Potential strategies for the future

One frequent criticism during Dave Littlefield’s tenure in Pittsburgh was that he focused on a player’s weaknesses, ignoring the potential value in a limited skill set. With loads of young marginal talent arriving this year via trade, Neal Huntington would be smart to learn from his predecessor’s missteps. A few years down the road, there should be some opportunities to utilize matchups in a creative manner. Here are a few possibilities that have been rolling around in my head.

First base is an interesting position moving forward, assuming Pedro Alvarez sticks at third. The Pirates have three options, all of which have flaws in their game. Here is a look at each player’s splits against right-handed and left-handed pitchers (major league numbers from Baseball-Reference, minor league numbers from Minor League Splits).

MLB MiLB
Steve Pearce vs. LHP .315/.371/.584, 97 PA .288/.372/.549, 497 AB
vs. RHP .210/.283/.319, 265 PA .290/.359/.503, 1404 AB
Garrett Jones vs. LHP .189/.209/.425, 110 PA .255/.284/.406, 652 AB
vs. RHP .320/.401/.587, 284 PA .267/.333/.481, 1568 AB
Jeff Clement vs. LHP .283/.313/.457, 48 PA .266/.357/.483, 414 AB
vs. RHP .225/.308/.376, 195 PA .288/.374/.497, 1081 AB

Going by major league numbers, the Pirates could create an effective platoon using Steve Pearce and Garrett Jones. The splits are less extreme if we look at the larger minor league sample, but they are still pretty significant. Neither player appears to be an adequate major league starter independently (assuming Jones comes back to earth next year), but together they should make for an effective platoon. Jeff Clement, on the other hand, is very limited defensively and has no clear split advantage. If he is able to adapt to a pinch-hitting role, he would be a perfect bench option. There is always value in having a player with some power available off the bench.

Moving on. The Pirates acquired Argenis Diaz in the Adam LaRoche trade. He is said to be an elite defender, but has no bat. It is unlikely he will ever hit enough to be a major league starter. Gorkys Hernandez came over in the Nate McLouth deal. He is a plus defender in center, probably a tick better than Andrew McCutchen. But there are serious doubts whether his bat, specifically his power, will develop enough to make an impact. These two players are unlikely to provide enough offense to be everyday players, but they can provide value for the Pirates. Let’s assume the Pirates have the following hypothetical starting lineup in 2012:

C Tony Sanchez
1B Pearce/Jones platoon
2B Jordy Mercer
SS Chase D’Arnaud
3B Pedro Alvarez
LF Lastings Milledge
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Jose Tabata

If everything goes as planned, that lineup could provide good offense and solid defense, with the corner infielders probably being the weak links defensively. When Paul Maholm or Zach Duke (both pitch-to-contact hurlers) takes the mound, the Pirates may want to sacrifice a little offense to improve the defense. Insert Diaz and Hernandez, and suddenly we have this exceptional defense:

C Tony Sanchez
1B Pedro Alvarez
2B Jordy Mercer
SS Argenis Diaz
3B Chase D’Arnaud
LF Gorkys Hernandez
CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Jose Tabata

That leaves us with elite defenders at short, center and left, and above average fielders at every other position. Duke and Maholm would look like perennial All-Stars with that kind of support. This strategy would be particularly beneficial at PNC Park, as Hernandez should thrive in the vastness of left field.

There are other creative ways for the Pirates to gain an advantage down the road. With ex-catchers Neil Walker and Clement in the mix, maybe the team can afford to go without a backup catcher, freeing a roster spot. I am not sure if Huntington is considering these ideas as he acquires players or if he is simply accumulating talent with plans to sort through it later. But things should become pretty interesting when the team transitions from the “tryout” phase of the rebuilding process to the “competing” stage.

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