Once again the Pirates find themselves with no hitting to begin the season. This year if you can believe it has actually been worse than the start of the 2012 season. It is mind-boggling that a team can hit this bad at the start of the season but it is happening. Once again though people are overreacting some, the Pirates are not this bad of a hitting team. Make no mistake they aren’t a good hitting team but they aren’t a historically bad hitting team either. In the coming weeks the Pirates will likely rebound some and becomes the below average offensive team they are but that still leaves us with the question of why we are once again seeing such a poor start.
Any number of factors could be in play here. It is possible the team did an inadequate job getting the hitters ready during spring. It is possible the collection of hitters the Pirates have assembled could be prone to poor starts. It is possible it could just simply be bad luck. Or it could be something else or some combination. It is impossible to figure out just what is at play here but I’d like to take a deeper look at the mix of hitters the Pirates have in their lineup.
The Pirates lineup is loaded with high strikeout guys. The major league average strikeout rate for non pitchers last season was 21.4% so keep that in mind when looking at these numbers.
Russell Martin: 19.6% K rate in 2012
Garrett Jones: 20.0% K rate in 2012
Gaby Sanchez: 17.2% K rate in 2012
Neil Walker: 19.6% K rate in 2012
Pedro Alvarez: 30.7% K rate in 2012
Clint Barmes: 21.5% K rate in 2012
Starling Marte: 27.5% K rate in 2012
Andrew McCutchen: 19.6% K rate in 2012
Travis Snider: 25.9% K rate in 2012
Jose Tabata: 15.5% K rate in 2012
The above are the Pirates 10 regular players. A fair number of them were below the average K rate last season but only two Sanchez and Tabata were significantly lower. What does that mean? It means on days when Snider and Jones both starts which should be against just about every right handed pitcher the Pirates are fielding an entire lineup of players who are going to strike out in at least about 1 out of every 5 at bats. In theory that isn’t a big deal but of course the strike outs don’t come exactly 5 at bats a part. Players get cold and when average to high strike out players get cold guess what they strike out a lot. Not exactly rocket science there. Strike outs in return limit the number of balls put in play and limit the chances of getting a good bounce. Without a good bounce hitters continue to hit without runners on where they see fewer pitchers to hit so they continue to struggle and the strike outs continue to mount. It’s all a cyclical effect. A couple hitters start off cold and struggle to put the ball in play creates fewer good hitting opportunities for the players hitting well so they in return get cold and start hitting fewer balls and striking out more. What this Pirates lineup lacks are some low strikeout guys who can work counts and get on base or even players who just manage to make contact a lot.
The Pirates find themselves in a tough cycle to break out of. Ideally a lineup like this would have a different type of bench supporting it but the Pirates really don’t have that. Sanchez and Tabata can mix things up a little bit but McKenry and McDonald are largely useless to change much. The last bench player Harrison is an interesting player though. Harrison won’t work hardly at all but he won’t strike out much either so having a bat like him who will make contact in the lineup could be a good thing. Problem is unless you are facing a left handed pitcher where do you play him? The Pirates really can’t sit Walker or Alvarez against right handers and Harrison isn’t good enough defensively to warrant starting him over Barmes, Marte or Snider. I thought this past weekend when facing two left handers in a row was a perfect opportunity to play Harrison for a couple games and see if his contact skills couldn’t ignite some sort of spark but alas that didn’t happen. In reality that is all Harrison brings to the table the ability to make contact on a consistent basis and that is something this Pirates team desperately needs.
With all that being said the Pirates non pitchers currently have a ridiculously low .169 BABIP. Simply put that isn’t going to continue forever and in time more balls will begin to fall in and the Pirates will in return score more runs. Still even with bad luck playing a huge role in this current offensive mess it would be nice if the Pirates lineup had or at least could be complimented with some good contact hitters who can manage to get on base at a high level. The front office has done a fair job of assembling some decent arms and some decent power hitters but it has been a miserable failure at balancing out the lineup and providing it with any kind of useable depth.
I must sadly report that with life catching up with me I am going to have to trim back my posting here at Battling Bucs. I have been doing everything I could to try to keep up my post per day rate over the last month and a half but I will no longer be able to do so. The site won’t end as I’ll continue trying to do a couple of posts per week and I’ll chime in with my thoughts on important Pirates moves. You can still follow me on Twitter and I’m doing some blogging on Pittsburgh Sport Forum so you can also check me out there. I’m not going to disappear from the online Pirates fan community but I will have to scale back. I guess life catches up with all of us in time. Thank you to all of you who have stopped by and read my blog and I hope you continue to do so even if it will be running at a reduced pace.
