Luis Gonzalez: A Bad Fit for the Bench

(UPDATE: A couple hours after I suggested the Pirates might pursue Eric Hinske, a report came out that they are, in fact, doing that. Hinske's defensively challenged, but I like him a lot more than I like Gonzalez; he's younger, more versatile, and a better hitter.)

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Let's assume the Pirates' hitters will be aligned like this. This isn't the alignment I prefer, but is rather my best guess about what the management team wants to do, so let's take this arrangement as a given for now.

STARTERS

C Ryan Doumit, 1B Adam LaRoche, 2B, Freddy Sanchez, SS Jack Wilson, OF Nyjer Morgan (?!), OF Nate McLouth, OF Brandon Moss

BENCH

C Jason Jaramillo, IF Ramon Vazquez, ???

AAA

C Robinzon Diaz, 1B/OF Steve Pearce, OF Andrew McCutchen

Morgan's awful, of course, and shouldn't be starting, but every indication we've received so far is that he will. Management wants Pearce starting in AAA, so we can't use him for one of the outfield bench spots. Diaz might beat out Jaramillo, but that really doesn't matter right now--one will be the backup catcher in the majors, and the other will start in AAA. Either way, catcher is covered, and Vazquez is a good, versatile bench player who should be able to cover second, short and third.

What do you do with the other three bench spots? Ideally, two of these players would be outfielders. Versatility and ability to hit would be desirable traits for all these guys, but particularly in the outfield, since one of your starting outfielders (Moss) is dubious and calling another (Morgan) dubious would be kind. Also, someone who could play first would be nice, since your first baseman doesn't show up until May. Finally, the starter at third could be a problem and you probably don't want Vazquez starting there long-term. (Russell Branyan, who can hit and play all four corners, would have made a ton of sense for the Pirates, and they actually did pursue him, but he signed with the Mariners instead. Oh well.)

Unless your priority is pacifying a fanbase that just can't get enough of gritty old guys like Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Gonzalez doesn't really make sense for the Pirates. He doesn't hit terribly well, he can't play center field or first base (he hasn't played center since 1998 or first since 1998). Right field isn't a possibility either, since he may have the worst outfield arm in the major leagues. For a team with a tenuous outfield situation, it's not good to have a bench spot occupied by a 41-year-old who can only play left field.

The Pirates already have Jeff Salazar, a better, more versatile defensive outfielder and probably Gonzalez' equal as a hitter, signed to a minor league contract. The Pirates should let him have one of the bench spots. They also have Andy Phillips, a good minor-league hitter who can probably fill the Mientkiewicz infield-corners role perfectly well. Phillips can also fill in at second and left in a pinch, and he's a righty, so he can take some at bats against tough lefties away from Adam LaRoche early in the season.

So the smart thing to do, in my opinion, would be to forget about Gonzalez and not worry much about Mientkiewicz. The Pirates have had plenty of veteran leaders over the years--Matt Stairs, Jose Mesa, Matt Morris, Mientkiewicz. These players never seem to have any effect on wins and losses (well, Stairs did, but only because he actually produced), and if they're poorly suited to the team, like Morris was, they cause more problems than they solve. Gonzalez is poorly suited to this team.

If we put Salazar and Phillips in two of the bench spots, there is still one roster spot left for a hitter, probably an outfielder. There are a few viable directions the Pirates could go with this.

1) Suck it up, break the silly payroll limit and sign someone who's actually good, like Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, to a one- or two-year contract. This is the Bucs Dugout-endorsed path to take. It's possible that neither of those players would come to Pittsburgh, but we don't know, because we haven't read any reports that the Pirates have made competitive offers--actually, any offers--to either of these guys. They'd be expensive, but the Bucs could use the Gonzalez money to pay one of them for a month and actually get something back for their investment.

2) Sign someone potentially less expensive than Dunn but capable of contributing and somewhat more versatile than Gonzalez, like Eric Hinske.

3) Make a trade.

4) Start Morgan (or whatever) and sign a couple more guys with some versatility and some smidgen of upside to minor-league contracts. I'm thinking of people like Chip Ambres, who strikes me as pretty obviously good enough to be a major-league bench outfielder.

Unless we are to believe that it is critically important to placate a fanbase more interested in veteran leadership than in winning baseball games, any of the options above would, in my opinion, make more sense than signing Luis Gonzalez.

A hat tip to the commenters in the last Gonzalez thread, who got me thinking harder about this. Like WTM, I really don't understand the way Neal Huntington has constructed major league benches so far.

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