NEW YORK – It’s no secret that the Pirates have struggled offensively this year. They currently rank 12th in the NL in wRC+ and 13th in wOBA. So when it came time for a shakeup of their bench heading into the weekend series against the Mets, offense was the focus.
The Pirates sent down defensive infield specialist Gift Ngoepe and designated Alen Hanson for assignment, bringing up Max Moroff and Phil Gosselin. Moroff has seen an increase in his power this year in Indianapolis. Gosselin struggled in his time in the majors, but as Brian Peloza wrote yesterday, he has found a way to hit the reset button and get back on track.
Clint Hurdle put the Pirates’ current situation best when describing why Ngoepe was sent down.
“Right now we don’t have the luxury of carrying a premium defender right now, based on the composition of our club,” Hurdle said.
Let’s take a closer look at why Hanson and Ngoepe couldn’t provide that offense, and why Moroff and Gosselin might be able to help.
Hanson Can’t Put It All Together
It’s no secret that Alen Hanson has dealt with consistency issues. We’ve written about that on an almost regular occurrence since he became a top prospect. That ultimately led to the decision to designate him for assignment.
“In Alen’s case, we’ve had a lot of men touch Alen, work with Alen throughout this time,” Hurdle said. “It had been a hard road for him to get to this level with part-time play. We still haven’t seen the tools that he had come together. You see a tool here, you see a tool there. The challenges have been putting them all together. And the playing time hasn’t been probably conducive for him and what he’s experienced in the past.”
Hurdle noted that Hanson will go through the normal process of either getting traded to a team with interest or getting claimed off waivers. If that doesn’t happen, he would go to Indianapolis and get regular playing time. But Hanson’s consistency issues have become too much, to the point where he kept getting passed up for playing time by guys like Adam Frazier. Even guys like Phil Gosselin were allowed to struggle and continue getting time, and get other opportunities.
It really became apparent that Hanson wasn’t getting a chance with the Pirates this year when Jose Osuna came up and got more playing time than him, almost instantly.
“Osuna had opportunities because of the injuries in the outfield position,” Hurdle said. “We had him ahead of and more dependable than Hanson in the outfield. He made some throws that caught your attention. However, the profiling of the bat, you want to take somebody that can go get a ball, or you want to take somebody that can possibly get what he catches and swing the bat. A lot of it came down to the bat, usable speed versus having speed.”
Hanson had just a .483 OPS this year, so it’s not like the bat warranted playing time. And if the Pirates weren’t going to give him a shot to improve on those numbers, and didn’t trust his consistency issues to go away, then there was no reason to keep him around.
Gift Needs More Than Defense
If this roster had the 2015 offense, Gift Ngoepe may have warranted a bench spot on the team. For now, his defense-only value, and the high number of strikeouts, just didn’t play.
“We saw at this level what everyone has seen throughout our minor league system, that he’s a premium defender,” Hurdle said. “Gift’s next assignment is to go down, establish a two strike approach that is visible. Not that he has to hit .300. We’re looking for a little more consistency in the box, a little less swing and miss. The ability to bunt, hit and run, squeeze, those type of things, the small ball. He’s been aware of it. He’s worked at it. But it’s never been a part of his game.”
Ngoepe had a nice start to his MLB career, getting on base at an unprecedented rate, and limiting his strikeouts. However, the strikeout issues that have long plagued him returned in a big way, and he ended up with a 41% strikeout rate.
“I think this is the best thing that could have happened to him, getting him up here, number one, and now give him a chance to go back with the awareness of what he needs to work on to stick,” Hurdle said. “The speed of the game, he’s aware of now. A lot of different things that he can only wonder about before. He had a little success as well. Obviously in the field. That’s not going to be a problem, catching a ball, making plays. The other part of it, we see what kind of identity he can establish offensively. It doesn’t have to be anything more than a fight in the box, a better two strike approach, and a guy that can play a short game.”
Is Max Moroff’s Power Real?
Moroff has always been a guy who had some power from the middle infield spots. But no one expected him to show the power he’s shown this year, and that includes Moroff himself.
“If someone told me I’d have 13 home runs at this point in the season, I’d probably say they’re crazy,” Moroff said. “I’m just going out, I’m not trying to do it. It’s pretty awesome.”
Brian Peloza wrote a good article summarizing Moroff’s power increase. I asked Moroff if he has made any adjustments to his swing, checking to see if there was anything we missed, but his answer was simple.
“No,” Moroff replied. “It’s just happening. Balls must be going a little higher I guess.”
Hurdle didn’t have an answer for Moroff’s power increase, but said that one possibility could be the increase in pitching up in the zone playing well for him.
“I’ve had a few players that have gone down and hit home runs,” Hurdle said. “It’s kind of crazy, because what you see sometimes is maturation of a hitter. You see a guy that maybe develops an opportunity to hit bad balls, hanging breaking balls, fastballs not located well, or just becomes a better guy on balls elevated up in the zone without velocity. You see a lot of velocity elevated up in the zone at this level. It’s one of the new trends moving forward. However, we’ll see how it plays out here.”
No one really knows if Moroff can carry his power over to the majors, but giving him a shot is definitely the right call. He may not upgrade over the guys he replaced, but it would be hard to downgrade over that pair.
The switch to Moroff does mean that the Pirates will downgrade defensively at one position. Hurdle said that with Ngoepe going down, Moroff will be the backup shortstop when Jordy Mercer needs a day off. Moroff can play the position in a backup role, but isn’t a strong defender.
“I’ve played a lot of shortstop down there since Gift was up here,” Moroff said of his recent work. “I’ve felt comfortable making the routine plays, and some good plays too. Still some things I probably need to work on. I feel comfortable at short and at second obviously.”
The Pirates will take that occasional downgrade on defense if it means a possible upgrade at the plate off the bench.
Brian Peloza also did a good job writing about what went wrong with Phil Gosselin, and how he got back on track to return to the majors. The summary is that he was having trouble staying back while in the majors. He has a little lean forward when he starts his swing, then rocks back in his legs to get set. He wasn’t getting back far enough before he had to move forward, putting his timing and swing off. After three or four games in Indianapolis, he got the timing back.
Hurdle said he got good reports from everyone who saw Gosselin, including Indianapolis manager Andy Barkett, coordinators in town, and Larry Broadway and Kyle Stark.
“[He] was able to establish a routine and a rhythm,” Hurdle said. “Got him back in play offensively. They continued to move him around defensively. It was a case where a guy was able to unplug, catch his breath, and plug back in. He’s got experience in this role up here. It’s why we acquired him over the winter. He went down, he did his work, he swung the bat very well, made the plays he needs to make defensively. We felt confident in bringing him back at this time.”
The question is whether Gosselin can maintain his swing now that he’s back to a part-time role. It helped that he had regular playing time to get back on track, but the lack of playing time was what prevented him from fixing things in the majors in the first place.
“I think I’ve got the feeling back,” Gosselin said. “A similar thing happened last year, I started off slow. I got a little bit of playing time, guys got injured, and I was able to turn it around after a slow first month. Once I get that feeling back in the middle of the season, I feel it will carry through.”
Just like Moroff, it’s unknown whether Gosselin will be able to hit in the majors this time around. But the Pirates can’t be hurt by giving him another shot, especially after what he showed in his time with Indianapolis.
Gregory Polanco returns to the lineup tonight. A late adjustment to the tweet below: Francisco Cervelli was a late scratch due to illness. Elias Diaz will catch, batting eighth, with Jordy Mercer moving up to 7th.
— Tim Williams (@timwilliamsP2) June 2, 2017