2013 Expectations: Front Office

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.

Considering the fact that my mood with the front office is less than good with the news they are planning on adding Inge to the roster I am going to keep this piece fairly short and try to stay on point.

All in all the current Pirates front office has done a fair job assembling the 2013 Pirates team which currently looks like the most talented group the Pirates have had in recent seasons. Is it enough? No but it is progress. I believe there is a strong possibility the Pirates will clean house after this season both at the manager and front office ranks. The group has helped the Pirates take some nice big strides forward but at this point I don’t believe this group has what it takes to get the team over the hump (and I’m not talking .500 I believe regardless of the front office the streak will end this year or next). The rotation the Pirates are entering the 2013 season with is weak there is no doubt about that and failure to have better alternatives to what is a very injury prone rotation certainly falls at the feet of the front office. There was some depth there but it has been used up. Ideally a team wouldn’t have to enter the season with Jonathan Sanchez in the rotation but in reality an extended 2-3 start tryout likely isn’t going to cost the Pirates much of anything this season. If he performs well great, if not he will (or at least should) be replaced in short order. The construction of the bench is another manner but if the bench players end up having to play significant roles this season things have gone fairly bad.

Neal Huntington and his front office have overseen some very perplexing and irritating strategies during their tenure but in the end their impact on the playing field is probably very minimal. The difference between starting with Sanchez instead of say McPherson in the rotation for 2-3 April starts won’t really have a huge impact on this season nor will Inge being on the roster over a player like Mercer. These moves are annoying and waste a little bit of the precious resources the Pirates have but at the end of the day moves like this do not affect the fate of the season. What does have a substantial impact on how the 2013 season will progress are the recent major additions to the team. The 2013 Pirates and there by Huntington’s fate will be largely determined by the success or failure of Wandy Rodriguez, Fransisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez. Those 5 players have all been added to the Pirates roster within the last 8 months or so and will be playing their first full season with the Pirates. All 5 will be counted on to have significant roles with the Pirates. It is this group that can help Huntington keep his job for at least one more season.

My expectation for Huntington is to see that particular group of 5 players along with his other impactful additions, Clint Barmes, Jose Tabata, Jeff Locke, AJ Burnett, James McDonald, Jason Grill, etc take a major step up as a group. Of course some will fail but if the Pirates have more successes than failures and a lot of big successes and only small failures the 2013 Pirates could potentially be really good. This group of players has the talent to do so and if they do then Huntington and his staff deserves all the credit in the world but should they not step up Huntington and his staff will have rightfully earned themselves a spot in the unemployment line. This is a do or die year for Huntington his major league acquisitions and his draft classes need to show significant improvement or else.

Sanchez and Inge Make The Team?

Right now I am at a loss for words. Some how, some way both Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Inge have made the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Spring Training. Just a few short weeks ago this seemed virtually impossible and yet here we are. Things have gone horribly horribly wrong and now these two players are going to wind up displacing two guys from the Pirates 40 man roster. Considering the other options available this isn’t necessarily a death-blow to the team’s chances in 2013 but what it is is an admission from Huntington that he just doesn’t trust his minor league system. Last week the addition of John McDonald was yet another admission. For some reason Huntington just can’t put any faith into the players he has at the minor league level and I am getting quite tired of it.

Neither is really an acceptable addition but to some extent Sanchez is at least a little understandable. When the Pirates signed him as a minor league free agent Sanchez appeared to be competing with the likes of Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Chris Leroux and Phillip Irwin to be the Pirates 10th option to pick up starts. The fact that he has apparently won that battle is perfectly fine but the fact that the Pirates 10th option is needed in the rotation to begin the season and the fact that such a possibility wasn’t exactly a difficult one to see is a problem. For those of you wondering where I’m getting 10th option at the Pirates have five fairly established starters in Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Liriano and Karstens and they have two young starters primed to get inning in Locke and McPherson and two players who are primed to help support the rotation by midseason in Morton and Cole. All that adds up to 9 respectable arms ready to man the rotation. That is all well and good but it was a fairly easy thing to predict that 5 of the 9 weren’t going to be ready for Opening Day. It was already a given Morton and Cole weren’t going to be and Liriano was known to be hurt. That means all it took was Karstens injuring his shoulder (an issue he has for the past few years) and McPherson showing he isn’t ready (something his 3 career AAA starts should have told us).

