Good teams are built up the middle, and while the Pirates are gradually improving on that front, they still have plenty of work to do.
The middle infield positions are a great example. The Bucs find themselves relatively set at second base and featuring a pretty big question mark at shortstop.
Help may be on the way somewhat soon, but for now, the Pirates need to continue to gather talent and depth at the middle infield positions.
Neil Walker has emerged as a reliable option at second base for the Pirates, posting offensive numbers that are better than league average for three consecutive seasons while fielding a difficult defensive position adequately.
Walker came through the Bucs' organization as a catcher, and then as a third baseman. He eventually found a home at second base. Relying mainly on his athleticism to support his defense, he makes enough plays to add value on the diamond and is one of the Pirates' best threats to reach base.
Shortstop Clint Barmes will likely bat eighth most of this season, but as a wizard with the glove at the most important defensive position in the game, Barmes could do worse.
The Pirates should expect marginal offensive improvement from Barmes, which will add needed balance to their lineup and enable him to maintain some value.
The Pirates have a deep stable of marginally interesting backups at the middle infield positions. Unfortunately, none of these players have proven themselves to be substantive contributors at the major league level.
Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud were both early-round draft picks in 2008 and were thought to be potential shortstops of the future. Neither player, however, has shown the ability to hit consistently at the major league level.
There is a good chance that one of these two players will start the year in Pittsburgh, with Mercer probably the better prospect at this point. He may "earn" everyday at-bats in Indianapolis while d'Arnaud rides the pine with the big club and acts as an occasional pinch runner.
Seasoned Pittsburgh utility infielder Josh Harrison and former Dodgers and Red Sox second baseman/shortstop Ivan DeJesus are the other candidates for a bench position. Harrison, best known for breaking up Justin Verlander's no-hit bid last May and running over Yadier Molina later in the year, seems like the kind of player that Clint Hurdle will just keep around at this point, even if DeJesus has the better chance of evolving into a material piece.
Down on the Farm
Though the Pirates finally have some real upside at middle infield within their farm system, the outlook at the position remains relatively poor thanks to mediocre drafting.
Indeed, the Bucs' best hopes at the position by far are their international additions with Alen Hanson, the team's top hitting prospect, leading the charge. Hanson mashed in 2012, slugging .526 in Single-A as a 19-year-old and rocketing up prospect rankings. Many talent evaluators believe he can stick at the position, and while he is still several years from the majors, he has the talent to be a perennial All-Star.
Dilson Herrera, more of a second baseman than a shortstop, is the Pirates' next potential breakout star. Herrera, who just turned 19, has not yet played much in the United States, but it is expected that he will get a full-time assignment this year.
Beyond Hanson and Herrera, the cupboard is pretty bare. Bonus babies like Jarek Cunningham and Drew Maggi have flamed out, leaving fringe prospects like Gift Ngoepe and Dan Gamache. It is unlikely that anyone in the Bucs' farm system, beyond Hanson and Herrera, will become regulars in the majors.