As manager Clint Hurdle and his staff assemble the most overlooked yet one of the most critical areas of any team, it is pretty clear what they will want to see on the Pirates' bench: Players who collectively perform better than last season, but who don't have to do it as often. Translation: In 2011, the Pirates got a .206 average with only three homers off their bench, but many of the same players were pressed into regular duty by injuries. As a result, 14 different Pittsburgh players had 200-plus plate appearances -- while only two reached 500. Not a winning combination. The breakdowns for the postseason teams from the National League Central were 12-5 for the Cardinals and 10-6 for the Brewers.
"Through the first wave of injuries, we continued to fight, scratch, claw," Hurdle said. "Then the guys we called up started to get hurt. We had to go deeper into our bench than anybody. We need people projected to start to stay healthy." That's a prerequisite for the bench being able to fulfill its role of providing flexibility and experience in a pinch. Chase d'Arnaud could once again provide much of that versatility. Hurdle isn't thrilled by the idea of breaking in young players in a reserve role, but as a rookie d'Arnaud filled in on the left side of the infield. He and another youngster, Josh Harrison, could compete for the same job. Also in that picture is Yamaico Navarro, acquired in a Minor League deal from Kansas City. Former Mets first baseman Nick Evans, who will be in camp as a non-roster player, could emerge as a valuable bat off the bench. Pittsburgh pinch-hitters combined to hit .201, with only one home run in 249 at-bats, last season. Albeit in limited chances, Evans had a .500 on-base percentage last season in a pinch for New York. Otherwise, the Pirates bench will pretty much stock itself. Michael McKenry will be the backup catcher, although no one will be surprised if his playing time matches that of Rod Barajas. The projected first-base tandem of Garrett Jones-Casey McGehee will always have one of them in the dugout. Starling Marte, the 23-year-old Dominican with five years of grooming in the Minors, will get a long look as an extra outfielder whose speed would be valuable. But of all the perceived reserves, easily the most intriguing is Nate McLouth. Two-and-a-half years after leaving Pittsburgh as an All-Star, he returns as a fallen star. His production in those two-and-a-half seasons in Atlanta: 21 homers, 44 doubles and 76 RBIs; he topped all of those numbers in 2008 alone (26, 46, 94), his final full season with the Pirates. Yet the blond from Michigan still is only 30. At the very least, McLouth will ease the anxiety over having a couple of youngsters, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley, in the corners of the outfield. "Having Nate support them is a good matchup for our team," said general manager Neal Huntington, who brought McLouth back as a free agent on a $1.75 million contract. "If he's healthy and back in a comfortable environment, and in a park that's best for him, he's a guy with a chance for a good bounce-back year." McLouth can also occasionally fill in for the guy who replaced him as the Pirates center fielder, Andrew McCutchen. "It's a good opportunity for him, and for us," Hurdle said. "A bounce-back year is more than possible, it's probable."