Yes it is a little bad luck the Pirates are down to their 10th starting option to begin the season but it was at least possible to foresee this situation playing out. Sanchez does have some upside though and has looked fairly respectable in camp so it is hard to fault the Pirates completely on him. Inge (and McDonald) are entirely different stories. First let me say that Inge appears likely to start on the DL and probably won’t be part of the Opening Day roster but in reality that just makes the fact he has made the team even more inexcusable. These two players provide nothing the Pirates internal options like Mercer, Harrison and De Jesus could not provide. Yes Inge has some power but his injury zaps that all away and he has been declining rapidly over the last few years anyway. The younger players on the Pirates roster also come with some upside and still could potentially develop into more useful players so choosing Inge and McDonald over them makes absolutely no sense. Those three are better options and hell they are even cheaper. This is simply a matter of poor roster management.

Again at the end of the day these mistakes by the front office aren’t likely to cost the Pirates a lot. The difference between Inge and McDonald and the younger players is probably going to be fairly irrelevant and having to go with Sanchez in the rotation is a case of improper planning but at the end of the day is at least somewhat understandable. These moves aren’t going to derail the Pirates season they simply aren’t important enough to do so but they are aggravating and highlight some poor qualities in Huntington and Hurdle. A team like the Pirates is going to have to get lucky with some of their own young players. That is a two-step process: 1) Getting young players in the system with some potential and 2) Getting lucky by giving them a chance to prove themselves. Huntington has done a fair job with the first part of the equation but has displayed an unwillingness to even try the second part of the equation.

2013 Expectations: Coaches

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.

Manager Clint Hurdle

Hurdle is entering his 3rd season as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Under his leadership the Pirates have seen their records improve each of the last two seasons. The players seem to play for him and to me that is the largest part of being a successful manager. On the not so bright side Hurdle has some issues with in-game management that are often talked about on the blog-o-sphere. His love of bunting and inability to see young utility infielders on his bench being my two chief complaints. There are others of course such as his timing of things such as hit and runs and steal attempts. Overall I see him as an effective manager with a lot of room to improve. It isn’t always easy to set expectations for a coach but I think it’s fairly obvious the task at hand for Hurdle he needs to lead the Pirates towards another improved season or likely be fired. The Pirates did remove his lame duck status this season but that’s more of a formality than anything. If the 2013 Pirates fail to improve there will undoubtedly be wide-spread changes in the coaching staff starting with Hurdle. Now as far as what I would like to see him do in terms of actual performance there is really only one thing: Use the Roster He Has More Efficiently. Last season the Pirates offense believe it or not was heavily dependent on the long ball and Hurdle’s insistence to bunt took away opportunities for one. In addition to that Hurdle seems to have a reluctance to use younger players such as Pedro Ciriaco, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson and Kyle McPherson. He needs to start rolling the dice with players like that be it in bench roles, bullpen roles or something more impactful. I am not expecting to see any of that though as Hurdle is what he is and will continue to push veterans into roles the younger players are at least if not better prepared for.

Hitting Coach Jay Bell

The task in front of Bell is relatively simple. Improve team plate discipline. The Pirates as a team walked too few times last year and struck out far too many times. In his first year as Pirates hitting coach Bell is tasked with fixing those issues and making the Pirates a more discipline team. It isn’t going to be an easy task but that is the job Bell signed up for. In addition to closely watching those numbers it is my expectation that at least one Pirates player hits well above expectations. What does that mean? That means Snider or Marte or Sanchez or … someone taking that next step and playing better than what we all expect. I’ll say it again these are not necessarily fair things to task Jay Bell with it but it is the job he has taken on so I wish him luck and will hope to see some results.

Pitching Coach Ray Searage

Searage has been a breath of fresh air for the Pirates coaching staff. He has done an outstanding job with the arms the front office has given him but he needs to show he can keep them going for an entire season. McDonald and Liriano will be the two pitchers who largely define the success or failure of the 2013 season for Searage. Neither one has to pitch like an ace all season but both of them need to be quality starting pitchers for the entire 2013 season. There can be no falling off a cliff and wondering what happened. Searage has been great but he needs his staff to put together a consistent good solid year or else he too will be out the door. Also something has to be done to improve the pitchers’ ability to hold runners and that will ultimately lie at the feet of Searage.

