Keep Andy LaRoche in the lineup

If there is one thing that frustrates me about the new management team, it is their unwillingness to give younger players extended opportunities to play at the major league level. On June 27, 2007, starting centerfielder Chris Duffy was injured and placed on the DL. Nate McLouth, a 25-year-old centerfielder with a solid minor league performance history, replaced him and hit .260/.351/.505 from June 28 through September 2. After that, he started only 11 of the final 26 games. Steve Pearce, who had destroyed minor league pitching that season, started just 11 of those games as well. Over that same period, Nyjer Morgan made 24 starts. Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, both established players with nagging injuries, continued receiving regular playing time in a lost season.

The Pirates created two giant outfield holes when Bay and Nady were dealt at last year’s deadline. It was the perfect opportunity to give Pearce a look. After receiving regular playing time for a few weeks, Pearce was shipped back to Triple-A. He returned when rosters expanded in September, but only started six of the next 20 games. The Pirates repeatedly wasted playing time on Morgan and Jason Michaels. Finally, an injury to Brandon Moss gave Pearce his chance, allowing him to start the final six games of the season. In that very small sample, he hit .320/.320/.720 with three home runs. In 2009, Pearce was again shipped to Triple-A as Morgan was named the starting left fielder.

Are we seeing the same thing happen to Andy LaRoche? LaRoche has not had a great start to the season, with zero hits in 14 at-bats. But that is no reason to put him on the bench, which John Russell has done three times in the first seven games. I missed the series in St. Louis, but LaRoche has hit a few balls with authority in the games I have seen. FanGraphs supports that assessment, with an impressive line drive percentage of 27.7% in the early going. He is still hitting well, but his balls in play are simply finding gloves. That will change over time, but not if LaRoche is sitting on the bench. Ramon Vazquez is a decent bench option, but he should not be receiving regular starts over LaRoche.

This is a disturbing trend we are witnessing, with borderline to superior prospects being pushed aside by older stopgaps. Dave Littlefield may have wasted precious years of productivity by refusing to give opportunities to McLouth and Ryan Doumit. Let’s not make the same mistake again. Andy LaRoche should be starting virtually every game of the 2009 season.

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