AAA: Tony Sanchez
Backing up Tony Sanchez this season in AAA will likely be some combination of Lucas May, Ali Solis and Brian Jeroloman. All of three catchers are past their prospect days but should an opening arise in the majors it is possible one of them could get the call. As for Sanchez his prospect stock has took a hit down to the point where he is no longer widely consider the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs still gives him the slightest of edges though) but he still does have some upside and could be a useful major league catcher as early as later this season. Sanchez’s defense was said to be good when he was drafted and that remains the case; his game calling is also improving which means he looks to be a very capable receiver at this point in his career. The question is as it always was his bat. Sanchez recovered some last season from a terrible 2011 but his offensive numbers were still a disappointment. In order to move forward this year and show he still might be able to develop into at least an averae MLB starting catcher his offensive game particularly his power will need to make great strides.
AA: Carlos Paulino
Paulino will serve as the regular catcher in AA and be backed up primarily by Charlie Cutler. Kawika Emsley-Pai and others may play at the level as well but barring an injury it is likely to be sparingly. At this point in his career Paulino is essentially an extreme version of Sanchez. His defensive game overall is a little better than Sanchez’s but his bat is worse. Paulino’s defense alone has what it takes to make him a backup catcher in the majors but if he is ever going to have a shot at being a starting catcher he is going to have to show he can hit some. Paulino has hit fairly well in the past posting good numbers in 2011 but he struggled last season when he was forced to repeat A+. Now as the unquestioned starter in AA this is Paulino’s time to shine.
A+: Jacob Stallings, Elias Diaz
Stallings and Diaz are expected to split catching time in A+. Like Sanchez and Paulino these two catchers are noted more for their defense than their offense. Stallings was drafted last year by the Pirates in the early rounds mainly as an attempt to save cap space for making a run at Appel. He comes from the NCAA holding the single season record for throwing out runners attempting to steal. The Pirates are aggressively pushing him over regular A ball and straight to advance. This is a typical move for advanced college hitters but Stallings is not one of those. His offense will likely struggle but it is going to have to be his defense that carries him anyway. As for Diaz the Pirates seem to really like him but up to this point he really hasn’t shown much progress as a hitter. Like all the other catchers discussed so far he is going have to show some improvements with the bat to see his prospect stock rise.
A: Wyatt Mathisen
At this point I’m not really sure who will back up Mathisen but the Pirates are not short of options as the lower levels are filled with a ton of catchers (non prospects of course). Mathisen is a horse of a different color in this catching crop. He is widely considered to be the Pirates top catching prospect (Battling Bucs has him 2nd just slighly behind Sanchez) with his biggest weakness being his defense. Mathisen is really just becoming accustomed to the catcher position having played the majority of his high school career at the shortstop position. His bat is advanced for a high school player and his defensive game has shown flashes of potential but with this being a relatively new position to him there is still a lot to work on. The main challenge for Mathisen in 2013 will be just adjusting to being a full tiem catcher.
Lower Levels: Jin-De Jhang, Daniel Arribas
There was some talk the Pirates might consider moving Jhang to A ball with Mathisen and having them continue to split time between catcher and DH but that doesn’t appear to have happened. Jhang will start the season likely in short season ball. Like Mathisen, Jhang is relatively new to catching and has a lot of work to do to get the mechanics of the position down. His bat is strong for a catcher though and makes him an interesting prospect to watch. Arribas has played catcher, 1st base and 3rd base in the DSL but appears to be focusing entirely on catching right now. Arribas shown some hitting talent in the DSL last season and was moved up to the states this year. He will likely share catching duties in rookie ball this season as he adjusts to his more permanent position home.
Top 5 Catching Prospects
1. Tony Sanchez
2. Wyatt Mathisen
3. Jin-De Jhang
4. Carlos Paulino
5. Jacob Stallings
Apologies in advance to the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers who opened last night but today is the true honest to goodness Opening Day. Nothing warms my heart more than those two little words, this is the best day on the calendar year for me and a true holiday. On today of all days anything really does seem possible. Every Pirates season I can recall has finished the same way in disappointment but no matter the outcome the one day that does not and can not disappoint me is Opening Day. There is just something magical about it. There are a few days every year in which we say the Sports world creates an unofficial holiday. Most prominent are probably Super Bowl Sunday, the beginning of March Madness and possibly the Olympics. More so than any of those days though Opening Day feels truly special more like a religious day than just a sporting day.
