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Breaking down the Pirates' lineup construction

@adamdberry
March 7, 2020

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before Grapefruit League games began two weeks ago, Pirates manager Derek Shelton told his players that they might find their names all over the lineup card. Sometimes the coaching staff wants to test a few hitters against a certain type of pitcher. Sometimes they push players, especially

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before Grapefruit League games began two weeks ago, Pirates manager Derek Shelton told his players that they might find their names all over the lineup card.

Sometimes the coaching staff wants to test a few hitters against a certain type of pitcher. Sometimes they push players, especially veterans, up in the lineup to get them guaranteed at-bats early in games. Sometimes they mix and match, bouncing hitters around to see what works as they prepare for Opening Day.

So, don’t read too much into the configuration of any particular Spring Training batting order just yet.

“It’s more of an experiment-type thing,” Shelton said. “With the exception of [Bryan] Reynolds, pretty much, most of them have bounced around, so we’ll continue to do it.”

Last summer, the Pirates eventually found a top of the order that they liked: Kevin Newman batting leadoff, Bryan Reynolds second, Starling Marte third and Josh Bell in the cleanup spot. With Marte now in Arizona, there’s a void to fill in the No. 3 spot -- and given the Pirates’ general lack of power, it’ll be important to put people on base in front of Bell.

“I feel like [Shelton is] going to have a lot of fun deciding who’s going to be his top three guys,” Bell said. “You can mix and match different ways. That’s in his hands. It’ll be fun to play behind, for sure. I know I’m going to be able to drive in some more runs this year.”

Let’s take a look at some options for the first five spots in the lineup.

Leadoff
Likely candidates:
Kevin Newman, Adam Frazier, Jarrod Dyson
Newman did the job well last season, hitting .308 with an .800 OPS and 16 stolen bases as a rookie. He’s been a leadoff man for most of his baseball life, and he has the attributes -- a high average, a little power, speed on the bases -- that teams look for in such a role. Plus, he’s comfortable batting first.

“Just be getting up there and trying to compete,” Newman said. “I get a chance to set the tempo, which I really like -- a chance to lead the game off with a knock, which is cool, get on for the guys behind me and just set the tone.”

Frazier started in the leadoff spot more often than Newman last season, and he’s hit there more than anywhere else -- in the Majors, Minors and before his professional career began. Then there’s Dyson, who has hit atop the order in a handful of games this spring. The veteran center fielder has the speed and stolen-base ability of an old-school leadoff hitter, but he hit .230 with a .313 on-base percentage for the D-backs last year. The Pirates likely will want a more consistent on-base threat in front of Bell.

Second
Likely candidate:
Bryan Reynolds
Old-school lineup construction often placed a contact hitter in the No. 2 spot, someone who could make contact, drop bunts and move runners. But modern analysis has shown that position to be the most important in the batting order and, therefore, the ideal spot for a club’s best hitter with the most on-base ability. That’s why the Angels, for instance, had Mike Trout bat second 133 times last season.

It seems like the right spot for Reynolds, who started 93 games in the two-hole during his remarkable rookie season while slashing .314/.377/.503 overall on the year. He’s been hitting there this spring, too. But if Shelton ever wants to bump Reynolds down to third or give him a day off, Newman and Frazier would be viable options for all the same reasons they’ve hit leadoff so often.

“I’m comfortable hitting second,” Reynolds said. “I’ve got Newman or Frazier, whoever’s leading off, in front of me getting on base and putting together good at-bats. I’ve got guys behind me who will drive me in. That’s a comfortable spot for me.”

Third
Likely candidates:
Frazier, Gregory Polanco, Newman
This is where it gets interesting. Marte was the Pirates’ most frequently used No. 3 hitter last season, starting 90 games there, with Polanco (21 starts) and Colin Moran (13) occasionally mixed in to bat in front of Bell.

If Newman and Reynolds remain the one-two punch atop the order, this might be a spot for Frazier. Shelton has touted Frazier’s ability to bat anywhere, and it’s worth noting that the lefty-hitting second baseman has started at least four games in every spot in the lineup except fourth.

“Each spot really brings different situations -- more RBI opportunities in some spots than others -- but it doesn’t matter to me,” Frazier said.

With his career .342 on-base percentage, Frazier might be the Bucs’ next-best bet to put runners in scoring position when Bell comes to the plate. If Frazier is in the leadoff spot, it’s hard to imagine Newman dropping lower than third. Or perhaps the Pirates would consider moving Polanco in front of Bell, where he most often hit upon returning to the lineup late last April.

Cleanup
Likely candidate:
Bell
In an optimized lineup, the best hitter with power usually finds his way into the fourth spot. That would be Bell, who hit cleanup 140 times last season. The switch-hitting slugger crushed 37 homers, drove in 116 runs and slashed .277/.367/.569 a year ago. He’s shown signs this week that he’s already finding his timing, reaching base safely in six straight games.

Why mess with a good thing, right?

“It just always seemed like there was someone in scoring position for me with the guys who were hitting in front of me last year, especially with less than two outs,” Bell said. “Guys would get to starters early then just put me in a good scenario for success.”

Fifth
Likely candidates:
Polanco, Frazier, Moran/José Osuna
Batting fifth behind Bell on Saturday afternoon, Polanco doubled twice and walked during the Pirates’ 7-4 loss to the Yankees at LECOM Park. The last time he was totally healthy, Pittsburgh’s right fielder hit 23 homers, drove in 81 runs and posted an adjusted OPS+ that was 28 percent better than the league average.

“The consistency of his at-bats, the way he’s run the bases, everything he’s done has really stood out in a really positive way,” Shelton said of Polanco.

If he returns to his power-hitting 2018 form, it might make sense to have Polanco protect Bell to start the season. If he bats third, their other options likely include Frazier (if he’s not in one of the top three spots) or third-base candidates Moran and Osuna.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.