By Jason Shetler
Entering Spring Training, the Pirates bench looked like an uncertainty. Outside of Chris Stewart returning as the backup catcher and Michael Morse serving in a first base platoon with John Jaso, the decision to bring back Sean Rodriguez was deemed unpopular by most. The Bucs also had Matt Joyce, Jason Rogers, Pedro Florimon and Cole Figueroa competing for the last two bench spots. Joyce was named the fourth outfielder, which really didn’t come as a surprise, while Figueroa beat out both Rogers and Florimon for the final reserve spot.
Because of the Pirates heavy bullpen usage in April, Morse was designated for assignment, and eventually released, so that A.J. Schugel could come up as an extra pitcher. For a short time, Rogers had been called up to be in the platoon at first base with Jaso, but was optioned back to AAA Indianapolis when Jung-Ho Kang returned the first week of May.
Despite the Pirates going with a short bench, the production they’ve gotten has been outstanding. Joyce so far has been the most prolific pinch-hitter in baseball with a .522 on base percentage in that role. Stewart currently has a good walk rate of 9.4%. Defensively, he’s thrown out 29% of baserunners, which is currently better than the combined 23% rate he’s had the last two seasons. Rodriguez has been a huge surprise offensively in the early going, posting a .420 OBP along with a 12% walk rate, which is up a substantial 10% from 2015. David Freese had an OBP of .363 while filling in for Kang at third base. Freese could be used as a weapon against lefty pitching, as he’s put up a career .835 OPS against them. He’ll still be asked to play third once in a while for Kang, as well as platoon with Jaso at first. The Pirates bench was certainly a question mark the first week of March, but it’s now become their biggest strength, and one of the best in baseball.