Under the leadership of GM Neal Huntington and Manager Clint Hurdle, the Pittsburgh Pirates have earned a reputation for deploying their resources in innovative ways. They began their current revival with a two-pronged investment strategy that targeted Latin America and the U.S. Amateur Draft, the latter part of which proved so successful that MLB changed its draft rules because of it. They embraced analytics-driven defensive shifts, signed catcher Russell Martin to an above-market free-agent deal because of his pitch-framing skills, and trusted Pitching Coach/Guru Ray Searage to resuscitate the moribund careers of many pitchers, including A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez, J.A. Happ, Arquimedes Caminero, and others.
Now, the 2016 Pirates are at it again.
With apologies to Juan Nicasio and his 24 strikeouts in 15 innings, the most important development to come out of Pittsburgh's spring training facilities in Bradenton, FLA, involves the configuration of the lineup.
It's impossible to say how long the idea of tinkering with his lineup had been percolating inside Hurdle's head, but it does seem clear that the dominoes began falling around March 11, when the Bucs signed 3B David Freese to a 1-year/$3 mil deal. Freese is the sort of player I would want on my favorite team's postseason roster or my deep-mixed-league fantasy team's bench. He's expected to fill in at third base only until Jung-Ho Kang returns from Injury. Freese's arrival in Pittsburgh, however, triggered a series of moves that should affect the production levels and thus the fantasy values of the Pirates' most prominent players.
In perhaps his boldest move to-date, Hurdle has moved superstar CF Andrew McCutchen into the second spot in the batting order. For most of his career, McCutchen has hit third--exactly where conventional wisdom would place a team's best hitter. Moving up one spot from third to second will have tremendous ramifications--for McCutchen, for his teammates, and for conventional wisdom.
Batting second instead of third, McCutchen could receive an additional 15-20 plate appearances over the course of a season. Furthermore, the circumstances of those at-bats should be more favorable. Rather than coming to the plate with two out and nobody on base in the first inning, McCutchen will bat behind only 1B John Jaso. Putting Jaso and his .361 career OBP in front of McCutchen makes it more likely that McCutchen will bat with a runner on base. Whether or not Jaso reaches base, the rationale for opponents to pitch around McCutchen will be weaker with only one man out. If opponents still choose to avoid the Pirates' best hitter, a healthy McCutchen will have more opportunities to steal bases. In every respect, therefore, McCutchen's move into the 2-hole should benefit him and his fantasy owners.
Whether or not it benefits the team will depend on how others perform. Ultra-talented leftfielder Starling Marte, Pittsburgh's second-best player, appears ticketed for the cleanup role, where his tantalizing combination of power and speed will continue to play, and his extravagant strikeout rate will do less harm than it did when he hit first or second in the order. Marte has a few MVP-caliber seasons in him, and this could be one of them.
For the time being, at least, Freese will occupy the #3 spot, though Jung-ho Kang could hit there on a regular basis once he returns from injury, which should happen by late April. Either way, the spot behind McCutchen and in front of Marte could be the most attractive place in the Pirates' batting order, so fantasy owners should not forget about the rehabbing Kang.
Elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison respond to hitting lower in the order. I continue to believe that Polanco is the most likely of all the Pirates to be traded this summer, but that could change if he takes to the #5 or #6 spot in the order and begins performing as expected.
If all goes well, McCutchen's move into the 2-hole could have a positive impact not only on his own numbers but on those of his teammates, in particular the 5-6 players who will feel the most direct effect of the move. Fantasy owners should pay close attention to this situation in April and keep an eye on what happens when Kang returns.