Division of labor in Indianapolis
It’s no secret Tony Sanchez’s inevitable demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis once Chris Stewart returned from the disabled list would cause complications for the Pirates. Top catching prospect Elias Diaz must split duties with Sanchez so as not to mitigate the progress Sanchez made over the offseason but also to ensure the continued growth and development of a player that could be starting behind the plate in Pittsburgh in the not-too-distant future.
Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington made it clear over the weekend Sanchez and Diaz will go on a “two-on, two-off” rotation as they’ve concluded that’s the best solution for each party. Huntington also highlighted the available at-bats at designated hitter in the minors, which Sanchez or Diaz will receive depending on who’s in line to catch on a given day.
“We’ll see where we take it,” Huntington said. “It’s not a bad thing for catchers in particular to learn how to play in a part-time role as we’ve experienced before in the past.”
He adds Triple-A’s catching situation is “a great problem to have” considering Sanchez proved his merits at the big-league level and Diaz showed his readiness to move on from Double-A.
“When they’ve graduated from the level below the next step is playing a major-league level,” Huntington said. “When you have better hitters in the lineup in front of them, they need to learn how to play in a part-time role, until that opportunity presents itself or struggle or injury.”
Late last season, as Sanchez’s defensive woes were spotlighted, he played two games at first base but Huntington said that is not on the table right now. Sanchez took strides defensively playing winter ball and the Pirates acquired Hunter Morris (hitting .172 in eight games) from Milwaukee who will assume any extra reps there.
“It could be something we throw at it him sometime down the road,” Huntington said. “Right now our focus is to continue to make the positive strides. and enhance what we’re doing catching wise.”
At first glance, trading Sanchez makes sense. After his excellent spring and start to the season, both behind and at the plate, his value really hasn’t been higher save for the day the Pirates chose him fourth in the 2009 draft. But depth is a fickle concept because as soon as it may appear a team has it, much doesn’t need to change for depth to be lost–especially at the catcher position.
Lest anyone forgets, one only needs to look back at the catching debacle of 2011 when the Pirates were forced to play guys like Wyatt Toregas and Matt Pagnozzi as the position was fraught with injuries. Not to say the same or anything close will happen this year, but it’s necessary to at least carry a third catcher somewhere on the 40-man roster in case of emergency.
Even Russell Martin got hurt last year and Sanchez’s services were required throughout 2014. He’ll be needed again at some point this season, especially considering starter Francisco Cervelli has never played more than 90 games in any one of his seven seasons prior to this one.
Playing time for Kang
Another hot-button issue this season is the playing time given to Jung-Ho Kang as Pittsburgh’s $11 million acquisition from Korea has seen just 11 plate appearances in the Pirates first 12 games. He’s batting .100 with a walk and run scored to start the season.
Some think it prudent to move Kang to the minors for a spell to not only help him adjust to a new home but also for the Pirates to see what they have in the 28-year old perceived as the best hitter in the Korean Baseball Organization last season.
At present, Huntington trusts what he is told from the scouting department and front office on what the team has in Kang. And as shown in the recent past, the franchise isn’t wont to act upon exterior perception.
“There are times that guys graduate the level from which they came,” Huntington said. “We have ton of respect for what he did in Korea. We have a ton of respect for what our scouts saw. And we have tremendous respect for what we’ve seen so far.”
Some speculate the competition offered by the KBO translates to shade below that of Triple-A baseball in Major League Baseball’s system, which would portend value in at-bats Kang might gain playing in the minors. But like Sanchez, Huntington wants Kang to earn his way and that starts as being a part-time role player.
Any development Kang experiences during that time is development Huntington and the Pirates want to occur at the major-league level.
“We’ve got a young man that’s coming from a different culture, coming from a different country, coming to a completely new environment, coming to a completely new league,” Huntington said, “and the variables that would be added by dropping him down to Triple-A don’t make sense in our mind. We want him to develop and become accustomed to the culture in our environment, in our city, in Pittsburgh and the best way for him to get used to hitting major-league pitching is to hit major-league pitching, albeit in a limited role.
Opportunities may present themselves in the coming days as Jordy Mercer suffered a contusion to his ribcage when Matt Garza lost control of a two-seam fastball that hit Mercer in the chest when he squared around to bunt in Sunday’s game.
Huntington talks Kris Bryant, expectations placed on young players
No topic was hotter in baseball this past week than the debut of Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, who the Pirates get a look at tomorrow as Chicago visits for a four-game set. While Huntington loved the national attention given to the matter, it reminded him of the situation he faced regarding Gregory Polanco’s call-up last season and will again when Jameson Taillon nears his pro debut.
Alongside the clamor, the expectations surrounding players like Polanco and Bryant are simply unfair in Huntington’s eyes.
“The expectations are so high,” Huntington said. “Everybody gets so ramped up about Opening Day that you lose sight of the fact this is a multi-year process with any young player, any player that’s going through things and we don’t want to get too caught up in 10 plate appearances, 10 weeks or even 10 months.”
Huntington directed attention to Mike Trout, arguably the game’s best player, began his pro career when he was sent back to the minors after the Angels brought him up from Double-A. From Trout to Polanco and now Bryant, it’s clear Huntington would prefer onlookers to look at young players’ careers on a more macroscopic level.
“[Bryant] may come in and play in an All-Star Game in July,” Huntington said. “More likely than not, he’s going to come in and be a really good young player with growth in front of him.”