This is the North Shore Nine’s four-part Spring Training preview for 2017. We will break down the four biggest stories as the Pirates report to Bradenton this week to mark the beginning of a new season.
There won’t be many positional battles within Pirates camp this spring as their lineup is set. But the bench is a different story after the loss of Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez to free agency. The numbers they produced last season will be tough to replace, but instead of reaching for someone in free agency again, the Pirates have internal options to fill those roles.
Operating under the assumption that Jung Ho Kang will be on the active roster on Opening Day and not in jail, let’s break down the bench spots and in particular, the final bench slot. The starting lineup is set to be McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Bell, JHay, Mercer, Kang and Cervelli. That leaves John Jaso (1B/OF) and David Freese (1B/3B) to two of the bench spots where both can provide versatility and platoon when needed.
Chris Stewart (C/1B) is healthy and ready to provide insurance behind Cervelli as the backup catcher—a role that was severely missed last season. Stewart was limited to just 34 games and 113 plate appearances in 2016. The Pirates were forced to go to plan B and C and rely on Eric Fryer and Erik Kratz more than any team would want. Even Jacob Stallings and Elias Diaz combined to make four starts last year. Stewart should be 100 percent and ready to take back his role of backup catcher for the third bench spot.
Adam Frazier (2B/3B/OF) made his Major League debut last year and surprised many by hitting .301/.356/.411 with a 110 wRC+ in 66 games and 160 plate appearances for the Bucs. Despite providing below average defense, Frazier played all over the ballpark making starts at second, third, left field and right field and even appearing briefly in center field. Frazier is a lock for the bench role and has a good chance to become the new JHay-type utility man bouncing between the outfield, second or third base wherever needed. Frazier produced a career .299/.363/.370 slash line in the minors, so the man can rake and could play himself into a starting role due to injury or if Harrison struggles out of the gate.
That leaves us with the final bench spot that up until a week ago looked like a lock for Alen Hanson. That was until the Pirates dealt minor league pitcher Frank Duncan to Arizona for infielder utility-man Phil Gosselin. This acquisition is a bit of a head scratcher, but it looks like it’s insurance in case Jung Ho is suspended and misses the start of the season.
First, let’s take a look at Hanson. Once considered a high prospect and the future starter at second base, Hanson’s stock has dropped in the past couple seasons and he failed to impress in 31 at-bats last year (7-for-31, 1 XBH). Hanson, however, is out of options which will most likely help him make the roster out of camp. He’s also received a very optimistic projection from ZiPS, which puts him down for 19 doubles, 11 triples, 11 home runs and 25 steals if he were to get 500+ plate appearances. It’s very unlikely he will get anywhere near 500 PA’s, but the projection is definitely an interesting one.
Gosselin, while a fine utility/bench player, was just designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks and is 28 years old. He slashed .277/.324/.368 last season for Arizona in a career high 122 games, but just 240 plate appearances. He provided an okay glove and saw time at first, second, third and corner OF last season. The move still doesn’t make much sense to me, leaving me to chalk it up as purely insurance in case Kang is not available for Opening Day. As we mentioned yesterday, Kang’s situation is still up in the air with his DUI hearing in South Korea set for February 22. If Kang is suspended or worse, Gosselin makes this team and will most likely split time with Freese at third base. But if Kang is available and everyone is healthy, I just can’t find a way Gosselin makes this team out of camp. He would head to Triple-A and probably be the first man up when needed.
While being out of options works in Hanson’s favor for making the Opening Day roster, it’s probably going to work against him down the road as well. His ABs are going to be limited coming off the bench and if he struggles in the first couple months while someone like Gosselin is producing at Triple-A, Hanson could get DFA’d at that point. He’s going to have to take advantage of those limited at-bats and starts he’ll receive.
It’s not the sexiest topic or camp battle, but among the positional players, the last bench spot is the only question mark. Even though the Gosselin pickup clouds the picture, I still think Hanson makes the team. If Kang hits the suspension list, Hanson and Gosselin will both make the team and then the decision will come further down the road once Kang is available.