The lineup that the Pirates put on the field tonight may have been their best lineup of the season. If you look at the upside of each of the players, the lineup looks well from top to bottom. In fact, taking an upside approach, you could argue that the lineup is one piece away from doing some serious damage.
At the leadoff spot you’ve got Jose Tabata. He struggled to start the year, but has been on a roll lately. Tabata had a .320/.358/.460 line in his last 50 at-bats prior to going 1-for-3 tonight. He’s a good leadoff guy, although he’s been a streaky hitter in the past, so there’s a chance that we could see him do a 180 on this hot streak.
Batting second was Neil Walker. Walker has lacked consistency throughout his short career, and his power has been down this year, prior to his two run homer tonight. He’s another guy who got off to a slow start, but has been hitting well. After his first seven games, Walker has combined for a .348/.411/.379 line. Over the long haul he will probably settle in closer to his career numbers of a .279 average and a .338 on-base percentage, which are decent numbers for a number two hitter.
Third is where the lineup really picks up, and where the potential comes in to play. Andrew McCutchen has been the best player on the team the last few years. He’s hitting for a .297 average, although his power is down this year. That probably won’t last, and when he’s on his game, he’s a great number three hitter.
Then there’s Pedro Alvarez. His upside is a middle of the order hitter, and his hot streak recently has Pirates fans dreaming that he’s starting to realize that upside. Just like Tabata and Walker, Alvarez got off to a slow start, going 1-for-24 in his first eight games. Since then he’s hit for a .367/.407/.816 line in 49 at-bats, heading in to tonight. Those are ridiculous numbers, and Alvarez can’t possibly maintain that pace. But that’s not saying he can’t hit like a cleanup hitter should hit.
The “one away” comes in this next spot. The Pirates don’t have a strong hitter in the lineup who can provide some protection for Alvarez. Add a good hitter to the mix, and the 3-4-5 of this lineup looks strong. Casey McGehee took that spot tonight. McGehee is doing the exact opposite of Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker. He started out with a .333/.333/.481 lie in 27 at-bats over his first nine games. Since then he’s hit for a .222/.364/.296 line in 27 at-bats. Good news is that he’s walking. Bad news is that he’s not hitting, or hitting for power.
Garrett Jones hit sixth tonight. Jones has put up good numbers this year, coming in to the night with a .290/.318/.516 line. The Pirates entered the season with a platoon of Jones and McGehee at first base, and that platoon looks to be working out on paper. Jones has a .305/.333/.542 line in 59 at-bats against right-handers. McGehee has a .316/.409/.474 line in 19 at-bats against left-handers. Combined they work out in the number five spot, but the lineup goes down hill after that.
If Jones and McGehee are platooning (and neither of them have shown to be good every day options), then Alex Presley is starting. Presley isn’t a number six hitter, which means you’re likely putting him second, and moving Walker to sixth. Walker also hasn’t been much of a six hitter. And that’s where the problem lies. The Pirates need to replace one of their number two hitters with a number five or a number six hitter. Add some protection for Alvarez, and move the Jones/McGehee platoon down to sixth, which is a strong six hitter with the way they’ve been playing this year.
After that you’ve got Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. I’d expect both to return to their numbers from the last few years, although those numbers don’t profile as more than bottom of the lineup hitters.
The key to the lineup is Alvarez. Without him, you’ve got a lineup with no punch, and only one really strong hitter in McCutchen. With Alvarez, you lighten the load on the top of the order hitters, as they get pitched differently with McCutchen and Alvarez playing up to their potential in the 3 and 4 spots.
Because Alvarez is the key, he’s going to need some protection. Otherwise, eventually teams will just pitch around him, taking the bat away from the biggest potential impact bat in the lineup.
This is probably not something that will happen this year. The Pirates don’t have any such hitters in Triple-A right now. They’re unlikely to add outside help, unless that comes at the trade deadline, like it did last year with Derrek Lee. But it’s something they need to think about for the long term, as they’ll need to protect Alvarez if this hot streak turns out to be legit.
Links and Notes
**Prospect Watch: The starting pitchers in the minor league system combined to allow one run in 29 innings tonight.
**I added four new Draft Prospect Trackers, and updated all of the existing trackers with the mid-season information.
**Pirates Notebook: Jeff Karstens is moving in the right direction with his rehab.