Jeff Clement and Rick Ankiel

When it’s early January and pitchers and catchers are still a month away, sometimes there’s nothing to do but speculate about free agents the Pirates probably aren’t going to sign. I still find some of the discussion and the rumor mill interesting, because even if the Pirates don’t end up signing anyone of significance it lends us some insight into what the front office thinks of certain players and what they may be trying to do.

This week, we’ve got a bunch of coal to feed the Rick Ankiel fire. On Tuesday, in his weekly chat, Frank Coonelly said this to a guy with the handle ankiel101:

We too like Rick Ankiel and what he can bring to a ballclub. We think that Rick is certainly a good candidate to have a rebound season in 2010 and have expressed our interest to his representative. Therefore, Rick is certainly among the players who we have indicated an interest in to fill an outfield position.

Pretty unambiguous; they like Ankiel and think he can bounce back. Seems pretty clear that if he were to sign here, he’d be getting his share of playing time.

Then, Ken Rosenthal gives us this from his buzzmill yesterday:

While one major-league source says he expects the Pirates to “win out” for Ankiel, a second source is more pessimistic.

The Pirates’ interest in Ankiel is “real,” the second source said, but the team might fill its need with another player rather than continue waiting on Ankiel and his agent, Scott Boras.

Some more hedging, but again pretty straightforward. The Pirates are looking to “fill [a] need” with Ankiel.

So this morning in the PG, we get this:

Ankiel had been the Pirates’ top target among position players, but that no longer seems to be the case even though they remain open to having him.

Ankiel’s agent, Scott Boras, is selling his client as an everyday player, and there is cause of Boras’ stance despite Ankiel slumping to a .231 average and 11 home runs last season with the St. Louis Cardinals: The previous year, Ankiel batted .264 with 25 home runs and 71 RBIs, he is a superb defender, and he is 30 years old.

The Pirates’ stance is that they are not promising any free-agent position player a starting job.

This is all interesting because it gives us an early feel for how the Pirates are planning on handling Jeff Clement. I’ve seen a lot of people say that he needs more time in Triple-A to adjust to first base, but he’s spent a good part of a minor league season there and he’s going to have a spring training, as well. I saw him play first in Durham last year and he didn’t look awful. It shouldn’t take years learn that position; it’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen.

Clement’s projections look solid enough (ZiPS here, CHONE here) to me to justify giving him a shot, but between the considerable risk that he flames out and the possibility that he’ll need a platoon partner I can understand their interest in some of the guys in the Xavier Nady/Johnny Gomes (speaking of Gomes, I can’t believe his name hasn’t come up yet Reading comprehension FAIL; DK says in the story I quote above the Pirates aren’t interested in Gomes) mold. Ankiel’s not in that mold though; he’s left-handed, he’s very good defensively, and he’s talented enough to justify playing every day.

If the Pirates are really interested in Ankiel (and I think they are), there’s no way they’re recruiting him by telling him he’d have to win a job from Jeff Clement to play every day. That’s just illogical. And so I think that we conclude that while the Pirates obviously like Clement (I mean, hell, they just traded for the guy and they’re not going to pay through the nose to bring Ankiel to town, apparently), they really like Ankiel a lot. I think that’s probably more a statement about how this front office values defense than anything else.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.