Those other days I mention aren’t holidays simply because of the sport. March Madness takes on its holiday like form largely do to office pools and gambling. Super Bowl Sunday takes on its holiday like feel largely do to the event and not the game. And the Olympics are more a celebration of human achievement than a celebration of any particular sport. Opening Day however, to me at least, has nothing like that attached to it. It is quite simply and purely the celebration of baseball. It is a day to sit back, remove all the noise (PEDs, lack of competitive balance, etc) and focus on the greatness of the game. The feeling of it, the sights, the smells are impossible to describe. For me everything just seems better this one day a year, my senses feel heightened and I walk with a spring in my step.
The reason for this great feeling I and I’m sure countless others feel is difficult to describe. There is just something about baseball some force which draws us to the games. No matter how bad our teams may be the ones who truly get baseball stick with it and ride the season through until the bitter (or sweet) end. If you can’t feel this force it is nearly impossible for me or anyone else to describe what it can do to a person but if you feel this force you will know immediately what I am talking about here.
The last couple of weeks have seen many disagreements between Pirates fans and baseball fans in general but today is the day we sit that all aside and welcome our game back. For this is truly a special and magical day. Enjoy it, live it and take in the magic. This is a day of great hope and where anything truly feels possible. There is no other day quite like today. Opening Day is here and the world is right again.
The Pirates lost to the OCurve today 8-6. That sounds depressing but in reality it isn’t. The game was by all means an exhibition meaning both sides took the game extremely lightly and both rosters were a state of flux with the Pirates roster having many Curve players and vice versa. By the end of the game the Pirates defense was Michael McKenry (C), Kelson Brown (1B), Josh Harrison (2B), Stefan Welch (3B), John McDonald (SS), Dan Grovatt (LF), Andy Vasquez (CF) and Jose Tabata (RF). Not exactly the starting eight you’ll see out there on Monday. Still the game was a joy to watch and had a few highlights. I have pictures which I will try to share later in the week but for now I’ll just give a quick summary of the events.
Before the game Frank Coonley, the Pirates president was about in the stands. Battling Bucs got his first chance to meet him. It wasn’t a long meeting of course but it was an interesting experience. Shortly before the game Coonley was again front and center as he announced the partnership between the Pirates and Curve was extended through 2018. Also before game action got under way the Pirates and Curve joined together for a group picture brining about another great sight.
Once the game actually got under way the first thing that became clear that McDonald either didn’t have or wasn’t using his best stuff. The Curve hit him around well and drew 3 walks in the first inning alone as all 9 hitters came to the plate. After JMac’s struggles Tony Watson took the hill for the Curve in the top of the 2nd and struggled a fair amount himself, His outing was capped when Starling Marte launched a grand slam into the outfield bleachers. Marte ended up having himself a banner day as he also added another hit and displayed his strong arm.
Later in the game Andrew McCutchen was robbed of a hit by a great diving catch in the outfield by Andrew Lambo and the very next hitter Pedro Alvarez had a well hit ball speared by Gift Ngoepe. It was some great defense being played behind Justin Wilson and I’m betting he hopes he gets that kind of help for his appearances starting on Monday. Shortly after this inning Nathan Baker entered the game for the Pirates and struggled mightily allowing 4 runs and missing with most of his pitches. It was not long after Baker’s performance the next top of the inning that the mass substitutions started. The scoreboard at the game wasn’t even to keep up with all the moves as the Pirates had players in the game without names on their jerseys and in some cases without even a number. This hybrid lineup did manage to get a few hits in the 7th and cut the deficit to 8-6 but that was as close as the game got.
The rest of the game was fairly uneventful and it seemingly went on forever. I’m not really sure what the cause of the slow pace of the game but I’m guessing it had something to do with all the substitutions and TV timeouts. As I stated earlier the game went well and was very entertaining but I also know there is nothing I or anyone can or should take from the outcome. For the record the game ended when Jason Townsend coming into face his first batter got Benji Gonzalez, who was pinch hitting for Josh Harrison, to fly out to right field. I have more to say but I’m typing this fairly late at night so this will have to do. I’ll add more notes when I post pictures of the game later in the week.
Battling Bucs has taken the day off and what is he doing with his day off watching the Pirates play of course. I am in attendance at the Pirates and Curve exhibtion today watching not only the current Pirates play but a group of players who hope to be Pirates one day possibly even as soon as later on this season. Due to my absence any breaking Pirates news such as waiver claims or release or trades that occurs today will be not be covered by this site until later into the day. I will however have a full recap of the game and note any observations I make during a post tomorrow. Thank you all for reading my site and with the start of a new baseball season right around the corner I just wanted to say I’m looking forward to another great year of baseball and I am hoping to provide at least a couple of interesting pieces this season.
