Thursday, February 21, 2013

Push For The Pine

It looks like the most spirited competition in camp, at least off the mound, will be for the 2013 bench spots. There are five guys that ride the pine, and three are gimmes at this point: C Mike McKenry, 1B Gaby Sanchez/Garrett Jones, and OF Jose Tabata/Travis Snider.

That leaves two openings, one for a middle infielder and the other for a corner player. Quite a cast is auditioning for those roster slots.

1B Clint Robinson, 28, and OF Jerry Sands, 25, both may have a future in Pittsburgh after putting up sterling AAA lines. But this year, given that they have minor league options to burn and the Pirates have big league options for their positions, both will probably open the year at Indy. They may be part of the Bucco blueprint down the line.

IF Anderson Hernandez, 30, and 3B Jason Goedert, 27, are minor league insurance policies who shouldn't embarrass themselves in any brief MLB stints. And that's their present purpose, to serve as short term stopgaps.

Veteran OF/1B Brad Hawpe, 33, is trying to resurrect his career after an extended layoff, while the thrill is gone from IF Chase d'Arnaud, 26, and 1B Matt Hague, 27.

That leaves returning reserves UT Josh Harrison, 25, and SS Jordy Mercer, 26, and they should be considered frontrunners. Ivan DeJesus, 25, and long-time Tiger Brandon Inge, 35,  are both knocking at the door, though, and could make for an interesting race for 25-man roster claims this spring.

First, they're all pretty similar with the stick, which is to say that's why they're on the bench. Here's their 2012 slashes and their projected 2013 Steamer lines (from Fangraphs):

  • Josh Harrison (.233/.279/.345 - 2012, .254/.296/.374 - Steamer 2013) 
  • Jordy Mercer (.210/.265/..371 - 2012, .231/.282/.350 - Steamer 2013)
  • Brandon Inge (.218/.275/.383 - 2012, .222/.302/.364 - Steamer 2013)
  • Ivan DeJesus (.220/.267/.293 - 2012, .242/..295/.335 - Steamer 2013)

As you can see, there's not much offensive spread (or threat) from the group, at least not enough to separate anyone from the pack, although Harrison does have the edge. The OPS+ are pretty similar - Inge (81), Mercer (76), Harrison (74) and DeJesus (54 - ouch!), all sub-par. Inge wins the WAR wars, too, with a 1.6 in 2012. Mercer had an 0.4, Harrison an 0.3, and DeJesus a -0.2.

D-WAR also breaks in Inge's favor. In 2012, his was 10.1, Mercer's 2.7, Harrison's -0.1 and DeJesus' -0.6.

Judging by the line, it should be a three-way fight for the two spots, with DeJesus' slash and projections making him the odd man out.  But each one has something going for him.

Harrison has been on the roster for two years, and is the kind of high energy, multi-purpose  guy that Clint Hurdle seems comfortable with. Mercer is the only true middle infielder in the group, and he does have some pop in his stick. Inge is a nice gloveman at the hot corner and has a strong split against lefties, making him a perfect caddy for Pedro. DeJesus could make a run with a strong camp; he may just now be at full strength after breaking his leg in 2009 and missing time with a torn muscle in 2012.

And, of course, they all have reasons that they could be sent down. Harrison has improved his fielding greatly, but still is strongest at third; he's below average in range and leather up the middle. Mercer may be better off getting some regular play at Indy to begin the season if he's to compete for a starting spot in 2014. Inge is coming off a season when two teams released him as he descends down the far side of the hill. DeJesus is a proven AAA player (.298/.370/.398 career) but put up those numbers in the hit-happy PCL and western leagues, plus has never quite recovered from his leg injury.

Logistics may play a hand in the decisions, too. All four can be safely sent to the minors, but only Harrison and Mercer are on the 40-man roster. If Inge or DeJesus earn a spot, someone has to go. Inge also, as a MLB free agent signed to a minor league deal, has the right to opt out of his deal on June 1st if he's not on the roster. 

The Bucs haven't really done much to beef up the bench; the heavy hitting will still be done by whichever outfielder/first baseman combo is off that night. Still, they do have some strong glove guys in Mercer & Inge and a proven bench commodity with Harrison. DeJesus is the weakest of the group on paper, but a good spring could earn him a look. It'll be interesting to see what grouping Clint Hurdle prefers. 

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