Pirates Notebook: The Makeup of the Bench, Health of the Catchers, Early Camp Notes

BRADENTON, Fla. – There doesn’t look to be a lot of competition on the Pirates’ bench right now. We know that Chris Stewart will have the backup catching job, while David Freese and John Jaso will have spots on the bench. Adam Frazier has locked down a spot, and while the final position is technically up in the air, it could go to Alen Hanson due to his options situation.

If Jung Ho Kang isn’t ready to start the season, or an injury occurs, then there could be competition for a final spot. But right now the current bench has a question about whether the Pirates need a true backup at shortstop or in the outfield.

They have two players who can play shortstop. Alen Hanson and Adam Frazier both came up as shortstops in the lower levels. Frazier moved off the position in 2015 to be a super utility player. Hanson moved off the position the same year due to inconsistencies with his fielding. But the Pirates have had Hanson working at shortstop, and might be able to use him in a Sean Rodriguez type role, to provide a backup option when needed.

I asked Clint Hurdle yesterday if that would be the case, and whether he thought this bench would need a true backup shortstop.

“I don’t,” Hurdle said after some brief thought. “I think we need to find a guy that can play shortstop for the X amount of games that Jordy wouldn’t play shortstop. If you get in a situation where you lose your everyday shortstop, every team in the big leagues is going to be in trouble. We’ve got a guy who can really defend the ball at shortstop in our organization.”

The same question exists for the outfield. Frazier has been playing the position for two years. Hanson really started playing it more last year. John Jaso has been working in the outfield, and has played a few games there in his career. Jaso isn’t going to be a good fielder, and while Frazier and Hanson have a lot of range, you can tell they’re new to the position. But Hurdle said the current bench also doesn’t need a true fourth outfielder with the options they have.

“I think we’re going to continue to look for the best fits for our ball club to get us versatility, to give us options — running options, defensive options,” Hurdle said. “And I’m confident in our guys’ development patterns that they don’t have to be a true outfielder to go out and play a true outfield.”

I don’t want to say the bench is set, but if there are no injuries, I’d bet that those five guys listed above will be the Opening Day bench, with no true backup shortstop or outfielder.

Getting the Catchers Healthy Again

The Pirates had a lot of problems with the catching position last year. Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, and Elias Diaz all went down with injuries, leaving them at one point with a combo of Erik Kratz and Eric Fryer in the majors. All three of the top catchers are now healthy again, which should put the Pirates in a much better situation this year.

The absence of those three strong defenders might have played a partial impact in the mid-summer struggles from the Pirates, especially losing Cervelli’s impact on the pitchers. Hurdle gave high praise to the Pirates’ starter.

“We believe he’s as good as there is in the game about bringing the best out of the pitcher, and making the guy on the mound feel like he’s the most important cat in the ballpark the night that he gets the ball,” Hurdle said.

Stewart isn’t much of a hitter, but has good defense and has been one of the most valuable backup catchers in the game in the past. He had a knee injury and had surgery last year. He’s now entering his age 35 season. The team is responding by easing his workload and putting him on a different schedule than others, which included a day off from work this week.

“There will be days with less activity, and days where we lighten up the workload for sure,” Hurdle said.

Despite that day off, Stewart didn’t really take a break, and stood in against Clay Holmes in a bullpen session. This didn’t go well, as Holmes hit Stewart with a pitch in the hip, sending him down.

The Pirates are also hoping for better health from Elias Diaz this year. Diaz had been the picture of health prior to 2016, but missed half a season with an elbow injury, the end of the season with a leg infection, and missed time this offseason with an oblique strain. Despite the injuries, the Pirates still see Diaz as a valuable member of the organization.

“We want to get him healthy,” Hurdle said. “We want to get him to continue catching, and carry a workload that’s significant. We like the player. We also like the young man. He is a guy that other organizations continue to ask us about. He’s not just a good player in our eyes. Other people watch. To have a catcher who can receive, who can call a game, who can throw, hit a little bit with some barrel, they’re hard to find and we’re glad we’ve got him.”

It would be rare for the Pirates to see the same level of injuries they saw last year, but it won’t be a surprise at all if there’s one injury among this group, leading to Diaz getting a shot in the big leagues at some point this year. With all three providing strong defense and good work with pitchers, they should give the pitching staff a boost that was absent last summer.

