The Pittsburgh Pirates have a horrible bench right now. That includes Michael Martinez, Brent Morel, and Jayson Nix. Morel has a .372 OPS, Nix has a .284 OPS, and Martinez has a .363 OPS. Some of those guys have even been getting starts, due to various struggles and injuries the Pirates have seen.
The Pirates have had some problems lately, leading to a 7-10 record in August, and a recent six game losing streak. The bench illustrates this problem, although it’s not as simple as “they’ve got a bad bench.” The problem can be seen when you ask “why do they have a bad bench?”
Brent Morel was recently added to the team as an extra bat when Charlie Morton went on the disabled list. It’s unlikely that Morel will remain on the team when Gerrit Cole returns tomorrow, giving the Pirates a full rotation. The rotation has been a big issue lately, dealing with a lot of injuries and struggles. Cole has obviously missed time, although the Pirates were able to win without him. Morton has struggled recently, and is now on the disabled list. It’s hard to say how much the recent injuries led to his struggles. They’ve also seen issues with Jeff Locke and Vance Worley recently. If you’re not a top of the rotation pitcher, you’re going to see occasional struggles. Unfortunately, the Pirates are seeing this from a lot of pitchers all at the same time.
Jayson Nix was added to the team to give the Pirates an option at third base, due to the struggles from Pedro Alvarez. Nix hasn’t been just a bench player, but has started a lot of games. The better option to replace Alvarez as a starter would be Josh Harrison, leaving Nix fully in a bench role. However, this hasn’t been possible, due to injuries.
Nix has started nine games this month. Three of those came at third base, with Harrison playing in the outfield to replace the injured Andrew McCutchen. The other six came at second base when Neil Walker was out. Harrison played third base during five of those games, with Travis Snider playing left-field.
Nix has only started one of the last four games, playing second base. That was due to the need for Walker to get a day off. However, Brent Morel started at third base yesterday, and Nix could get similar starts going forward due to the injury to Jordy Mercer. The shortstop has missed the last four games, and Josh Harrison has moved over to start at short, leaving third base to Pedro Alvarez once again.
Then there’s Michael Martinez, who has been replacing Clint Barmes as the backup middle infielder for over a month. Martinez has started a few games with Walker and McCutchen out, playing second base in all of his starts.
McCutchen is expected to return today. Clint Barmes had his rehab transferred to Indianapolis yesterday, and could return in a week or two. Gerrit Cole returns Wednesday, which will remove the extra bench spot. When all of these guys return, the Pirates won’t need to be turning to guys like Nix, Martinez, and Morel. Those players probably won’t even be on the active roster, and definitely won’t be getting starts.
When everyone is healthy and productive, the Pirates have a good bench. Josh Harrison could start at second, third, or in the outfield. Instead, he’s primarily starting at third base, due to the struggles from Alvarez. And with McCutchen and Walker missing time recently, he has also been needed at the other two positions, putting Nix and Martinez in Harrison’s old role. Things will only get better when Jordy Mercer returns to games.
Travis Snider has turned into a good option off the bench lately, and his performance has softened the blow with McCutchen missing time. When McCutchen returns, Snider will give the Pirates a good bat off the bench.
Clint Barmes has never been a fan favorite, but he has superior defense at shortstop to Michael Martinez, and has been better offensively. The appreciation for Barmes might have gone up with all of the injuries forcing guys like Martinez and Nix on the roster.
The first base platoon takes up a bench spot, and while that platoon hasn’t been working well, Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez aren’t bad options in their specific situations late in games as pinch hitters. The other bench spot is taken up by Chris Stewart, who has disappointed with his defense this year, but surprised with his offense.
If you look around the league, it’s not uncommon to have poor bench options, especially if you’ve got injuries that force you to turn to Quad-A players. The San Francisco Giants, also in the Wild Card race, have Travis Ishikawa on their bench. They recently had Dan Uggla for a brief time period. They’ve got Joaquin Arias and Matt Duffy, who both have an OPS under .500. Those guys are on the bench largely because Brandon Belt is injured, and Brandon Hicks struggled. That has led to recent starts from Adam Duvall (.588 OPS) and Joe Panik (.669 OPS).
The St. Louis Cardinals have Mark Ellis and his .495 OPS. The trade of Allen Craig put Shane Robinson and his .382 OPS on the bench.Daniel Descalso has a .538 OPS. Their big injury is to Yadier Molina, which forced the need for A.J. Pierzynski as a starter.
The Pirates would have a good bench if that bench was Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Clint Barmes, one of the platoon guys, and Chris Stewart. Unfortunately a lot of injuries, and the poor performance from Pedro Alvarez, have turned the bench into Jayson Nix, Michael Martinez, Pedro Alvarez, Brent Morel, Davis or Sanchez, and Stewart. And that’s the big problem with this team, especially lately. The bench is a symptom of the Pirates’ struggles, and not the cause. The cause of the struggles is that they’ve had injuries to Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer, combined with continued struggles from Pedro Alvarez. This bench is a temporary issue that will hopefully be resolved — along with the recent struggles — when everyone is healthy again at the same time.
When you add those injury issues with the recent struggles from the rotation all at once, plus the usually steady Mark Melancon and Tony Watson blowing games on back to back days, then it’s clear to see why the Pirates are in a slump. Everything is going wrong right now. It’s amazing that they’re only 7-10 this month, and not worse, all things considered. The good news is that this is temporary, and a lot of the problems on this team should start to be resolved when McCutchen returns today and Cole returns tomorrow.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.