1st Base Coach Rick Sofield

I wasn’t originally going to highlight any of the other minor coaches by them self but Sofield is an important one. The first base coach is typically given the task of coaching the running game and while the overall base running from the Pirates last year actually wasn’t too bad their stealing was absolutely terrible. Sofield will be spending his first year on the Pirates staff and has the tall task of making the Pirates a legitimate threat on the bases. The Pirates have some speed in Marte, McCutchen and Tabata they could be utilizing which in return would minimize the number of time Hurdle felt the need to bunt but for some reason or another they can’t seem to do it real well. It will be Sofield’s job to help the Pirates as a whole and specifically the premier base stealers improve upon their current abilities.

The Rest

The rest of the coaching staff includes Nick Leyva (3rd base coach), Jeff Bannister (Bench Coach), Euclides Rojas (Bullpen Coach), Jeff Branson (Coach), Dave Jauss (Coach) and Brendon Huttman (Stregnth and Conditioning Coach). The role of these coaches are a little less clear in the day-to-day grind which is baseball but every one of them is on the hot seat should the Pirates performance not improve. Leyva’s most obvious duty is deciding whether to send runners home but he also oversees the infield defense (Sofield oversees the outfield defense). Bannister as a bench coach is largely there to assist the manager with whatever tasks he chooses. Rojas is there to answer the bullpen phone (his most visible job) but his main job is assisting the pitching coach likewise the main job of Jeff Branson will be assisting Jay Bell with his duties as hitting coach. Jauss’s role is a little more ambiguous as he has been described as the team’s “eye in the sky”. Essentially he will offer his advice on various matters. Finally Brendon Huttman is obviously there to try to keep the players as healthy and fit as possible. These coaches will be judged based upon whatever duties they are assigned to oversee.

News and Notes

Not much happening today. But I thought a general post to catch up on some recent news would be a good idea.

Brad Hawpe who has been receiving an inordinate amount of playing time has been released from camp. That means according to my projection there are 5 players left in camp for the last bench spot: Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Jordy Mercer, Alex Presley and Felix Pie. To me it comes down to Harrison and Inge and I think considering Inge’s health issues that Harrison has the upper hand.

Tony Watson pitched an uneventful 1-2-3 inning today so it appears more likely that he will be ready for Opening Day which would displace Mike Zagurski from my projected roster. Zagurski hasn’t looked good recently anyway and probably shouldn’t make the team.

Jeff Karstens is scheduled to pitch tomorrow and as long as things go right he has a chance of being ready to be part of the rotation to start the season. If Karstens joins the rotation he would displace Sanchez or Locke from the rotation. That displacement could result in the displacement of Ryan Reid/Jeanmar Gomez or even Justin Wilson from the bullpen. In addition to Karstens possibly being ready by Opening Day it sounds as if Francisco Liriano may be about a month behind that.

As Spring Training winds down the Pirates camp roster now sits at 36 meaning there are still 11 cuts to be made. I’m expecting that we will see some early next week and the roster will really begin to round into shape. The roster battles as I see them are down to Harrison/Inge for the last bench spot, Locke/McPherson/Sanchez/Karstens for the final two rotation spots and Wilson/Gomez/Reid along with the losers of the rotation battle fighting for the final two bullpen spots. All of this assumes Watson is healthy and the Pirates decide to carry Leroux and Tabata which all seem rather likely.

On the site this week I am planning to conclude my expectations series with a look at the non-player parts of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The final three parts of the series will be the coaches, the front office and the team as a whole. Keep an eye out for those. In addition to those I will have a few more season preview pieces. Finally I’ll be attending the Pirates last exhibition game of Spring when they play their AA affiliate on Saturday March 30th. It should be a fun experience and I’m looking forward to providing a recap of the game both from the major and minor league perspective.

In the meantime I have recently updated my Top 20 Hitting and Top 20 Pitching prospects. Check them out. For the record I update them about two or three times a month during the season and I am planning on providing some details on the top prospects in the near future.

Sorting Through The Arms

Yesterday I made an ill-advised final attempt at predicting what the Pirates roster would look like come Opening Day. Less than 24 hours it has been proven wrong as Bryan Morris has been optioned to AAA. Morris wasn’t having the best Spring but I still feel like he was on of the Pirates seven best options for the bullpen to start the season. Since that attempt has failed I decided to give in another go today but this time primarily focus on the pitching side since that appears to have the most interesting questions remaining.

