First Pitch: The Pirates Are About to Have a Really Good Bench

The Pirates have seen some struggles from their bench throughout the year. At the start of the calendar year it looked like they could have a very strong bench. They had Jung-ho Kang, Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and Travis Snider — four guys who had either been starters for periods of time in the recent past, or who had a chance to be starters in the future.

They traded Snider before the season, opting to potentially sell at his highest value and get a few prospects, while going with a combination of Andrew Lambo, Jaff Decker, or Jose Tabata. The Snider trade worked. The replacements didn’t work. Lambo was injured early in the year after struggling. Tabata did about the same thing he has done the last few years when called up. Decker didn’t really stick in the majors in his limited callup, after dealing with injuries the first half of the season. Making matters worse, a few of the other bench players didn’t work out.

Kang was the biggest success story, but he was moved to a starting role by mid-season with Jordy Mercer struggling. There were also struggles from Gregory Polanco, which shifted Josh Harrison to the outfield at times, buying more playing time for Kang at third base.

The remaining guys on the bench were Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez. The hope with Hart was that he could rediscover his old offense, and that didn’t happen. Rodriguez has put up decent numbers in the past, but hasn’t done that this year. He has been excellent defensively, which gets lost on a bench that desperately needed a bat. And it’s not as if Snider would have saved the group, since he struggled in Baltimore to the point of getting released by a team competing for the playoffs and in need of outfield help.

The bench has struggled most of the year, but the Pirates are finally about to see a very strong bench in the coming weeks.

The improvements will start when Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison return from their injuries. That will lead to a more flexible team all around, especially with the emergence of Kang. Mercer is a better defensive shortstop than Kang, and Kang has been better at third base. The best approach would be to have Mercer playing most of the games at short, Kang playing most of the games at third, and Harrison moving to a super utility role.

That would push Aramis Ramirez out of the lineup, and he’s been hitting well lately. He’s also been learning first base, making him an option at the corners. The Pirates also have Michael Morse, who has settled in as the right-handed platoon option at first base, and has done well in an extremely small sample size. Morse had fantastic numbers last year in San Francisco, but probably won’t get a chance to show what he can do against right-handers as long as Pedro Alvarez stays hot.

With Mercer, Harrison, and Kang on the left side, you’ve got at least one starter that will be on the bench everyday. Morse and Ramirez give two interesting bats off the bench, basically each providing what you hoped for out of Corey Hart at the beginning of the season. Then there’s Rodriguez, whose defensive skills and ability to play anywhere works a lot better when everyone else is providing the offense.

Add to that mix the return of Travis Snider in September, plus a few other potential callups from Triple-A, and you only get more depth down the stretch.

The Pirates have an improving bullpen, and an offense that makes it seem like they are never out of any game. It will be good to add an upgraded bench to that combo. And if the starting rotation gets back on track, then this team that was already on pace for 97 wins could get scary.

**Another Strong Outing From J.A. Happ Leads to Another Win for the Pirates. Pete Ellis breaks down Happ’s latest start, and what has been working for him recently. I don’t want to call Happ a success just yet, but it’s good to see him seemingly on the right track and doing so well.

**More to the Eye Than a Slump for Max Moroff. Sean McCool looks at Max Moroff’s slump recently, and what has been happening behind the numbers.

**Prospect Watch: Coley Goes Seven Strong, Mathisen Picks Up Four Hits. Live report tonight from Sean McCool in Altoona, with more reports on Moroff.

**Pirates Add Josh Wall to Bullpen, Pedro Florimon Designated For Assignment. Tough break for Florimon, who hits the game winner one night, and gets DFAd the next night. That would have happened eventually when Jordy Mercer returned, so it’s not a big loss. It would be nice if he clears waivers again, allowing the Pirates to keep him and bring him back in September.

**Travis Snider Will Sign Minor League Deal With Pirates. I broke down the move, looking at how Snider can help the bench depth, but probably won’t live up to expectations that are based on the outrage displayed when he was traded.

**Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison Getting Closer to Returning. Ryan Palencer with the latest update on the two rehabbing infielders, including an interesting quote from Harrison on his potential return.

  • Found this interesting in regards to Travis Snider. Looks like he turned back into Travis Snider again.

  • One of the best things about September that has not really been
    addressed is the fact that we will call up one or two additional
    catchers. That frees up either Steward (likely) or Cervelli to be
    a real quality pinch hitter off the bench every night.

  • Is Alen Hanson a part of the PIrates bench come September? That is, if he breaks out of his current slump.

