BRADENTON, Fl. – A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the mentors that Elias Diaz has in Major League camp. One interesting thing when collecting information for that article was a comment that Clint Hurdle made about their usage of Diaz in September 2015. Hurdle talked about how it was important to get Diaz the experience of working with big league pitchers, and more importantly, working with Francisco Cervelli. Here was the excerpt from the article:

“We felt it was important enough to call him up,” Hurdle said of that work. “That was the plan. We weren’t looking to push at-bats on him. We were trying to get some things done collectively as a team, as an organization. The time spent in the bullpen, catching the sides that A.J. Burnett is throwing, Liriano is throwing, Cole is throwing. The interaction, watching the game during the game. Being ready. The video tape. The pre-game prep meetings, and the hitter and catcher and pitching coach.”

Hurdle noted that they took the same approach with Jordy Mercer. He came up a few times in 2012, but barely played, and got just 10 plate appearances in September. However, he worked with the veterans, including Clint Barmes, and Mercer has credited his work with Barmes for his defensive improvements and ability to learn the best routes.

“The year he came up, I just think of that,” Hurdle said of the comparison between Mercer and Diaz. “It adds for them coming in, they’ve done everything but play a lot when he finds his way back.”

The reference to Mercer got me thinking about that situation. Back when Mercer was called up in 2012, he barely got playing time. He was called up for about a month the first time around, and got 11 plate appearances. He was called up the second time on July 5th, and got 57 plate appearances the rest of the year, including 10 in September when the Pirates were out of the mix.

At the time, a common saying that was going around was that Clint Hurdle didn’t trust younger players, instead going for the offensively challenged Clint Barmes over Mercer. They went with Mercer the following year at mid-season after Barmes struggled again, and he’s been the starting shortstop ever since.

The “Hurdle doesn’t trust young players” thing has come up again in the last week, after all of the talk about how the Pirates have so many young prospects on the verge of arriving in the next year. That idea has some believing that, despite a lot of young talent in Triple-A, Hurdle won’t give them a chance. There are a few problems with this theory.

The obvious problem is that the current roster features prospects who have come up with Hurdle as the manager. Gerrit Cole came up in 2013 when the Pirates were contenders, and Hurdle even used him in the deciding game of the season over A.J. Burnett. There couldn’t be a more “young player over veteran” move than that.

Cole isn’t the only story. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison have all come up while Hurdle was here, and all worked their way into starting roles. That’s half of the starting roles on the offense given to young players. In the cases with Harrison and Mercer, the players didn’t start right away, and that fueled the narrative. But there were reasons in each case.

In Harrison’s case, he really didn’t do anything at the plate to warrant a starting role. This includes his performance in 2014, up until the point when he started getting time in right field over Travis Snider. It was right around that point which he started breaking out, and Hurdle kept finding time to play him.

Mercer’s situation is outlined above. They brought him up in 2012, but gave the playing time to Barmes, and had Mercer taking in the MLB experience and learning from the veteran shortstop. Mercer credits his work with Barmes to his improved defense in the majors, so maybe that approach worked.

I’ll admit that I was also on the “Hurdle doesn’t like young players” bandwagon at times, but for another reason. For the first two and a half years that Hurdle was here, the Pirates were going with veteran free agents who were past their prime, rather than playing young players. Most of these young players never amounted to much. Some examples are Matt Hague, Ivan De Jesus, Argenis Diaz, Pedro Ciriaco, and others. A note about those last three: it was also confusing that the Pirates kept trading for strong defensive, no bat middle infielders, then never used them. Especially when they’d go out and add strong defensive, no bat middle infield veterans like John McDonald at the end of their careers.

The John McDonald situation was actually an interesting look back at the impact of blocking young players. Take a look at this nightmare of an article from 2013, after McDonald made the roster. In that, I wrote that McDonald’s addition blocked Mercer and/or De Jesus from the majors, and blocked guys like Adalberto Santos from moving up. I also wrote that future moves might hold back guys like Alen Hanson, Max Moroff, and Dan Gamache.

