Whether Neal Huntington did it intentionally or not, he created one heck of a log-jam at first base and in right field with his trade deadline acquisitions. Between Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and the disabled list the Pirates now have Lastings Milledge, Garrett Jones, Jeff Clement, Steve Pearce, John Bowker, and Ryan Doumit vying for at-bats at those two positions, and that’s without counting the recently-hot Brandon Moss, who’s arguably hitting well enough in Indianapolis to at least merit considerating in this discussion.
The first two guys, Milledge and Jones, have a leg up on the competition because they’ve shown they can hit Major League hitting to some degree and though neither one is particularly adept with the glove they’re both better at their respective positions than Ryan Doumit. Neither is without flaw, though. Milledge hasn’t hit right-handed pitching at all in 2010 while Jones has had quite a bit of trouble with lefties. Put a little more simply, I don’t know that either would be an everyday player on a good baseball team and I’m positive that any team that starts both would have a hard time making the playoffs.
Everyone already knows all about the ill-fated Lastings Milledge/Ryan Church platoon in right field, but the honest truth is that if there were a left-handed bat that could spell Milledge against really tough righties (especially guys he might have a bad history against), the Pirates would get more production out of the right field spot. And everyone loves Garrett Jones and he’s a great story and he did amazing things last year, but if the Pirates coupled him with a righty at first base they’d get a lot more production out of the first base slot. That’s just the way things are.
For now, Ryan Doumit is most likely going to be the lefty that spells Milledge. Doumit’s platoon split in 2010 is even more extreme than Jones or Milledge; he’s hitting just .189/.259/.292 against lefties as a right-handed batter. For comparison, ex-Pirate Orlando Merced hit .193/.284/.253 from the right side of the plate in the first few years of his career and then gave up switch hitting forever. Being perfectly honest here, I think platooning Doumit’s bat and Milledge’s bat is a great idea in theory. In practice, it’s likely going to be disastrous. Doumit can’t catch much of anything to save his life and Milledge will probably start killing the ball again once he sees some more favorable pitching matchups. When people see that, we’ll go through the whole Milledge/Church thing all over again.
Long-term, though, I don’t think Doumit’s going to be in this picture. He’s never seemed particularly happy since last year’s trades, he was openly pissed that the Pirates traded for a starting catcher with him on the roster, and he’s right that that action probably indicates that the front office doesn’t think too highly of him. So let’s assume that he gets traded this off-season, but his sojourn to right field reaffirms my hypothesis that Lastings Milledge could use a platoon partner.
That leaves us with Milledge and Moss as outfielders, Clement as a first baseman, and Jones, Bowker, and Pearce as guys that can play both positions though they’re all pretty iffy as right fielders. Bowker, a lefty, has a career .889 OPS against righties and a .769 OPS against lefties in the minors. That trend has persisted through his two big years this year and last year. We all know Pearce is a lefty-masher. Moss’s career minor league splits are relatively even. Clement might turn into a the sort of hitter we hoped Jones would be, he might be a platoon player, or he might be a Quad-A player. It’s hard to know at this point. In fact, he and Bowker both are kind of mysteries as to whether or not they’re going to hit on the big league level. So do you bring Bowker up to split time in right with Milledge? Or move Jones to the outfield and have Clement and Pearce split time at first? Can a team really use four players solely for right field/first base platoons? Or would it be wiser to use Jones and Clement (or Bowker or Moss … ) to spell each other against tough lefties while Jones spells Milledge in right against tough righties? It’s not at all apparently what the answer might be. None of these guys are good enough to be everyday regulars, but most of them are good enough to merit a longer look and it sure seems like there are too many of them for one team to adequately evaluate.
The possibilities here are endless and the real problem the Pirates have going in to 2011 is that not one of these players will have options remaining when the season begins. They might sneak one through waivers like they did Brandon Moss this spring, but it’s not going to be easy. Pearce might sneak through since his injuries will keep him off the field for the rest of 2010 (or the club might just let him go because of those same injury problems). Moss might sneak through if he doesn’t get a call-up and start hitting at a moderate pace with the big league club. Bowker might slip through because, I mean, someone just traded him for Javier Lopez. But not one of those things is a sure bet.
All of this means that Huntington has work to do and some real evaluations to make, even if he trades Ryan Doumit at the first possible intersection. This job is actually tougher than I’ve made it out to be; as much as I’ve defended Pedro Alvarez’s defense in the past, he’s just not mobile enough to man third base in the big leagues in the long run and he’s going to be a first baseman by probably 2012. That means that the Pirates essentially have to pare Jones, Doumit, Milledge, Bowker, Pearce, Clement, and Moss down to three or four players to man two positions in 2011, and then down to two or three at most to play right field and take a bench spot for 2012.
It could actually be an interesting process to watch and if the Pirates do it correctly they could end up with a very productive platoon. The problem is that the first wave of decisions is going to have to be made on very short order and in the case of a guy like Bowker (or even guys like Moss and Pearce who will have gone to the minors and performed fairly well after flaming out in Pittsburgh), there might not be much first-hand big league evidence to base those choices on. One thing I am pretty sure about? Neal Huntington may have made a flurry of deals at this year’s deadline, but he’s got more on the horizon ahead.