Constructing a quality bench at the outset of the season is a tricky proposition. For the most part, a team’s bench is comprised of a bunch of guys that you really hope don’t have to play a whole lot, because that means the ostensibly better starter is hurt or ineffective. Bench guys may make one or two starts a week or see a pinch-hit chance cold off the bench. Guys that are on bench are typically there because they’re not good enough to be starters anymore.
I hope I didn’t hook you in with a click-baity, attention-grabbing headline, because this article is really going to compare the Pirates’ bench to that of the Cubs and Cardinals. The Reds and Brewers are both in the midst of rebuilds and their benches are not meant to be that good. What I’m going to see is how the Pirates stack up against their two competitors for both the division or potentially a wild card spot.
THE BACKUP CATCHERS
Cubs — David Ross. This is kind of cheating a little bit, as Ross is currently the starter while Miguel Montero deals with a bulging disc in his back, but Montero is scheduled to return soon and put Ross back on the bench. Ross is baseball-ancient at 39 and has pretty much been Jon Lester’s personal caddy for the past couple of seasons in Chicago. His batting average is pretty poor at this point, but he gives you a little home run pop for a backup catcher. He’s thrown out 32% of baserunners this year, right around league average, and has been the 11th most successful at pitch framing with +2.8 runs saved.
Pirates — Chris Stewart. Unlike last year when Stewart slap-hit his way to just 8 total extra-base hits (all doubles), Stewart has already kicked in three extra-base hits (2 doubles and 1 home run), while providing a wRC+ of 89. He’s also jumped aboard the On Base Express by nearly tripling his walk rate from last year to 2016’s rate of 9.4%. Stewart is an average framer at +0.3 runs in his limited time and has thrown out runners at a slightly below-average rate of 29%.
Cardinals — Eric Fryer. The one time Pirates’ farmhand had a few cups of coffee with Pittsburgh back in 2011 and 2012, but after a sojourn to Minnesota he’s in St. Louis this year. He’s Yadier Molina’s backup, which means he won’t see much time as long as Molina is healthy. He’s hitting an unsustainable 7 for 12 in limited action, but he’s a no-stick catcher that has thrown out a less-than-league-average number of basestealers in his career.
Verdict — I’m giving the edge to the Cubs because of Ross’s defensive prowess, which seems more sustainable than Stewart’s offensive advantage.
THE MIDDLE INFIELDERS
Cubs — Tommy LaStella. LaStella is off to a white hot start, like virtually every other Cub, with a .362/.444/.660 (1104 OPS, wRC+ 187) line. He’s played mostly 3B this year, but is a 2B by trade. He’ll come back to Earth, like the rest of the Cubs, but it’s hard to ignore this start.
Pirates — Sean Rodriguez. The Pirates really don’t have a true “light-hitting middle infielder”, instead relying on the super-utility nature of Sean Rodriguez to cover a spot start at 2B/SS. Like LaStella, he’s also off to a scorching start with a .341/.420/.705 line with 4 home runs (1125 OPS, wRC+ 197). And like LaStella, he’s also going to regress, but the Pirates are grateful for what’s he provided to date.
Cardinals — Ruben Tejada and Kolten Wong. Poor Ruben. He seems destined to have a snakebit type of career. He had plenty of chances with the Mets and could never put it together. He signed on with the Cards after Jhonny Peralta went out and then promptly got hurt himself, allowing Aledmys Diaz to come in and simply lead all rookies with an absurd .396 average. Tejada has been pretty awful with the bat and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him get released once Peralta returns this summer.
As for Wong, he was rewarded with a nice contract extension this past offseason and has promptly come out in 2016 and been terrible (.209/.295/.254). He’s pretty much confined to 2B and has been supplanted for the time being by Jedd Gyorko, who’s not exactly lighting the league up himself.
Verdict — Only because of more versatility, I’m selecting the Pirates and Rodriguez.
THE CORNER INFIELDERS
Cubs — Javier Baez. The youngest of all the bench guys being discussed in this piece, the 23-year old Baez was a much-hyped prospect that had major strikeout issues a couple of years ago in his ML debut (41.5%) that he’s trimmed down to a more sightly 23.5% this year. He’s morphing into a super-utility guy with power, probably a better long-term version of Sean Rodriguez.
Pirates — David Freese. Freese was a revelation in April, both at the plate and in the field while Kang was rehabbing in the minors. Kang isn’t going to be 100% this year, so Freese will still get starts at 3B and be the right-handed part of the 1B platoon with John Jaso.
Cardinals — Matt Adams. Adams is a good source of power, but has a distinct set of splits against left-handers. He’s a good bench player, but really is just a 1B defensively.
Verdict — There’s a chance that Baez puts up flashier numbers, but for now I’m taking the steady production that the Pirates are getting from Freese.
THE FOURTH OUTFIELDERS
Cubs — Ryan Kalish. Kalish has seen very limited duty and just 8 plate appearances.
Pirates — Matt Joyce. Joyce was hot garbage last year for the Angels, but was a steady performer for the Rays before that. The Pirates took a shot on him for $1M if he made the team on a minor league deal and he did. So far, he has been absolutely fantastic (.351/.500/.730, 1230 OPS, wRC+ 223), especially as a pinch hitter where he already has 2 home runs.
Cardinals — Jeremy Hazelbaker. Only the Cardinals could find a 28-year old career minor leaguer and coax a strong performance out of him. His line of .297/.341/.649 (990 OPS, wRC+ 154) would be surprising, but you know…Cardinals.
Verdict — I know both Joyce and Hazelbaker will be scheduling return trips to Earth soon, but I think Joyce’s performance will be more sustainable for the Pirates.
The bench for the Pirates is the deepest that I can remember. It far outpaces the benches during this mini-renaissance of 2013-present for the Pirates, as it offers positional flexibility, power, pinch hitting ability, and the ability to draw a walk.
I refuse to concede the division to the Cubs in early May, but even if the division is lost by October, I believe that the strong bench will help the Pirates earn a fourth consecutive playoff appearance.