Stopped Short: Possible Pirates Options at SS

Pirates SS Clint Barmes has been a major disappointment in 2012; courtesy Pirates.com

The second week of May is no longer the “beginning” of the baseball season, nor can 100 plate appearances be considered a “small sample size”.  No matter what baseball excuses people come up with to justify the woeful performance of Pirates starting shortstop Clint Barmes, the proof is in the pudding.

This is a player who has achieved the 600+ plate appearance mark once in his 10-year major league career.  Barmes has always been injury-prone, so his average season is normally in the 400-500 plate appearance range.  So far in 2012, he has looked healthy, but his lack of ability to put the bat on the ball has become a major problem for a team that is struggling to score runs.  While nobody expected that Clint Barmes would come to Pittsburgh and immediately turn into Honus Wagner, I’m pretty sure the organization was hoping for something in the neighborhood of Jack Wilson – or even Ronny Cedeno.

Barmes is hitting .152 with a brutal 25 K’s in those 98 plate appearances, which is bad enough until you consider that he has walked exactly one time and is sporting an on-base percentage of .188.  Between Barmes, Rod Barajas, and the pitchers spot, the Bucs are basically playing with a six-man lineup card every night.  Barajas received a slight momentary reprieve from Pirates fans after his walk-off homer on Tuesday beat Washington, but he has been equally miserable.  The Pirates have consistently gotten solid pitching (Team ERA of 3.40 as of 5/11), and some of their bats are showing signs of life.  With 1/5 of the season in the tank and sitting 14-17, the Pirates are 6.0 games out of first place in the N.L. Central.  The St. Louis Cardinals are 20-11 and by far the best team in the division thus far, but have played a soft schedule and should come back down to Earth by mid-season.  If the Bucs can get to .500 and hang there through the All Star Break, they will have as good a chance as anyone to catch the Redbirds – and possibly be in line to make some “buyers” moves at the trade deadline for the second year in a row.  In order to do that, the bats need to wake up very soon to give this pitching staff some run support – and that means any starting position player hitting below the Mendoza Line needs to go.  The Pirates can give Barmes until the end of May to get it going, but if his record-setting offensive futility continues there will be no choice but to make a permanent move at shortstop.

So what are the options for the Pirates if they need to bench Barmes?  First off, Clint Barmes isn’t going anywhere roster-wise.  Worst case scenario for him is that he becomes a $5 million dollar utility player.  Barmes has played a good bit of second base, third base, and even outfield in his big league career.  He has value to the Pirates simply due to positional flexibility, and although we have seen him play some really bad defense in 2012, traditionally he has been a serviceable fielder with a lifetime fielding percentage of .974.  The Pirates currently have Josh Harrison and Yamaico Navarro as their utility players, neither playing exceptionally well in limited action.  Both have limited experience at SS at the major league level.  Harrison has played four games there this season, starting in three of them, and he played one game at SS for AAA Indianapolis in 2011.  Navarro has a bit more time there, playing in 15 games for Boston in 2010 and scattering another seven appearances between Kansas City last season and Pittsburgh this year.  Either one of the two would be learning on the job defensively, and if you base your comparison entirely off of major league offensive output, Harrison would get the nod.  Last season, “The Jay-Hay Kid” became a fan favorite of Pirates fans with his all-out hustle and athleticism and put up solid numbers in 204 plate appearances (.272 BA with 16 RBI).  If he were to get regular at-bats, it is not unimaginable to expect a respectable batting average and for him to add another 15-20 stolen bases to the Pirates totals.  If nothing more, Harrison starting at shortstop would bring a needed burst of enthusiasm to the bottom of the lineup – a welcome sight after six weeks of watching Clint Barmes and his stoic approach (not to mention his creepy grin).

