Pirates’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters

We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.

Fresh off 98 wins and a third consecutive post-season appearance, the Pirates enter 2016 with an elite outfield and one of baseball’s preeminent pitch framers behind the dish. But the infield, like the Allegheny that flows just beyond PNC’s walls, is both murky and shallow.

Recovering from surgery to repair a broken leg and torn cartilage, Jung-ho Kang may not return until May, opening up the hot corner to utility infielder and aspiring street fighter, Sean Rodriguez. Posting his second consecutive negative WAR season, Rodriguez is coming off arguably his worst season to-date. He walked at the lowest rate of his career, struck out over a quarter of the time, and ranked below average defensively.

Rodriguez played every position last year except centerfield. When he played third, he was actually quite good defensively. But even given regular ABs, it’s hard to get excited about someone who hits for neither power nor average, doesn’t walk, and who’s stolen only 5 bases over his last 3 seasons. In fact, had Rodriguez ever collided with fellow offensive black hole, Jordy Mercer, we’d have proven the existence of gravitational waves long before last week. Undoubtedly the first to lose at-bats upon Kang’s return, he holds no fantasy value despite his impressive position eligibility.

Backup shortstop, Pedro Florimon, owns a career 0.7 WAR. He’s selective at the plate but struggles to make contact. He also hits too many grounders and has never shown significant pop even in the minors. Once Kang returns, Florimon will likely fall to third string shortstop and possibly off the 25-man roster altogether.

Corner infield/outfielder, Jason Rogers, could be an interesting option in deep leagues if he nestles his way into one of Pittsburgh’s corner positions. Having shown strong plate discipline in the minors, he’s also flashed some pop, launching 24 home runs in 2013 and 18 in 2014. Last year, he posted a .199 ISO between AAA and Milwaukee.

28 years old when the season starts, Rogers is far from a household name. But should an injury befall Starling Marte, John Jaso, or Michael Morse, or should Rodriguez predictably struggle at the hot corner, Rogers could be an intriguing add in deep leagues and OBP formats.

First base appears to be a platoon with Jaso and Morse but Jaso’s injury history and Morse’s competence against righties could make the position fantasy-relevant. Don’t read too much into Jaso’s line against lefties last year; we’re talking about 19 plate appearances vs. a career line of .178/.309/.232 (albeit in just over 200 plate appearances).

Last season aside, Morse has always hit lefties quite well, posting a career 122 wRC+ against them. But he’s no slouch against righties either. As recently as two years ago, Morse hit .293/.346/.458 against them in a park that ranked 2nd worst for home runs as a righty. Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the worst park for righties that year was PNC but nevertheless, Morse has recently shown proficiency against same handed pitchers.

Morse’s rise in strikeouts is certainly alarming but also reveals some intriguing changes in approach. Last season he saw more pitches in the zone but offered at them less frequently than he had at any point since 2011. But he was also far more selective on pitches outside of the zone, swinging at balls about 32% of the time, his lowest rate since 2006. As a result, his strikeout rate jumped by 25% over his career average, likely due to taking more called strikes, but his walk rate increased by 50%. It’s possible we’re witnessing a change in approach from a power hitter entering the latter stages of his career.

Additionally, concerns over being on the wrong side of a platoon, while topical, may be short-sighted. For most of his career, Morse’s handedness splits have actually been less significant than the league average righty.

Mike Morse graphic

As for the production, Morse’s splits were noticeably better away from Marlins Park. He also hit much better in the second half of the season after having missed all of June with a finger injury. While his second half was undoubtedly propped up by a .407 BABIP, that he suddenly turned into a ground ball machine is perhaps more concerning for his future power output. As mentioned, PNC is no picnic for righties and Morse will turn 34 before the season starts but I’m not quite ready to write him off yet.

With Jaso’s injury history, it’s very possible we’ll see Morse take on an expanded role at some point in the season. He’ll never play his way into more plate appearances with his glove, so he’ll have to earn it against righties. While I don’t want him in standard mixed leagues, Morse has value in deep and NL-Only leagues. If he can combine the production we saw in 2014 with his new plate discipline profile, Morse will continue to be the reliably unsexy source of cheap power we all know and tolerate.

Of course, that’s only until Josh Bell joins the big club. With only 145 plate appearances at AAA, Bell will likely start the season in Indianapolis, working on his first base defense. When he does finally get the call, he should become mixed league-relevant provided that the power scouts salivated over in the low minors translates at the upper levels.

Bell brings an advanced approach to the plate, boasting high walk rates while limiting strikeouts. The 23-year old switch hitter struggled against lefties last year but given that he hadn’t shown significant splits in previous seasons, it’s too early to worry about a platoon situation. With payroll always a concern for the budget-minded Bucs, don’t expect to see Bell in Pittsburgh before his service-time constraints allow for it.

We hoped you liked reading Pirates’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters by Rylan Edwards!

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Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

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Maybe I’m being too optimistic but I think Kang will be ready for opening day. The videos he has been posting on Instagram are extremely encouraging and he is, in my unprofessional opinion, looking a lot better than I would have expected this soon after the injury.