Can Pittsburgh Pirates maintain depth advantage in 2014?

Sep 24, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Gaby Sanchez is congratulated from outfielder Marlon Byrd after he scores against the Chicago Cubs in the second inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Although Andrew McCutchen (NL MVP) and Francisco Liriano (Comeback Player) performed at award-winning levels, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ success in 2013 was attributable to their overall roster strength as much as their elite talent.

From Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Russell Martin to A.J. Burnett, Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, there were plenty of Pirates who accounted for big plays and wins along the course of a six-month season. Even marginal players like Jose Tabata and Jeanmar Gomez made notable contributions, as is often the case for playoff-bound teams.

Chris Jaffe dug even deeper in an excellent recent post for the Hardball Times, laying out how each of MLB’s 30 clubs fared in the depth department. Using delineations from Baseball-Reference.com, Jaffe measured how much value teams received from non-starting position players and pitchers outside the top five starters and bullpen arms.

Not surprisingly, the Pirates were among the teams with the strongest depth in 2013. Pittsburgh got a total of 36.4 runs above average from its second-stringers, the sixth-best total in MLB. Much of that added value came from the position-player bench, which contributed 36.1 additional runs, or about 3 1/2 extra wins over the course of the season. Only the Red Sox, Indians and Cubs were better in that category.

There is a caveat, however. Platoon players like Garrett Jones, Jordy Mercer and Tabata were included in the Pirates’ bench numbers, even though they were closer to full-time starters at various times of the year. Also, Marlon Byrd‘s outstanding September counts toward depth, since he had just 115 plate appearances in a Pittsburgh uniform.

So Jaffe’s study isn’t perfect, but it’s still quite instructive on what powered the Pirates and other teams, as well as what held back the also-rans. No matter where the line is drawn between first- and second-string players, the 2013 Bucs boasted an enviably balanced roster.

Can they replicate that in 2014? The Monday acquisition of catcher Chris Stewart might be an indication of how the Pirates plan on maintaining their depth advantage. Stewart is probably worth about a win above replacement, but he comes at a minimal cost. Tendering a contract to Travis Snider may also help on the margins, even if the Bucs hope he can be more than just a bat off the bench.

Keeping the starters healthy is also critical to a team’s depth. It’s great to have solid talent available at on short notice, but those guys can get overextended if used too often. Gaby Sanchez may fall into this category, although Pirates general manager Neal Huntington recently indicated he could get the starting first base job next year.

In short, it’s tough to predict how the Pirates’ depth will play out in 2014. All they can do is stockpile players and hope their big boys stay on the field, as they did in 2013.

Topics: Gaby Sanchez, Pittsburgh Pirates, Travis Snider

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  • Jack

    Thanks for another good piece, Matt.

    Well done.

    But I do have my doubts about Chris Stewart’s adding a “win above replacement” after checking out his stats. He’s been an exceedingly weak hitter throughout his 7 seasons. He’s very good defensively and working with pitchers, but I’m not sure that will help much when the score is tied in the bottom of the ninth, and he’s the only pinch hitter left on the bench.

    • Matt Gajtka

      Appreciate the input, Jack. The 1 WAR is an estimate, since we’re still figuring out how to quantify pitch framing, game calling and catcher defense in general. I think the teams are ahead of all of us on the outside when it comes to this.

  • Jack

    Here’s a link to a piece about Chris with lots more positives than I gave him credit for.

    http://fromforbestofederal.com/2013/12/03/getting-to-know-chris-stewart/

  • Rick Eger

    I wasn’t aware of any depth advantage in Pittsburgh.Lose the micro stats they’re getting insane!

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