Josh Harrison; courtesy zimbio.com

The Pirates seem to like Navarro’s potential to be a legitimate major league utility player, possibly based on his minor league profile.  At only 24-years old, Navarro has played in 75 games at the AAA level, posting a .267/.343/.454 line with 10 homeruns in just 309 at-bats.  That potential has not manifested at the major league level in his very short career.  Although still relatively young for a player with nine professional seasons under his belt, Navarro doesn’t seem to have the skills to max out as any more than a bench player in the majors.

There are no other shortstop options on the Pirates big league roster.  Neither Casey McGehee nor Neil Walker has any professional experience playing shortstop.

The next group to look at are the Pirates minor league options.  Down at AAA-Indianapolis, the current starting shortstop is 25-year old prospect Jordy Mercer.  In 2011, Mercer shuffled between Indianapolis and AA-Altoona, posting a combined line of .255/.317/.440 with 19 homers and 69 RBI in 132 games.  Known for having a potent throwing arm, Mercer has had issues fielding the ball this season at Indy with six errors in just 25 games.  He is hitting at a .287 clip with two homers and nine doubles, and would seem to be next in line for a call-up to Pittsburgh if the Pirates dispatched a Raven to Winterfell (Indianapolis) for a middle infielder.  Mercer is intriguing to Pirates fans, who have been hearing his name as a prospect since the team drafted him in the third round of the 2008 MLB Draft.  The time is rapidly approaching for the Pirates to find out what they have in Mercer, who is probably ticketed for a September call-up if he doesn’t get to Pittsburgh sooner.

A familiar name to fans who watched him scuffle to a .217/.242/.287 line in his first extended major league action last season, Chase d’Arnaud has been battling injuries this season and has only been able to play in five games for Indianapolis.  Another speedy player in an organization that is not short on basestealers, d”Arnaud was woefully outmatched in the majors in 2011.  After getting off to a memorable start with a triple in his first game as a Pirate, d’Arnaud saw a good amount of action at shortstop and third base and didn’t play particularly well at either spot.  Mainly in the major leagues in 2011 due to injuries, the plan for d’Arnaud in 2012 has been to get a full season of AAA play under his belt.  While he isn’t as offensively challenged as Pirates family tree predecessor Brian Bixler, Chase d’Arnaud would bring plenty of strikeouts with him to the Steel City – something this team simply can not have any more of if they want to be competitive.   While d’Arnaud may be a long-term option for the major league roster, he needs to pile up some AAA at-bats before he tries the big time again.

INF Chase d'Arnaud made his MLB debut for the Pirates in 2011; courtesy rotoprofessor.com

The Pirates have a few other middle infielders at AAA including Brian Friday, an all glove/no hit natural shortstop who has played 2B/3B/SS throughout his pro career but has hit .236 in 670 AAA plate appearances, and Anderson Hernandez, a journeyman utility player who last played in the majors in 2010.  Hernandez was a non-roster invite to Spring Training this year and was kept around to provide depth at Indianapolis.  He is not an option for anything other than minor league filler at this point in his career, and is struggling heartily at AAA thus far.  The fact that Anderson Hernandez is even playing in the Pirates minor-league system shows how bad the depth is for middle infielders, organization-wide.

A little deeper look down the rabbit hole takes us to AA-Altoona, where 23-year old SS Brock Holt is making a push for promotion.  Depending on what happens in Pittsburgh, the domino effect could have Holt playing everyday at AAA very soon.  His defense has not been stellar at shortstop, so a move to second base is most likely in his future.  Current Curve second baseman Elevys Gonzalez is an exciting young player who absolutely tore apart pitching in the Class A Florida State League last summer.  Thus far he has struggled at Altoona, but the 22-year old has a future with the Pirates sometime in 2013-2014.

With so few potential options in their own system, the Pirates may have to look elsewhere to find a shortstop.

