In my previews of the Pirates’ off-season, I’ve noted that there are just two specific needs for the team heading into 2017. The biggest need is a starting pitching upgrade. They could also use an additional late inning reliever. But the lineup is pretty much set, the bench has a lot of options, and they have a lot of young pitchers to fill out the bullpen, with the expected minor moves set to take place to add depth to the bench and bullpen.
Despite the lack of needs on the team, there are some scenarios that could make the off-season an interesting one. I’ve written about one of those scenarios, with the potential for the Pirates to trade Andrew McCutchen. If that happens, then all bets are off as to what could go down this off-season, as a McCutchen trade would open the door to a lot of possibilities. There would be the return, which would almost certainly include young players ready to step into the majors, plus the freed up salary to add additional free agents.
On a smaller scale, I think the first base/bench situation is one to watch. Right now, the Pirates have Josh Bell, David Freese, and John Jaso as their first base options. They all got plenty of starting time at the end of the year, but that was due to injuries. With everyone healthy, the Pirates have very little playing time for Freese, and no playing time for Jaso, who finished the season with some hot hitting in the final two months. Jaso is working at third base this off-season, but it still would be difficult to get him playing time. Consider the following scenario:
**Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Andrew McCutchen each get one day off a week. That leaves three outfield starts open.
**Josh Bell gets one day off a week, and splits between first base and right field.
**Jung Ho Kang gets one day off a week, giving David Freese a start at third.
If Bell takes two of the outfield starts, that gives Freese two additional starts at first base. And that playing time split would be fine for those players. But this leaves maybe one start a week for Jaso, with super utility guys like Adam Frazier also factoring in the mix. Right now, the playing time looks tight when you consider the first base options.
There are a lot of possibilities here for a solution, some within the Pirates’ control, and some out of their control. Here is the rundown of those scenarios.
1. Nothing Happens
Scenario number one involves just going with the depth they have. This isn’t really a problem. No team will ever complain about having too much depth. And an injury will happen at some point, meaning that Jaso will eventually get playing time, Freese will eventually be a full-time starter, and other guys on the bench or in Triple-A to start the year might get a start or two. Again, this isn’t a problem.
2. They Trade Jaso
I wouldn’t say that John Jaso’s spot on the team is set in stone. I think there will be a lot of calls from the fans to just trade Jaso, thinking that this solves a problem that doesn’t really exist. The fact that the Pirates have Jaso working at other positions this off-season suggests that they might not be set on dealing him, and I don’t think that’s the worst idea. He finished the season strong, and as we saw with Sean Rodriguez this year, it can be worth it to see if that strong finish carries over to the following year. Also, if one of the following scenarios happens, keeping Jaso would be a great move.
3. The NL Adds the DH
This is what I’m hoping will happen. It would solve some problems for the Pirates, specifically with Josh Bell. They could put him as the DH most of the time, limiting the negative impact of his defense, and letting him just focus on the bat, which I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the best of just yet. The first base position would then be split between Jaso and Freese, with Freese becoming a regular starter, and Jaso getting a few starts per week, like Freese in the scenario above.
4. Andrew McCutchen Gets Traded
Back to the big hypothetical. If McCutchen gets traded, then the Pirates can replace him by doing what they did at the end of the season. Bell could split between first base and right field, with Freese and Jaso splitting time at first base when Bell isn’t playing the position. This might help to off-set losing McCutchen’s offense, due to the defensive upgrade. You’d upgrade the defense at first base, and you’d go from a bad outfielder in center field, to a bad outfielder in right field.
There are some interesting things that make me think the Pirates aren’t just going with the straightforward approaches from number one and two, specifically that they spent all of September rotating the first basemen, and they’re having Bell work in the outfield and Jaso working at third base this off-season. There have also been some rumors that McCutchen could be shopped, but nothing that says they’re actively trying to trade him. But if he does get traded, then I think we’ll look back and view the news that Bell and Jaso are working at positions other than first base a lot differently, sort of in a “So that’s what they were planning” way. Then again, maybe they don’t trade McCutchen, and we just look back on those off-season plans as normal attempts to add depth.
I feel like something is going to happen with the first base situation. I hope that would be the addition of the DH, as I think that would help the Pirates with their current roster situation. But if this all turns out to be nothing, and they keep all three first basemen, then it’s not going to be a bad thing to have a lot of depth, especially after a 2016 season where they saw starters dropping like flies down the stretch.
**2016 First Base Recap: How Long Will the Josh Bell Experiment Last? My recap of the first base position this year, along with a look at Josh Bell’s future.
**AFL: Eric Wood Plays First Base for the First Time, Has Busy Day on Offense and Defense. Speaking of first base, I doubt Wood is an option there, since he’s one of the best third base prospects in the upper levels. But it’s interesting that he’s getting work at first and the corner outfield spots this off-season, after playing exclusively third base up until now.