Pittsburgh Pirates: Examining the Bench Entering 2021
By Noah Wright
The Pittsburgh Pirates had to dig into their depth last season because of injuries, so what could their bench look like in 2021?
Last season the Pittsburgh Pirates had to dig deep into their depth to field a team. They had a bunch of injuries throughout the year and many players they used in 2020 will return as bench pieces in 2021. What could the bench look like in 2021?
Many of the Pirate bench pieces could come from who gets to start in the middle infield. Right now, Adam Frazier is lined up at second base with one of Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker or Erik Gonzalez manning shortstop. However, with the Pittsburgh Pirates shopping Frazier, this could change at any time.
Tucker played mainly outfield in 2020, giving him positional flexibility, but it sounds like Ben Cherington wants him to stick at shortstop for next season. Newman struggled mightily in 2020, albeit in just 172 plate appearances. He had a solid 2019 rookie campaign, but doesn’t provide much defensive value at shortstop. However, he was a plus defender at second base during 2019. If, or more likely when, Frazier is traded, Newman likely has the upper had fort the second base job.
Gonzalez is a plus defender at third base, second base and shortstop, but has been extremely streaky with the bat since his arrival in Pittsburgh. He’s had some solid stretches of offensive performance, but when he struggles, he struggles mightily.
In terms of utility options, the Pittsburgh Pirates also have Phillip Evans. Evans looked fantastic in the 45 plate appearances he received during the 2020 season before a collision with right fielder Gregory Polanco while playing first base. Evans collected 14 hits, including three extra base hits. Notably, five of his hits came with runners in scoring position.
Evans mainly played middle infield throughout the minors, but played corner infield and outfield in the Majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Evans is lined up for platoon duties at first base with Colin Moran but given his versatility and flexibility, Evans could easily slide over to a second base if any of Gonzalez, Tucker or Newman struggle or an outfield spot if someone gets injured.
The fourth outfield spot could come down to Anthony Alford or Jared Oliva, assuming the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t add another outfielder as Cherington has expressed interest in doing. The Bucs claimed Alford off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays. Once considered one of the Jays’ best prospects, Alford has yet to get a long look against MLB pitching. In parts of four seasons, Alford has collected just 88 plate appearances in 51 games. Alford looked like he could hold down center field for the Bucs for the rest of 2020, but an injury while trying to rob a home run ended his season in September. He has no options remaining, so he has an upper hand on the starting center field job.
On the other hand, prospect Jared Oliva could easily take over center if Alford gets off to a slow start. Oliva made his MLB debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020 but only had three hits, six strikeouts and no walks in 16 plate appearances. Still, Oliva posted a solid 124 wRC+ at the High-A level in 2018 and 123 wRC+ at Double-A in 2019. He’s also considered a plus defender in center with a future field grade of 55 on FanGraphs. Oliva has plus speed and stole more than 30 bases in 2018 and 2019 and has a 60 speed grade.
Currently, he is ranked as the Pirates’ 9th best prospect on FanGraphs and 11th best prospect on MLB Pipeline. Oliva has options left, so if he doesn’t win the starting center field job out of the gate, he could be sent to Triple-A. In all likelihood, the Pittsburgh Pirates would rather him get regular reps in the minors rather than be a part time player. Plus he’s never stepped to the plate at Triple-A.
Behind the dish, the Pittsburgh Pirates look to roll out Michael Perez as their back-up catcher behind Gold Glove finalist Jacob Stallings. Perez was a waiver claim from the Tampa Bay Rays. Perez served as one of the Rays’ reserve catchers the past three years, only batting .221/.286/.314 with a 67 wRC+ in 228 plate appearances. However, he has had +4 DRS since his debut in 2018, but has been a slightly below average pitch framer the past two seasons. Perez posted a respectable .270/.343/.468 line and 20 home runs through 466 plate appearances at Triple-A as well. However, it is worth mentioning 250 of those plate appearances came from the PCL, one of the most hitter friendly leagues in pro baseball the past few seasons.
The Pirate bench is really lacking power right now. While both Evans and Alford have some power potential, neither have shown it over a long period of time yet. Their biggest strength is their flexibility and versatility. Evans and Tucker are able to play infield and outfield positions. Gonzalez can play every position on the baseball diamond except catcher. There’s still a lot of time between now and the start of spring training, whenever that will be, and the Pirates could add a few lower cost veterans to fill out their roster.