Last season did not yield the results the Pirates were looking for. The core of the offensive struggled for much of the season while the front end of the starting rotation looked pedestrian at best. But there was one area of the team that exceeded expectations to become one of the best in baseball: the Pirates’ bench.
Initially, the bench to begin the roster was a mixture of good and bad. Though part of it was made up of former World Series hero and St. Louis Cardinal David Freese and former All-Star Matt Joyce, wash outs like Cole Figueroa and Michael Morse (gag) made the roster out of Spring Training. Morse was absolute garbage with the Pirates, though one Pirates blog (I won’t name names) insisted in a Twitter feud that he was a good player with the club despite looking like a scrub down the stretch of 2015 and not recording a hit in 8 plate appearances in 2016. After the fat was trimmed from the roster in Figueroa and Morse, the bench really took off in production. Freese and Joyce both hit 13 home runs last season in their platoon roles, but amazingly it was Sean Rodriguez who emerged as the power off the bench. In his best season ever, Sean Rod not only hit a career-high 18 home runs, but he drove in a career-high 56 RBIs. He was able to parlay his success last season by signing a 2 year, $11 million contract with the Atlanta Braves. Unfortunately, Sean Rod will miss the entire 2017 season after sustaining a shoulder injury in a car crash back in January.
While this trio provided the power, rookie Adam Frazier was able to catch on at midseason to become yet another super-utility player at Clint Hurdle’s disposable. The rookie hit .301 in 66 games with the Pirates in 2016, adding a spark the lineup desperately needed. Alen Hanson went back and forth between AAA and the big club, but batted only .226 in 26 games. Pedro Florimon was even worse, hitting .208 in 18 games and was ultimately granted free agency in the offseason. Backup catcher was almost a rotating door at times with four players assuming the role at some point in 2016. Chris Stewart could never find his rhythm last season while Eric Fryer, Erik Kratz and Jacob Stallings, who only had 15 plate appearances, struggled as well.
Despite a few bad eggs, the 2016 Pirates bench was one of the best in baseball. But with Sean Rod and Joyce (signed with the Oakland A’s, for the same 2 yr/$11M) leaving for bigger contracts, the club will be searching for a new spark to give the lineup the necessary jolt it needs. First off, there is no way the Pirates get a similar type of production from their bench this season. No one is going to get close to 18 home runs, not even Freese. Freese is a guy who technically wasn’t a bench guy last year and won’t be able to help in the power department, but he will get on base a lot. After spending much of last season as the starting first basemen, John Jaso will be in a platoon role off the bench to begin 2017. Josh Bell has pretty much been given the first base job this season which is the way it should have been last year. Jaso’s bat was sporadic, to say the least, in 2016 with hot streaks in the beginning and end of the season, while looking pedestrian through the middle part of the year. This season he could see additional work at third base after the first season experiment at first paid off. This is because Freese is scheduled to be the opening day starter at third base, since repeated drunk driver Jung-ho Kang has yet to be allowed to enter America. With Kang on the restricted list, it does open up a spot on the 25-man roster to begin the season.
So with Freese and sometimes Jaso getting the start at third base, who else will make the bench coming out of Bradenton? Stewart is a lock, unless he would get hurt in the next couple of days. Stallings and Elias Diaz are both good options if Stew goes down, but they did not have the spring to push them onto the major league roster. Frazier is basically a lock as well, since the Pirates need a super utility player with Sean Rod gone. Many think Hanson is going to make the club to begin the year, but management hasn’t been too high on the young infielder since he debuted last year. To me, I don’t see where the problem is with Hanson, at least with his production in Spring Training. He’s hit .378 in 37 at bats so far this spring with a OPS of .898. Even with these recent rumblings, Hanson should start the season in the majors coming off the bench.
Now with the Pirates presumably saving five spots on their roster for bench guys, who get the final spot on the 25-man? In my opinion, there is only one guy it should be: Jose Osuna. The 24 year old, who has yet to appear in a major league game, hit .279 with 13 home runs and 69 RBIs split between Altoona and Indianapolis last season. A long shot to make the team in Spring Training, many looked at Osuna as just a minor leaguer waiting to be reassigned elsewhere in camp. However, the rookie has emerged as the talk of Bradenton. Osuna is hitting .436 in 39 at bats this spring while leading the team in home runs (5) and RBIs (14). Not only does he have the hot bat, but he also fills a need with the addition of a true outfielder off the bench. Osuna does play first base as well. If were not to make the roster, guys like Phil Gosselin and Jason Rogers have a shot to make the club, but I see them more as help in AAA.
If I were Hurdle, I would give Osuna a shot to continue his hot bat in April to give the Pirates a spark. The Pirates are going to need all the help they can get at the beginning of the season with Kang out. Neal Huntington could still go out and add a hitter to the roster before Opening Day, but look for Osuna to make the roster out of camp as long as he does not cool down before the team heads north.