Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pirate Middle Infield

Well, not much question about who will man the middle for the Buccos in 2012. Newly inked Clint Barmes and Neil Walker are the only two eggs in that particular basket.

Walker came up in 2010 as a utility infielder and ended up the regular second baseman a heartbeat later in one of JR's more inspired moves. The good news is that The Pittsburgh Kid is young (26), profiles nicely for a middle infield bat (.280/24/189 in 286 games), and made some strides in fielding the position.

He still has room to grow, considering he had all of 21 games of minor-league experience at second before being thrown in the fire. His caveat is that he's a candidate to move to his more natural third base position if the opportunity or necessity arises, depending largely on Pedro Alvarez and Casey McGehee's ability to rebound.

More good news is not only is Walker young, but he's an ironman. A throwback player, he needs to be dragged off the field for a day off, and he only had three in 2011.

Shortstop was a different tale. Finally tiring of Ronny Cedno's yo-yo performances, the FO opted for more stability and inked Clint Barmes, who had spent 8 of his 9 MLB seasons in Colorado, and seven of those under Hurdle. Statistically, he doesn't bring a whole lot more to the table than RC did except for consistency - and the trust of his manager.

The 32 year old has put together a line of .252/73/324 with just a .302 OBP. The good news is that he'll bring a superior mitt and a little power to the bottom of the order; the bad news is that he's hit lower than his career average for five of the past six seasons.

Get use to him for the short term; the Bucs inked him to a two year, $10.5M deal, the biggest free agent contract in team history.

In the organization, Chase d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer and Brock Holt have all been groomed as shortstops, and have seen time at second base, too. d'Arnaud has played 290 games at SS and 64 at second, Mercer 278/83 (with 75 games at third) and Brock 126/116, almost an even split. Josh Harrison has also played second regularly in the minors.

Last year's second base backup, the 24 year old Harrison played 152 games at second in the minors along with 161 games at the hot corner. He started five games in Pittsburgh at second, and looked OK in the field while hitting a very quiet .272, quiet because he had a .281 OBP, drawing three walks in 204 PAs. But at least we know that he's not overmatched at the plate, can put a ball in play and runs a little.

d'Arnaud is an exciting player, and was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft. He flies around the sacks and is an accomplished base stealer. It's just getting him on base that's proved troublesome. In his tiny 2011 MLB sampling of 151 PAs, he hit .217 and only had a .248 OBP. His main problem was discipline, proving a sucker for pitches off the dish.

The 24 year old is projected by many as a better second baseman than shortstop, but he only saw three innings at second base in 2011. For all his hops, d'Arnaud was just league average in range and committed 6 errors in 206 innings, not the SS numbers you want behind a pitch-to-contact staff.

He'll probably start 2012 at Indy, getting some at-bats and working on his D. The experience won't hurt; d'Arnaud has only played 70-some games at the AAA level. The 24 year old is still considered to be the shortstop of the future, and is toolsy enough to eventually claim the spot.

There is a very slim chance, since he's also played third and second, that Pittsburgh keeps him on the big team. d'Arnaud is a sparkplug off the bench, but exposed when he's out there every day, and could stand some steady reps at Indy.

Right behind him is Mercer, who was actually taken a round earlier than d'Arnaud in the 2008 draft. Mercer is a better fielder with a strong arm - he was a closer in college - and has some pop with the bat. He's had 30 doubles three years running, and knocked 19 balls out of the yard in 2011, split between Altoona and Indy.

But Mercer has discipline problems at the plate, and his OBP for the Tribe was just .304. He is a streak hitter, too - he had to finish strong to end up with a .239 BA at Indy after a terrible August run. Mercer was added to the 40-man roster during the off season.

Altoona's Holt, 23, may eventually work his way into the mix, too. He has a good bat and an eye at the plate, but profiles more in the field as a second baseman than shortstop. He played his first full professional season this year after being injured in 2010, and hit .289 with a .356 OBP at Altoona. He's a contact hitter who will draw a few walks and steal the occasional base, although he's not a burner.

We may get to see him at Indy in 2012, but if Mercer and d'Arnaud both start there, he could also tread water with the Curve a bit longer.

Brian Friday won't be 26 until December, but he's already been bypassed by the above group. He's a steady defender, puts the ball in play and has a decent eye, but was the utility guy for the Tribe and didn't earn a spot on the 40-man roster.

Our take is that no one in the above group is ready to chase The Pittsburgh Kid or Barmes. We think the likeliest to be kept on the major league roster is Josh Harrison because of the questions surrounding Pedro Alvarez. Who knows if El Toro will even start the year in Pittsburgh?

They also brought in a couple of guys from outside the system to provide some depth. In early December, the Bucs traded with KC for Yamaico Navarro. They sent the Royals RHP Brooks Pounders, who worked out of Class A West Virginia in 2011 (5-5, 3.68 ERA) and infielder Diego Goris, 21, who had spent four seasons playing the Dominican League.

Navarro, 24, is a right-handed batter and has hit .206 for Boston and KC in the past two seasons. In six minor league years, he has a .279 BA and has shown a little pop. Navarro has a strong arm, but his range at shortstop has declined, making second and third stronger positions for him. But his original club, the Red Sox, were grooming him as a utility player, and that's where the Bucs hope he'll make his mark.

They also picked Tigers' minor-league SS Gustavo Nunez in the Rule 5 draft. The 23 year old split 2011 between High-A and Double-A, hitting .276 with 13 doubles, seven triples, five home runs, 26 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 96 minor league games.

Like Pedro Ciriaco before him, he's a leather and wheels guy with an iffy ability to swing a stick. His selection was a bit of a surprise; he's never played Triple-A ball, and has only 34 games at Double-A. On the plus side, he was seen as a prospect and did make the Florida State League All-State team. The big question is whether the Pirates took him too soon, before he's had a chance to develop, as is so often the case with Rule 5 guys.

Both of those players are on the 40-man roster. The FO also brought in Anderson Hernandez on a minor league deal with an invite to camp. The 29 year old switch-hitter has put in 6 seasons with 4 MLB teams so far, playing mostly second and short, and put up a .241 career BA.

Hernandez spent all of 2011 with the Astro's Triple-A club, and like Navarro, he was being groomed for an infield utility spot, splitting time at short, second and third. It's probable that he was brought aboard to provide some insurance at Indy, though it's hard to see how he can do that without disrupting the playing time for the Pirate prospects.

So the middle back-up spot should be fairly wide open. Navarro probably stands the best chance of coming out of camp with the team, but that's not etched in stone. He's had conditioning problems in the past, and so his shape will bear watching when he reports to camp. But it is a much better scenario to have the battle for the backup spot rather than the starter.

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