WHYGAVS/Bucs Dugout Crossover: The 2009 bench

From time to time, Charlie, the author of Bucs Dugout, and I discuss the Pirates. With the season coming up, it seemed like the best time to resume the dialogue. Today, we talk about the bench decisions the Pirates face coming into 2009.

WHYGAVS: If we assume there are four bench spots for position players (that’s thirteen position players total on the roster, eight of which are starters and one of which is a backup catcher, which we can get to in a bit), two are certainly locked down in Eric Hinske and Ramon Vazquez. One of them will probably go to Craig Monroe or Jeff Salazar, which shouldn’t be much of a choice given the circumstances. We can get to that a little later, too, but if it seems like I’m fast-forwarding the conversation, it’s because I am to talk about the last roster spot. It’s probably coming down to Bixler (who beats out Cruz with Cruz’s injury) and Pearce and given Wednesday’s piece about Pearce in the Post-Gazette (I’m guessing Pearce is headed back down to AAA.

Do you get what the Pirates are doing with Pearce at all? Last year Huntington hinted he wanted him down in Indy to work on his outfield defense, but this year it’s his first base defense. We’re all perfectly willing to accept that Brandon Moss, who’s probably not a full-time corner outfielder in the Majors, can start full-time in right until he proves he can’t, so why isn’t Pearce afforded that opportunity in left? I mean, I fully understand that the best role for Pearce in the long run might be a platoon with Brandon Moss, but I don’t understand what Huntington thinks a 26-year-old is going to do in his third stint in AAA. Is there some kind of attitude problem that Huntington doesn’t like in Pearce? I guess it sort of seems that way, but I just don’t know.

BUCS DUGOUT: I think Bixler is the best bet for that last spot. Anyway, the quote about Pearce needing to spend more time at first base was both maddening and bizarre. The Pirates might have gotten him that time last year, but he played 69 AAA games in the outfield instead.

Later in the article, Neal Huntington is quoted as saying that Pearce has a shot to win the first base job next year, which I find extremely hard to believe. It’s not as if the Pirates don’t have a golden opportunity for Pearce to start this year in the outfield, and I also can’t believe his corner outfield defense is so bad that that’s the reason he isn’t starting.

I know Pearce has issues with breaking balls, and if the management were consistent in saying that’s why he won’t be promoted, I probably wouldn’t agree with it, but I could at least understand it. But they haven’t been. They’re just making up reasons as they go along. Which makes me think there’s something deeper going on here.

Either way, I agree with Huntington about one thing: I don’t really want Pearce to be used in a big-league bench role. He’d be well suited for it, in a sense, because he can play a couple of positions and he’s right-handed, but I’d rather he be treated like a prospect.

So, as for that open outfield spot, the most likely options are probably Monroe, Phillips and Salazar. (The Post-Gazette didn’t mention Phillips in its last report, but he probably is in the running.) Salazar is the best and youngest of the three, but he’s a lefty, so he isn’t really an ideal fit on a team stacked with lefties. Still, I’ll take talent over handedness any day.

Monroe is toast–his batting averages the last five years have gone .293, .277, .255, .219, .202. That’s a sure sign of a player who’s lost bat speed, and he’s not getting that back, so I see very little upside there. Phillips probably isn’t much better as a hitter, but at least he’s versatile–he played first, second, third and left last year. Monroe has a lot more experience in the outfield, but that’s all he plays, and he spent most of his time last year DHing. (Why do so many AL teams let players like Monroe DH for them?) So Phillips would be a more useful guy, tactically.

My order of preference is Salazar, Phillips, Monroe. Unfortunately, and judging especially from the fact that Salazar batted seventh the other day in what was essentially a minor league game against the Dutch national team, I think the Pirates probably have it in the opposite order.

I’d prefer an alignment in which both Salazar and Phillips make the team, Bixler gets the boot, and the Pirates have only Vazquez backing up the middle infield. It might lead to the occasional odd situation in which Phillips has to be used at second in a blowout, but I could live with that. Surely that’s no more incongruous than Bixler pinch-hitting with the game on the line. What do you think?

WHYGAVS: You’re right about Phillips, I think. I sort of forgot about him when thinking about the last bench spot. I can’t see what use there would be in keeping Bixler on the bench because his bat isn’t helpful as a pinch hitter and he’s not good enough defensively to be a replacement for Wilson or Sanchez. The only thing the Pirates need him to be is a long-term backup for the two middle infield spots and he can do that without taking up a roster spot.

