Bucs' bench allowing regulars to get needed rest

April 24th, 2016

PHOENIX -- Last season, the Pirates became more proactive about taking their everyday hitters out of the starting lineup. Rather than waiting for someone to fall into a slump or sustain an injury, Pittsburgh scheduled days off well in advance and stuck to the plan.

That trend has carried over into this season. David Freese came off the bench Friday. Jordy Mercer had the day off Saturday. Second baseman Josh Harrison was out of Sunday's starting lineup. Andrew McCutchen is the only starting position player who hasn't been given a day off yet.

"We found some definite benefits, measurable benefits, from it last year," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We found some opportunities to tighten it up and tune it up a little bit better for this season."

The Pirates studied NHL teams and the NBA's Golden State Warriors to learn more about resting players. The Warriors, in particular, got more production out of their best players by playing them less.

But that plan won't always help the team if the rested players' replacements can't hold their own. Fortunately for the Pirates, their bench has been up to the task.

Sean Rodriguez started Sunday for the third straight day -- at his third different position, no less. Rodriguez entered the series finale leading the team with three home runs, and he entered Sunday's game with a .412/.565/1.000 batting line in 14 games.

Outfielder Matt Joyce also has provided a boost off the bench, hitting .300/.481/.500 in 17 games. Filling in for catcher Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart is 4-for-12 with a home run in four games.

"It's important. Many times, the bench is the last part of the program that's put together. Since I've been here, we really looked at our bench differently," Hurdle said. "It definitely adds to the ability and enhances your ability to [rest players] proactively."

What about McCutchen? The center fielder is off to a slow start at the plate, but he has yet to take a day off. Last season, when he was playing through a sore knee, McCutchen sat out two of the Bucs' first 16 games.

"His health is in a different place from where it was last year," Hurdle said. "We'll see what the future holds for him. He's in a much different place physically this year than he was last year at this time."

Kang 'making progress'

Third baseman Jung Ho Kang (left leg surgery) recorded the first hit of his Minor League rehab assignment on Saturday. Kang is 1-for-15 with three walks and six strikeouts in four games for Triple-A Indianapolis. On Friday and Saturday, Kang played full games on back-to-back days.

"Jung Ho is making progress. He needs to play," Hurdle said. "He's at a competitive level where he's matching up, seeing spin, seeing plus velocity. He's having to make plays. He's having to play baseball again in the most competitive fashion since he left last season."