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
Over the course of the last two seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates have come a long way. From losing 100+ games in 2010 to flirting with a playoff spot deep into August in 2012. From looking like a franchise void of any direction to having a bright future just on the horizon. The future looks better than now than it did just two short years ago but right now isn’t the time to worry about that. This is the time of year we ask ourselves not how future Pirates teams may look or perform but rather about how this year’s version of the team will look and perform. The Pirates have a large group of players returning and have added a handful of players they hope will be able to compliment the returning group well. In addition to the players added this offseason the Pirates will be counting on full seasons of players added to the roster last year and improved performances by last year’s regulars to improve the overall performance of the team.
The group of players the Pirates will be sending out on to the field Monday is most people’s opinions the most talented group the Pirates have fielding in quite a few years. Still there is no mistaking this group for a complete team which should be able to easily handle all the obstacles thrown at them and glide into the playoffs. The Pirates are a work in progress and as such the roster will be yet again in a constant state of flux during the 2013 season. Just what the expectations are for this team is difficult to pin down. As an improved group over the 2012 version one would assume an improved record should be in the forthcoming but the 2012 group was probably a little lucky in some regards meaning they actually finished ahead of where they should have. Still one gets the sense that if improvement in terms of record is not achieved some major changes in terms of coaching staff and front office will likely be coming either during this season or after the year.
What does this Pirates team have to do to be a success? Does this group have to make the playoffs? Just make a serious run? Just finish above .500? Just show improvements in overall performance regardless of the record? That is really up tom personal opinion but in my mind it is the last one. The group the Pirates have assembled isn’t a real contender and for that reason as long as they don’t post an awful record whatever their record winds up being is less important than how they go about achieving that record. If the core of the team takes a step forward and veterans like Burnett, Martin and Barmes struggle which causes the team record to be less than ideal I can live with that but if it happens the other way around things will be a little less pretty. A disclaimer here though in terms of whether there will be changes I don’t think how the Pirates go about achieving a substandard record will matter; if they post one changes will almost certainly be coming.
All of this still leaves me with the question of what am I expecting from this team this season. Above all else I am expecting growth. I’m expecting the team to find some young players to help compliment McCutchen. This would likely be players from the Alvarez, Marte, Snider and Tabata group. I’m expecting some youth to lay claim to rotation spots next season. This would be players from the Cole, McPherson, Locke and Irwin group. The Pirates have to be at a point at the end of this season in which they know what they have with this group. It is vital so they know how to proceed next offseason. Finding which players can truly help this team in 2014 and beyond is in my mind the most important thing that come out of 2013 however one can not completely ignore the overall performance. I still expect this team to play well.
When you slice right through it the talent on this team appears to have the talent of roughly a slightly below average team meaning somewhere in the neighborhood of 78 wins. However the range of possible outcomes for this team is huge. If things break relatively wrong for this team it could quite possibly lose 95 games but if things break relatively right for this team I could see it posting 90 wins. Either extreme though seems rather unlikely. Truth be told as it nearly always does the actual result will lie somewhere in the middle. This Pirates team will likely win somewhere between 75-85 games making them for all intents and purposes an average team. As for my actual prediction this year feels different but I have never actually predicted the Pirates to finish the season with a winning record. I don’t like this team enough to break that trend but on the other hand there is a different feel about it so I have do something different. It pains me to do this as it is the ultimate cop-out by my prediction for the record of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates is: 81-81
Catchers: Carlos Paulino, Charlie Cutler
Paulino is a defensive first catcher who is graded by scouts as one of the best defensive catchers in the minor leagues. He stuck around with the big league camp until the final round of cuts so the Pirates must see something in him. Cutler is an organizational player who is a bat first catcher.
1st Base/DH: Alex Dickerson, Matt Curry
Both Dickerson and Curry are prospects to some degrees. If it wasn’t for the logjam of 1B types in AAA (Hague, Larish and possibly Robinson) Curry would almost certainly be there after a good season in AA. Both players have received a little time in LF this Spring but neither is an option there long term. Both players are good hitters but the question is whether either has enough power to make up for their defensive limitations.
Middle Infield: Jarek Cunningham, Gift Ngoepe, Drew Maggi
Cunningham will be the starter at 2nd and Ngoepe at shortstop. Cunningham is repeating the level because he struggled last season but has good power for a 2nd baseman so he is worth keeping an eye on. Ngoepe doesn’t do much with the bat but is a slick fielding shortstop. If he can hit even a little his glove will almost certainly carry him to the majors. Maggi was given an overslot bonus just a few years ago but is now just an organizational player. He could see time just about anywhere including the outfield but his primary purpose will be backing up the middle infield.
