How the Pirates could fill the DH spot

June 24th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates would have had a designated hitter in their lineup if Opening Day had taken place on March 26 at Tropicana Field, same as they did in Boston in 2017 and in Detroit in ’18. Now, all of their lineups this season will have a DH.

For the first time, the designated hitter will be featured in the National League. That tweak for the 2020 season is part of the health and safety protocols being put in place as Major League Baseball returns.

Speaking with reporters in May, manager Derek Shelton said the Pirates would probably float different players through that spot depending on the composition of their roster, who’s healthy, which pitcher they’re facing, who is a better fit in the field and so on.

“I don’t see that we would David Ortiz it or Travis Hafner it,” Shelton said last month.

In other words, don’t expect one person to be the Pirates’ full-time designated hitter. So what could they do instead? Let’s take a speculative look at four of the Bucs’ options for the DH spot this year.

Rest some regulars
This one’s simple: Give most of the DH days to bat-first regulars who have a natural, experienced backup that might be an upgrade in the field. Right now, it sounds like this is the way Shelton’s leaning.

“What [the DH] does provide, obviously, is having another bat in the lineup that we’ll rotate. And we’ll be able to, instead of maybe [resting] someone that we were going to play in our regular lineup that day, they’ll have the ability to get four or five ABs. And I think that’s extremely important for us,” Shelton said Wednesday on a Zoom call with reporters. “Not planning on going with one person there. We’ll kind of rotate it through.”

When Josh Bell’s the DH, Jose Osuna could start at first base. When Gregory Polanco is the DH, Guillermo Heredia or Jason Martin could start in right field. If Kevin Newman slides into the DH spot, Erik Gonzalez or Cole Tucker move into the lineup at shortstop. If Colin Moran is the DH, Gonzalez or Osuna could handle third base.

By Defensive Runs Saved, the Pirates were the second-worst defensive team in the Majors last season. There’s no doubt that upgrading their glovework is a priority for general manager Ben Cherington, and it showed in his offseason acquisitions of center fielder Jarrod Dyson, outfielder Heredia, utility man JT Riddle and backup catcher Luke Maile. They could continue those efforts by regularly rotating defensive-minded players into the lineup.

Newman (-8 Outs Above Average), Moran (-6 OAA) and Bell (-5 OAA) graded out poorly among their regular starters last year, while Polanco (-3 OAA in 2018) is at least worth monitoring as he returns from the right shoulder injury that sidelined him most of last season.

The prospect play
What if, with rosters likely to be expanded, the Pirates took a shot on Ke’Bryan Hayes at third base?

This might be the most exciting option, as it would lead to the addition of a top prospect -- part of their future core -- while significantly upgrading their defense. They could keep Moran’s left-handed bat in the lineup as the DH or have him back up Bell at first on days when Bell is the DH, and they could take some pressure off young Hayes by having him bat lower in the lineup.

The Pirates planned to send Hayes to Triple-A Indianapolis to start the season, but it will be critical for his development to get some sort of playing time this year. Why not let that happen in the Majors? The slick-fielding third-base prospect enjoyed a second straight strong Spring Training at the plate, and he seems to work well -- as many players do -- with Bucs hitting coach Rick Eckstein.

Perhaps it’s too much, too soon, but it’s certainly something to consider.

Fill the infield
This is somewhat similar to the Hayes plan, but focused more on Tucker. The young shortstop was technically optioned to Triple-A in late March, so before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down, the Pirates seemingly intended to have him start the season in Indianapolis to get regular at-bats.

But there will be 30-man active rosters to start the season, creating room for Tucker in the Majors. Could the Pirates find a way to work him into the infield by mixing and matching Adam Frazier, Newman, Moran and Tucker?

It would require some flexibility and positional versatility. Newman or Tucker would occasionally have to play second on days when Frazier is the DH, and someone -- likely Newman or Tucker -- would have to handle third base when Moran is shuffled to DH.

Tucker isn’t a starter for Pittsburgh now, but he remains an important part of their plan for the future. He needs competitive high-level at-bats. Might as well give him every available opportunity now, right?

Corner configuration
We mentioned earlier that defense was a problem for the Pirates last season. Well, so was hitting for power. They ranked 27th in the Majors with 163 homers, and their .420 slugging percentage was 22nd.

One possible way to fix that: Get more at-bats for the potential power hitters they have on the bench or in Triple-A, namely Osuna and Will Craig, the club's No. 19 prospect per MLB Pipeline. They’re not perfect options, but they’re interesting enough to warrant a longer look.

After producing inconsistently during his first two years in the Majors, the 27-year-old Osuna offset his meager .310 on-base percentage with a .456 slugging percentage last season. He managed to hit 10 homers and 20 doubles in 285 plate appearances last season.

The knock on Craig after two years in the Minors was that he didn’t hit for enough power, but the 2016 first-round pick flipped the script and upped his home run total while dramatically increasing his strikeout rate the past two seasons. Craig hit 20 homers and 30 doubles for Double-A Altoona in '18, then ripped 23 homers and 23 doubles in Triple-A last season while his average and on-base percentage dropped.

Osuna and Craig have somewhat similar defensive profiles. They’re both capable first basemen, and they can both play the outfield with limited range. Osuna worked tirelessly to become serviceable at third base, and Craig regularly manned the position as recently as 2016 before he was moved across the infield.

If they’re looking for more power with a DH in play, perhaps the Pirates could figure out some sort of rotation with Bell, Moran, Polanco, Osuna and Craig.