Ron Cook: Depth question good problem for Pirates



In: Gerrit Cole and Neil Walker.

Out: Brandon Cumpton and, gosh, I hate to write this, Clint Barmes.

It’s decision week for the Pirates. Walker is eligible to come off the disabled list tonight and should be in the lineup at second base, batting cleanup, when the team plays the Tampa Bay Rays. What does manager Clint Hurdle do with Josh Harrison, perhaps his hottest player and a man who has filled in admirably for Walker? And whose roster spot does Walker take?

Cole is expected to come off the disabled list Saturday and start that afternoon at home against the New York Mets. Whose spot in the rotation does he take? Whose roster spot?

The solution to the Cole situation is easy. Cumpton has to go back to Class AAA Indianapolis even though he pitched seven two-hit, shutout innings Sunday against the Chicago Cubs, his best performance, by far, after three consecutive decent starts. He should get another start Friday night against the Mets before Cole is activated, but he probably could throw seven shutout innings again and it wouldn’t be enough. Cumpton has options. So does Jeff Locke, but he has pitched better than Cumpton. He’s also left-handed. Vance Worley, who has made two solid starts since joining the rotation June 15, doesn’t have options and must clear waivers to go back to Indianapolis. The Pirates won’t take that risk. They don’t like giving up an asset — especially a starting pitcher — if they don’t have to do it. Cumpton has to go.

A tougher call will happen when Francisco Liriano is ready to come off the disabled list, perhaps in a couple of weeks. Management will tell you it will be a wonderful problem to have. No team has enough starting pitching.

Walker’s return is much more complicated. Harrison, who continues to play well and shake the utility-role tag that has dogged him during his career, deserves steady work. Many have suggested Harrison play third base every day and that Pedro Alvarez be benched, but that’s crazy talk. Alvarez has to play almost every day, the exception being when the Pirates face a tough left-hander, as they will Wednesday with Tampa Bay’s David Price. Alvarez is the team’s one legitimate power threat even though his 11 home runs and 35 RBIs through 75 games are down from 18 and 50 at the same point last season. Alvarez led the National League with 36 home runs in 2013 and was the Pirates’ best hitter in the postseason. As manager Clint Hurdle said a few days ago, “You know it’s in there … Pedro is an integral part of this team.”

Hurdle is creative enough to get Harrison four, even five starts a week. He can play him at third for Alvarez against those tough left-handers. Harrison can give Walker a break or Starling Marte in left field or Gregory Polanco in right. Occasionally, he can play left with Marte moving to center to rest Andrew McCutchen.

Again, management thinks this is a terrific challenge to have. “This is a game of depth,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “Josh’s versatility will allow us to give guys much-needed rest instead of trying to play them 155 games. They won’t be running on fumes at the end of the season.”

That leaves one big question: Who goes to make room for Walker assuming nobody comes down with a sore hamstring between now and tonight and has to go on the disabled list?

If contracts weren’t an issue, my choice would be Jose Tabata. He was hitting .289 this season through Sunday, but he doesn’t provide enough power as a reserve corner outfielder. He didn’t have one home run before Monday night. Beyond that, money always matters to the Pirates. Tabata is signed through 2016 with salaries of $3 million this season, $4 million next season and $4.5 million in 2016. The team isn’t going to eat that deal.

Travis Snider is another candidate for release, but he usually is the only left-handed bat on the bench when Ike Davis starts at first base. He has been effective as a pinch hitter, batting .281 this season with, including last season, four home runs and 12 RBIs in 76 at-bats. He has shown he can hit a home run once in a while as he did Sunday to help Cumpton and the Pirates beat the Cubs. Snider has to stay.

That leaves Barmes, one of the true professionals and great gentlemen in baseball. He has played well in his role, most recently getting four hits Thursday in a win against the Cincinnati Reds. But the Pirates can’t afford to carry two utility infielders. Harrison could play shortstop on days when Jordy Mercer needs a day off, although shortstop isn’t his best position defensively and you wouldn’t want him there every day. But he is good enough to release Barmes.

As always, the advice is free.

No need for Huntington to thank me.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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