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Mark Madden

Mark Madden: Hard to win when Pirates won't play best players

| Saturday, June 2, 2018, 7:42 p.m.
The Pirates' Austin Meadows rounds third base after hitting a tying home run against the Cardinals on June 2, 2018 in St. Louis, Mo.
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The Pirates' Austin Meadows rounds third base after hitting a tying home run against the Cardinals on June 2, 2018 in St. Louis, Mo.

Sean Rodriguez is hitting .172. Last season, he hit .168 after the Pirates inexplicably reacquired him from Atlanta.

He has somehow started 21 of the Pirates' 58 games.

How is that possible? What is a bum like Rodriguez even doing on the roster, let alone starting 36 percent of the Pirates' games?

It gets even better: Sean Rodriguez bobble-head night is June 23 at PNC Park. A .172 hitter gets his own promotion night. Why, because he beat up a water cooler in 2015? That might be the last time Rodriguez made solid contact.

Rodriguez is often a late-inning replacement. Witness Thursday at St. Louis, when he entered the game as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning, then played third base and made an error smack-dab in the middle of the Cardinals' five-run ninth-inning rally that gave them a 10-8 victory. Or Friday at St. Louis, when he entered the game at second base in the seventh and immediately fumbled a double-play ball into a mere force play.

Rodriguez should be DFA'd.

At best, he should be treated like the 25th man on the active roster that he is and used very sparingly.

Instead, he will probably continue to start 36 percent of the Pirates' games. He has appeared in 43 games (74 percent). Maybe that's the only way to justify paying Rodriguez $5.75 million.

That's right, Rodriguez is getting paid $5.75 million to hit .172. He's the Pirates' sixth-highest-paid player.

Stooges and fanboys will drum up convenient reasons — or advanced metrics, which are often the same thing — to justify Rodriguez' presence and playing time.

But Rodriguez' slash line is .172/.287/.333, vile by any standard and ranking 15th/13th/15th among non-pitchers on the Pirates.

Rodriguez' versatility makes him a Swiss Army knife with a bunch of dull blades.

Why won't manager Clint Hurdle just play his best players as often as injury and fatigue permit?

Hurdle is like a Little League coach who wants to never get a phone call from an irate parent. Mom and Dad Rodriguez can't say their son doesn't get a fair shot.

Gregory Polanco stinks. His slash line: .214/.318/.428. It's rotten. He's got a team-best eight home runs but hit five of those in the first 11 games.

Going into Thursday's series opener at St. Louis, rookie phenom Austin Meadows had 10 hits in his last 22 at-bats, with four home runs. Polanco had zero hits in his last 22 at-bats.

Yet, Polanco started Thursday and Friday. Meadows sat.

Polanco got four hits in those two games, but that doesn't justify. That's dumb luck, a hunch coming through.

St. Louis' starter Thursday, Jack Flaherty, throws right. Both Meadows and Polanco hit left. Each had minimal MLB experience against Flaherty: Polanco was 0 for 3, Meadows 0 for 1.

Miles Mikolas started for the Cardinals on Friday. He also throws right. Polanco had been 0 for 5 vs. Mikolas, Meadows 2 for 2.

If drilling down deeper can logically explain starting Polanco over Meadows, it's not easily found. The decision smacks of randomness or placating.

Meadows started Saturday. He hit a tying home run in the ninth, his fifth round-tripper in 47 at-bats. That wasn't dumb luck.

MLB is a long season. But for the Pirates, it really isn't.

The Pirates don't have the kind of team to claw back from a deficit and snatch a playoff berth. They can't afford to run a marathon. The Pirates have to run a series of sprints and win a lot of them.

Meadows should be in the lineup every night until he stops hitting. If that's at Polanco's expense, so be it.

Rodriguez should never be in the lineup unless injury severely depletes Hurdle's choices.

Nick Kingham should stick in the Pirates' rotation until proving he's not capable. If that's at Ivan Nova's expense, so much the better. You can flip Nova over. He's done on this side. The month of May was not kind.

Don't worry about Polanco's career, or Nova's. That takes care of itself in the long run.

Play your best players.

After being emasculated by Chicago on Monday and that disastrous loss at St. Louis Thursday, it won't matter much longer. But until it doesn't, play your best players.

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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