Earlier today we posted about how Buster Olney gave the Pittsburgh Pirates high rankings for their lineup, bullpen, and rotation. I don’t know if Olney is going to be ranking the benches any time soon, but I’m guessing the Pirates would rank high there, especially with the upcoming addition of Jung-Ho Kang. Their projected bench includes Sean Rodriguez, Corey Hart, Travis Snider, Kang, and Chris Stewart. It’s the strongest bench the Pirates have seen in some time, which isn’t saying much, but the bench does include a few guys who either have been starters in recent years or could be starters in the future.
I talked to Neal Huntington yesterday about the makeup of the bench, and the changes the Pirates made with their approach this year. They’re projected to spend $7.8 M on the four players mentioned above, plus whatever Kang will make this year. That’s easily the most they’ve spent on their bench in recent years, with all five players expected to receive seven figures, and four of them expected to receive $2 M or more.
Huntington mentioned the usual factors for putting a big focus on the bench — mainly to give Clint Hurdle as many options as possible around the field, with guys who can pinch hit, pinch run, and play defense, while also not giving too much of a step back when a starter needs a break. But the approach this year also has a little bit to do with Josh Harrison’s breakout last year.
“With the challenge of a 162 game season, the few guys who play 150 games in this day and age,” Huntington said. “Josh Harrison taught us a really great lesson a year ago, that the ability to have a really great guy step in when you wanted to give a starter an off-day, or you have an injury. It was a great lesson for us and a great reminder that it takes more than eight. We talk all the time about it taking more than five starters, but it also takes more than eight position players. Because of the resources we had available, because of the stability of our position player group, because of the availability and the ability to go get some players, we were able to construct a deeper, and in our minds, a better bench.”
On paper, the approach looks like it will work well. Jeff Sullivan looked at the depth for every team in the majors over at FanGraphs, and had the Pirates with the second best depth in baseball. To measure depth, he looked at how many players finished with a 1.0 WAR or better in the Steamer600 ratings — looking at the Steamer projections when every player receives 600 plate appearances. The Pirates finished second behind the Red Sox, and that didn’t include Kang. There wasn’t much additional analysis given, except that Sullivan said it wasn’t a surprise to see the Pirates so high on the list.
And it shouldn’t be a surprise. The Pirates have contended the last two years in large part due to their depth. In 2013 they experienced a ton of injuries to their pitching staff, yet their depth kept them in contention all year. Last year it was guys like Harrison and Travis Snider who stepped up in a big way, along with pitchers like Vance Worley, Jeff Locke, and Brandon Cumpton at key times.
The worst of times came in August, when Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, and Clint Barmes were all injured during the first half of the month. That resulted in Jayson Nix, Brent Morel, and Michael Martinez on the roster at the same time, with at least one of those guys getting starts. The bench this year should put the Pirates further from that potential situation, since their Triple-A depth will resemble what their benches looked like in previous years. And for the third year in a row, the Pirates should have plenty of pitching depth ready to step up if anyone in the rotation struggles.
No one was expecting the Pirates to contend heading into the 2013 season. There was a divide heading into 2014, with some thinking they were contenders, and some thinking they would regress too much and didn’t do enough in the off-season to prevent that regression. Heading into the 2015 season, it’s hard to see this team as anything other than a contender. As Olney pointed out, they’ve got a strong rotation and lineup. The bullpen and bench are strong. And the depth is considered some of the best in baseball. Those are all of the key ingredients to be one of the strongest teams in the game.
Links and Notes
**The top 20 prospects countdown started last week. It will resume next Monday, after mini-camp is complete. The full top 20, along with the rest of the top 50 and all 200+ profiles of Pirates’ minor league players, can be found in the 2015 Prospect Guide, which can be purchased on the products page of the site.