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First Pitch: Does Clint Hurdle Prefer Playing Veterans Over Prospects?

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BRADENTON, Fl. – A few weeks ago I wrote an article on the mentors that Elias Diaz has in Major League camp. One interesting thing when collecting information for that article was a comment that Clint Hurdle made about their usage of Diaz in September 2015. Hurdle talked about how it was important to get Diaz the experience of working with big league pitchers, and more importantly, working with Francisco Cervelli. Here was the excerpt from the article:

“We felt it was important enough to call him up,” Hurdle said of that work. “That was the plan. We weren’t looking to push at-bats on him. We were trying to get some things done collectively as a team, as an organization. The time spent in the bullpen, catching the sides that A.J. Burnett is throwing, Liriano is throwing, Cole is throwing. The interaction, watching the game during the game. Being ready. The video tape. The pre-game prep meetings, and the hitter and catcher and pitching coach.”

Hurdle noted that they took the same approach with Jordy Mercer. He came up a few times in 2012, but barely played, and got just 10 plate appearances in September. However, he worked with the veterans, including Clint Barmes, and Mercer has credited his work with Barmes for his defensive improvements and ability to learn the best routes.

“The year he came up, I just think of that,” Hurdle said of the comparison between Mercer and Diaz. “It adds for them coming in, they’ve done everything but play a lot when he finds his way back.”

The reference to Mercer got me thinking about that situation. Back when Mercer was called up in 2012, he barely got playing time. He was called up for about a month the first time around, and got 11 plate appearances. He was called up the second time on July 5th, and got 57 plate appearances the rest of the year, including 10 in September when the Pirates were out of the mix.

At the time, a common saying that was going around was that Clint Hurdle didn’t trust younger players, instead going for the offensively challenged Clint Barmes over Mercer. They went with Mercer the following year at mid-season after Barmes struggled again, and he’s been the starting shortstop ever since.

The “Hurdle doesn’t trust young players” thing has come up again in the last week, after all of the talk about how the Pirates have so many young prospects on the verge of arriving in the next year. That idea has some believing that, despite a lot of young talent in Triple-A, Hurdle won’t give them a chance. There are a few problems with this theory.

The obvious problem is that the current roster features prospects who have come up with Hurdle as the manager. Gerrit Cole came up in 2013 when the Pirates were contenders, and Hurdle even used him in the deciding game of the season over A.J. Burnett. There couldn’t be a more “young player over veteran” move than that.

Cole isn’t the only story. Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison have all come up while Hurdle was here, and all worked their way into starting roles. That’s half of the starting roles on the offense given to young players. In the cases with Harrison and Mercer, the players didn’t start right away, and that fueled the narrative. But there were reasons in each case.

In Harrison’s case, he really didn’t do anything at the plate to warrant a starting role. This includes his performance in 2014, up until the point when he started getting time in right field over Travis Snider. It was right around that point which he started breaking out, and Hurdle kept finding time to play him.

Mercer’s situation is outlined above. They brought him up in 2012, but gave the playing time to Barmes, and had Mercer taking in the MLB experience and learning from the veteran shortstop. Mercer credits his work with Barmes to his improved defense in the majors, so maybe that approach worked.

I’ll admit that I was also on the “Hurdle doesn’t like young players” bandwagon at times, but for another reason. For the first two and a half years that Hurdle was here, the Pirates were going with veteran free agents who were past their prime, rather than playing young players. Most of these young players never amounted to much. Some examples are Matt Hague, Ivan De Jesus, Argenis Diaz, Pedro Ciriaco, and others. A note about those last three: it was also confusing that the Pirates kept trading for strong defensive, no bat middle infielders, then never used them. Especially when they’d go out and add strong defensive, no bat middle infield veterans like John McDonald at the end of their careers.

The John McDonald situation was actually an interesting look back at the impact of blocking young players. Take a look at this nightmare of an article from 2013, after McDonald made the roster. In that, I wrote that McDonald’s addition blocked Mercer and/or De Jesus from the majors, and blocked guys like Adalberto Santos from moving up. I also wrote that future moves might hold back guys like Alen Hanson, Max Moroff, and Dan Gamache.

Obviously Mercer came up that year and stepped into a starter role. It’s impossible to say whether his added time in Triple-A helped lead to this. De Jesus never really got a shot with the Pirates, but didn’t turn into anything after leaving them. The Santos thing looks silly now, but he was coming off an .858 OPS in 238 at-bats in Altoona the year before at the age of 24. By comparison, Adam Frazier is getting a lot of attention for an .801 OPS in 377 plate appearances at the age of 23.

Santos didn’t repeat these numbers, De Jesus didn’t amount to much, and Mercer became a starter anyway. There was no long-term damage. My main issue was that you probably aren’t worse off with De Jesus over McDonald, and maybe that scenario leads to De Jesus becoming a valuable bench option. But this assumes the Pirates didn’t know what they had with guys like De Jesus.

Perhaps the Pirates did know that these guys didn’t have a future in the majors, which is why they were comfortable blocking them. Looking at the last lines from the 2013 article summary above, the fear was that this would continue with every prospect going forward. But here we are in 2016, and the Pirates aren’t blocking Hanson, Moroff, or Gamache. Instead, they’re giving them a lot of playing time.

The track record shows that Hurdle does play young players, but not every young player. And they haven’t really missed out on many guys. I think the biggest case where they missed was letting Brandon Moss walk as a free agent, then signing Lyle Overbay. This is probably in hindsight due to Moss’ success, but that success started with an adjustment in Indianapolis in 2011, before he was let go.

Maybe the Pirates should have had a blanket approach for prospects, taking the failures of De Jesus and others in order to make sure they didn’t miss out on the one Brandon Moss that worked out. The important thing now is that when it comes to the current group, they are set on playing those guys. This isn’t even a prediction. There aren’t veteran fillers set to block the prospects and get the promotions at mid-season. You might even see some of the younger players arrive earlier than mid-season, or even on Opening Day, depending on how soon Jung-ho Kang returns. But there should be no fears about Hurdle holding back the prospects, and based on history, anyone they do hold back might need to have their prospect status double checked.

**Since First Pitch is a daily free article, this is the daily reminder to non-subscribers that we have some low priced subscription options available, and offer the most live Pirates coverage of any news outlet. That’s typically a pretty good combo. We’d love to have you as a subscriber, which would give you access to all of our other great articles, including the ones below from today, with information that no one else has (even in the Hanson article, which has details from our years of covering him). Here is how you can subscribe, or you can check out the products page to buy a package of a subscription and the 2016 Prospect Guide.

**Breaking Down Cole Tucker’s Future Return After Another Big Step Today. Tucker will return much earlier than expected, and took another big step toward that today. But with Kevin Newman going to Bradenton, where will the Pirates place Tucker? Article also includes video from today’s live batting practice sessions.

**Pirates Are Sending Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller to West Virginia. The West Virginia Power will have another team stocked with some of the best young talent in the system. Hayes and Keller are breakout candidates in the sense that a strong year could put them in top 100 rankings next season.

**Harlan and Hibbing Retire, Pirates Add Two Right-Handed Pitchers From Dominican. A few transactions to note on the first day of full minor league camp workouts.

**Consistency Standing in the Way of Alen Hanson Arriving in the Majors. A breakdown of what Alen Hanson needs to work on to get to the majors. Spoiler alert: consistency.

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Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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