(Opening image Clint Barmes; image credit AP)
As this (hopefully) mini-slump is showing fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team is in desperate need of more offense if it wishes to sustain its pursuit of a playoff spot and above-.500 finish down the stretch. With Monday’s frustrating 2-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics, the Pirates lost their 3rd in a row, and dropped to 18 games over .500 and back into 2nd place behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. The Pirates not only wasted an excellent start from young All-Star SP Jeff Locke, but they fell to 0-10 against the Athletics all time.
With the Buccos’ offense ranked between 19th-24th in most major statistical categories, where are the dead bats on the roster, and can anything be done to improve the club internally, prior to GM Neal Huntington hopefully trading for more offense?
Dead Spot #1: SS Clint Barmes
Why he’s here: Huntington raised a lot of eyebrows among knowledgeable fans when he inked the veteran shortstop to a 2-year, $11,000,000 contract during the 2011 offseason. Since then, the now 34-year old Barmes has responded with a .593 OPS (64 OPS+) in 2012, and current .502 OPS (42 OPS+) campaign. Simply put, Barmes has been a terrible waste of money, as even his above-average defense couldn’t compensate for his limp bat, as he was replaced by Jordy Mercer as the team’s starting SS a few weeks ago.
What he does well: Due to the $5,500,000 price tag, it’s unlikely the Pirates simply cut Barmes this year- even though he more than deserves it. Fans will have to suffer through 3 more months of Barmes, as Manager Clint Hurdle will use the 6’1″ righty as a spot starter and late-inning defensive replacement for the somewhat error-prone Mercer at shortstop.
Internal replacement: SS Josh Harrison is in the midst of a standout season at AAA Indianapolis, posting a .317 BA and .882 OPS. Harrison has struggled in his 181 games of MLB experience (spread over 3 seasons), with a .278 OBP (75 OPS+). Still, that meager OPS+ would be 33 points higher than Barmes’s current pace, and unlike the veteran Barmes, the 25-year old Harrison is likely to improve.
Dead Spot #2: UTIL Brandon Inge
Why he’s here: Hurdle and Huntington loooooooooove multi-position defensive specialist veterans. Love. them. It’s so blatant that fans have been joking about the Pirates acquiring Inge for at least 3 seasons, and when the club invited the 36-year old veteran to Spring Training this year, everyone and their mother knew he was making the team hands down. In return for the Pirates’ faith, the longtime Detroit Tiger has provided an abysmal .190/.214/.250 slash line, good for a Barmesian 31 OPS+. It is nearly impossible to post an OPS+ that low, and to have two nearly identical players doing so is crushing the Pirates’ bench.
What he does well: Unfortunately nothing at this point. At least with Barmes, loyalists could argue that he provides a superior late-inning defensive upgrade at the most demanding position on the diamond. Inge has adequately played 5 positions on the field this year, but an already offensively-weak team cannot afford multiple defensive “specalists” off the bench. Anything over 1 is far too many.
Internal replacement: Acquired in the offseason Joel Hanrahan trade with the Boston Red Sox, Indianapolis UTIL Ivan De Jesus has been raking to the tune of a .332 BA and .871 OPS at AAA. He displays the same positional versatility as Inge, and at age 26, is likely to improve. Understand that both Harrison and De Jesus may struggle at the MLB level, but Barmes and Inge have been so historically terrible that these AAA options would still be significant offensive upgrades.
Dead Spot #3: C Michael McKenry
Why he’s here: Let’s get this straight- everyone loves The Fort. Unfortunately, McKenry’s 2013 performance to date (.191 BA, .577 OPS, 62 OPS+) is making his 2012 season look like the statistical outlier (.762 OPS, 109 OPS+) when compared with 2011 (.598 OPS, 68 OPS+). Clubs rarely receive a boost of offense from the backup catcher, and on an offensively competent team, McKenry could probably plink along in this manner for the entire season.
What he does well: Not the defensive equal of starter Russell Martin, McKenry is still an adequate backstop that works well with the starting pitching staff, calls a good game, and is a positive clubhouse presence. He had a very successful 2012 campaign as he gradually assumed starting duties over veteran dud Rod Barajas. Unfortunately, that production is nowhere to be seen in 2013.
Internal replacement: Former 1st round draft pick C Tony Sanchez may finally be living up to the Pirates’ internal billing of him, hammering a .911 OPS at AAA Indianapolis, and having a quick cup of coffee serving as the DH for the Pirates during their recent West Coast Interleague swing. The Pirates’ reasoning in holding Sanchez at AAA probably stems from the fact that they want him starting every day. But with the 5’11″ righty clearly having little trouble attacking AAA pitching, McKenry an offensive black hole here in 2013, and the Pirates in surprising playoff contention, it may benefit both he and the Buccos to have Sanchez on the active roster, spelling Martin once a week, and pinch hitting regularly.
Dead Spot #4: OF Travis Snider
Why he’s here: It pains me to list Snider here, as I was very excited when Huntington acquired the former #6 overall prospect for RP Brad Lincoln during last year’s Trade Deadline, and I still do believe Snider can play a role in this team’s long-term blueprint. Unfortunately, the Pirates are seeing why the Toronto Blue Jays were willing to part with Snider, as the 6’0″ lefty slugger is clearly not ready for starting duty. After a solid start, Snider has seen his statline fade to a .224/.295/.333 level, good for only a 78 OPS+.
What he does well: Having lost his RF starting job to the recently reinstated Jose Tabata, Snider provides the only LH bat off the bench during games in which lefty Garrett Jones starts over Gaby Sanchez at 1B. And unlike Barmes, Inge, or McKenry, Snider at least provides an adequate power threat in a pinch hitting role, although his chances of making contact are not great. Snider’s presence on the team would be passable if he played a prime defensive position, but primarily saddled to RF, Pittsburgh needs better.
Internal option: Originally acquired along with SP James McDonald as part of the 2010 CL Octavio Dotel trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, 24-year old Andrew Lambo seems like he’s been in the Pirates’ farm system forever. But after struggling to adjust to AA pitching in 2010 and 2011, the 6’3″ California native has quietly put together back-to-back productive seasons, churning out a .401 OBP and .905 OPS in 2012, and .928 OPS between AA-AAA here in 2013. Lambo hasn’t been phased by the jump to AAA competition, and being a lefty, could sub in perfectly for Snider without upsetting the bench dynamic of the MLB club. Like OF Alex Presley and SP Jeff Locke before him, Lambo has actually gotten better as he’s faced tougher competition, which could bode well for him contributing at the MLB level.
Overall, the Pirates risk absolutely nothing in making these changes. All would improve the offensive output of the bench, with very little defensive sacrifice whatsoever. Further, if these AAA replacements were called up sooner rather than later, it would provide GM Huntington with about 3 weeks of evaluation time, prior to the finality of the July 31st trade deadline. While the Pirates are clearly in need of a significant bat via trade, there’s no reason the club cannot attempt to make up at least some of that offensive ground via well-deserved internal promotions, which will show fans and players alike that the team truly does believe in the ACCOUNTABILITY its management so often preaches.
Thanks for reading.