Breaking down the battle for the final spot on the Pirate bench

Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates v Cincinnati Reds / Andy Lyons/GettyImages
2 of 2

Players competing for the final bench spot

Assuming Edward Olivares makes the roster, which is a safe assumption since he will likely begin the season as the starter in right field, that most likely leaves six players battling for that final bench spot. These six players are Alika Williams, Billy McKinney, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Ji Hwan Bae, Joshua Palacios, and Nick Gonzales.

First and foremost, the odds of Williams, Smith-Njigba, or Palacios making the roster appear to be pretty low.

Williams struggled mightily in his time in the majors last season, has minor league options remaining, and has a very low ceiling as a player due to his offensive shortcomings. Smith-Njigba was designated for assignment twice this offseason, including once by the Pirates, and like Williams has struggled in the majors, while also having a low ceiling as a player. As for Palacios, he has yet to see any action in Grapefruit League games, had an negative WAR last season, and has minor league options remaining.

So, the battle for the final roster spot is more than likely a three horse race between McKinney, Bae, and Gonzales.

Of these three players, Gonzales may be facing the biggest uphill battle. Part of that battle is that the Pirates would likely prefer Gonzales be playing every day at Triple-A over being a backup infielder in the majors. The only way that may not be the case is if the front office has given up on the former first-round pick ever being a starter in the majors, and view his long-term home as a backup/utility player.

This leaves us with Bae and McKinney. While Bae was a mainstay on the Pirate roster last season, he struggled in his first MLB season. Bae hit for a woeful .231/.296/.311 slash line with a 66 wRC+, 67 OPS+, and an isolated slugging (ISO) of just .081. Bae also had some of the worst contact numbers in all of baseball, ranking in the bottom 25% of baseball in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate, while ranking in the bottom 2% in barrel rate.

However, Bae's elite speed remains intriguing. He also brings more positional flexibility, with the ability to play second base, shortstop, and center field. Although, his defensive ability at shortstop is porous at best.

As for McKinney, some changes to his swing last season led to improved results. Can these changes be sustainable and lead to improved offensive numbers for the veteran outfielder in 2024? That may be what the hope is for the Pirates and a reason why they acquired him via trade from the Yankees in December. So far this spring, the results for McKinney make it seem like the swing changes will continue to stick, as he is hitting for a .333/.538/.333 slash line throug his first 13 plate apperances.

Ultimately, the decision may come down to what the Pirates value more in that final bench spot. Do they want a veteran left-handed hitting outfielder they can potentially pair with Olivares in right field? If so, the nod will go to McKinney. Or, do they desire a speed element and more positional flexibility? If that's the case, then look for Bae to earn the final spot on the bench.

dark. Next. 3 imrpessing/seizing. 3 Pirate players impressing, seizing opportunity this spring