As we’ve run through various National League clubs and how they might handle the likely implementation of the universal designated hitter, a common theme has been that many of the league’s better clubs have ample depth that will allow them to piece together a solid DH rotation — even if there isn’t one dedicated masher to whom those at-bats would go.
That’s not the case in Pittsburgh, where a thin roster without much offensive upside is lacking in terms of serviceable DH options. A look at the Pirates’ projected bench at Roster Resource reveals catcher Luke Maile and a series of utility types including JT Riddle, Erik Gonzalez, Jose Osuna and Guillermo Heredia. None of that quintet has been anywhere close to a league-average hitter in his career. Osuna’s career 86 wRC+ leads the pack, and he’s the only one of the bunch who has even managed a .400 slugging percentage (.439). Heredia, meanwhile, is the only one with a career OBP above .300.
However, that doesn’t mean that a universal DH spot wouldn’t give Buccos fans something to watch. The Pirates reportedly explored a possible extension for top prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes earlier this year. There’s already been some thought about a 2020 debut, and with an uncertain minor league climate at the moment, it makes sense to plug Hayes into the lineup if the MLB season is indeed able to get underway.
Hayes shouldn’t see much (or any) time at DH himself, to be clear. He’s regarded as one of the game’s premier defensive prospects, and it just so happens that at his position, third base, the Pirates are in need of an upgrade. Colin Moran turned in an astonishing -21 Defensive Runs Saved, a -8.8 Ultimate Zone Rating and -6 Outs Above Average in just 882 frames at the hot corner. Hayes, on the other hand, received a 65 (on the 20-80 scale) for his defense in MLB.com’s scouting report and a future 70 over at FanGraphs.
Moran would give the Bucs a reasonably competent bat to install at DH. He’s not a prolific slugger, but the lefty’s career 103 wRC+ against right-handers represents a markedly better option than the previously projected bench bats.
Might the Pirates have other options down on the farm? Will Craig, a 2016 first-rounder, had a down year in Triple-A. The first baseman’s right-handed bat would make a natural pairing with Moran, assuming last year’s poor showing against left-handed pitching was more an aberration than the beginning of a downward trend. If Craig is able to bounce back at the plate, perhaps the club would consider giving Josh Bell additional time at DH and playing Craig in the field. Bell rates poorly from a defensive standpoint.
Shortstop Oneil Cruz — whom many project to move to the outfield eventually — receives huge grades on his raw power but has yet to see it manifest in games. He hasn’t played above Double-A yet. Would the Pirates consider bringing him to the big leagues if there are no minor league games played? He’s already on the 40-man roster.. Cole Tucker made his MLB debut in 2019, and while the shortstop is too good a fielder to be considered a primary DH, he’s blocked up the middle by Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier at the moment. The added DH spot could help him get a few more at-bats in the big leagues.
It seems unlikely that the Bucs would go outside the organization unless it’s a very cost-efficient pickup, but even if they stick with what they have, the added DH slot should open the door for some promising youngsters to get their feet wet in the Majors.