Other Notes

**Gerrit Cole only threw one inning of live BP yesterday, while every other starter threw two innings. Hurdle said afterward that this was planned ahead of time.

“No hiccups or setbacks. That’s what we expected for him the first time out,” Hurdle said.

**One of the fun parts of live BP is watching the matchups that take place. Live BP started yesterday, and the very first matchup was Gerrit Cole vs Andrew McCutchen. He also went up against David Freese and Starling Marte. On another field, Gregory Polanco went up against Ivan Nova and Felipe Rivero. Hurdle said that those matchups aren’t planned out, but it’s fun to see what comes out of certain fields.

“To watch Meadows have to face Watson on day one, you can’t draw that stuff up,” Hurdle said. “It’s not like we said ‘Let’s do this to Austin today.’ It’s going through the process, and it works itself out, and you see some of the things that happens. It’s fun.”

**On whether there were any surprises early in camp, Hurdle had an interesting note.

“Something happened to me yesterday that I didn’t have,” Hurdle said. “[Antonio] Bastardo might be one of the best bunters on our team. I didn’t have that! And he just kept smiling while he kept doing it. We kept adding velocity and he just kept doing it. He wasn’t with us last year. Maybe the Mets did some really good work with him.”

  • Hey, the best news may be that we got through some
    bunting drills without anyone getting hurt!

    (remember a few years ago)’

  • I think Eury Perez will make the team if Kang isn’t ready, I think he’ll have a great St with the playing time he’ll get from no cutch Marte or Polanco

  • Quite possibly the worst thing I have heard out of ST this year is how Hurdle was gushing over Bastardo’s ability to bunt. Quite possibly the single stupidest thing to be happy about, a LOOGY that can bunt.

    • There are times you just want a bunt. Last year at times it didn’t seem there was anyone on the team who had the slightest idea how to go about it. Hurdle is probably just happy with the notion that someone has a clue – and if you’re going to burn a player with a bunt, who could be better (likely needed less) than a LOOGY?

      • Because LOOGY’s and sacrifice bunts are both equally useless. I think you answered your own question there.

    • He asked what he was surprised about. He answered the question. Didn’t seem like gushing to me.

  • Stewart wasn’t good defensively last year, actually he was quite bad in almost every aspect. -5 runs saved and had some of worst framing in MLB last year on per game basis.

    • With a knee that required surgery midseason. His season last year is too small a sample to go off of when you factor in the knee injury. His career numbers show a different story.

  • How does Gosselin compare to Hanson? When he was acquired my initial thought was that it could be the end of Hanson’s time with the organization but I see Gosselin has two options left. Thoughts?

  • The Pirates are lacking in the system for catchers. They apparently haven’t felt that Jhang (?) has developed and have very little depth. Should they consider moving Wyatt Mathison from 3rd, where he has little future? If/when Diaz makes the big team who will serve as his backup?

    • After the McGuire trade, I thought the comments about Jhang from the coaching staff at Altoona were quite positive, even implying that they saw Jhang and McGuire as comparable talents. Whether that’s accurate, and if it is, whether it says more about Jhang or McGuire remains to be seen.

  • I think it’s easy to forget – due entirely to injury – that Elias Diaz was a rather highly-thought-of C and, indeed, the most likely ‘Pirates C of the future’ just last offseason. At least from what I’ve read, and I like to think that I’ve read a lot, his injuries last year were more of the ‘acute’ than the ‘chronic’, or more plainly said, they were freak injuries. If Hurdle is to be believed that he’s asked about a lot in other GM offices, it seems that the league as a whole and the Pirates in particular still think he is a pretty nifty asset.

    With Stewart’s health, age, and general just adequate play, it’s not a stretch to think that, provided Diaz stays healthy and produces at Indianapolis, he could perhaps force his way into some innings in the latter half of the season. More likely, injury will require him to, but I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility that he plays w/ or w/o cause of injury.

    Personally, I think his offense may be a tick underrated. Guys that strike out less than 13% of the time and walk 9% of the time in the high-minors, I presume, would have a decent chance at being at least passable at the plate in the Majors. Not scientific by any means, but his bat-to-ball ability and not being adverse to a free pass bode well. His profile, the more and more you look at it, mirrors *a lot* of what Cervelli has become w/ the Pirates. High contact, low K, BBs, low ISO, hits to all fields. He’s at least someone w/ a very high floor.

    I’m glad the Pirates kept him.

  • How many option years does Diaz have left?

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