The Pirates have signed utility infielder/outfielder Brandon Inge to a minor league contract with an invite to Spring Training, making the former Tiger the 61st player in camp.
While Inge is likely to compete with Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison and Ivan De Jesus Jr for a bench role for the club/begin the year at Triple-A, Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects noted Inge’s platoon splits and mentioned that Gaby Sanchez is the clubs only real platoon option – and he’s going to share time with Garrett Jones at first base. The Bucs have very few non-roster invitees that have a realistic shot at making the club, especially out of the hitters that have received an invite to Spring Training, and I would rank Inge as the favorite of the group to make the club both due to the platoon splits of him and the players that will begin the year on the 25-man roster.
Tim followed up with a discussion of Pedro Alvarez possibly being placed in a platoon, noting his lefty-righty splits as evidence. He points to Alvarez’s improvement when facing left-handers over the last three years as why he would not suggest a full time platoon at this point, further stating that if Alvarez was to be platooned then Inge wouldn't be his preferred option.
It’s easy to agree with Tim’s points. Alvarez has recently turned 26 so it really is too early to give up on him as a full time player. The key will be for him to limit the number of strikeouts; he has a career 38.0 K% against lefties, so even with an on-the-lucky-side BABIP of .321 his wOBA is a below average .281.
A lot of my focus with the offense while writing on this site has been based on the club taking the platoon advantage and Alvarez isn't the only player that has struggled when facing left handed pitching, which makes a part-time platoon option more intriguing. Last season, Alvarez had a wOBA of .284 while Neil Walker had a .271 wOBA when facing left handed pitching. While neither player will enter a full time platoon, their statistics underline the upgrade that a right-handed hitter could have on a part-time basis substituting for both players. A right-hander on the bench that could provide an offensive upgrade would be more in a limiting exposure role for both Alvarez and Walker, rather than either player entering a full-time platoon.
This is where Inge could fit in. Inge has a career .262/.339/.462 batting line when facing southpaws, with his .346 wOBA being an upgrade over both Alvarez and Walker. That said, every option that the Pirates have for the backup role hits right handed. While Inge will likely be an offensive upgrade over Harrison, De Jesus and Mercer, he lacks the defensive ability at shortstop - which could be the reason why he would begin the year in the minors. Furthermore, the club could also use Mercer in this platoon advantage role in an effort to assess whether he could replace Clint Barmes at shortstop in 2014 – with Inge acting as minor league depth if Mercer falters. What is certain is that one of these players will definitely make the club, with a second depending on the setup of the bench.
While giving up on Alvarez as a full time player may be too early, the club could take the option to limit his exposure against left-handers and apply the same plan to Neil Walker. Both would still pick up plate appearances against left-handed pitching, however their days off would come when the opposition has a southpaw on the mound - and a strong right-handed hitting option off the bench would only improve the offense over the course of the season. Brandon Inge has become another option for this role and is probably the favorite of the non-pitcher non-roster invitees to make the club, as he could provide an offensive upgrade in a part time role while manning a number of positions defensively.