By John Franco
After a red-hot spring, Matt Hague had Pirate fans clamoring for him to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster, and the team obliged thanks to some creative roster maneuvering. The Pirates placed Charlie Morton on the 15-day DL and, since they won’t need a fifth starter until April 15, they plan to carry an extra hitter until Morton returns. When Morton returns, the Pirates will have four infielders for three spots: Hague, Casey McGehee, Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison.
The Pirates have given Hague opportunities to start, platooning him with Jones while platooning McGehee with Pedro Alvarez. Hague got a start against Cliff Lee on Saturday, and another one against Clayton Kershaw on Tuesday. Things can only get easier for Hague going forward, but Morton could return by Saturday, so the Pirates will need to make a decision soon.
Whether Hague can force his way into the Pirates’ long-term plans will depend on this week’s performance and the Pirates’ trust level with Harrison at shortstop. McGehee and Harrison are longshots to be demoted, and the Pirates need Nate McLouth t0 back up center field and Michael McKenry to back up behind the plate. That leaves Navarro as the only realistic option to be demoted, but the Pirates would have to trust Harrison’s spring work at shortstop enough to carry him as their only backup. So far, Clint Barmes has played every inning at shortstop, so the Pirates haven’t even tried Harrison there lately.
If a combination of the Harrison gambit and Hague making a splash this week sounds like an unlikely scenario, that’s because it is. Hague had to hit .400 in 55 spring at-bats just to get a shot at making it happen, and he had to hit .309/.372/.457 at Triple-A last year just to get an extended look in spring training. At 26, Hague still has a chance to be part of the Pirates’ medium-term plans, either in a continued platoon with Jones or even by taking over the job. His age puts him at the beginning of his peak power years, and his 7 spring training home runs could be a sign that he is ready to realize his power potential.
Since Hague hit just 12 home runs in 141 games at Triple-A, and Jones hit 16 in the major leagues, Hague will need to take these chances to build on his spring power surge to stake his claim to what is supposed to be a power position. Jones is 30 and his accrued service time means that he is starting to get expensive, so the Pirates might jump at the chance to replace him if Hague starts to look competent. Trusting Harrison at shortstop would give the Pirates a way to keep Hague around a little longer.