The only experienced player currently not with an organization is 35-year old Edgar Renteria  The former World Series hero and five-time All Star played with Cincinnati in 2011 but didn’t hook on with a club this year.  In February, he stated that he was considering retirement but has not filed papers to make that official.  Although he last played regularly with San Fransisco in 2009, he appeared in 96 games for the Redlegs last season and showed that he can still move.  Obviously, he isn’t a full-time option and would actually have to agree to come to Pittsburgh. If a team would have offered him a major league deal this spring, the veteran would probably be on a roster somewhere.  Renteria knows a few things about winning baseball games, and maybe he would take a liking to mentoring the young Pirates, or at the very least – feel bad for them.  Yeah, this is a long shot idea – but if the Bucs signed Edgar Renteria and slotted him in as the shortstop tomorrow – would you argue?

Trade options are tough to navigate at this point, since everyone still fancies themselves a contender in mid-May.  A player who is definitely available is San Diego Padres SS Jason Bartlett.  Bartlett was shopped around in the offseason, and with the Padres in a full-fledged youth movement, rumors are swirling that he could be released by the Friars, who are going to be stuck with his $5.5 million contract on their payroll regardless.  San Diego may be happy to eat most of his contract, which comes with a vesting option for 2013 that kicks in after 432 plate appearances.  Bartlett was an exceptional player in Tampa Bay just a few years ago – making an All Star game in 2009 – and just hasn’t been able to make the transition to Petco Park.  The Padres stadium has claimed more than its fair share of big league hitters, and Bartlett is struggling very badly this year while not laying on the beach.  This is a player who was a key cog in the amazing Tampa Bay Rays turnaround in 2008, when they went from perennial doormat to American League pennant winners in one season.  On this Pirates team, any experience in that type of environment could do nothing but help a club that just seems to be clueless on how to turn the corner.  Bartlett is far from a Gold Glove shortstop, but for the right price he could be had and would be an upgrade over any option on the Pirates roster.  At 32-years old, he has plenty left in his tank and just needs to get out of San Diego.  An offer of a C-Level minor league pitcher could be enough to get Bartlett and convince the Padres to eat most of his deal.  This is a case of a team taking ANYTHING they can get for a player.  If not, expect to see Jason Bartlett on the waiver wire within a month.

Padres SS Jason Bartlett is on his way out of San Diego; courtesy espn.com

There’s an old friend who may be available to the Bucs.  Jack Wilson was the Pirates shortstop from 2001-2009, before being traded away to Seattle against his will in the infamous deal that introduced us all to the magical world of Ronny Cedeno and Jeff Clement.  Since then, Wilson has spent three seasons as a part-time backup infielder for the Mariners and then for the Braves in 2011.  He was resigned by Atlanta in the offseason as an insurance policy to rookie SS Tyler Pastornicky, who has since cemented his status as the full-time starter for the Braves.  Wilson is now a seldom-used backup at second base, short, and third base.  With Pastornicky, “Mr. Biceps” Dan Uggla, and future Hall of Famer Larry Chipper Jones all in place for 2012, and Martin Prado available to play any position besides catcher, Wilson is simply taking up space on the Atlanta roster.  As a player who has earned the respect of everyone in baseball with his hard-nosed play and great community contributions, it is no secret that Wlson would love to finish up his career with the Pirates.  Atlanta expects to be in a tight division race all season in the N.L. East, and will be shuffling players back and forth to AAA-Gwinnett as often as fresh horses are available.  Now that they know they have their long-term shortstop in place, Wilson could be available.  “Jumpin’ Jack Flash has seen his hitting ability diminish along with his playing time in past years, but he can still throw the leather around.  What better way to jump-start a fledgling team than to bring back a player who contributed so much to the franchise and genuinely LOVED Pittsburgh?  What a story that would be, and how much fun would it be to see Jack Wilson and his familiar #2 back with the Pirates.  I’m sure Nate McLouth – a teammate of Wilson on the Bucs from 2005-2009 – would happily hand over #2 if Wilson came back home.  This may be the inner-fan in me talking, but baseball loves these kind of stories.  A player who wanted nothing more than to play his entire career with the Pirates finally gets his wish.  The Braves would be looking for a little bit of pop off their bench or maybe a low-level project player in return.  I would offer them 3B Jake Fox or OF Brandon Boggs from Indianapolis, opening up a AAA slot for one of the quickly-rising hitters from Altoona.  It’s a deal that could be done tomorrow, and at the very least it would take our minds off of the horrific offense we have been subjected to for the past six weeks.

