There’s only so much you can prepare for the worst and the Bucs seemed in pretty decent shape on paper at most positions. The Pirates have done well to avoid using their depth until lately. Now, bad fortune in the form of awkward swings, hard slides, and a lousy night’s sleep are piling up and dinging the Pirates’ major league roster. They’re now being pushed to the brink at a couple of positions and it could impact the moves they make at the trade deadline.
The Left Side of the Infield
This is a little more complicated than just an issue with the left side of the infield, because as Pirate fans or people who have access to Fangraphs know, Josh Harrison wasn’t always on the left side of the infield. Monday, he would be at third base. Tuesday, he would play second. Wednesday, he provided the opposite platoon for Gregory Polanco in right field. His head first slide that blew up his thumb and made bloggers feel coordinated sent ripples through the Pirates’ lineup but it wasn’t as devastating as one might think by losing a reigning All-Star and top ten finisher in NL MVP voting might feel. Why?
Because Jung-Ho Kang, that’s why.
The Pirates’ lineup has become more settled with Kang in many ways and he’s putting up a triple slash of .310/.408/.500 in July. In fact, he’s outperforming Harrison in any month so far this season. While it would have been great to have a healthy Harrison, he hasn’t exactly been missed, at least not until the Pirates lost Jordy Mercer on Sunday.
The Pirates still have middle infielders to spare although none have much upside. In truth, we could have Kang come to the rescue again at shortstop, but that opens up a hole at third. Sean Rodriguez, whose bat profiles considerably better for third than it does at first where he’s faced lefties on behalf of Pedro Alvarez and closed out games defensively, represents a considerable step down. While Steve Lombardozzi has a great first name and some major league experience at third, he’s not a shortstop and hasn’t shown much in fairly plentiful major league opportunities. Deibinson Romero started the season hot in Indianapolis, but was sold to Korea where he’s not doing the Pirates any good. Gift Ngeope has struggled with the bat in the upper level of the Pirates system. While there isn’t any question of the glove, he’ll still need to hit a little to provide any upside in the majors.
A popular alternative I’ve heard suggested was moving Neil Walker to third and calling up Alen Hanson. Walker came through the system at third but hasn’t played the hot corner in the majors since 2010. Hanson got off to a rough start in Indy, but has hit better of late. Interestingly, the opposite scenario appears to be happening, as Hanson is starting to learn 3B as of Monday night in Indianapolis. It appears that he will be called up as bench depth in the near future.
The rotation has been the backbone of the the Pirates success this season. They don’t have an injury, but they got a preview of what one might look like to AJ Burnett, Gerrit Cole or Francisco Liriano, who cost himself millions playing a joke on his kids. He missed his start this weekend because of a lousy pillow from what I can surmise. Charlie Morton, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke pitched successive nights and while the first and the last certainly pitched well enough to win, the rotation looks considerably worse with all three in it to the point where contending for the division would become quite difficult. While the Pirates are not bad one through six relative to most other teams, they can’t really afford to have their pitching fall off much.Don’t get me started on what would happen if a second pitcher in the top six got injured.
In a perfect world, the Pirates would have 2010 draft picks Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham waiting in the wings for their shot. They’d also have Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler who have shown well in brief major league stints. Kingham and Cumpton had Tommy John this year. Sadler has missed several starts with a forearm injury that can sometimes indicate a need for it. Taillon had it last season and will miss game action until September following hernia surgery. While the Pirates might have a healthy top six, they’re in shambles seven through ten. What should be an extremely deep rotation now is painfully thin.
I’ve touched on this elsewhere in the piece already, but the Pirates have lost two much-needed platoon partners for first and right field. Simply put, Alvarez and Polanco need help against left handed pitchers and the lineup is downgraded in the event that they need to face them. Corey Hart hasn’t worked out, but even if he had he’s hurt and the Pirates prefer to pay Jose Tabata the millions of dollars they still owe him while in AAA. Jaff Decker has gotten a call and Travis Ishikawa’s back, but they’re both lefties. Sean Rodriguez isn’t ideal, but at the moment he may not even be available.
There are some who would suggest Pedro Alvarez needs more than a platoon partner, but there isn’t any internal depth to replace him in the system.
Pundits and fans alike have expected the Pirates to play an active role at the trade deadline, but recent injuries and lack of depth may have changed the strategies. They’ve needed an extra right-handed bat since the second week of April and an upgrade to the rotation has appeared possible since Jeff Locke’s early struggles. Temporary solutions in right field and at first may have also been on the table.
Thanks to Mercer’s injury, priorities should likely change. They may want to add as many as four pieces. The priority should be third base or shortstop help to carry them until Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer get healthy late in the season. Aramis Ramirez ending his career in the black and gold would be a delightful twist of fate. Jeff Francoeur, who I scoffed at when he was first connected to the Pirates suddenly looks more viable as they’ll need to add pieces on the cheap and he should come cheap. This becomes particularly true if they decide to upgrade first or right.
In the worst case scenario, the Pirates could have a number of options to choose from for starting rotation help at the waiver trade deadline. I doubt they’ll address rotation depth in August. They could also pull from AAA Indianapolis with Adrian Sampson or a couple of pitchers who started the year in AA, Angel Sanchez or Tyler Glasnow.
The Pirates still don’t have to make a move if they really don’t want to, but it’s getting more and more difficult for me to see them holding on to the wild card let alone staying in contention for the division. The Pirates had depth across the board but what little they had on the left side, or the infield in general, the starting rotation and on the bench from the right side appears depleted. Failure to replace the replacements in some cases could result in a rough second half.