Kovacevic: A lineup best written in pencil
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BRADENTON, Fla. — Clint Hurdle won't divulge the Pirates' opening day lineup until a few hours before the April 1 first pitch against the Cubs. Still, it's not hard to piece together how the puzzle might play out from the many signs available here at spring training, not least of which are clear hints from the manager himself.
That's my guess for Hurdle's first card over there to the right.
What do you think?
See anything you'd change?
Yeah, I'll bet. There isn't much in life that any baseball lover relishes more than a robust lineup debate.
In fact, I'll offer my own lineup idea here, as well as asking the athletes their own preferences …
1. Jose Tabata, RF
Neal Huntington reiterated this week that right field remains Travis Snider's “job to lose,” presumably because of that one home run in 128 at-bats Snider slugged after being acquired from the Blue Jays last summer.
Sorry, no. This isn't the time to justify the lousy deadline deals of 2012.
Tabata's made mistakes, but give credit where due: No one showed up for this camp in better shape and with a better attitude. And he has more natural talent than most, including the on-base skill set you'd seek at the top.
Tabata's choice: “Leadoff. Always.”
2. Starling Marte, LF
He's been management's stated choice for leadoff all offseason, but it's an unnecessary load to add to his first full season.
Not to mention, it might be a bad fit: Marte is the freest of swingers, anything but a pure on-base guy. Asking him to alter his game risks burying his many positives.
I asked Hurdle how rigidly he'll weigh on-base percentage at the top and found his reply potentially telling: “You're looking for guys with a history of getting on, guys who can grind out an at-bat. I also like the idea of a guy in the second spot whose OBP might be down but he's got some barrel to the bat and can drive a runner in from first.”
Marte's choice: “No. 2. I get to see some pitches first.”
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
McCutchen's choice: “Third. Because that's where I was last year.”
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
This is illogical on its face. Alvarez is a .131 hitter at cleanup, with two home runs in 122 at-bats. At fifth and sixth, he bats .272 and .263, respectively.
Actually, this is flat-out stupid on its face.
But there's more upside for the Pirates to push Alvarez into cleanup because there's so much more upside for the offense if a now-proven 30-home-run guy can deliver.
That time is now.
Alvarez's choice: “Anywhere, 1 through 9. I just want to be in there.”
5. Neil Walker, 2B
He'll hit anywhere, and all his split stats show he'll hit in any situation, with career marks of .251 with bases empty, .319 with runners aboard. Keep that bat in the thick of things.
Walker's choice: “Fifth. Get me up there with some men on base.”
6. Garrett Jones, 1B
There are so many places he could fit with his potent stroke and 27 home runs last season … if he could ever solve southpaws. But being that he'll likely split time between first and right and share duty with Gaby Sanchez at the former, sixth feels about right.
Note this, too: He's spent half his career at-bats at cleanup, but his .259 average there is an exact match for his average here.
Jones' choice: “I'd say 4 or 5. I really like cleanup.”
7. Russell Martin, C
His on-base skills are far better than his career-low .211 batting average with the Yankees last season, which is the only reason Hurdle openly discusses having him at No. 2.
I'd rather see Martin earn that with at least a little hitting.
Moreover, a decent on-base percentage wouldn't hurt this team's bottom of the order, which forfeited entire innings night after night all through 2012.
Martin's choice: “Fifth. Because that's where I'm batting today.”
8. Clint Barmes, SS
Awful as he was in the first half at .204, he hit .257 — closer to the career norm — after the break. If he replicates that in 2013, coupled with Martin's walks, these spots will do more than set up the pitcher whiffing.
Barmes' choice: “No. 2 when I'm going well. Clint's challenged me to shoot for No. 2. But if I swing like I did early last year, obviously, I don't deserve a sniff of that.”
Hey, Tike Redman didn't deserve a sniff of batting third, either. But someone with a spreadsheet — and probably a sick sense of humor — once won that lineup debate.
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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