Other Infielders: Stefan Welch, Adalberto Santos
Welch and Santos figure to split the third base duties. Neither is a 3rd baseman by trade as Welch is better suited for 1st base and Santos has played almost exclusively the outfield. Welch is coming off an excellent season in A+ in 2012 which earned him a promotion to AA. He started off hot but quickly cooled down. He did have a good showing in the WBC for Team Australia this spring though. Santos has hit at every level the Pirates put him on and probably should be up in AAA this year but the roster figures to be a little crowded. He played exclusively the outfield last season but played some 2B the year before that. Santos is likely to see time in both the OF and 2B as well as adding 3B to his duties. If he can be passable defensively eat each position it coupled with his good contact skills could make him an intriguing bench option.
Outfielders: Mel Rojas, Andrew Lambo, Justin Howard, Andy Vasquez
Rojas is the only real prospect in this group. He has a good set of tools but hasn’t really put everything together. He probably isn’t ready for AA but with Polanco moving up to A+ the Pirates have decided to give him an aggressive push and let him continue playing center field. Lambo will be spending his 5th year at the AA level. This his last year before minor league free agency so if he is going to ever live up to that prospect hype its likely now or never. Howard has good contact skills but is poor defensively and has little power. In reality he shouldn’t be in the outfield but the only position he plays even half decently his first base and there is just no room for him there. Vasquez is a utility player who has been in the Pirates organization seemingly forever. He has played a little bit of everywhere but it appears he will serve mainly as a backup outfielder this season. In addition to these guys Santos is likely to see a lot of time in the outfield and Maggi, Dickerson and even Curry could get the occasional start as well.
Starting Pitchers: Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Tyler Waldron
Taillon is of course Taillon. He is the only true top flight prospect at this level. The main question surrounding him is when will he move up to AAA. Pimentel was acquired in the Joel Hanrahan trade and has a lot of upside but has struggled in AA in the past and is on his last option so he is going to have to impress quickly. Cumpton had moderate success in the AA rotation last year but wasn’t overwhelming so the Pirate have opted to have him repeat the level. Sadler is a prospect I like a lot but he is better suited for relief than starting. He pitched well last year both as a starter and a reliever in A+ and the Pirates like to keep their pitching prospects starting for as long as possible. Waldron was supposed to be moving to the bullpen but I guess the Pirates have had a change of mind. He really didn’t pitch that well last season in A+ but he was promoted near the end of the season so the Pirates must see some potential in him.
Relief Pitchers: Tim Alderson, Nate Baker, Jason Townsend, Jeff Inman, Luis Sanz, Ethan Hollingsworth, Kenn Kasparek
Alderson has seemingly been around forever but is still relatively young at only 24 years old. He gets another go around in AA and this could be his last chance to salvage his career. he still has that great curveball and his fastball is back in the lower 90s so anything is possible. Baker was in the AA rotation for most of last year but struggled and was moved to the bullpen. He did well there and as a left hander he shouldn’t be completely dismissed as an organizational player quite yet. Townsend was a prospect I was initially excited about when the Pirates drafted him because he was throwing in the upper 90s and striking batters out. However something happened last year and that good velocity and strike out numbers were no longer there. I will be curious to see if he can regain that form this season. Inman was a fairly highly touted 12th round pick by the Pirates who only slipped that low because of health concerns. Well so far those health concerns have proved to be a big problem as before last year he pitched in only 17 games over 3 seasons. he did remain relatively healthy last year and displayed good velocity but his strike out rates were low largely do to the lack of a good secondary pitch. The other 3 relievers were added this offseason to provide depth and are only organizational players.
The players I’m the most surprised to not see here are Zach Thornton, Kelson Brown and Dan Grovatt. Thornton was acquired this offseason for Resop and was talked about as the potential closer for the AA team. He had a high strike out rate last year but he was admittedly old for the level. Kelson Brown had a good showing in AA last year and looked like a possible future utility player in the major leagues. He didn’t have much of a ceiling but I would say he had a shot at a Rob Mackowiak type career. Finally Grovatt was one of the better hitters at A+ last year which again really isn’t saying a whole lot as the offense was terrible at that level. One other player to watch but he is not a notable omission is Ryan Beckman. Fan Graphs recently called Beckman a sleeper prospect and I agree with that assessment. Ordinarily he would be on this roster but he is still recovering from Tommy John surgery.
