Here's the Pirates' lineup for this evening's Wild Card Game.
Gregory Polanco RF
Josh Harrison 3B
Andrew McCutchen CF
Starling Marte LF
Francisco Cervelli C
Neil Walker 2B
Jordy Mercer SS
Sean Rodriguez 1B
Gerrit Cole P
None of the first seven slots are all that surprising. I suppose it wasn't a guarantee that Harrison would start, but it became pretty obvious he was going to after Clint Hurdle spoke highly of him yesterday.
The one eyebrow-raising decision is Rodriguez. In general, I don't like the idea of Rodriguez starting at first any more than you do. He's a terrible hitter. But let's see how this plays out in practice -- this gambit limits the Pirates offensively on a night in which runs will be hard to come by, but it will also limit the damage their butcher of a regular first baseman can do with his glove. The Bucs' strategy might go something like this.
Scenario A: The Pirates get to Jake Arrieta early and have a 3-0 lead in the third.
Result: Rodriguez stays in the game as a sort of all-night defensive replacement; the Pirates don't risk Pedro Alvarez starting a Cubs rally with an error or two at first base.
Scenario B: Neither the Pirates nor the Cubs score the first time through the order, and it's 0-0 through three.
Result: The Pirates begin entertaining the idea of using Alvarez as a pinch-hitter almost immediately, and certainly have him pinch-hit for Rodriguez if Rodriguez is due to come to the plate when there's an opportunity to score.
Scenario C: The Cubs get to Gerrit Cole early and have a 3-0 lead in the third.
Result: Alvarez's defense no longer tops the Pirates' list of concerns, and he pinch-hits for Rodriguez or someone else at the earliest possible opportunity.
In other words, there will be lots of ways for Alvarez to get involved here, and depending on when he pinch-hits, they might be able to ensure that he comes to the plate at a critical moment. Meanwhile, they reduce the possible impact of his defense if they're able to get out to an early lead. The Pirates will, I hope, treat Rodriguez as a defense-first player and remove him quickly if it becomes clear they need offense from the eighth spot.
Of course, the question is why, if the Pirates were going to go this route, they didn't just have Aramis Ramirez play first instead of Rodriguez, but they might feel that Rodriguez is more experienced and more likely to be steady at first. Given Ramirez's lack of game experience at the position and the quality of Rodriguez's defense there, that seems reasonable. Rodriguez is probably a better defender than Michael Morse as well.
This isn't the direction I would have gone, but now that the Pirates have chosen it, I think there are ways for it to work out in their favor. We'll see how it plays out.