Without big changes, Bucs optimizing lineup

Pittsburgh trying new configurations around McCutchen to get more runs

Without big changes, Bucs optimizing lineup

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Always looking for an edge, the Pirates' decision-makers put their heads together this offseason and came back to a topic they've been discussing for years.

What if the Bucs can get more runs out of their lineup without dramatically altering their personnel? What if Andrew McCutchen is better off batting second than third? What if the way it's always been done isn't the way it should be done?

The Pirates are trying to answer those questions this spring, trying out different lineup configurations and attempting to optimize their batting order to create another edge in the highly competitive National League Central.

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"We're always going to have to find small ways to get better," general manager Neal Huntington said, "whether it's how we do things or who's doing them."

Despite his elite offensive numbers, McCutchen has never driven in 100 runs in a season. Why not? As manager Clint Hurdle recently told McCutchen, he had the second-most plate appearances with two outs and nobody on base last season, his 158 ranking behind Paul Goldschmidt's 164.

"It kind of makes sense, to be hitting how I've hit over the years and still can't get 100 RBIs," McCutchen said. "This game's turned into a numbers game in so many ways, shapes and forms. It seems to be working for the most part. It's just another thing being thrown out, another thing you can possibly get better at."

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McCutchen has been the Bucs' No. 3 hitter since 2012. During that time, he's gone to the plate 618 times -- almost a full season's worth and 23.06 percent of his total plate appearances -- with two outs and nobody to drive in.

But it's not only about RBIs. McCutchen owns a .404 on-base percentage since 2012, and '12 was the only season in which he scored 100 runs.

"You score a run, you drive in a run and you save a run. That's the way I learned the game a long time ago. That part of the game still plays," Hurdle said. "Regardless of where the RBI opportunities go or don't go, I have a really solid opinion that he's going to be put in position to score more runs than he ever has before."

The impact reverberates deeper down the lineup. If Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison bat in the middle of the order, their speed on the bases might play better than it did directly in front of McCutchen.

For all their experimentation, the Pirates haven't committed to mixing up their lineup. Hurdle looked at one variation in which John Jaso, Francisco Cervelli and McCutchen hit atop the order. Huntington mentioned more conventional scenarios in which Jaso protects McCutchen in the middle of the lineup.

The Bucs have been down nontraditional roads before. They've shifted their defenders around more than most clubs. They've pitched inside like few other teams. They've invested considerable time and resources into keeping their players healthy.

Have the Pirates found another edge within their own lineup?

"As we looked at this group and putting this group in a position to find a little bit better offensive production in a perfect world, at least in the theoretical world, this was something where we came together," Huntington said. "Now we're working to see how it plays out in the real world."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.