1. Jameson Taillon
2. Alex Dickerson
3. Gift Ngoepe
4. Adalberto Santos
5. Stolmy Pimentel
6. Casey Sadler
7. Mel Rojas Jr
8. Matt Curry
9. Carlos Paulino
10. Brandon Cumpton
11. Jarek Cunningham
Over the past few weeks and certainly in the next few days there will be many projections and predictions made how about players and teams will perform during the upcoming 2013 season. These prognosticators will try to include every bit of pertinent information they can into those guesses they make. I myself have done it when discussing my expectations for individual players and will do it tomorrow as I wrap up that series with a final look at the team as a whole and give my official record prediction. So many things can happen in the course of a season, players can digress, players can break out, teams cans struggle with injuries, etc but in the end all forecasters worth a grain of salt try to account for these things in various ways. The methods are usually not very accurate but its the attempt that is important.
Baseball however is not just about what we can predict (or at least try to predict) but rather it is about so much more. Chances are if you are reading this blog you are a Pirates fan like myself and if you are you are certainly not a fan because of what the forecasts say. No fan could survive being a Pirates fan if it was just about the numbers and the ebb and flow of the game. There is a certain magic about baseball that many can feel but only a few appreciate and which fewer yet understand. As for myself I feel it, appreciate it and as the years pass feel as if I am beginning to understand it more and more and yet my original point of this article was to explain it and that is an even taller mountain to climb as I know no one who can do so and give it justice.
It is a strange mystical force which causes all this. It goes by man names, some call it luck, some call it karma, some call it destiny, some call it hope but none of those words truly captures it. This mystical force causes luck, decides who is need of good and bad karma, picks outs the teams of destiny and keeps fans of even the Pirates hoping that this could be their year. This presence can’t be evaluated nor predicted nor accounted for in any sort of real tangible way. It is there but then again it isn’t. Some people including myself have gone to explaining this as an act from the baseball gods and in a way that truly is what it is. I’m not much of a religious person and don’t care to get into a religious argument with anyone but I feel this needs to be said. The God or God(s) or lack there of, you believe in or not, if they exist, do not care one iota about baseball but the something not of the world truly must and that force whatever it may be is what the baseball gods truly are. Unfortunately they are not a merciful judge and they act in strange some times incomprehensible ways, I mean they have punished the Cubs for over 100 years for not leaving a goat into a stadium. What us Pirates fans have been through for the last two decades, highlighted by the last two years is most certainly not fair. And yet here I am and here you are back thinking about the 2013 Pirates team and what it might just have in store.
Talent alone will only get a team so far. The Pirates true talent level as you will see on this and may other sites is usually said to be somewhere in between 75 to 85 wins. That is a large and rather important range of outcomes and where the Pirates fall on it or possible even off of it will ultimately be determined by the force I know as the baseball gods. On paper this Pirates season doesn’t look good but it looks better than a lot of the ones in the recent past but in reality this is a team that possibly more so than any other will rely on what is thrown at them or given to them by this mystical force.
For those of you who reached this point in my article I thank you. What I wrote above is most likely a bunch of malarkey and doesn’t really say too much or add much to the Pirates conversation but once every year I like to write out a piece more for myself than anything and try to figure out just what it is that makes baseball just so … so … baseball. Alas I have no other words to describe it.
The Pirates essentially finalized their 25 man roster earlier today. Technically speaking there are still a few additional players in camp but all of them are expected to begin the season on the DL. Overall the roster is constructed in a very expected manner and while it is not how I would have went about doing it most of the decisions are at least somewhat understandable. There are always going to be people who complain about the fringes of the 25 man roster but at the end of the day those fringes really do not matter much, it is the core of the team and the overall depth (bench, bullpen and minor leagues) that will determine the fate of a team. The 5th starter, the 5th bench spot and the 7th reliever are not really positions that will dramatically alter the course of a team so the overreaction to the Pirates decisions on those roster spots is likely overblown. With all that in mind let’s take a look at how the Pirates roster looks headed into Opening Day.
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
BN: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, John McDonald, Josh Harrison
SP: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke
RP: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez
In reality the only players I would remove from the roster if I was in charge of its construction would be McDonald, Harrison (eventually Inge) and Gomez. In their place I would prefer to see Mercer, De Jesus and Morris. The other change I would like to see made is swapping Wilson and J Sanchez. Wilson is younger and in my opinion more likely to be able to contribute to the rotation for a few starts while Sanchez at this point is probably best suited trying to turn his career around as a lefty reliever. Even these changes though are for the most part temporary. When Liriano comes back I would most likely opt to bump Wilson from the rotation, when Karstens comes back I would most likely opt to bump Morris from the bullpen and I can even understand the argument for wanting McDonald over De Jesus. I don’t get Harrison or Inge over Mercer though. I know Mercer can’t play the outfield while the other sort of kind of can but the Pirates have enough options where they shouldn’t be considering playing infielders in the outfield anyway. The other advantage Inge has is supposedly power but people seem to forget Mercer has a little pop in his bat as well, it was just 2011 when he lead the Pirates minor leagues in home runs. Still arguments over the last bench spot are basically trivial and irrelevant. I don’t get why the Pirates need two (or even one) veteran middle infielders on the bench who can’t hit but in reality the difference between them and the other options is most likely negligible.
