Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Great Pirates Infield Debate

Clint Hurdle is about to be confronted with a problem he's never encountered during his tenure as Pirates manager, too many starters, not enough spots. The Pirates left spring training with a clear starting eight and a bench that seemed stronger than in years past. After a slow start, the Bucs started to stack wins around the middle of May. And, after a slow start, offseason acquisition Jung Ho Kang started being a fixture in the Pirates lineup. Kang recorded his first career three-hit game in his last April start, then started 21 out of 28 games in May. With Kang's emergence the Bucs really had nine "everyday" position players for eight spots.

This was easily managed. Between the Pirates strategy of regularly resting players and playing platoon splits, Hurdle could get all nine regular playing time. Then, in early July third baseman Josh Harrison was lost to a hand injury and two weeks later Jordy Mercer followed him to DL with a sprained knee. That left the Pirates short an infielder. July 23 Neal Huntington acquired 37-year old Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs to fill the void at 3rd and Kang settled in as the everyday shortstop.

So, here we are a month later. Josh Harrison was activated from the DL Friday and Jordy Mercer was activated today. Now rather than nine everyday players, the Pirates have 10. How should Clint Hurdle manage playing time over the last six weeks of the season? Let's look at the pros and cons for each player and my expectations for playing time.

Jung Ho Kang:

Pro: Kang, one of the biggest surprises in MLB this season and a legitimate contender for NL Rookie of the Year, is going to get the most consistent playing time of the group. Clint is going to write his name on the lineup card every day. He's hitting .290/.363/.464 with an OPS+ of 127, second on the team to only Andrew McCutchen. He had the first 2-homer game of his Pirates career Saturday and has homered five times in August. Kang has also shown a great baseball IQ in his rookie season. He's probably the team's second best baserunner, behind Pedro, and is an excellent defensive third baseman with solid reactions and a very strong arm.

Con: There isn't much con for Kang. He is passable defensively at shortstop, but not much more. He lacks lateral agility and range. He certainly filled-in admirably, but long-term he is going to be the team's everyday third baseman.

Prediction: With 42 games left in the season, Kang will get a day off here and there, but he'll be a fixture in the lineup. My guess is that he will be at third more often than short.

Neil Walker:

Pro: Walker is having a very typical Neal Walker-season. It falls right in-line with every other year of his career, with last year being a slight outlier to the upside. If he plays more than 25 of the last 42 games it will be the second most in his career. Walker has been at his best in July and August with an OPS over .800 each month.

(Some other interesting statistical notes to Walker's season, batting 2nd he has an OPS over .800. Batting 4th or 6th, his other most frequent spots, he has an OPS below .700. Surprisingly, Walker has been much better on the road, .805 OPS, than at PNC, .707 OPS (in his career it's virtually identical, .766 vs. .773). And the Bucs go as Neil goes. In wins, 294 PAs, he has an .894 OPS. In losses, 178 PAs, it's .525.)

Con: Neil can't hit lefties. He has a .577 OPS this year which is below his .658 career number. For a point of reference Sean Rodriguez has a .586 OPS this year. Walker is also now a below-average defensive second baseman. He is still great making the turn, but his range is limited.

Prediction: Walker is still the Pirates best option at second against RHP, which is what they will face most-often the rest of the way. But he should be used in a straight platoon with Harrison starting against lefties. Neil will probably start 3 out of every 4 remaining games.

Josh Harrison:

Pro: Harrison is an easy-to-root-for, high-energy guy who can play a variety of positions.

Con: JHay is probably the Pirates most-polarizing player and it largely depends whether you believe he is the player who finished 9th in the MVP voting last year or the one he has been the rest of his career. He has not had a good season to-date. He has an OPS+ of 89 and his numbers, particularly slugging, are well below last year's. Harrison also has been surprisingly bad defensively at third. I think he's a pretty good fielder so I'm not overly concerned, but it is worth noting.

Prediction: Harrison is going to go back to the super-utility role he had most of last season. I actually don't see him getting more than a handful of starts at third because that is Kang's best position and it is the only one Ramirez can play. I assume Harrison will get 3-4 starts a week, but not more than that.

Jordy Mercer:

Pro: Jordy is the Pirates best defensive infielder. With Mercer at short and Kang at third the Pirates would immediately upgrade an infield defense that has gone from bad to atrocious the past two months.

Con: Mercer was an offensive black hole the first two months of the season but did post an OPS of .800 in 101 PAs in June before cooling off a bit and getting injured in July.

Prediction: I know it isn't going to be wildly popular, particularly if he doesn't hit right away, but I think Mercer is going to return to being the Pirates regular shortstop, getting 4-5 starts a week. Run prevention counts just as much as runs scored and with a staff that leads MLB in ground ball rate I think Clint is going to want Jordy's glove out there on a regular basis, which also upgrades third base by having Kang play there.

Aramis Ramirez:

Pro: Ramirez couldn't be a better teammate thus far. He has said all the right things. He's been willing to do some pregame work at first. He's said if he's is demoted to a bench role, he will accept it. He has said he just wants to contribute in any way to help the Pirates succeed in their goal of winning a World Series. A+

Con: Ramirez has not been good this year or in his short stint with the Pirates. In 97 PAs he has a .630 OPS. He's hit one HR after hitting 11 in 302 PAs with the Brewers. He's only walked three times and he has an OBP of .278. Oh, and his defense has been terrible. He has zero range.

Prediction: Right-handed bench bat. That's what he should be and that's what he's going to be. I'll be shocked if Ramirez makes 15 more starts this season and won't be at all surprised if it's less than 10. But he will be a nice upgrade to the bench.

Conclusion: With everyone now healthy, I think you will see the Pirates return to the nine guys for eight spots roster management that we saw the first half of the season. It will be a little different in that Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco will be in the lineup almost every night and that will cost Walker, Harrison and Mercer some playing time. Aramis Ramirez is going to be the odd man out.


  1. I think Ramirez will be used more often you think at Mercer's expense, but time will tell.

    1. I don't see it, but yes time will tell.

  2. So, David Todd, I just watched Alvarez fail to catch a pop up, and a catchable ball from third tonight, and then hit his 20th home run for a three run lead.

    I well remember Dick Stuart "Dr. Strangeglove" who was equally loved and reviled in the Burgh. How do they compare? And can we embrace the offense that Pedro provides while dismissing his miscues as we did with Dick.

    And some wonderful little kid in the stands who had a Pedro fake beard and uni on won my heart big time. When Pedro hit the homer, this kid was on cloud nine. This is what baseball is all about!

    1. Pedro's season, particularly the last month, is one of the most fascinating things I've ever seen. Yes Dick Stuart is probably an apt comparison.

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