Maybe the question we need to be asking is what happens to these guys if they don’t make the team? I assume Monroe will turn down an assignment to AAA, but Phillips and Salazar might not. Keeping Monroe for any reason at all seems like an extraordinarily bad idea to me, but with him hitting the ball pretty well I’m afraid that it might not be that simple.

When it comes down to it, Salazar is just a lot more interesting than the typical run of the mill sort of guys we usually see (guys like … CRAIG MONROE!) competing for the last outfield spot since I do agree that Pearce needs at-bats, even though Huntington’s handling of him is infuriating, there’s not really any reason he shouldn’t make the team. If we then take the last spot as Phillips vs. Bixler, well, Phillips is a whole lot more useful to a big league club off the bench than Bixler is.

As an aside, Hinske, Vazquez, Salazar, and Phillips would actually make a disproportionately awesome bench. When does a 67-win team ever put together a bench like that? Unfortunately, I get a sense that we’re probably closer to Hinske, Vazquez, Monroe, and Bixler, which is much less awesome.

When it comes to the backup catcher, is there any doubt Jaramillo’s getting that spot? It seems like he’s stronger defensively, we know Russell likes him because of their prior connection and I don’t think Huntington would’ve traded for him after already acquiring Diaz unless he was pretty high on his ability. The two seem pretty interchangable to me, so I guess I don’t really have a preference for how it plays out.

BUCS DUGOUT: Regarding the potential of a Hinske/Vazquez/Salazar/Phillips/catcher bench, that would be a much better bench than we’re used to seeing. A couple of points here, though (and yeah, I know you were just making an aside):

1. We’re used to some really bad benches. Andy Phillips is nothing to get excited about; he only seems exciting when you’re expecting Luis Rivas and get him instead.

2. In the recent past, when the Pirates have had very good bench players, it’s usually been because they were better than the starting players. I’m thinking particularly of Randall Simon starting ahead of Matt Stairs and Craig Wilson in 2003, Simon ahead of Wilson and Chris Stynes ahead of Rob Mackowiak in 2004, Jeromy Burnitz ahead of Wilson and Joe Randa ahead of Freddy Sanchez in 2006, Ronny Paulino ahead of Ryan Doumit and Chris Duffy ahead of Nate McLouth in 2007, and so on. I could do this all day.

My point is that while it’s true that the Pirates have the potential for a better bench than usual, it only looks good because they’re probably not going to start the right players. Hinske and Salazar, at least, are markedly better than Nyjer Morgan, at least as corner outfielders. Put Hinske or Salazar in the lineup and Morgan on the bench, and suddenly it doesn’t look so good.

As for the backup catcher spot, yes, I’d be surprised if Jaramillo didn’t win it. He and Diaz are an interesting pair of players–they’re very similar young defense-first types who came over in trades for players the Pirates didn’t want anymore. Jaramillo seems a bit better at both defense and hitting, and he was the one acquired most recently, so he’ll probably get the job.

And THEN you had to go and remind me the Pirates are going to start a left fielder with a career .365 slugging percentage in the minor leagues.

So, since we’ve started this discussion the Post-Gazette has published an article in which Neal Huntington makes it sound like Craig Monroe is the very clear favorite over Salazar for the backup outfield spot, mostly because Monroe is right-handed. Of course, so is Hinske, Phillips/Bixler/whoever, as well as Jaramillo/Diaz. If Monroe makes the club, that leaves only Vazquez as a left-handed bat on the bench. (Ed. Of course, this statement is moot because Hinske is left-handed. But I’m keeping the last part of the statement because it holds true anyways, keeping a crappy player instead of a potentially non-crappy one because one is right-handed is stupid) I like Huntington and I mostly like what he’s done so far, but some of his rationale this off-season is driving me a little insane.

John Perrotto also had a story Thursday that makes it sound like Phillips has a good chance of making the club and in his morning link-dump, Dejan Kovacevic (who never wastes words) sounds like he agrees. So if I had to predict the Opening Day bench right now, I guess it seems like we’re looking at Vazquez, Monroe, Phillips, Hinske, and Jaramillo.

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.