With that rather long disclaimer out-of-the-way I figured now was as good as time as any to take a look at the players the Pirates have opted to bring north.
The starting infield is what we expected it to be all along. Russell Martin behind the dish will be counted on to provide solid defense and hopefully will produce somewhere in the vicinity of league average offense from the catcher position. The Pirates likely overpaid for him but if his superior pitch framing skills are actually real and not just a product of catching for guys like C.C. Sabathia then there is a chance he lives up the contract or maybe even provides some surplus value. I’m not expecting much in terms of offense from him but if he can be non horrible and provide the Pirates with an OPS around .700 I would take it.
Garrett Jones likely won’t be playing full-time at first base but assuming the Pirates actually stick to regularly platooning him this season he should get about 70% of the starts. Jones is here for essentially one purpose, to provide the Pirates with relatively cheap power. The rest of Jones’ game is fairly unremarkable from his defense to his baserunning but he is a fair hitter with plus power. That doesn’t make him a super valuable piece but it makes him an asset in the middle of the order. On the hot corner will reside Pedro Alvarez. Like Jones, Alvarez could probably benefit by sitting against some left handers but hopefully the Pirates give him a chance to prove his worth against them. Also like Jones, Alvarez is here to provide the Pirates with some power but unlike Jones, Alvarez has enough power potential where he could develop into an extremely valuable piece. Alvarez is going to strike out too much and not play the best defense at third but if he can show a little more plate discipline, draw a few more walks and continue blasting home runs he is going to have a lot of value.
Up the middle Neil Walker figures to get nearly every start at 2nd base and assuming Inge takes Harrison spot he better be starting everyday as the Pirates really won’t have a viable alternative on the 25 man roster. He had some back problems near the end of last season which bares watching but in reality any injury to him would really hurt the Pirates. It is unclear whether Hurdle plans to use him near the top of the order or more towards the bottom but given the fact he is one of the few Pirates players with a decent knack for getting on base placing him near the top (or eve at the top) of the order would probably be the wisest decision. Up the middle with Walker is Clint Barmes. Barmes’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to field the shortstop position very well but even so he is going to have to improve upon last year’s numbers to be of much use to the Pirates. Over the last 4 months of 2012 Barmes posted an OPS of around .650 and if he is able to do that for an entire season he won’t be the most glamorous shortstop but he will give the Pirates value.
The starting outfield is pretty much what we expected all along. There was a quasi competition for the corner spots but for the most part those were basically just made up as it was rather clear who should be the starters. In center field the Pirates will once again have their superstar Andrew McCutchen. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about him. He is likely one of the best 10 players in the game today and in order for the Pirates to have any chance of competing he will need to perform at a MVP caliber level. McCutchen did have a few flaws last year though and hopefully this season he will improve upon them. Last season he struggled stealing bases and was a little on the weak side defensively. Considering the rest of his game these are minor points of course but shoring them up would only make him more valuable.
In the corners the Pirates will use Starling Marte and Travis Snider. I expect to see both of them rested, especially Snider, on a fairly consistent basis but they will both get a long chance to prove themselves. Marte has plus speed and is a great defender so even if he struggles with the bat this season he is likely to still provide the Pirates with value. By no means is Marte’s bat weak though as he has the potential to possibly be the Pirates second best hitter this season behind only McCutchen. Marte is likely going to be forced into the leadoff spot a role he isn’t really suited for since he has some strike out issues but if he can maintain a high average and show any improvement in plate discipline he should be serviceable there. In the other corner will be Snider. He doesn’t have the speed or defense of Marte so he is going to have to hit to create value. People tend to think him hitting is less likely than Marte hitting well but in reality I think its a pretty even race. Snider has shown flashes in the past and comes with more power potential than Marte. The Pirates in order to have a shot at competing probably need one of these two to break out and become a true plus player and the other one will have to at least hold his own and be an average starter.
