Back in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates ran into a horrible situation with their catchers. They used eight catchers in the majors that year, with Michael McKenry getting the most playing time, despite the fact that he was acquired for cash considerations, and was about the fifth or sixth option they went with. Other options included Matt Pagnozzi, Wyatt Toregas, and Dusty Brown, with the latter catching 78 innings.
After that season, it seemed like the Pirates went out of their way to avoid any similar situation in the future. Even if they had players at a position, they added more, trying to increase their depth. As an example, they had Russell Martin and Michael McKenry as their catching combo in 2013. Tony Sanchez was projected to be in Triple-A to start the year. That didn’t stop them from also signing Ali Solis, Lucas May, and adding Brian Jeroloman and Kelly Shoppach during the year, before eventually landing John Buck as a backup catcher late in the season.
I don’t know if that was a direct response to the 2011 issue, or if it’s an issue where you can never have too much depth. The Pirates learned this the hard way once again in 2014, this time with their middle infield. The month of August saw the team ravaged by injuries. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, and Clint Barmes all suffered injuries and were on the disabled list around the same time. When you combined that with Pedro Alvarez struggling, the team ran into a disaster situation where they had Michael Martinez, Jayson Nix, and Brent Morel on the active roster, with some of those guys starting each night for about a week.
It’s hard to avoid that type of situation, especially when you lose your MVP, your two starting middle infielders, and your top backup middle infielder. The blow would have been softened by the exceptional play from Travis Snider and Josh Harrison, except Harrison was needed to replace the struggling Pedro Alvarez, and Snider was needed to replace Gregory Polanco as he struggled to make the jump to the majors.
Just like the moves after the 2011 catching situation, it seems the Pirates are trying to avoid another doomsday situation. They started the off-season with about a million waiver claims and small transactions to add potential utility and middle infield options. Then they added Sean Rodriguez from the Rays, giving them a middle infielder who could lock down the utility job. Rodriguez was coming off a down year, but in his best years he was good enough to be a starting option, and in a normal year, he’s a good utility player who you don’t mind starting in place of an injured player.
Then there was the addition of Corey Hart last week, which opened up a lot of possibilities. Hart looks like a guy who will be limited to the right-handed side of the first base platoon, with the possibility of playing some outfield. He’s coming off a lot of injuries and a down year at the plate, but like Rodriguez, he’s a starting option if he can somehow return to his best form. John Dreker pointed out something interesting with Hart’s contract situation today, noting that his performance bonuses start at 350 plate appearances. Gaby Sanchez had 290 and 320 plate appearances the last two years, and probably played more than he should have against right-handers. It will be difficult for Hart to reach those bonuses if he’s just a platoon player. And as I pointed out on Sunday, it doesn’t seem like the Pirates want just a platoon player.
Finally, there’s today’s news that the Pirates won the bidding for exclusive negotiation rights with Jung-Ho Kang. The Korean shortstop hit for a ton of power in the KBO, although there are questions about how much of that offense will translate over to the majors, and whether he can even play shortstop. Jeff Sullivan wrote a preview last week on Kang, which said his upside could be an Ian Desmond type, while also noting several options who are well below Desmond in talent. He followed up the player comps with this.
We know that’s not a lock, but it’s not inconceivable, so, how much do you pay for the right to find out? I hesitate to draw this comparison, but Yasmany Tomas signed for six years and $68.5 million, with an opt-out clause. A lot of talent has come out of Cuba lately, which boosted Tomas’ price, but if you just look at the player, he’s almost pure power, with questions on whether he can even play anywhere in the outfield. Kang doesn’t have Tomas’ power, but he does have real power, and he seems to have greater defensive value and versatility. Tomas got that much money as an unknown, supported by predecessors. Kang doesn’t have predecessors, which is why he could turn out to be a steal. Teams will be cautious until there’s proof that players can come from Korea and hit.
Kang will probably end up costing half the amount that Tomas will cost per year, and that’s including the posting fee. Just like Rodriguez and Hart, the Pirates seem to be banking on the unknown here (assuming they sign Kang). In the cases of Rodriguez and Hart, it’s a question of whether they can bounce back to their former success. In the case of Kang, it’s a question of how good he will be in the majors.
In all three cases, there is a chance that the Pirates could end up with a starter on their bench. You could add Travis Snider to this mix, with his question marks surrounding whether the second half last year was the start of a breakout, or something unsustainable as a starter. Those chances for these players becoming starters are obviously small, otherwise these players wouldn’t have come at relatively low prices. I think the chances that they could all be solid bench players, and guys who you wouldn’t mind starting if an injury occurs, is much better. This also moves guys like Justin Sellers and Pedro Florimon to Triple-A as the top depth options, making it less likely for guys like Martinez, Nix, and Morel to play in Pittsburgh in 2015.
On paper, this looks like the strongest Pirates bench I can remember in recent years. There is risk involved with each player, but a lot of upside. If you’re dreaming big, there’s four potential starters on the bench once they add Kang. The Pirates had an incredibly strong offense last year, and they project to have a strong group this year, even without Russell Martin. This bench will only give them a better chance to maintain a strong offense through injuries and struggles that take place throughout the year.
Links and Notes
**The 2015 Prospect Guide is now available! The book started shipping out on Friday. A lot of the pre-orders were on track to arrive today or tomorrow. If you ordered over the weekend, the books shipped out today. I went through another case of books today, and will be shipping more out tomorrow. Your book will be in that shipment if you order by 4 PM. Or you can get it immediately by purchasing the eBook. You can place your order on the products page. For those of you who have ordered and got your books already, I hope you enjoy!