With today’s cuts of Morris, Ivan De Jesus and Jared Goedert there remains 40 players in camp. The following 18 players I believe have a firm grasp on their roster spots.

C: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry

IF: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes, John McDonald

OF: Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata

RHP: AJ Burnett, James McDonald, Jason Grilli, Jared Hughes, Marek Melancon

LHP: Wandy Rodriguez

The above roster guarantees leaves one position player spot and six pitching spots available. Of the remaining 22 players three, Charlie Morton, Francisco Liriano and Jose Contreras are definitely not going to be healthy enough to start the season so the number essentially is reduced to 19 players. Of those 19 players there are two who’s place on the roster is only dependent upon their health, Jeff Karstens and Tony Watson. This bring us down to 17 players battling for somewhere between 5-7 spots.

The one position player spot is fairly straightforward. The eight position players left in camp without a guaranteed spot on the roster are Lucas May, Carlos Paulino, Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Jordy Mercer, Alex Presley, Felix Pie and Brad Hawpe. May and Paulino have absolutely zero chance of making the team as they are just extra catchers. Hawpe, Pie and Presley face an uphill climb as the Pirates are likely to give this final spot to an infielder not an outfielder. So what all that reasoning leaves us with is Mercer, Inge and Harrison fighting for one spot. The acquisition of McDonald makes it less likely the Pirates will keep Mercer on the roster and Inge has been awful this Spring and has never really been fully healthy so the edge here has to go to Josh Harrison.

The pitching gets a little more complicated as there are anywhere from 4-6 spots available depending on the health of Watson and Karstens and 9 players vying for those spots. There is likely to be 1-2 spots available in the rotation depending upon the health of Karstens and the last remaining competitors for those are Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez. Of the group Gomez is probably the least deserving and can likely be quickly removed from the discussion. That leaves Locke, McPherson and Sanchez and of those 3 McPherson has has the worst Spring Training and has the least supporting performance to fall back on. That makes the favorites for the final one or two rotation spots Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez. At this point I can’t imagine Karstens being ready to start at the beginning of the year so I think both players will wind up in the rotation to begin the season.

Next up is the bullpen and that is a little more crowded. There are only three locks for the bullpen in Grilli, Melancon and Hughes but Watson and even Karstens could join them there if they are healthy. Outside of those players the Pirates have the following left handers, Jonathan Sanchez, Justin Wilson, and Mike Zagurski competing for spots and the following right handers, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Ryan Reid competing for spots. Based on spring performances and past track records I feel fairly confident that two of the vacant spots will be filled by Leroux and Wilson. If Watson and Karstens both start the season in the bullpen that will be enough arms to round out the pen but otherwise there could be one to two spots available. Right now I have no clue if these two will be healthy or even if the Pirates would be willing to have Karstens work out of the bullpen to begin the season. If Watson isn’t healthy I have to figure the Pirates carry a second lefty in Mike Zagurski and if Karstens isn’t healthy or they decide not to use him in a bullpen role and instead start him on the DL I think it likely comes down to Reid or Gomez. As things currently stand I think Reid has the upper hand in such a battle.

All of this leaves me with my first (and hopefully only) post final 25 man roster prediction of:

C: Martin, McKenry

IF: Jones, G Sanchez, Walker, Alvarez, Barmes, Jo McDonald, Harrison

OF: Marte, McCutchen, Snider, Tabata

SP: Burnett, Rodriguez, Ja McDonald, Locke, J Sanchez

RP: Grilli, Melancon, Hughes, Leroux, Wilson, Watson/Zagurski, Karstens/Reid

Final 25 Man Roster Prediction

With only 11 days left until Opening Day I thought it was time to take my final crack at predicting which 25 guys the Pirates will take north with them.

Catchers: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry

Both Martin and McKenry are healthy and appear ready to begin the year. There has been some talk about the Pirates looking for a catcher but I imagine that would only be as a depth option for AAA. These two have been locks to make the team since Spring Training began and nothing has changed that.

1st Base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez

Despite battling an injury early in the spring Jones now appears at full strength and should be ready to open the year as the Pirates regular 1st baseman. The plan all along this spring was to have Jones be the starter and for Gaby Sanchez to platoon with hm and pick up the starts against left handed starters. Sanchez has also been working out at third this spring and will hopefully be a viable alternative there.

