Positional versatility is something that the Pirates have taken advantage of quite a bit over the past few seasons. There have been attempts in the past to quantify the value of positional versatility for a single player; check out articles from the Hardball Times about Ben Zobrist and from BP on some formal research into the subject (which I am admitting I didn’t read). I’m going to make no such quantitative attempt here, however, and just discuss in more general terms how positional versatility has benefited the Pirates. Guys like McCutchen and Marte have been mainstays in their respective spots near the North Side Notch and catchers aren’t exactly super versatile, but everyone else? It seems like sometimes the Pirates don’t have a 2B, 3B, or SS, but just a bunch of spots in their lineup for Utility, like my fantasy baseball team. Such versatility has really helped them get through some injuries, though (despite their best efforts to avoid them).
A lot of this starts with Josh Harrison, who grades out as an above average defender at both 2B and 3B by UZR/150, and can also play SS and some outfield (where he’s admittedly worse than he is at 2B/3B). Last year, when Josh Harrison needed surgery for a thumb injury, Kang simply jumped into his role at third and really made the most of it. When Jordy Mercer got hurt two weeks later? Kang simply slid over to short and they traded for Aramis Ramirez to play third. When Mercer and Harrison finally returned, Kang got hurt, but the Buccos had the guys to plug the various positions. Harrison even played a handful of games in left and right last year to fill in at various points for stuggling/injured Polanco/Marte (although his UZR/150 in the outfield isn’t exactly great). And don’t forget about the people’s champ Sean Rodriguez, and infielder by trade who can fill in at basically any position in the infield or outfield and can make some pretty nice plays even in the outfield.
So how does this impact the Pirates in 2016? The revamped infield no longer includes Neil Walker, who has only played at 2nd base since the 2010 season and played 98.4% of his innings in the field with the Pirates at 2nd, and Pedro Alvarez, who didn’t really belong anywhere in the infield. Replacing Walker with Harrison allows for flexibility, as Harrison could move somewhere else on the field in the event of an injury and Alen Hanson could be used to fill in at second. Meanwhile, Jaso/Morse (who were traded for each other at one point, I wonder if they’ve chatted about that) at first at least gives flexibility in terms of the platoon advantage. The Pirates also think they can turn anyone into a first baseman, so David Freese could potentially end up there if he’s hitting well and the Pirates need a spot for him. Furthermore, Jason Rogers is also in the mix as a 1B/3B, so there are a lot of options there. For the left side of the infield, the Kang/Mercer/Freese carousel will likely turn all season once Kang is healthy, with pinches of Harrison and SeanRod mixed in for good measure. Whoever has the hot hand at the plate will likely end up getting the majority of the starts, and it seems likely that Mercer will be the odd man out. Pat has a great post over at WHYGAVS about Mercer, and I think the most notable part is that Kang’s limited range at short is mitigated by putting defenders with plus range on either side of him (Harrison and Freese), which is much more than he had last year with Walker and old man Aramis Ramirez. This makes it much more palatable to put Mercer on the bench if he isn’t hitting, move Kang to SS, and put whatever combination of Harrison/Hanson/Freese/Rogers that are hitting well at 2B and 3B. And Harrison could also slide into RF to fill in for Polanco if he isn’t hitting well and Matt Joyce doesn’t pan out for one reason or another.
The upshot of all of this is that the Pirates have a ton of versatility and can really move guys around the diamond to optimize their lineup offensively without sacrificing too much defensively. Despite their best efforts, the Pirates can’t prevent all injuries and being able to seamlessly slide guys around the field like one of those sliding number puzzles allows for them to optimize their lineup as best as they can in the face of injuries.
I suspect that rostering players with some degree of positional versatility is intentional on the part of the front office and is one of those tiny advantages that they seek out to try to gain the upper hand on other clubs. In my opinion, it’s working pretty well and really saved their asses last year when they saw a bunch of injuries in the infield; 2016 will likely see injuries at some point and the Pirates’ players’ positional versatility makes them well-suited to weather nearly any storm.