The rest of the potentially available shortstops are players such as veteran Yuniesky Betancourt of the Kansas City Royals.  The Royals are buried deep in the standings of the A.L. Central and haven’t used Betancourt as anything more than a backup to starting second baseman Chris Getz and starting shortstop Alcides Escobar.  He is a solid little player that is on a one-year deal in his eighth major league season.  The Royals are slowing bringing up all of their prospects as the season moves forward, and Betancourt will see less at-bats until eventually being waived at some point.  He has played only one season in the National League (2011 with Milwaukee) and showed that he has some decent pop in his bat (13 HR and 68 RBI), along with being an excellent contact hitter (just 3 K’s in 50 at-bats in 2012).  More or less a platoon-type player at this point, at the very least he could offset either Harrison or Navarro and give them days off based on match-up comparisons.  INF Adam Kennedy is buried on the Los Angeles Dodgers depth chart, and has been a productive major league hitter as recently as 2009 with Oakland.  He can play all four infield positions, but is a natural shortstop.  At 36-years old, his best days are behind him but he did play in 114 games for Seattle last season and played outstanding defense.  He is a veteran player who would be an upgrade over Clint Barmes.  His availability would be based on the numbers game, the Dodgers have five middle infielders on their roster and are committed to Mark Ellis, Dee Gordon, and Jerry Hairston as their go-to guys.  Offer a PSPTBNL (Pretty Shitty Player to Be Named Later) and enjoy five months of Adam Kennedy in the black and gold.  Word is that he is a HUGE Boyz 2 Men fan, so maybe that would be enough to convince him to eat the cost of his time share in the Valley.

How cool would it be to see this sight at shortstop for the Bucs in 2012?

Unfortunately for Pirates fans, we may be stuck with Clint Barmes.  Besides his $10.5 million contract, he is in Pittsburgh mainly because Manager Clint Hurdle likes him.  Barmes was a big part of the Colorado Rockies team that eventually reached the World Series in 2007.  Although Barmes was hurt that year, those Rockies teams that Hurdle managed are special to the Pirates skipper and he may let Barmes hit solid rock bottom before having a teary-eyed, closed door, heart to heart love chat to pull the plug.  Meanwhile, the Pirates will continue to fall further away from .500 and even further behind the rest of the N.L. Central.  You all know that I believe Michael McKenry should be the starting catcher (he has Rockies ties, what’s the holdup Clint?) – if you were unaware of my man-crush on “The Fort” make sure you check out the FortTracker weekly column I post here at Rumbunter.  The Barmes/Barajas winter spend-a-thon has been a colossal failure, and now is the time to make the moves needed to keep this team in the hunt.

Yes, most of this article is pure speculation with little factual evidence to back up my options (and sorry to those who don’t watch “Game of Thrones” as some of the finer points may have left you wondering if I have been dipping into Dock Ellis’ personal stash), but the point is – there ARE options.  We are too early in the 2012 season to just assume that this is it, and coast to another 90-loss shitbox of a campaign.  The Pirates waited too long last summer to pull the trigger on the Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee moves, and it cost them.  I say the time is now to start shuffling the deck and take a chance on the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates as contenders.

It all starts at shortstop.

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Topics: Bob Nutting, Brock Holt, Clint Barmes, Clint Hurdle, Jack Wilson, Jason Bartlett, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Nate McLouth, Neil Huntigton, Neil Walker, Pirates Blog, Pittsburgh Pirates, Ronny Cedeno, Yamaico Navarro

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