Obviously Mercer came up that year and stepped into a starter role. It’s impossible to say whether his added time in Triple-A helped lead to this. De Jesus never really got a shot with the Pirates, but didn’t turn into anything after leaving them. The Santos thing looks silly now, but he was coming off an .858 OPS in 238 at-bats in Altoona the year before at the age of 24. By comparison, Adam Frazier is getting a lot of attention for an .801 OPS in 377 plate appearances at the age of 23.

Santos didn’t repeat these numbers, De Jesus didn’t amount to much, and Mercer became a starter anyway. There was no long-term damage. My main issue was that you probably aren’t worse off with De Jesus over McDonald, and maybe that scenario leads to De Jesus becoming a valuable bench option. But this assumes the Pirates didn’t know what they had with guys like De Jesus.

Perhaps the Pirates did know that these guys didn’t have a future in the majors, which is why they were comfortable blocking them. Looking at the last lines from the 2013 article summary above, the fear was that this would continue with every prospect going forward. But here we are in 2016, and the Pirates aren’t blocking Hanson, Moroff, or Gamache. Instead, they’re giving them a lot of playing time.

The track record shows that Hurdle does play young players, but not every young player. And they haven’t really missed out on many guys. I think the biggest case where they missed was letting Brandon Moss walk as a free agent, then signing Lyle Overbay. This is probably in hindsight due to Moss’ success, but that success started with an adjustment in Indianapolis in 2011, before he was let go.

Maybe the Pirates should have had a blanket approach for prospects, taking the failures of De Jesus and others in order to make sure they didn’t miss out on the one Brandon Moss that worked out. The important thing now is that when it comes to the current group, they are set on playing those guys. This isn’t even a prediction. There aren’t veteran fillers set to block the prospects and get the promotions at mid-season. You might even see some of the younger players arrive earlier than mid-season, or even on Opening Day, depending on how soon Jung-ho Kang returns. But there should be no fears about Hurdle holding back the prospects, and based on history, anyone they do hold back might need to have their prospect status double checked.

**Since First Pitch is a daily free article, this is the daily reminder to non-subscribers that we have some low priced subscription options available, and offer the most live Pirates coverage of any news outlet. That’s typically a pretty good combo. We’d love to have you as a subscriber, which would give you access to all of our other great articles, including the ones below from today, with information that no one else has (even in the Hanson article, which has details from our years of covering him). Here is how you can subscribe, or you can check out the products page to buy a package of a subscription and the 2016 Prospect Guide.

**Breaking Down Cole Tucker’s Future Return After Another Big Step Today. Tucker will return much earlier than expected, and took another big step toward that today. But with Kevin Newman going to Bradenton, where will the Pirates place Tucker? Article also includes video from today’s live batting practice sessions.

**Pirates Are Sending Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller to West Virginia. The West Virginia Power will have another team stocked with some of the best young talent in the system. Hayes and Keller are breakout candidates in the sense that a strong year could put them in top 100 rankings next season.

**Harlan and Hibbing Retire, Pirates Add Two Right-Handed Pitchers From Dominican. A few transactions to note on the first day of full minor league camp workouts.

**Consistency Standing in the Way of Alen Hanson Arriving in the Majors. A breakdown of what Alen Hanson needs to work on to get to the majors. Spoiler alert: consistency.

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  1. I know what you are saying Tim, but- I still disagree. The Mercer situation still in my mind shows that Hurdle didn’t trust him. It never should have taken that long to get Barmes out of the lineup. Travis Snider and Jose tabata routinely getting shot after shot while we have prospects aging out down in indy- Gorkys Hernadez not even being allowed to see the field when called up as a defensive substitute, I mean there is a list a mile long…..

  2. Maybe I am misremembering – but I though Tony S was having a nice season – and had yet to develop the throwing yips when Barajas was letting singles turn into triples on a regular basis and batting something like .200…

    That being said – the biggest argument on this issue is the Pirates resigning the worthless Sean Hurdle and paying him an absurd $2.5M,,,

    BTW – Lambo hit his second ST HR and is batting well over .400

  3. And Marte and Polanco were immediately put into the lead off spot upon being called up. Something I hope they don’t do with Hansen if he comes up (he’d be a great bet to bat 9th… ha)

  4. Great article as usual – and this might be off topic, but I can’t believe you haven’t gotten any love for the picture you chose for this article today. You guys always seem to have the perfect picture for any occasion in your queue. It’s the little things.

