BRADENTON, Fla. – The Pittsburgh Pirates made their second round of cuts on Friday morning, sending out ten players. They optioned seven to Indianapolis, with Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Max Moroff, Gift Ngoepe, Willy Garcia, Nick Kingham, and John Holdzkom being sent down. They also reassigned Adam Frazier, Juan Diaz, and Dan Gamache to minor league camp.
It’s no surprise that the moves happened today. Tomorrow is an important deadline for players who didn’t have any Major League service time the previous season. Any player fitting that description who isn’t sent down by tomorrow, and who develops an injury in Major League camp, would have to start the season on the MLB disabled list. That played a big role in John Holdzkom being sent down today, which Ryan Palencer wrote about in detail.
But the Pirates weren’t going to run that risk with any of their prospects, which is why Josh Bell and the rest of the Indianapolis infield got the cut today. Bell’s situation is pretty straight forward, as he needs to improve his defense at first base and continue last year’s improvements with the hitting in order to be ready for a call-up to the majors. Even then, he would create a good problem for the Pirates at first base with John Jaso also at the position, which is something else Ryan Palencer wrote about after the cuts this morning. (Editor’s Note: What a perfect day for Ryan to arrive in Bradenton.)
The decision between a veteran player and a top prospect also came up this spring with Alen Hanson. Unlike the other prospects above, it wasn’t always inevitable that Hanson would go down today. Neal Huntington said that he was being considered for a spot on the club, up until the signing of David Freese.
“Alen had some really good opportunity, and really good moments this spring,” Huntington said. “The General Manager made a decision to go get a now player with where we are on the win curve. It was a reflection essentially of where we are on the win curve, and the opportunity to add a very good Major League player that fits for us really well. In Alen’s case, he’s closer than he’s ever been. We toyed with the idea for a long time of letting Alen have this opportunity out of Spring Training, and we just got to a point in time where we thought the right move was David Freese.”
Earlier this Spring, Clint Hurdle said that the plan with Hanson was to play second base only, rather than moving around. That plan was only for Spring Training, with the idea that he could take a spot out of camp until Jung-ho Kang returned. The Pirates ended up going with Freese for that starting spot, and now the plan for Hanson is to return to moving around the infield, playing second base, shortstop, and third base in Indianapolis.
“We sent him out today with the idea that he’ll begin to bounce around the field,” Huntington said. “Again I cannot emphasize it enough, we still believe all of these guys can be very good players. At the same time, we need them to be able to come up here and help us win. We also want them to have different opportunities to be able to make the club, and bouncing around the field is a big part of that. So Alen will start to bounce as he goes out.”
Huntington noted that Hanson needs to work on the consistency of his pre-game work, and the application of the “incredible tools that he has” into the games. He also pointed out that they challenged all of the infielders to be the first guy called up and to be the one from the group that stands out.
“That was the challenge we gave all of these guys going out,” Huntington said. “Be the first one called up. Be the one that’s worked hard. Be the one that’s gone out and executed. Be the one that’s gone out and helped your team win. We’ve got a really interesting group of players going out, that they all can play multiple positions, they all will play multiple positions. It’s not because we think that’s their ceiling. We think their ceiling is always regulars. The challenge becomes, how do you put them in position to help your Major League team initially.”
Huntington referenced the current Pirates’ infield, noting that none of the guys came up in their current starting position. Josh Harrison arrived as a bench player and a utility guy. He will enter the season as the starting second baseman. Jordy Mercer first came up as a bench player, before taking over as the starting shortstop. Jung-ho Kang was a bench player last year at the start of the season, then moved into a starting role, and will play third base when he returns. Huntington told
“Whether it’s Moroff, Frazier, Gift, Alen Hanson, Dan — that’s [five] pretty talented versatile infielders that all may help us at some point, and it’s up to them who is the first guy called up,” Huntington said.
The question with Hanson is whether he would be a guy who would come up in a utility role, or a guy like Bell who would be put in a starting spot immediately. Huntington mentioned they still see Hanson as a starter.
“Part of that will be determined by the need, and by the opportunity,” Huntington said of the two approaches. “He certainly wouldn’t be hurt by bouncing around the field and using his speed off the bench, using his ability to hit from either side to generate offense at the top of an inning. At the same time, if the need arises, assuming continued growth and development, we’d have no hesitation dropping him into the regular role.”
Getting Playing Time For Everyone
The big challenge after today will be getting playing time for every player in Triple-A. Huntington said that the plan right now is to have all of the infielders going to Indianapolis, with their versatility keeping them all in the lineup. He also said that the DH at-bats will go almost essentially to that group.
I broke down the crowded situation earlier in the week, and how it gets more crowded when Jason Rogers eventually goes down to Triple-A. One thing that helps right now is Adam Frazier’s ability to play the outfield. Huntington also mentioned that they could move a few other guys to the outfield to get them playing time.
“Adam Frazier is taking to the outfield really easily,” Huntington said. “There may even come a point in time down the road where we try each of those guys in the outfield, to give them another opportunity to make the club, and as importantly, find a spot in the lineup.”
There were discussions last year about moving Alen Hanson to left field to give him another position. This came when he was learning third base, and the Pirates decided to table the outfield talks at the time, letting him focus on just one new position. It would be interesting to see if he made that jump, and he’d make the most sense, as he’s the most athletic of the group. That outfield work could also make it easier for Hanson to force his way onto the MLB club. But no matter who makes that move, it’s going to be a crowded group in Indianapolis.
“It will be a challenge,” Huntington said. “It will certainly be a challenge, and how do we rotate them around positions, and how does Dean keep them all in a lineup and sharp? It’s a good problem to have, but it does represent some interesting challenges.”
The Future for Gift Ngoepe
Bell and Hanson were the big position players cut today. Moroff, Frazier, and Gamache often get grouped together, due to their versatility, and the fact that they’ve all moved up together. But don’t forget about Gift Ngoepe. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the system, and that defense will get him to the majors at some point. But his bat will dictate when he arrives.
“Gift has just enough power that he can get himself in trouble at times,” Huntington joked. “The swing gets too big, and he loses what type of hitter he’s going to need to be at the Major League level, and that’s gap-to-gap, line drive, battle. Absolutely battle, make a pitcher work. If he can do that, that’s an everyday shortstop with his defensive abilities. If the bat never comes along, he’s got a good chance to be a really good defensive infielder at the Major League level for a long time.”
Sean McCool wrote about Gift a few weeks ago, breaking down the decision he made to drop switch hitting and only focus on the right side. The Pirates are hoping that this leads to more offensive consistency from the shortstop, which could allow him to be more than a bench guy.
“Our challenge is helping that bat, helping him maximize what offensive abilities he has,” Huntington said. “The scary part of Gift, he’s been a right-handed hitter for one year, and he’s doing it at the highest level. This is not a young man that grew up facing the elite high school competition. He didn’t grow up facing Division I college competition. He’s facing the best competition he’s ever faced, and dropping the left-handed hitting element of his game. So there’s a lot of really intriguing things about where Gift can go as we move forward. Much like the other guys, he has a ceiling as a regular if we can help him grow in other areas.”
I’d disagree with the idea that Gift could be a regular in the majors. I think any offensive improvements will take him from a Quad-A type player who is used as depth, to a regular bench player. The only way he could start is if it’s a Brendan Ryan type player, who has outstanding defense, to the point where you ignore his almost negative offensive value. And I could only see that happening for the Pirates if Jordy Mercer goes down with an injury this year. For that reason, Gift is a very important depth piece for the Pirates in 2016, just like the rest of the Indianapolis infielders.