Bob Smizik: Pirates miss chance to add bench strength

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(We interrupt the steady flow of effusive praise for Pirates general manager Neal Huntington with this unpaid factual pronouncement.)

No one could ever accuse Neal Huntington of failing to be alert to an opportunity. Huntington’s attention to detail, even minutia, is well known. But seizing on that opportunity, well, that’s another matter.

No doubt, Huntington has multiple reasons for not pouncing on free-agent infielder Ryan Roberts when he was available for about 10 days. Hopefully, none of them is that he felt Josh Harrison was a better option.

Here’s the background:

Roberts, 33, plays second base, third base and the corner outfield positions. After playing 2012 and 2013 with Tampa Bay, he went to spring training with the Chicago Cubs on a minor-league contract. He opted out of that contract, presumably because he wasn’t going to make the team, on March 27. As of Sunday, he was still out of work but reportedly in conversations with several teams. It is not known if the Pirates were one of them.

When the Red Sox placed third baseman Will Middlebrooks on the disabled list, they began negotiations with Roberts and quickly concluded them Monday. He will be paid $1 million, with a possible additional $250,000 in incentives. If he is returned to the minors when Middlebrooks is healthy, that salary figure can become $200,000.

Not making the Cubs understandably would raise immediate flags concerning Roberts' worthiness. But being wanted by the World Champion Red Sox should erase those concerns.

The key point concerning Roberts is this: He would be a near-perfect fit for the Pirates, who have a second baseman, Neil Walker, and a third baseman, Pedro Alvarez, who have considerable difficulty with left-handed pitching. Roberts’ specialty is left-handed pitching.

Consider these career numbers against left-handers:

Alvarez (439 at-bats): .200/.272/.333 -- .603.

Walker (479 at-bats): .261/.316/.340 -- .657.

Roberts (534 at-bats): .266/.341/.444 -- .785.

If that’s not enough, consider these 2013 numbers against left-handed pitching:

Alvarez (133 at-bats): .180/.252/.286 -- .537.

Walker (80 at-bats): .225/.281/.238 -- .518.

Roberts (82 at-bats): .305/.345/.500 -- .845.

The career numbers against lefties for Harrison, whose spot Roberts would have taken if Huntington had been interested and/or acted more quickly: .239/.265/.404 -- .670

Finally, there’s this: Although Roberts, nicknamed TatMan for the more than 30 tattoos that festoon his body, is not a power hitter, neither are Alvarez and Walker against left-handed pitching. In their careers against lefties, Alvarez has homered every 36 at-bats, Walker every 120 at-bats and Roberts every 25 at-bats. Both last year and in his career, Roberts has a considerably higher slugging percentage against lefties than does Alvarez, the National League home run champion.

What is there not to like about Roberts from a Pirates standpoint?

Hopefully, it wasn’t the money. For a team that spent well less than expected on payroll, Roberts’ salary should not be an obstacle. If the Pirates weren’t interested in Roberts, shame on them. If they were interested and couldn’t get the deal done because of money, double shame on them.

For all the good moves Huntington has made in recent seasons, he consistently treats the bench as an unimportant part of the team. Over the past four seasons, the Pirates have finished 13, 15, 14 and 12 in National League pinch-hitting batting average. At no time during that span has that average been higher than .213. Roberts has a career PH batting average of .260.

To repeat: From the Pirates standpoint, what is there not to like about Ryan Roberts?


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