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Hopes high for Bucs' new-look bench

Hopes high for Bucs' new-look bench

PITTSBURGH -- Slowly but surely, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has built a bench for his team.

Despite bringing back every starting position player, the Pirates lost all four of their mainstay bench pieces to free agency this winter. Chris Gomez, Luis Rivas and Jason Michaels have all already signed elsewhere. Doug Mientkiewicz is expected to soon.

As a result, the Pirates' dips into the free-agent market have been to find the right players to complement an already assembled main core. And the goal was to make a fairly productive bench in 2008 even more of an asset in '09.

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The combined batting average of Pirates pinch hitters last season ranked in the bottom third of the Majors at .224, with only three home runs in 259 at-bats. It should be mentioned, too, however, that the 27 runs scored off the bench and 33 pinch-hit RBIs were quite comparable to the league average in both statistical categories.

In the same way that the Pirates' 2008 bench didn't come together until after Spring Training, the '09 version will be similar. However, Huntington seems to have given manager John Russell plenty of options to choose from.

Three of the five bench spots are already secured. Ramon Vazquez has been signed to be the '09 version of Gomez. Eric Hinske has been added to assume the role held by Mientkiewicz last year.

With Vazquez, the Pirates have an infield option with eight seasons of Major League experience under his belt. Though Vazquez has just a .189 career batting average as a pinch-hitter, he is coming off the best season of his career. Vazquez's .290 average and 40 RBIs last year were both career highs.

Hinske adds the power threat off the bench that the Pirates lacked a year ago. He finished 2008 with 20 home runs and 42 total extra-base hits, though he is not a substantial threat against left-handed pitching. Hinske, 31, can play either corner infield or corner outfield positions.

The third bench spot will be assumed by the team's backup catcher, which looks to be a job to be won by either Jason Jaramillo or Robinzon Diaz.

Jaramillo has no Major League experience, but he has spent the last two seasons in Triple-A. Jaramillo, who was acquired by the Pirates in a Winter Meetings trade with the Phillies, is a lifetime .272 hitter in the Minors. He threw out 36 percent of runners attempting to steal last year. Comparatively, Ryan Doumit threw out just 27 percent.

As for Diaz, his big league experience is limited to 10 at-bats. The 25-year-old backstop hit .255 in 41 Triple-A games last season.

One of the most intriguing story lines will then be for the final two bench spots. There will be plenty of competition for both, with one expected to be filled by an outfielder and the other by an infielder.

It would seem that the outfield battle will come down to Craig Monroe or Jeff Salazar, both of whom signed with Pittsburgh as Minor League free agents this offseason.

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With Monroe, the Pirates would get the right-handed-hitting outfielder that the club currently does not have on its 25-man roster. The Bucs are hopeful of a comeback season for Monroe, who was limited to only 58 games last season. He hit just .202 with the Twins before being released in early August.

But if Monroe can get back to where he was while with Detroit from 2003-06, the Pirates might have a steal. During that span, Monroe averaged 22 home runs, 81 RBIs and hit .267. Then there is Salazar, whose chances of making the club out of Spring Training might actually be hurt by the fact that he is a left-handed hitter. Remember that the Pirates' three starting outfielders, as well as Vazquez and Hinske, both hit from the left side of the plate.

Regardless, Salazar does have experience coming off the bench, having done so in '08 for the D-backs. He hit .211 with 10 extra-base hits and 12 RBIs in 128 total at-bats.

Other outfield options would include organizational products Steve Pearce and Andrew McCutchen, but the likelihood is that both will start the season in Triple-A. Because both Pearce and McCutchen are seen as long-term pieces for the Pirates, management does not want them in the Majors while not getting consistent at-bats.

An injury to one of the Pirates' starting outfielders or a stellar spring by Pearce or McCutchen could push one of them into a starting role. However, if that starting role isn't open, don't expect either prospect to be pinch-hitting for the Pirates.

That likely leaves the final bench spot to one of five players -- Garrett Jones, Pedro Lopez, Anderson Machado, Luis Cruz or Andy Phillips. Only Cruz is on the team's 40-man roster. The other four players are non-roster invitees to Spring Training after having signed Minor League contracts with the team this offseason.

After making the climb from Double-A to the Majors in '08, Cruz positioned himself for the upper hand at the backup role by the end of last season. He played in 22 games with the Pirates after being called up in September after hitting .325 in 32 Triple-A games.

However, Cruz has some intriguing competition. There is Jones, who, like Hinske, could be a pinch-hitting power threat. Jones, 27, has just brief Major League experience, but he hit .279 with 23 homers, 33 doubles and 92 RBIs as a first baseman and outfielder in Triple-A last year. He led the International League in total bases and finished second in extra-base hits.

Phillips would give the Pirates needed versatility since he can play anywhere in the infield. He does have substantial Major League experience, having hit .250 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs in 557 big league at-bats.

Lopez and Machado both have less than 70 big league at-bats and would appear to be long shots for a backup job out of Spring Training. Still, they are both middle-infield options and will be given a look.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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