First Pitch: How Josh Harrison Led to the Pirates Building a Stronger Bench

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.

**NRIs For Morel and Tabata, Kang Scouting Report, Harrison’s Future, Win Now vs Win Later

**Buster Olney Ranks the Pirates With One of the Top Lineups, Bullpens, and Rotations

**Will the Pirates Avoid the Stephen Strasburg Shutdown with Jameson Taillon?

**Winter Leagues: Andy Vasquez Homers in Three Straight Games, Rojas and Garcia Return to Action

  • Depth! Your preaching to the choir.

  • Tim: In golf, we hear the third round of a tournament referred to as “moving day”. Well, the Pirates are entering 2015 and it will be a moving year. It will tell us about the future of Pedro Alvarez, about whether JHAY will be able to validate his breakout season, about whether Francisco Cervelli can be a clone of Russell Martin defensively, whether Gregory Polanco can establish himself as an All Star Caliber outfielder and hitter, and whether our flow of young strong pitchers coming up from the minors begins in earnest. It is truly a recognition to the front office that with all of this going on, they are selected as one of the deepest teams not only presently, but also in future years.

    IMO, the most important part of all of this will be whether guys like Nick Kingham, Jameson Taillon, Adrian Sampson, and possibly even Tyler Glasnow can advance to the point where a big decision will have to be made. AJ Burnett has already announced 2015 will be his last year, Charlie Morton after 2016 unless extended, Francisco Liriano after 2017 unless extended. I like the security of having guys like Worley, Locke, Cumpton, Pimental, Liz, etc., but the decision between youth and experience will keep those front office folks awake at night.

    • Pirates have a $9.5M team option for Morton in 2017.

      • wm: After three years of 19-20, 4.00+ ERA (2011,12,13) he was signed for 3 years and $21 mil. Last year was his first and that was 6-12, 3.72 ERA and it ended with yet another injury. Right now the chances of the Pirates agreeing to that $9.5 mil option for 2017 could be termed as slim and none. The Pirates have to see a point where he pitches a whole season, and the short-run promise becomes a dependable reality.

    • Really good post. If all of the above go in a positive direction, it could be a really great year. If the above keep position players (in particular) do not move forward and regress, it may not be a favorable season.

      • Well, any team could say that. The positive for PIT is the age of their position guys. You expect a larger regression or lack of continued progress from older players and teams that tend to have an older team. With PIT, you have a ton of guys coming off good years that are still young. Normal regression happens, but the entire OF is either good enough or young enough to be expected to maintain last years success overall. IF is also young, with some variance in Harrison coming off a huge year that likely will see regression. Tough to look at this offense and think 3-4-5 guys will regress big time.

        • Indeed. One could make a legitimate argument that players like Polanco, Marte, Mercer maybe even Alvarez or Harrison may be candidates for progression rather than regression. Regression to the mean is a valid statistical concept, but I’m not sure if Harrison has established his mean for full time play yet. His first two bench years shouldn’t carry as much weight as last year’s quasi-full time year. After all, consider Cutch. His first three years were sub .300, the next three years were .300+. What should Cutch’s “mean” for 2015 be? His overall MLB average of .299, or somewhat higher? I’d argue for .315 as a good 2015 expectation for Cutch. In the same vein, I would not be surprised that JHay is closer to .310 at the end of 2015 than his MLB lifetime average of .282. So maybe not much regression if any at all.

          • Mean isn’t static.

          • I think its a bit much to assume J Hay continues to hit near .310, mostly due to his lack of walks. He can continue to put the ball in play well, but he doesnt walk enough to appear to be a consistent .300+ hitter. A bit of bad luck on BABIP and he could see .260-270, with my personal feeling of him coming in around .280-290.

            • Well to be fair I said I think he’ll end the season closer to .310 than .282, not simply .310. My prophecy is .303, but let’s check back at the end of the season and see who was closest. I agree with you that J-Hay lacks the patience to take a lot of walks, and sometimes looks like a bad ball hitter. But he makes up for that with exceptional “hit’em where the ain’t ability”. It’s annoying seeing him step out after every pitch and do his toe tap routine. But if you watch you see him checking the positioning of the fielders. I think he adjusts his swing according to what’s relatively open in the field, and that is what will increase his BA above what might be expected.

        • Thank you. Very good points.

  • Looks like there won’t be a whole lot of splinters from extensive pine riding with this bunch, can’t wait to see how well this team performs on the field, I’m getting kinda tired of paper baseball so c’mon spring I’m gettin’ baseball fever here!

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