With pitchers and catchers reporting today, and Spring Training starting up this week, we will be previewing the position battles to follow throughout the Spring. To keep track of the players who are in camp, and the updated status of each position battle, check out the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training Tracker.
I’ve already reviewed two of the position battles heading into Spring Training, looking at the starting rotation and the right field job. Those two battles are a bit more clear cut. Looking at the bench is a little harder to project. Some spots are easy, such as the backup catcher’s role or the platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez taking one of the available spots. Other spots on the bench are harder to project. For the outfield, you have to get the right field job correct before guessing which players could make the bench. The infield could really depend on Clint Hurdle’s preference. The final spot on the bench will depend on whether the Pirates want to carry an extra infielder or an extra outfielder. Plus, unlike starting spots, bench spots are usually more of an open competition, dependent on Spring Training results. Last year Matt Hague won a spot largely on his Spring Training performance. Some of the players projected to win a spot today could have a horrible Spring, while some players projected to go to Triple-A could force their way on the roster with a great Spring.
With that said, here is my best guess at how the bench will take shape.
Michael McKenry – McKenry will serve as the backup catcher to Russell Martin. The Pirates have a few other players in camp (Tony Sanchez, Lucas May, Carlos Paulino, Ali Solis), but McKenry pretty much has this job locked down.
Gaby Sanchez – Sanchez will be platooning with Garrett Jones at first base this year, which means he will be taking up one of the bench spots the majority of the time.
Contenders: Chase d’Arnaud, Ivan De Jesus, Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Jordy Mercer, Clint Robinson
You could probably take Robinson and Hague out of the mix here, since the Pirates already have two first basemen on the roster. Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison seem like the favorites here based on their previous playing time, and the fact that both are on the 40-man roster. Brandon Inge adds an interesting twist. He’s been better than Harrison or Mercer. The problem is that Harrison and Mercer can play shortstop.
Ivan De Jesus and Chase d’Arnaud can also play shortstop. De Jesus is a non-roster invitee, and doesn’t stand out ahead of anyone else in this group at the moment. D’Arnaud is coming off a down year in Triple-A, plagued by injuries and a low batting average. Both players would be better off going to Triple-A to raise their stock.
The top three options would be Mercer, Harrison, and Inge. I’ll break down those three when I get to the final spot.
Contenders: Brad Hawpe, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata
Yesterday I wrote about the battle for the starting right field job. I predicted Travis Snider would win the job, which would leave Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, and Jose Tabata battling for the backup outfield position. I don’t see Brad Hawpe having a shot at winning a major league job.
Out of the three remaining outfielders, Tabata is the only one who is out of options. Presley and Sands each have one option remaining, and could go to Triple-A to start the year. As I wrote yesterday, Sands would be better off getting everyday playing time in Indianapolis, proving that his upper level power wasn’t a product of the PCL. Presley’s upside is more of a strong fourth outfielder, and he’d be good to keep in Triple-A as the first to come up to replace an injured player.
The lack of an option is what really makes Tabata stand out from the other two players. None of them really have the numbers to stand out above anyone else. Sands hasn’t had a lot of major league experience, and hasn’t done well in his limited time. Presley and Tabata are both coming off down years, but both showed some promise prior to the 2012 season. In order to keep all three players, the best approach would be to go with Tabata.
The final spot on the bench will really be about whether the Pirates want an extra infielder or an extra outfielder. They’re going to have one of the outfielders on the bench, plus one of the infielders. The question is, do they want an additional outfielder as a pinch hitter, or do they want an additional infielder, so that they could use the other infielder for pinch-hitting?
The argument for the extra outfielder is that the hitting potential is better for guys like Presley and Sands, since they have more power than guys like Mercer or Harrison. The argument against the extra outfielder is that you only have one infielder to backup three spots. Technically you could use Garrett Jones as an emergency replacement in the outfield and put Gaby Sanchez at first. You don’t have that option if you need an emergency infield replacement.
The compromise here is with Inge and Harrison. Both have played corner outfield positions in the past, and both could serve as emergency replacements if needed. They can also play second and third base. Harrison has spent far more time at second, with Inge only adding the position last year. Harrison also can fill in as an emergency option at shortstop, while Inge could serve as an emergency catcher, even though he hasn’t caught since 2008.
Neither player provides a strong backup to the middle infield positions. Harrison is decent at second base, but isn’t what you want at shortstop. Because of this, Jordy Mercer would make sense as the backup infielder. That would put him in a similar role as last year, spending a lot of time on the bench, not getting many starts, and not being used in many pinch-hitting opportunities.
With Mercer serving as the backup infielder, that would leave the Pirates free to use Inge or Harrison in more of a super utility role, or as a pinch hitter. Both could play outfield in an emergency, which combined with Garrett Jones would lessen the need for two bench outfielders. The advantage Harrison has is his ability to play shortstop in a pinch, but that wouldn’t be needed with Mercer. Inge could serve as an emergency catcher, plus he has more power than Harrison.
Because of the power advantage from Inge, and the ability to serve as a third catcher, my prediction would be him taking the final bench spot, with Jordy Mercer taking the backup infield spot.
Projected Bench: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jordy Mercer, Jose Tabata, Brandon Inge