2nd Base: Neil Walker

Fairly straight forward here. Walker is healthy and is the Pirates everyday 2nd baseman.

3rd Baseman: Pedro Alvarez

Again no rocket science here. Alvarez struck out a lot last season and has been struggling this spring but the Pirates have little choice but to let him have a shot at being an everyday or close to it 3rd baseman.

Shortstop: Clint Barmes, John McDonald

Before yesterday it wasn’t so clear just who would be backing up Barmes but the acquisition of McDonald clears things up quite a bit. Barmes will start on most days but when he needs a breather or is pinched hit for late in games McDonald will see some time in the field at shortstop.

Left Field: Starling Marte

Contrary to popular belief I don’t think Marte had a starting spot nailed down headed into Spring Training but from all reports he has looked great and his numbers have been solid so he will now undoubtedly as he should start the year as the everyday left fielder.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen

Duh, who else would it be?

Right Field: Travis Snider, Jose Tabata

Some thought Sands or possibly Presley or even Hawpe may factor into right field mix at the beginning of Spring Training but it became fairly clear early on that the spot was Snider’s to lose and that in all likelihood Tabata would make the team as the 4th outfielder and split time with Snider in right taking most of the starts against left handed pitchers.

Starting Pitcher: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke

Burnett, Rodriugez and McDonald have long been assumed and nothing from this spring changes that. The three of them will form the Pirates top 3 going into the season. The last two spots have looked like a bit of mess all Spring Training as Liriano hasn’t been healthy at all and Karstens really hasn’t been either. Locke hasn’t exactly separated himself from the pack but he was a favorite for a job headed into spring training and no one has really over took him at this point.

Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux

Things have gotten a lot less settled in the Pirates bullpen in the last couple of days. Grilli, Melancon and Hughes were all assumed to essentially be locks since the beginning and nothing has changed on that front. Also considered near locks were Tony Watson and Bryan Morris bu Watson has only pitched sporadicly and Morris apparently has an option remaining meaning he could start in the minors without the Pirates having to risk losing him. Leroux is out of options and has had a pretty strong spring so I expect the Pirates to keep him on the roster and not risk losing him.

For those of you not keeping track at home that is only 20 players meaning there are still 5 spots available. These are the 5 that I think still come with some uncertainty.

Bench (1): Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Alex Presley, Felix Pie, Brad Hawpe, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus, Jared Goedert

At this point there is only one bench spot remaining and all the above players still vying for it. With the acquisition of McDonald I assume Mercer and De Jesus are out of the running. Non roster invitees Hawpe and Goedert seem like long shots and are unlikely to make the team. That leaves Harrison, Inge, Presley and Pie. I would prefer to see the Pirates use this last spot on the best offensive player but knowing how Huntington and Hurdle like to construct a roster I think this last bench spot is likely to go to an infielder with some versatility so that eliminates Presley and Pie. This final spot in my mind is down to Harrison and Inge. To date Inge has shown nothing tha hints he would be an asset to this team so I expect the Pirates will opt to carry Josh Harrison as the final bench player.

Rotation (1):  Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeanmar Gomez

Before his disastrous start yesterday I would have said McPherson would get the last spot if Karstens wasn’t ready to go but now I’m not too sure. I still can’t imagine any scenario in which Gomez gets the nod but the Pirates are keeping Sanchez starting and have to make a decision on him by the 24th. I think there are serious doubts that Karstens will be ready by the start of the season but right now I’m still inclined to say he will take the last rotation spot.

Bullpen (3): Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Ryan Reid, Mike Zagurski, Jonathan Sanchez

Although he still has an option remaining Bryan Morris remains in my opinion one of the Pirates strongest options for the bullpen so despite the fact there is now a chance he could start the year in the minors I still expect to see him as part of the bullpen on Opening Day. Watson has me legitimately concerned at this point and I am now leaning towards the idea of him not being ready by Opening Day and actually starting the season in the minors. I’m expecting the Pirates to carry two left handers in the bullpen to start the season regardless of Watson’s health so assuming everything breaks as I predict that leaves no room for Reid or Gomez and makes the final two spots a battle between Wilson, Zagurski and Sanchez. At this point I can’t see Sanchez making the team unless they opt to have him start in the rotation so my prediction is the final two spots will go to Wilson and Zagurski.

