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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jordy Mercer took over as the primary starter last year, and will resume that role again this year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
C – Russell Martin (Chris Stewart)
1B – Andrew Lambo (Gaby Sanchez)
2B – Neil Walker (Josh Harrison)
SS – Jordy Mercer (Clint Barmes)
3B – Pedro Alvarez