking at single season overstates the likely projected improvement.

  • Lee Young

    Tim….been saying that for days on the PBC Asylum. Have you been reading my stuff again? :) :) :)

  • Bryan Graham

    Right now it’s basically a different thing causing them to lose every night. One night it’s the starting pitching, the next it’s a usually dependable bullpen arm blowing it, and then the next night the defense is horrible. The offense, even with Nix, Martinez, and Morel, has been getting the job done for the most part since Cutch and Walker went out. I would blame the losing streak almost entirely on the pitching and defense at this point. As for the bench, how wasn’t Tabata the guy getting the call when Cutch went down, he’s proven he can hit some and a few other so called AAAA players in AAA that should have been able to do a better job than what they currently have, but it seems that bridges are too easily burned for NH. I’m not sure what some of these guys did, but for some reason they are in NH’s doghouse.

    • indybucfan

      I think Tabata has played his last game as a Pirate.

    • csnumber23

      Because Tabata is useless on the field and off the field!

      • Bryan Graham

        Maybe so, but that still makes him eons better than some of the guys they currently have on the bench.

  • S Brooks

    Even with the depleted bench, the Pirates have managed to score the most runs in the NL this month. The problem is not hitting.

    It’s defense (worst in the NL by a wide margin),
    it’s the bullpen (worst in blown saves, 11th in OPS against),
    and it’s the rotation (12th in OPS against).

    Cutch can do his thing, and it’s great, but the Pirates need Jordy, Barmes and Cole just as much if not more to shore up their vulnerabilities.

  • scbucsfan

    Very simple, Lambo in the outfield and Harrison at third. You can’t tell me that Lambo isn’t better than Nix, Martinez, and Morel.

    • S Brooks

      So you’re sitting Polanco?

      • scbucsfan

        Polanco played a lot of left and center field in the minors. Might not be ideal defensively, but better than the alternative.

    • moose7195

      He didn’t look any better last year.

  • NMR

    I’ll suggest that not only is it compounding injuries that have left the team in this position on the bench but the nature of the injuries. Barmes has been the only guy with anything close to a known duration of time in which he’ll be out of action.

    How is management supposed to make significant upgrades to backup positions that may only be needed for a handful of games?

  • William Wallace

    I believe that NH Should take the blame DECREPIT BENCH. Move a chip or two to get someone who can add to the equation and not subtract from it. You also have to think that ownership is putting a big squeeze on allowing any flexibility. They wasted money on Tabata and Wandy and countless others. Either chuck it in or move a couple chips to the center of the table.

    • NMR

      So much fail…

  • Garth

    Ok, so injuries are the problem and the bench is fine? But why didnt we prepare for the injuries? Every team is going to have a few DL stints per year, but no other contender has to run Martinez, Nix, etc out there everyday. Imagine the difference that Bonafacio and Matt Thornton would’ve made for our team, and neither one commanded much of a return. So yeah, the real problem is not the bench, it’s just the guys assembling it.

    • NMR

      “…but no other contender has to run Martinez, Nix, etc out there everyday.”

      Nor do the Pirates, but why let facts get in the way of a good narrative?

  • John Lease

    Any General Manager who has Michael Martinez on his 40 man roster has a big chunk of the blame as well. The guy should never be on it, except in a dire emergency.