The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.
The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers – READING
The Pirates have had a weak bench the last few years. They haven’t had the luxury of a good bench bat like the St. Louis Cardinals had last year with Matt Adams. There are a few big reasons for this. For one, they prefer defense with their backup catcher and shortstop spots. They’ve also carried a platoon at first base the last few years, along with split playing time in right field last year. That means there’s only one spot on the bench that could be focused on offense, and the Pirates haven’t had an offensive based player to fill that role.
This doesn’t look to change at the start of the 2014 season. It’s not that a team needs a big hitter off the bench. The Pirates didn’t have one last year, and they won 94 games and made the playoffs. But it’s nice to have a bat you can turn to in the late innings, rather than a group of players with no one standing out from the pack. Here is a look at the makeup of the bench, along with some thoughts on where the Pirates could find their go-to bench bat.
Tony Sanchez/Chris Stewart
Sanchez will start the year as the backup catcher with Stewart on the disabled list. By the end of April, Stewart should be back, with Sanchez going to Triple-A. Stewart has a lot of value defensively, but lacks any value from his bat. Meanwhile, Sanchez has some value offensively, although that is limited since teams don’t normally use their backup catcher in a pinch-hitting role.
Expect the Pirates to once again focus on defense from their backup catcher spot. Sanchez will get some time in the majors, and his offense will help in the games where he is starting over Martin, but that will hardly help the bench during games.
Gaby Sanchez/Travis Ishikawa
Normally the first base platoon has the chance to provide help late in games against specific handed pitchers. That’s still the case with Gaby Sanchez. He’s a great option against left-handers later in a game, assuming he didn’t start that game. The problem with this first base platoon is that neither player has a good track record of hitting right-handers, and you typically need a pinch hitter against a right-handed pitcher more than a left-handed pitcher.
If the Pirates could find a way to get an everyday first baseman, or someone who could hit right-handers for this platoon, then they could upgrade their bench. An everyday guy would allow them to use the second spot from this platoon on someone who could just be a bench bat, with no other roles to fill on the roster.
Travis Snider/Jose Tabata
This combo might be the best bet of producing a good bench hitter, although that’s saying something considering neither of these outfielders are guarantees. Snider looks to get the majority of the playing time in right field, which means Tabata will be the bat off the bench in most games. Tabata hit well at the end of the 2013 season, with an .848 OPS in August and September. If he can hit like that again this year, he would make a strong bat off the bench. That’s assuming Snider ends up hitting.
The Pirates need one of these two guys to hit for the starting lineup until Gregory Polanco arrives. Once Polanco is ready, they can move the most productive player to the bench, and hope that this will result in a strong bat for pinch-hitting opportunities.
Barmes was signed to be the backup middle infielder, although he has been getting playing time all around the infield and could play in more of a utility role. His best value is at shortstop due to his defense. As far as the bat goes, Barmes won’t provide the Pirates with value off the bench. This is one of those cases where the Pirates are choosing defense over offense. That’s a choice you have to make with middle infielders off the bench. If you had a middle infielder who could do both, he’d probably be a starter.
Harrison will take up the final spot on the bench. This is the spot where the Pirates could use a nice bat. However, they don’t have any internal options that stand out. Harrison had some success last year against left-handers. His primary value comes from the fact that he can play a lot of positions, including backing up third base, or shortstop in a pinch. He could see some time in the lineup against left-handers at second base, and he could be another option against lefties. However, this is another spot where the Pirates will lack a bat that can hit right-handers.
If a starter goes down, then the replacement will probably come from the bench. That means the depth in Triple-A would be next in line for a bench role, unless it was a position like first base, where the only replacement options are in Triple-A. That’s also the one position where the Pirates might be able to solve their bench issues. Andrew Lambo would be a great bat off the bench if he starts hitting. The problem is that the Pirates would need him in the lineup if that happens, since his upside is greater than the upside of Ishikawa. However, if Lambo does get back on track in Triple-A, that could at least help the Pirates’ bench in games where Gaby Sanchez starts.
The backup infielders aren’t much better than Josh Harrison as far as the hitting goes. They include Michael Martinez, Robert Andino, Chase d’Arnaud, and Brent Morel. If there is an injury to the infield, one of these guys would step up as depth for the bench. However, this group won’t provide that bat the Pirates need.
Jaff Decker and Chris Dickerson are options in the outfield, but they’re not going to get a chance unless there’s an injury early in the season, or unless Tabata and Snider both struggle this year.
The best hope the Pirates have for a good bat off the bench would come from Snider/Tabata. They would either need both players to hit well early in the season, or just one of them to hit well off the bench after Polanco arrives.