    • I’m wondering the same. Switch hitter (allegedly), speed. Sounds like a guy who could get PH AB or pinch run. I know he’s struggled. I wonder if Keon Broxton gets a shot as well.

      I’m sure Liz and Snider are locks, but the rest im curious about.

      • Definitely one or more catchers.

      • No reason to not bring up Keon, as he isn’t really a super 2 concern

        • This. If you want the PR purely guy, its clearly Keon. More likely a future as a 4th OF type, so no worries of Super 2 really.

          • I don’t know how good his “baserunning skills” are outside of minor league base stealing, but it would seem to make sense

        • I was thinking the same. I think he’s been hot lately compared to Hansen.

    • I doubt it…that counts as MLB service time.

      • Are we really worried about MLB service time for players we aren’t expecting to be huge stars? I think they bring up Diaz

        • Diaz seems like a guy they clearly are expecting to be a key piece though. Plus defense with enough bat.

          Id argue Hanson is the type you can bring up for Sept, keep down next year until July if needed. Im less worried aobut Super 2 for Hanson than a guy like Diaz.

          • Fair enough. I can see how Pittsburgh might have that view, I just personally don’t given the other catchers we have in the system whom would/should be ready before Diaz was even arbitration eligible, but I guess we all know (in the case of sanchez) there isn’t any sure thing especially with catchers

    • I think a lot of the guys who have already been with the team this year (Sanchez, Hernandez, Decker, Liz, Scahill, LaFramboise, etc.) have a good chance of being recalled when the rosters expand, but I do wonder how many new faces (prospects) we’ll see.

  • Meh, with expanded rosters a lot of teams are about to get a better bench. But I’ll take a PH HR if someone could manage it.

    • With all these teams bringing up the designated pinch runners, wonder what the overunder is on SBs on the Bucs?

  • If and when team becomes healthy, Mercer will almost certainly play at SS when Morton and Locke pitch due to his ability to convert GB’s to outs. However, when those two pitch, team is most likely to need more offense, too, which means Kang and either JHay or ARAM would be best suited for starts at SS & 3B. I will be surprised if CH goes away from Mercer in this scenario, but I kinda think he should.

    • Mercer has been one of our better hitters since his early season doldrums. Since his low point on May 22nd, he has hit .290 with a .720 OPS. Combine that with his above average defense, and I think he is playing SS regularly.

      • I dont hate that, since i think we have enough offense to cover one non above average bat. But against RHP, he really hasnt been good at any point this year. Maybe good enough at home, but his line against RHP on the road is shocking.

        Id rotate guys in to get playing time. Mercer at SS for 3 of 5 SPs, a few days off to have J Hay at 3B and Kang at SS.

    • I think you have to sacrafice offense for defense in the infield when Charlie is pitching. Him getting knocked out early in the game regardless of a win or loss provides more damage in terms of bullpen wear than a loss 3-2 after him going 6 or 7 innings

    • Idk, that feels like a problem that can be solved two ways. How to set up the team best to help Morton. Do you go all out for offense, or set up the defense in the best way to maximize what Morton does?

      I think the good thing about PGH is we have enough offense to have 1-2 light bats and still generate 3-5 runs a game. You can have Polanco-Marte-Cutch-Kang-Cervelli as plus offensive options. Could even pick one of Pedro/Walker to leave in for lesser defense but more offense. But still have 1-2 pure defense guys to ensure GBs turn into outs.

    • Mercer’s mostly passable offensively, and J-Hay and Morse both have been quite good at points in the past. You could really load up the defense with Morton on the bump without costing too much offense the way the roster is constructed right now. That would also mean regular days off for Walker, which could keep his injury risk down.

      I know Morse isn’t a great defender, but he’s stronger than Pedro, and I’ll take his bat over Ishikawa or Rodriguez (whichever sticks around) at first base. And that leaves Ramirez and Alvarez as pinch-hitting threats with power later in the game.

      If Morton’s pitching against a lefty, though, we could load up the offense and the defense at the same time, which is a beautiful option.

      The roster is really well-constructed right now.

  • it is a nice bench. Would be even nicer if there was at least one lefty hitter on it (assuming a RHSP, with Polanco, Toro and Walker in the starting lineup).

    Adding Snider comes at the cost of one of the other lefty hitters on the 40-man, either Ishi or Decker. Those guys have their uses on an extended bench – Ishi allows Rodriguez to play all around the diamond rather than be stuck at 1B, Decker can play CF, take a walk and steal a base. They’re both replacement level guys, but so likely is Snider (wRC+ 83, Ishi is 79), unless of course he channels that post ASB mojo from last year. Otherwise, he’s not so much an upgrade as he is a different flavor of the same meh.