Flexible & dependable: the new Pittsburgh Pirates bench
Last summer, Andrew McCutchen was plunked by the Diamondbacks. Neil Walker was hurt but not hurt enough to go on the DL, and various other members of the Pittsburgh Pirates had the usual bumps and bruises that go along with the baseball season grind. During this dark time, the fans looked to a new set of heroes, players who were light on experience but heavy on bravado and skill, along with a journeyman who couldn’t quite find a team to appreciate his talents. They would come together to lead the Pirates through the dark dog days of summer and lift them up towards the NL Central title. When it was all over, the names would be etched in Pirate lore for years.
Michael Martinez. Brent Morel. Jayson Nix.
Let’s hop off the sarcasm train for a moment and take a beat to truly appreciate just how putrid the Pittsburgh Pirates bench was in 2014. There were games in which all three of those players were prominently involved. Pressed into action, all three struggled to contribute, and that’s saying it lightly. None of them cracked .200, and Jayson Nix in particular put up a two-week stretch for the ages, slashing .111/.158/.111. Say what you will about Nix’s stint with the Pirates last year, but it was certainly historic. Proving that the universe is unfair, Nix got to play in a world series with the Kansas City Royals.
This year will be different. Through a series of shrewd signings and trades, the Pittsburgh Pirates bench now includes such names as Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, and, of course, Jeong-ho Kang. None of these are what you would call flashy, yet they give the Pirates the kind of flexibility they have not had in some time. (For a good read on Hart, read our own Matt Bower’s take). In Rodriguez and Kang, Neal Huntington has given Clint Hurdle a lot of different options to create lineups when he needs to rest Neil Walker’s back. In Hart and possibly Andrew Lambo, Clint can rest easy when he has to give Pedro Alvarez that all-important “mental day off.” By all accounts, Sean Rodriguez can also step in at any infield position. If his bat will play at close to .240-.250 for the season, Huntington should be arrested for such larceny.
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Although the backup infield looks drastically different, I can’t say enough how happy I am to see Travis Snider come back for 2015. Fans really sleep on how important he is to this ballclub. He can play either corner outfield positions, so not only can he spell Gregory Polanco, but he can also help spell Andrew McCutchen by covering LF and allowing Starling Marte to slide over to CF. Snider also has value as a pinch hitter, with an .OBP of .350 in that role. I looked at Lunchbox’s .BABIP (batting average on balls in play) when batting as a PH, and it came in at .282. A bit more luck on a few balls and his value gets even higher. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much of a gamer he is also. Isn’t that right, Carlos Gomez? Going into the offseason, I had a hunch that between Snider and Gaby Sanchez, only one would stay. The right choice was made.
Say what you will about Nix’s stint with the Pirates last year, but it was certainly historic. Proving that the universe is unfair, Nix got to play in a world series with the Kansas City Royals.
Looking a bit deeper, the first options out of Indianapolis are also significantly improved by virtue of the big-league club picking up better options. Andrew Lambo and Tony Sanchez are the first ones up. Again, flexibility is the name of the game with Lambo. Like him or hate him, Sanchez has shown he is capable of getting hot at the plate in stretches. This right here shows you how much the Pirates’ depth has improved. If those guys are our options in emergency situations, then I’m more than ok with that.
The name of the game for the 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates bench is flexibility and dependability. Looking beyond the countless permutations that Hurdle will have at his disposal, the moves the organization has made this year to address its bench are the kind of moves that winning organizations make. Yet another indicator of how far the Pirates have come.