As I have previously stated the construction of the bottom of the bench really doesn’t matter a whole lot but the players near the top of the bench will likely get a lot of playing time so they will matter a good deal. The top player on the bench is likely Gaby Sanchez and he is expected to pick up the 30% or so of the starts that Garrett Jones doesn’t get at 1st base. Ideally Sanchez would bounce back to his 2010-11 form but that doesn’t really seem likely. In reality all the Pirates need him to be is a good bat against LHP and a good PH option off the bench two roles I think he’ll have no problem handling. Jose Tabata could potentially wind up in a similar situation to Sanchez only in right field. It is possible he winds up platooning with Snider and if that is the case he too will have to hit very well against left handed pitching. Tabata has the upside for more though. At this point he isn’t likely to develop into your traditional starting corner outfielder but he has very good plate discipline and that alone has the potential to make him a valuable asset atop the order. His speed although it has been questioned is still above average and his defense is probably around average as well. Tabata has the makings of an OBP first starting corner outfielder or a solid 4th outfielder. He is likely to be the second most important bench player.
The third most important bench spot and the last I see with much value will go to Michael McKenry. As the backup catcher he is likely to get at least 60 starts this season and will need to continue hitting as well as he did last season to provide value in those starts. His defense is decent but often overrated by Pirates fans but his bat can make him a solid backup catcher. The last two spots are currently slated to go to Harrison and McDonald but Inge will likely eventually assume Harrison’s role. In my mind the most important of these spots is the Harrison/Inge spot. This is supposedly the offensive first infield bench spot so whoever holds it down is going to have to actually you know hit at a respectable level. McDonald will serve as Barmes backup and though he is probably a touch worse both offensively and defensively his presence in the lineup for a day here or there shouldn’t really cause a noticeable difference.
Right now the Pirates rotation is a bit of mess. At the top of it the Pirates have probably one of the best one-two punches they have had in a while in AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Neither one is a true ace but both seem like fairly safe bets to put up solid numbers this season. At 36 and 34 years old respectively there is of course the chance that either Burnett or Rodriguez has reached the end of their rope as pitchers but with how both of them pitched last year it seems likely they probably have another year or two of value left in them at least. Behind them is James McDonald who si the ultimate wildcard for the Pirates. If there is a true ace currently in the Pirates rotation it is James McDonald. McDonald showed us in the first half of the season last year that he has the talent to be a number one starting pitcher but he showed us in the second half of the year that he isn’t ready to be that yet and possibly never will be. What James McDonald the Pirates get this year, potential ace, borderline #5 starter or somewhere in between will probably be one of the biggest factors in how the Pirates season winds up.
Rounding out the rotation are a pitcher who amazingly actually has a wider range of possible outcomes than McDonald and a pitcher who looks like a fair bet to be a solid a back end guy but who has yet to prove it at the major league level. Jonathan Sanchez is another wildcard in the Pirates rotation but he is even less likely to pay off than McDonald. If Sanchez can keep his control problems at a minimum he will have an excellent chance of being a solid middle of the rotation starter for the Pirates but if he can’t he will most definitely be a total disaster. The Pirates really can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be expecting much from him. If Sanchez can give the Pirates 3 or 4 non-horrible starts in the month of April without completely exploding then it should be considered a success. The other pitcher Locke is a different story. Locke pitched exceptionally well in AAA last season but in his short stint in the majors was the victim of a very unlucky high home run rate. Assuming the high home rate drops this season which it will almost assuredly do I’m fairly confident Locke can become a solid #4 starter for the Pirates and mange to keep them in almost every game. He isn’t the flashiest pitcher but his performance in AAA has earned him this shot.
The back of the bullpen will consist of Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. These four actually make for a fairly solid quartet of arms. Grilli has been successful in a set up and middle relief role the last two seasons and will inherit the closer role this year. Melancon struggled last year in April and was sent down to the minors but when he returned to the majors he pitched pretty well The two of them , Grilli and Melancon, will likely be the Pirates 8th and 9th inning duo. By no means is this the best back end duo in the league but the tandem should be able to close out most leads that are handed over to them. Watson and Hughes were rather successful last season in their middle relief roles and will be counted on this season in later inning situations. Hughes will probably inherit the 7th inning role and Watson will continue being the top left handed releiver in the bullpen. The success of these two last year makes it fairly likely the adjustment should be relatively smooth.
At the front of the bullpen trying to bridge the gap to the back 4 guys will be Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez. All 3 pitchers are capable of throwing multiple innings and all will likely be called upon to do so throughout the year. Wilson provides the Pirates with a second lefty and one who is more of a strike out pitcher. Leroux and Gomez will likely pick up most of the long relief duties. Both are out of options and one of them is likely to be released once pitchers began to get healthy so it will be sort of an extended competition for the duo. Leroux appears to have the more upside but Gomez has more major league experience. Leroux and Gomez are both fairly replaceable relievers so they will have to pitch well this season to remain with the team.