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What price asset management?

Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Asset management is inevitably a major part of a general manager’s job in major league baseball. Guaranteed contracts plus a myriad of roster rules — most notably the availability of options and the need to get the consent of a five-year veteran for a minor league assignment — can conspire to keep a player in the majors when he doesn’t deserve to be there.

The impact of asset management on the Pirates, though, has been dramatic this year. I don’t think any fan needs to be reminded just how awful the team’s bench has been. The current bench features John Jaso, Jose Osuna, Gift Ngoepe, Alen Hanson and Chris Stewart.

Jaso has put up a pitiful OPS+ of 45 (all stats are through Monday, May 15). What’s more, he’s been forced to play mainly in the outfield, where he’s played a role in the team’s frequent defensive breakdowns. But he’s on a guaranteed contract, so he’s not going anywhere.

Hanson’s been even worse, with an OPS+ of 21. He’s had only 40 plate appearances on a team that has to go deeply into its bench in nearly every game because it’s usually losing. That reflects the manager’s lack of confidence in Hanson. But he’s out of options and once looked like a top prospect, so the team doesn’t want to risk losing him through a waiver claim.

Osuna and Ngoepe are with the team largely by default, as the Pirates lack a major-league-ready right-handed corner bat and an infielder who can catch the ball. They’ve both had their moments, but currently Osuna sports an OPS+ of 87 and Ngoepe, who couldn’t reasonably have been expected to hit much, is outperforming expectations at 76. Still, Osuna is young and Ngoepe is there to play defense. Both have gotten more plate appearances than Hanson, even though they spent part of the young season in the minors, which says a lot about Hanson.

Stewart, of course, could never have been expected to hit much, although his 73 OPS+ isn’t out of line with what you’d expect of a backup catcher. He’s probably not as good defensively as Elias Diaz, and Diaz also probably has the potential to hit a bit more, but Diaz has options and Stewart can’t be sent down. And, of course, Stewart has a guaranteed contract.

It’s not like there aren’t other players the Pirates could try. Chris Bostick is among the International League leaders in OPS and has cut down significantly on his strikeouts. Max Moroff has an alarming strikeout rate, but he’s also among the IL leaders in OPS and he’s tied for the lead in HRs despite missing about a fifth of his team’s games.

The question of why neither Bostick nor Moroff is in the majors becomes especially pointed when you consider that Clint Hurdle clearly has no confidence in Hanson. Hurdle plainly doesn’t believe Hanson is a major league player, yet there he is. It’s not like he’s going to improve while not playing, so what purpose is his presence serving? Speed and defense? If so, what is Ngoepe doing on the team? It’s just clinging to an asset for its own sake, without having any plan to move forward.

The situation actually gets worse with the bullpen. The Pirates’ bullpen currently ranks 10th in the National League in ERA. More unsettling, though, is the ranking in xFIP, which is 13th. Some members of the pen, most notably Tony Watson and to a lesser extent Juan Nicasio, seem to be keeping runs off the board more with smoke and mirrors than anything else. The bullpen also ranks 14th in K/9, so it’s not like there’s any reason to expect them suddenly to start dominating opponents.

The current structure of the pen is even more baffling. Josh Lindblom is strictly a white flag guy, floundering along with an ERA of 9.00 and WHIP of 2.25. He has no options left, although why that would worry anybody is a mystery. Johnny Barbato is also on the team to pitch in long relief. He’s gotten better results than Lindblom, with an ERA of 4.00, but his xFIP is 5.65. But wait . . . Wade LeBlanc, who’s actually pitched well, is also on the team to pitch in long relief. That’s three long relievers. And Daniel Hudson, who was supposed to be the main setup reliever, has been so bad that he can’t sensibly be used in a close game, as Hurdle found out in the last Arizona game. But Hudson is in the first year of a two-year, guaranteed contract and he can’t be optioned, so he’s not going anywhere, at least not without a mystery injury. But the Pirates already have one mystery injury case in extended spring training in Antonio Bastardo. It might not be a good idea to tempt anybody to start asking questions.

Anyway, that’s four relievers out of seven who aren’t suited to late-inning, short relief roles. When Hurdle was forced to use LeBlanc in that role, it cost the Pirates a lead. And there’s still the fact that Watson has been extremely shaky and Nicasio a little shaky. And the team’s one reliable reliever, Felipe Rivero, is sometimes unavailable because he has to be used whenever possible in close games.

Again, it’s not like there aren’t other options. Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas are both pitching very well in AAA and both clearly have much higher ceilings than anybody in the current bullpen except Rivero and arguably Nicasio. So why aren’t they in the majors? This is an even bigger mystery than the bench, because Barbato can be optioned and Lindblom is just a AAA depth guy whose loss (which probably wouldn’t even happen) shouldn’t bother anybody. But the Pirates seem obsessed with filling specific roles, to the exclusion of having good players. Trevor Williams and Tyler Glasnow are both extreme meltdown candidates in every start. The idea evidently is that the team needs a host of long relievers to pitch in games that most of the time are going to be already beyond hope. That leaves no room for pitchers who might be needed in games that the team might actually win. The Pirates seem more concerned with filling theoretical slots (Barbato and Lindblom) and conserving assets (Hudson and Lindblom) than with winning.

So various factors are conspiring to keep players on the team who aren’t helping it, while keeping players who might help the team in the minors. Meanwhile, the Pirates are in danger of seeing their season effectively end long before the All-Star break. But they’ll be leading the league in protecting their assets.