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Inbox: Marte the answer at leadoff for Bucs?

Beat reporter Adam Berry answers questions from fans
April 23, 2018

What would you do at second base and in the leadoff spot? I like Sean Rodriguez a lot, glad to have him back, but I don't know if I want him batting leadoff for the Buccos. -- Mark G., Bradenton, Fla.Since Josh Harrison went down, the Pirates have used Adam

What would you do at second base and in the leadoff spot? I like Sean Rodriguez a lot, glad to have him back, but I don't know if I want him batting leadoff for the Buccos.
-- Mark G., Bradenton, Fla.

Since Josh Harrison went down, the Pirates have used Adam Frazier in the leadoff spot four times and Rodriguez three times. Max Moroff also got one start at second base, batting eighth, last Wednesday.
When he's hitting, Frazier is the Bucs' preferred leadoff man without Harrison. The challenge is that Frazier has struggled to a .561 OPS so far, and Rodriguez and Moroff are better defensive infielders. While Rodriguez tends to crush left-handed pitching, he's still not a prototypical leadoff hitter.
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I'd say they should continue to mix and match at second base, looking for the right opportunities to use Rodriguez and Moroff. Ideally, Frazier will get on track at the plate and answer both questions. (Remember, he slumped to end the first half last season, then batted .304 with an .822 OPS following the All-Star break.) But for now, why not give Starling Marte another shot in the leadoff spot?
It's generally a good idea to give your best hitters more plate appearances, and Marte has added patience -- 12 walks, with a career-best 12.5 percent walk rate -- to his usual blend of average (.274), power (.202 ISO) and speed (seven steals). The challenge in moving Marte is filling the spot he now occupies.
Marte has hit third the past 20 games, a fixture there against right-handers and lefties, so the Pirates would have to move up someone (Dickerson, perhaps) and shuffle the rest of the lineup accordingly. They also could consider moving Dickerson, who often hit first for the Rays last season, into the leadoff spot on occasion.
The other important thing to remember here? No matter who bats where, runs are going to be hard to come by when most of the lineup is slumping at the same time. And over the past week, three hitters with at least 10 at-bats -- Elias Diaz, Rodriguez and Marte -- posted an on-base percentage higher than .300.
The Bucs' lineup might not be as productive as it was the first two weeks of the season, when they slashed a collective .278/.353/.479 and won nine of their first 12 games. They're also not as bad as they've been the past 10 days, slashing just .209/.265/.313 with 17 of their 27 runs coming in two games. I'm all for optimizing, but not overreacting.
What can the Pirates do to fix their middle-relief woes?
-- Alan P., Youngstown, Ohio

They've already taken two strides in that direction by calling up right-hander Kyle Crick, who's looked good after a rough spring, and claiming lefty Enny Romero from the Nationals. They should get more help soon from right-hander A.J. Schugel, who is on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis. Schugel was quietly effective as a versatile middle reliever over the past two years.
It will also help when right-hander Joe Musgrove is healthy enough to start. His return to the rotation likely will bump Steven Brault back to the bullpen, giving manager Clint Hurdle another pitcher he can trust in higher-leverage, multi-inning situations. Pittsburgh's bullpen has a 5.23 ERA, fourth highest in the National League entering Monday, and a 1.49 WHIP that's tied with the Reds for second worst in the NL.
I have been super high on Taylor Hearn since he was acquired in the Mark Melancon trade. Do the Pirates see him as a future starter or a setup man/closer?
-- Zac S., Moundsville, W.Va.

It's hard not to like Hearn, Pittsburgh's No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline. He's got premium fastball velocity, a changeup that doesn't get enough credit and an improving slider. The Pirates have clearly liked Hearn for some time, as they drafted him out of high school in 2012 before finally acquiring him along with Felipe Vazquez in the Melancon deal.
The Bucs are going to give the 23-year-old every chance to prove he's a starter. Hearn is currently in the rotation for Double-A Altoona, where he's posted a 3.45 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP and 16 strikeouts with five walks in 15 2/3 innings over three starts. The lower walk rate is encouraging, as his control has been the divisive issue in the starter-or-reliever debate.
Hearn will have to continue to show enough control so that he can pitch deep into games, because he has the arsenal to start. But you're also correct that, if he doesn't make it as a starter, he could develop into a nasty late-inning reliever -- kind of like that lefty he was acquired with.

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