What is the optimal postseason lineup for the Pittsburgh Pirates?

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Recently we’ve seen the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup get a lot of adjustments from game to game by manager Clint Hurdle. This is the result of a number of factors. For one, both Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer have been back and healthy. Once September 1st hit, rosters also expanded, allowing multiple minor league players to be called up to the bigs. And to top it all off, management has decided to give Aramis Ramirez a shot at first base. All of this has led to different lineups from night to night and no true consistency. Hurdle may be trying to give some guys rest, or give other guys playing time, or figure out which lineup will work best come playoff time.

Here was the Pirates’ lineup last night:

Hmm. Ramirez made his second career start at first base, and outside of him, the rest of the lineup seems to be, well, good. There’s no sign of Sean Rodriguez or Travis Snider or Chris Stewart. This is a lineup of starters, and a lineup that can both produce runs at the plate and prevent runs in the field. We may have even gotten a little excited about this lineup last night:

Is this the lineup that the Pirates are hoping to use for a postseason run? I happen to think it is. There’s going to be some dissension with any lineup that the Pirates throw out there. The fans tend to favor an infield of Aramis Ramirez – Jung Ho KangNeil WalkerPedro Alvarez, while may experts and baseball analysts tend to prefer an infield of Jung Ho Kung – Jordy Mercer – Neil Walker – Aramis Ramirez/Pedro Alvarez. The former lineup creates a little more offense, while the latter puts a focus on defense. What lineup is the best one for the Pirates if the postseason started tomorrow?

For starters, the outfield is set. Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco will obviously start in the outfield, and I happen to think that they will bat 1-2-3 in the order, with Polanco leading off, Marte batting second, and Cutch maintaining his stranglehold on the third spot. Polanco has rounded into form as a leadoff batter, and Marte bats well from the second spot in the order. He also bats well in the cleanup spot, but that spot is probably better off going to more of a pure run producer, such as Kang or Ramirez.

Hurdle clearly wants Francisco Cervelli to catch almost all of the games in the postseason, even when Gerrit Cole pitches. He’s been grooming him for this recently, and Cervelli has proven to be a very good starting catcher this season. He’ll get the start in just about all of the playoff games. He gets hits and his pitch framing skills are second to none. Stewart’s a quality backup, but he’s just that: a backup.

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The infield is where things get interesting. While a case can be made for Josh Harrison to start at second base, Neil Walker is a much better offensive player than Harrison is when he’s not slumping. And while Harrison may play better defensively than Walker, Walker isn’t awful defensively, and his bat has earned him the starting second base position in the postseason. Sorry Harrison fans.

So to recap, we have a pretty good feel on five of the eight fielding positions: Marte, McCutchen, Polanco, Cervelli, and Walker will all start in the postseason. To fill the other three, we have four players. Jung Ho Kang is going to fill one of those spots. He’s shown all year how great offensively he is, and his defense has improved greatly over the course of the season. He’s no longer a bad defensive player, and his knack for getting big hits and RBIs will get him a starting spot on the field.

I also happen to think that Jordy Mercer will end up starting. This organization built itself on good pitching, defense, and a strong bullpen. Run prevention has helped propel the St. Louis Cardinals to the best record in all of baseball this year, and it helped the Kansas City Royals reach the World Series last season. Mercer came off the disabled list hot with the bat, and while I may prefer more offense in the infield, the Pirates will go with a reliable glove at shortstop and move Kang to his better defensive position at third base. We all know how poorly Ramirez performed defensively at third for the Pirates, and Kang’s glove is better suited for third base.

That leaves first base. This wouldn’t have been a real problem if Ramirez hadn’t been tested out at first for the first time in his career recently. But he was, and he hasn’t done a bad job there so far. Yes, he hasn’t seen a lot of balls hit his way. But can he be worse defensively than Pedro Alvarez? I don’t know if he can. This would give the Pirates a bat off the bench that could change the game with one swing of the bat in Alvarez, and it would keep Ramirez’s bat in the lineup.

Recently we’ve seen the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lineup get a lot of adjustments from game to game by manager Clint Hurdle…[He] may be trying to give some guys rest, or give other guys playing time, or figure out which lineup will work best come playoff time.

So I think that the Pirates will go with Kang at third, Mercer at shortstop, and Ramirez at first to fill out the infield. Alvarez could easily take back the starting first base job if Ramirez falters defensively. In any case, I think that that’s the only real position battle left for the postseason lineup. Many of you will want Mercer out of the lineup and the Pirates to keep Kang, Ramirez, and Pedro in. While I don’t think this is a bad approach to lean towards more offense, I just feel that the Pirates won’t lean this way, and Mercer’s glove may be more beneficial than more offense, especially with the ground-ball-happy pitching staff the Pirates employ.

In terms of ordering the lineup, this is what I feel the Pirates will go with come playoff time:

1) Polanco

2) Marte

3) McCutchen

4) Ramirez

5) Kang

6) Walker

7) Cervelli

8) Mercer

I personally have always wanted to see Kang in the cleanup role. Yes, he’s done great in the fifth spot. But I think that’s only because he hasn’t been given an adequate opportunity in the cleanup role recently, where he might better serve as protection for McCutchen. But Hurdle has had an affinity for batting Ramirez fourth, which is where I think he’ll stay. Mercer is best left in the eighth spot, as he has the worst bat of the bunch. That leaves Cervelli and Walker for the sixth and seventh spots. Walker is better at producing runs, but Cervelli gets on base more often. Unfortunately, Cervelli doesn’t have a spot high in the lineup to put his OBP to use, and Walker is better served driving in runs, so I think Walker bats before Cervelli. This will also give Cervelli the ability to help roll over the lineup whenever necessary.

I guess that means that the optimal and most probable lineup for the Pittsburgh Pirates moving forward was the one that they used last night. In any case, they can go toe-to-toe with any team in the National League offensively based on the talent in their lineup. Pedro will be a great bat to have off the bench, as will Harrison. And it’s probably the best defensive alignment the infield can have. When all’s said and done, I believe that the Pirates’ had the right approach with Wednesday night’s lineup, and I think it’s one that we’ll see a lot of in the postseason.

Next: As Francisco Liriano goes, so do the Pittsburgh Pirates

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