    • I don’t even remember what was happening in particular when I took the photo, but I laughed when I saw it on my camera.

  5. If the young player is good enough, and we’re past the “year of control” time (May1 or so?), then the young player will be eased into the lineup.

    My question is: If Bell is tearing up AAA, what do they do with Jaso (who I am expecting to do well), since Bell’s strong side is LH?

  6. I know it’s hard to predict now, but who is going to be sent down when these guys are ready to come up? For TG and JT it seems like Volgesong and the 7th man in the bullpen and Locke moves to the bullpen. But that’s where it gets confusing for me. Who does Bell replace? And Hanson and Diaz?

    • There’s no guarantee that Glasnow will be ready to come up this year. Diaz really isn’t needed this year, barring an injury. I’m sure Bell will replace either Joyce or Rogers.

        • I don’t know if this is what he meant, but it sounds like when he said he could replace Joyce, you assumed it would be as the fourth outfielder. If he’s just taking his roster spot, that wouldn’t mean he has to take his role too. Morse and Jaso have played outfield, and you would hope that the fourth outfielder isn’t seeing much time anyway with the three outfielders the Pirates have, so you wouldn’t mind if they took some turns out there once in awhile.

          If Bell comes up before September, he’s playing everyday. He wouldn’t take Jaso’s roster spot though

          • Although Morse and Jaso have physically played the outfield neither would IMO be consider an MLB outfielder. Our bench needs to be tightened up immediately either by two way players or rookies who have shown that unique ability in the minors.

            • A lot could change under that imaginary scenario that I tried to explain. One, Joyce would have to make the team. Two would be Bell coming up. Three would be no AAA outfielder establishing themselves, while Joyce struggles enough to warrant getting rid of him. If we assume all that happens, then we are talking about a small period from the time Bell is up until the time rosters expand on September 1st, and all they would be asking for is an outfielder to fill in sparingly for one of three players who should be in the lineup everyday. Basically, we are talking about a handful of games and they would probably be in RF in PNC, which doesn’t need a great fielding outfielder.

    • Trades and DFAs. Guys like Morse, Rogers. Maybe Harrison too, depending on their record and how he’s doing. I find it hard to believe JHays in their long term plans. A, with all the money he’s due soon. And B, the sheer number of 2nd baseman in the pipe. If they balked at paying Walker 10? Right?

    • The Bell-Jaso decision will – or at least should – depend on where the club is at in the standings as much as anything, unless management blatantly decides to punt on 2016.

      If Jaso hits and fields as well as folks around here have been pumping him up all winter, then it would be massively optimistic to expect Josh Bell to come up and immediately play at that level or better through a playoff race.

  7. Does this organization ever get to the point where a rookie makes the team out of spring training?

    • Yes and No. Yes if you aren’t a super two caliber player (Hanson maybe) or an international stud (Kang). No if they are “that” good- super two will trump making the team. No way I’d give up a full year of a top prospect service time in the prime of his career for April and May of a rookie season.

  8. Maybe it’s just me but it appears to me that the regulars do not get enough playing time in ST and as a consequence, they are not ready for the regular season and play themselves into shape after the season begins hence the slow starts.

    • They work their way up. Start with five innings, and recently they’ve been moving up to seven. They’ll get full games by the end, and the last thing will be back to back full games before they’re ready.

      They also get a lot of work off the field, such as the cages, and fielding on the back fields. If you don’t see them in the lineup, it just means they’ve got a busy day back there. And when minor league games start, they’ll be sending guys over to play in those games.

      • I wasn’t talking about physical shape but mental, focus shape. If they aren’t playing sub 500 ball at the end of April, I will be surprised.

  9. The league as a whole seems to be making changes with younger players. Maybe it is just me, but I see a lot more younger players being brought to MLB earlier and adapting faster than had been the case in the past. Are the players of today that much more talented? Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Addison Russell – 3 middle infielders who were just 21 last year, and all played major roles for their teams. Bryant drafted in 2013 and Schwarber drafted in 2014 and both played major roles for the Cubs in 2015.

