Back at the start of the season, when there was a debate about whether the Pirates should carry an extra bench bat or an extra bullpen arm, I pointed out that the actual decision consisted of a week’s worth of games. My preference was to carry an extra bullpen arm, figuring that it would be improbable for the starting rotation to begin the season going six innings every time out. The Pirates opted to go with an extra bench bat, allowing them to run a sort of platoon at the corner infield spots.
The move worked out, thanks to the strong start by the pitching staff. But now that Charlie Morton is returning, the Pirates had to send someone down. The player they sent down was Matt Hague.
Hague was the guy I would have sent down. He was the guy I would have sent down at the start of the year had they gone with an extra bullpen spot. The reason isn’t because I think Hague is the worst option of all of the current bench options. It’s the exact opposite, actually. Hague is a guy who I’ve always seen as a starting candidate. He might be a James Loney/Casey Kotchman starter, but he could still have value as a starter.
The Pirates have had slow starts from most of their hitters. The key starts have been Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and Casey McGehee. I wrote yesterday that I think it is too early to send any of the struggling players down based on seven games. But that doesn’t mean it is too early to be concerned, or think about backup plans.
At first base, in theory the platoon of McGehee and Jones should work. McGehee is doing his part, with a .364 average and a .909 OPS against left-handers. Jones, however, is struggling this year, with a .200 average and a .467 OPS, with all of his at-bats against right-handers. That’s down from his career .273 average and .831 OPS against right-handers.
If Jones reverts to his career numbers, and McGehee continues his hot start against left-handers, the platoon will work as expected, and will provide more value than Hague could individually. But if Jones continues to struggle, there would be a problem, as he would be receiving two-thirds of the at-bats in the platoon.
At third base, Pedro Alvarez is off to a slow start, at just 1-for-16 with 10 strikeouts. He’s also been in a platoon situation, splitting time with McGehee, while Hague spent time at first platooning with Jones. Alvarez draws the most concern from fans. Part of that is because his slow start follows a bad year. By comparison, Casey McGehee is also coming off a horrible year, but has silenced those worries with a good start. Some might point to McGehee’s success prior to 2011, but they’d also have to point to the 2010 numbers by Alvarez as a sign that he hasn’t always looked over-matched in the majors.
I’ve been saying that the issues for Alvarez are ones that need to be worked out at the major league level. I’ve never seen a good argument for sending him down. And “look at his numbers” isn’t a good argument. I think you have to look at why the numbers are bad to argue whether he should be sent down or not. Most people just want to send him down in a way to sweep the problem under the carpet. I believe his issues are that the league adjusted to him, and he hasn’t adjusted back. If his issues are adjusting to major league pitching, then I don’t know how facing Triple-A pitchers will help him make that adjustment.
At the same time, Alvarez shouldn’t have an unlimited leash on his major league struggles. If his struggles continue, the Pirates might want to consider sending him down. That shouldn’t happen after one week, but I don’t think they should wait half the season, especially if he continues to look over-matched.
So back to Hague. If Garrett Jones and/or Pedro Alvarez continue to struggle, the Pirates are going to need a starter at one of the corners. And that’s where Hague comes in for me. He’s the best option as a Plan B. If Jones struggles, the Pirates could bring up Hague to be the everyday first baseman, moving McGehee to third to split with Alvarez. If Alvarez struggles, the Pirates could move McGehee to third, move Jones to the bench, and start Hague at first, with Jones also getting some starts.
It was a good call to send Hague down now, as he’s not going to get at-bats in the majors in the double platoon. We saw that in the first week, where Hague got nine at-bats. Meanwhile, most of the starters in Indianapolis received 25-35 at-bats. It won’t kill Hague to lose those extra 15-25 at-bats from week one. But he can’t afford to lose those at-bats going forward. We’re talking about a difference of as much as 100 at-bats per month.
The best option is to keep Hague fresh, and the best way to do that is to have him starting in Triple-A. Then, if Alvarez or Jones continue to struggle after the “small sample size” window closes, it will be time to Free Matt Hague, only this time as a starter.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost their fifth straight game yesterday. Game story here.
**Prospect Watch: Gerrit Cole was hit hard, giving up two homers. In West Virginia, the offense came through again.