Pirates need depth, but what kind?

J. Meric

John Perrotto's new column links the Pirates' apparent lack of quality depth to their lack of experience, an argument I don't buy at all.

When second baseman Neil Walker suffered a herniated disc in his lower back, the Pirates tried to get by with rookie Brock Holt. When Erik Bedard was released and James McDonald’s second-half implosion became so gruesome that he had to be removed from the starting rotation, the Pirates went with rookies Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson as starters.

The 2012 Athletics and their rookie-laden starting rotation notwithstanding, teams don’t usually qualify for the postseason by using unproven players in pressure-packed games.

It's funny -- if I started counting players most responsible for the Pirates' second-half collapse, I'd probably get through all my fingers and all my toes before I got to Brock Holt. I'm not a fan of Holt's long-term potential, but he handled himself just fine last year. And McPherson was downright good. It's a small sample size that doesn't mean a whole lot, of course, but it's so weird to blame McPherson for the Pirates' struggles. In fact, you could make the case -- and about eighty thousand of us did, at the time -- that the Pirates cost themselves at least one game down the stretch by relying on experienced players like Chad Qualls and Daniel McCutchen rather than guys like McPherson.

You might remember that ridiculous extra-inning game -- August 21 in San Diego. Clint Hurdle actually told the press he used Qualls in the eighth because "We’re seeing thing[s] we like to see and we’ve seen it that past when he’s been effective." He then used McCutchen to take the loss in the 10th because "Daniel went through one of those last year"! That's experience, folks. McPherson and Justin Wilson were on a plane back to Indianapolis because they lacked it.

As for the more general point that using "unproven players" in "pressure-packed games" doesn't work, well, Francisco Rodriguez and the 2002 Angels say hi. So do Josh Beckett and the 2003 Marlins. Or Jacoby Ellsbury and the 2007 Red Sox. Or David Price and the 2008 Rays. Or Madison Bumgarner and the 2010 Giants. Or Neftali Feliz and the 2010 Rangers. Or Allen Craig and the 2011 Cardinals.

Blaming young players without thinking about it is easy to do. But for a team like the Pirates, it's so self-defeating to think that way, because the only real alternative is to get more Chad Quallses. Now, Qualls himself probably wasn't quite as bad for the Pirates as some of us made him out to be at the time, but the fact remains that if the Pirates are going to get experienced players so that their young players don't wet the bed in "pressure-packed games," they'll never get to the pressure-packed games in the first place, because, with occasional A.J. Burnett-type exceptions, the types of experienced players the Bucs can afford are guys like Chad Qualls, Ramon Vazquez, Lyle Overbay, and Matt Diaz, who aren't nearly good enough to get them where they need to go.

I'll give Perrotto Jeff Locke, whose lapses in command led to a ton of annoying home runs last year. But to suggest that the problems the Bucs had down the stretch in 2012 had much to do with Brock Holt and with one of the very few guys who actually, legitimately played well down the stretch (McPherson) is just wrong.

... I thought I was done with this, but you know what, I'm not done.

And here is one statistic that most illuminates the Pirates’ lack of depth last season: they hit two pinch-hit home runs in 237 at-bats.

There's no doubt that the 2012 bench could have been better. The problem is that this has very little to do with experience and everything to do with talent (and, well, sample size). Remember Matt Diaz? Remember how awesomely veterany he was, how crafty and gritty and wily and experienceriffic, and how everybody liked him, and the nuggets of wisdom he dispensed to the batboys, and the way he went about his business? Remember how many home runs he had in 216 at bats for the Pirates? Zero. (I was dying for it to be 237 at bats, but alas, no.)

Let's take this game a step further. The Mets and Rockies tied for the most pinch-hit home runs in baseball last year, with 10 apiece. Five of the Mets' pinch-hit homers were hit by a rookie named Jordany Valdespin. And you know how many of the Rockies' pinch-hit homers were hit by players over 26? Two.

As a matter of fact, you know who holds the Pirates' record for most pinch-hit homers in a season? Craig Wilson, who tied a major-league record by hitting seven of them in 2001, as a 24-year-old rookie.

There's no doubt the Pirates could use more depth. But there's no compelling reason to link the problem to experience. The Pirates have tried using experienced depth players, guys like Diaz and Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby. If the players aren't any good, it doesn't work, and it costs more money. If the Pirates are to be successful, they'll need their top players to perform, but they'll also need quality players coming up from Indianapolis, and that includes guys like Holt and McPherson last year, who lacked big-league experience but got the job done, at least for a short time.

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