  10. Probably depends on the team he has. Let’s be honest, he didn’t have rookies to play last year, right? This year, especially towards June, he’ll have a couple. Which also makes it likely they aren’t going to add players at those particular positions, because you’ll be blocking those young guys. Regardless of where you stand, it will be interesting how this is managed. And let’s face it, injuries will complicate it further. Hopefully only the 15 day variety.

  11. Pretty sure it’s a trust issue w Hurdle. Since he’s the one who takes the blame for losses, he prefers to go with the guys he trusts will give them the best chance to win. I also think nearly every Manager does it the same way.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out this season with all the top prospects set to arrive. Something tells me, barring injury, the majority of these young guys will be slow to arrive. There will be lots of teeth grinding on message boards around June 10th or so demanding the Pirates promote Glasnow, Taillon, Bell, Diaz, etc. and I just don’t see it happening.

  12. Mercer did become the starter the next season, but as the playoffs approached he went back to Barmes. Mercer got 1 start in the playoffs that year against St. Louis & it just so happened it was the only game Bucco’s won in comfort.
    Hurdle also played Barajas the whole year despite being the worst catcher I’ve ever seen.

    • The point is: they didn’t have anyone behind them. Mike mchenry? Tony Sanchez? Who were they to play every day? And pretty sure Barajas wasn’t here for the playoff year- I don’t think you meant that, but the way it’s written it reads that way.

      • The article starts before the playoff year, my point is there is merit to Hurdle preferring veterans has substance. Picking Cole over AJ was an easy call when you factor in what St. Louis did to AJ every time they faced him at that time.
        Finding out what you have with AA suspect would have been better then Barajas. They constantly stole 2nd & 3rd against him. Hurdle forfeited 3 innings every game with
        7 Barajas
        8 Barmes
        9 Pitcher
        It’s no wonder they collapsed.

        • Understood- I think what the article is saying is – maybe they DO know what they had, and it was worse than even Barajas (who is my least favorite pirate in the last 20 years). When they think they do have a prospect – they are letting them loose and not just taking a flyer on players that likely will not make it.

        • Barajas was bad, but who were the alternatives at the time? Tony Sanchez wasn’t ready. Michael McKenry isn’t a starter and was just as bad that year. Then you’ve got other backups like Eric Fryer, who they sent out.

          Barajas was bad, but there was no internal alternative.

          • By August they still had a shot & seen enough of Barajas to know he was going to kill them the rest of the year. I would have preferred the Fort (he was bad) or taken a chance on Sanchez or brought someone else, anyone else but Barajas. He had no business being in milb let alone mlb

            • Sanchez still isn’t ready for the majors, and definitely won’t be a starter. So he wouldn’t have been ready then. McKenry also would have been bad as a starter. They’re all in the same boat, but you’re giving them the backup QB treatment right now.

      • I felt at the time Mercer made the lineup deeper. Barmes then Pitcher the year after Barajas, Barmes & Pitcher, well I had seen enough of it I didn’t want to see it anymore. Mercer deserved & earned that shot. Hurdle went back to his old pair of shoes & the lineup suffered.

    • Complete revisionist history…Mercer lost the starting role on merit after committing twelve errors in about 500 innings, culminating in that throwing errors that allowed the Reds to come back in the 9th inning in a critical late September game.

      Nobody was questioning the decision to go back to Barmes at the time.

      • I remember hearing a lot of people complaining, including me. He made some errors but because of Barmes being a snell got to a lot more balls. Add that with his hitting & Barmes being an automatic out I cussed everytime I seen his name in the lineup

          • No offense taken, but I had a 20 game plan in the PBC & it was overwhelming majority who complained everytime Barmes name was in starting lineup. Comments were made on a regular basis. It’s a good time to go to the bathroom or get a drink…. everytime Barmes was due up in an inning. Myself included

  13. And none of the younger names that are being tossed around has any profound AAA experience. It’ll come and so will they.

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