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Shelton: Bucs plan to juggle DH duties

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Atlanta Braves Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One of the more intriguing situations to watch unfold as the abbreviated 2020 season plays out will be how the Pirates will approach the designated hitter position.

Colleague Patricia Beninato addressed the topic last week, but now that the Pirates have set their player pool and taxi squad, it’s worth revisiting. Based on comments made by new manager Derek Shelton, the club has no plans to select one player and, er, designate him as the DH. “I don’t see that we would David Ortiz it or Travis Hafner it,” MLB’s Adam Berry quoted Shelton as saying last month.

That would seem to indicate the Pirates-Yasiel Puig nuptials are not to be. That hardly breaks my heart; while Puig certainly has the ability to be an offensive force, I have no stomach for the way he plays the game. In short, you can have him.

So, where does that leave the Bucs in regard to the new DH rule? Shelton indicated that the position would be filled on a rotating basis, with regulars such as Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Colin Moran or even Kevin Newman manning the DH spot on any given day. That will enable bench players such as Guillermo Heredia, Jose Osuna, Erik Gonzalez or Cole Tucker to see time in the field.

That could be a plus overall, as taking defensive liabilities such as Polanco, Moran or Bell off the field and replacing them with better fielders – i.e., Heredia in right, Osuna at first or even third and perhaps even rookie Ke’Bryan Hayes at third – should help the club’s overall performance. That’s certainly a consideration given the depleted starting rotation and a bullpen weakened by the loss of Edgar Santana, who was suspended for the season Sunday after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. I like Josh Bell’s bat as much as the next fan, but unless he’s figured out how to channel Keith Hernandez with the glove, I wouldn’t mind seeing him in the dugout when the Pirates are in the field. I’m guessing most Pirates pitchers might feel the same way.

I’d prefer to see the club write Hayes’ name in the lineup on Opening Day and every day thereafter until he proves he can’t do the job. The same goes for Cole Tucker at shortstop; otherwise this will be a wasted year of development for both players, and neither can afford it. If it means moving Adam Frazier and shifting Newman to second, so be it.

The club certainly has personnel options at its disposal, given the way the 2020 season has lined up. The team unveiled its 60-person player pool Sunday – technically it consisted of 59 players after Santana’s suspension. So perhaps the team is looking to add another player now that the roster freeze has been lifted.

The player pool list includes names I had forgotten even had links to the Pirates – Socrates Brito, Miguel Del Pozo, Phillip Evans and the aforementioned Heredia are the first ones who come to mind. Once I saw those names, I certainly remembered hearing them during the good ol’ days of spring training, but they never registered much of an impression. So, in the interest of education, here’s a brief description of the first three players on that list, courtesy of Baseball Reference:

Brito, 27, is a 6-foot-2, 220-pound left-handed hitting and throwing outfielder who signed a minor league contract with Pittsburgh in December. He has compiled 207 at-bats in 99 games over four seasons in the majors with Arizona and Toronto. In nearly 400 at-bats at Triple-A Buffalo last year, Brito slugged 16 home runs and drove in 67 with an .838 OPS. His numbers at the big-league level are far less impressive; he owns a .179 career batting average, a .216 on-base percentage and a .525 OPS. In 12 Grapefruit League games this year, he just about mirrored that OPS (.589) in 25 at-bats.

Evans, 27, is a 5-foot-10, 210-pound right-handed hitting and throwing infielder who put up much better numbers in spring training for the Pirates, hitting .346 with a 1.010 OPS in 26 at-bats. He has far less big-league experience than Brito, coming to the plate just 61 times over two seasons with the Mets (2017-18). He hit .241 with a .606 OPS.

Del Pozo, also 27, is a 6-foot-1, 205-pound left-hander who appeared in six Grapefruit League games, giving up six hits and four earned runs while walking one and striking out 10 in 7 2/3 innings. His only experience in the majors came in 2019 when he appeared in 17 games with the Angels, giving up 11 earned runs in 9 1/3 innings. He walked eight and struck out 11.

In addition to the 40-man roster and the non-roster invitees, the player pool also includes a so-called taxi squad, which features many of the organization’s top 30 prospects, including shortstop Oneil Cruz (No. 3 according to MLB), outfielder Travis Swaggerty (No. 6), outfielder Jared Oliva (No. 9), pitcher Cody Bolton (No. 10), shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae (No. 11), first baseman Mason Martin (No. 15), first baseman Will Craig (No. 19) and pitchers Max Kranick (No. 21) and Aaron Shortridge (No. 27). The taxi squad will train at Altoona’s Peoples Natural Gas Field, but it’s not clear what sort of action those players will see.

The club’s “A” list of players will begin workouts later this week at PNC Park. Wednesday is reporting day, although workouts might not start for another day or two afterward. Opening Day hasn’t yet been set for the Pirates, but all teams will open their 60-game schedules on either July 23 or July 24.

This season will have its share of changes, including the use of a designated runner starting every inning after the ninth at second base. This only applies to the regular season, however. Obviously, the DH coming to the National League will be a major change. Also, the trade deadline, normally set for July 31, will be pushed back a month to Aug. 31.

In terms of roster composition, teams will be permitted to carry 30 players for the opening two weeks, then 28 for two weeks before settling at 26 for the rest of the way. As for changes made to address COVID-19 issues, players, coaches and support staff will be tested every other day during the training phase as well as the regular season and postseason. Social distancing will be encouraged on the field and off, and players and team personnel not in the game will sit in the stands, at least six feet apart.