Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Middle Infield Mash

OK, right now the middle of the Pirate infield, in complete flux coming into the year after the deep-sixing of Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson, looks set with Neil Walker, 25, and Ronny Cedeno, 27.

That leads to a couple of interesting situations. Heirs apparent Brian Bixler and Shelby Ford self destructed, which led the Pirates to go afield and bring in Pedro Ciriaco, 25, and Argenis Diaz, 23, a pair reputed to be great glovers with questionable hitting skills, to man the fort at Indy. Ciriaco hit a respectable .265 in AAA this season, Diaz .248.

Brian Friday, 24, was there, too, a better guy with the stick but not as accomplished with the mitt, considered more of a dependable rather than rangy glove. His bat let him down at Indy, though, as he stroked at just a .257 clip, and he lost a hunk of time to an ankle injury. But to his advantage, he's the only player to accumulate any real time at both second base and short.

Easy enough, you say. One of the trio (probably Ciriaco, who is the toolsiest guy of the bunch) goes to Pittsburgh as the middle infield bench tender, and the other pair form the middle of Indy's defense. This flies in the face of Pirate SOP, but after throwing away money on Chris Gomez, Ramon Vazquez and Bobby Crosby, maybe they'll see the light and scrap the veteran bench fetish.

But here's where it gets complicated. Altoona won the 2010 AA championship, just as Lynchburg won the High A crown in 2009. Jordy Mercer, 24, and Chase d'Arnaud, 23, third and fourth round draftees in 2008, manned the middle for both of those squads and have been moving up a step at time. The next step due is Indy.

Mercer hit .284 for the Curve, and d'Arnaud had a bad year, batting just .247 while battling minor injuries and illness. Still, he was a replacement player on the Eastern League All-Star team, and ended up the MVP.

Not only do you potentially block a couple of future prospects if you keep Mercer and d'Arnaud at Altoona, but you also block Brock Holt, 22, and Josh Harrison, 23, too, gluing them to Bradenton. Brock hit .351 as the starting SS, and Harrison .300, seeing considerable time at second base.

Holt lost most of the year to knee surgery, and Harrison is more a corner guy than middle infielder, so cooling their heels might not hurt in the short term. But you want to keep the conveyor belt moving in the system; a logjam in the middle levels kills development and evaluation for the long run.

So that's one jagged piece of the 2011 jigsaw puzzle that the FO has to piece together. But here's another scenario (or more likely, just a blogger's fantasy):

A new manager comes in, and he's old school NL; his team has to catch the ball. He looks over the charts, and figures out that his current infield can't catch a cold.

Now he could just count on improvement by osmosis for Pedro Alvarez and Walker, and declare Cedeno's spot an open competition among Ronny, Ciriaco, and Diaz. With Steve Pearce back in the fold, he has a guy that can platoon and handle the gateway base in the late innings.

Or he could take a little longer view. Assuming that the Pirates grab Anthony Rendon in the draft, he could decide that rather than wait for him to claim the hot corner in two or three seasons, he could set things in motion now.

He takes a look at Pedro's bulky bod, sees film of Garrett Jones stabbing at pick-off tosses and trying to make throws to second, and pulls up Walker's UZR/150 (-16.8) on the ol' PC.

Suddenly, the Pirate infield is Walker back at third, Cedeno at short (holding off Diaz), Ciriaco at second, and Pedro at first, with Diaz/Friday and Pearce on the bench. Jones goes to right, gets 400 at-bats against righties, and hits .275 with 15 HR and 70 RBI.

Suddenly that BABIP goes from a league worse .321 toward the mean, .305. Those seeing-eye singles turn into DPs. The Pirate ERA drops from 5.00 to 4.50. And guess what - Mercer and d'Arnaud get to go to Indy.

Hey, a blogger can dream, can't he?

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