Roster

Lineup: Marte (LF), Walker (2B), McCutchen (CF), Alvarez (3B), Jones (1B), Martin (C), Snider (RF), Barmes (SS)

Bench: McKenry (C), Sanchez (1B-3B), McDonald (2B-3B-SS), Tabata (OF), Harrison (2B-3B-SS-OF)

Rotation: Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Locke, Karstens

Bullpen: Grilli (CL), Melancon (SU), Hughes, Morris, Leroux, Wilson (LH), Zagurski (LH)

Pirates Acquire John McDonald

The Pirates traded a PTBNL or cash considerations to the Diamondbacks today for utility infield John McDonald. McDonald is 38 years old and has a career OPS of .608 so the Pirates obviously did not acquire him for his potential or his bat. The reason McDonald was acquired is that he has a strong glove and is very capable defensively at 2B, SS and even 3B. He has to be placed on the 40 man roster and is owed 1.5 million dollars this year so he will undoubtedly make the team out of Spring Training. The 40 man roster is a minor issue as Morton and possibly d’Arnaud figure to be put on the 60 day DL here in the coming days and one of Leroux or Gomez (hopefully Gomez) will surely be released. However what this trade does do is tell us some things about how the Pirates perceive their bench options.

The acquisition of McDonald makes it very unlikely in my mind that either Mercer or De Jesus will make the team out of Spring Training. They were competing for a spot largely due to their ability to be the backup shortstop and McDonald now makes that role moot and suggests the Pirates must not think too highly of either of them at the moment. I don’t agree with that assessment as I find it hard to believe neither one would be able to hit at least as well as McDonald while providing decent defense but that is the decision the Pirates have made.

The move also leaves only one bench spot open as Sanchez, McKenry, Tabata and McDonald are likely to tae up four of the spots.  Based on Pirates past history the fifth spot is likely to go to another infielder and with Mercer and De Jesus appearing highly unlikely that only leaves Josh Harrison and Brandon Inge as options. Neither is particularly exciting as a potential bench bat but that is what the Pirates are left with. Hurdle seems to prefer carrying two bench players capable of playing shortstop with one of them being a utility type so I’m guessing Josh Harrison currently has the edge for the last spot.

Assuming all the above is correct McDonald will likely serve as this season’s Pedro Ciriaco or Jordy Mercer and be invisible to Clint Hurdle. To be honest I’d rather have a veteran guy like McDonald in this role than Mercer but above all I would rather not have this role as all. The implementation of such a spot combined with the reluctance to use the backup catcher as a pinch hitter essentially means the Pirates will be playing with only a 3 man bench this season. This isn’t a move that is going to really hurt the Pirates in any meaningful way but it also doesn’t appear likely to help them in any meaningful way so it leaves to wonder why they ever made the move in the first place.

I’m sure the Pirates have their reason for making this move. Perhaps none of the backup shortstops have looked like viable options in the field in their minds or perhaps they are considering only going with one utility infielder and prefer a veteran over a young player in such a rle but what ever the reason it isn’t particularly clear right now.

Lefty Relief

Clint Hurdle and the rest of the Pirates management have been on record stating they would like to carry at least two left handers in the major league bullpen. With less than two weeks remaining until opening day there are only 7 left handed pitchers left in camp and three of them, Rodriguez, Liriano and Locke, figure to be prominent members of the rotation. That leaves 4 players vying for what should be in theory two bullpen jobs. The four players left fighting it out are Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Mike Zagurski and Jonathan Sanchez. These four players come with different experience levels and different backgrounds. Wilson and Sanchez have been used up to this point largely as starters but are now being looked at as possible relievers. Watson and Wilson are on the Pirates 40 man roster and Zagurski and Sanchez are NRI with Sanchez having an opt out clause if he isn’t added to the roster by March 24th. Below I take a look at the background of each of these 4 players and try to assess each one’s chance of cracking the Pirates 25 man roster out of Spring Training.

Tony Watson

Tony WatsonHeading into spring training Watson appeared to be a lock for one of the Pirates bullpen jobs. He has been a part of the Pirates major league team for a year and a half now and has been largely effective. However Watson has only pitched sparingly this spring due to what is called by the team and Watson himself mechanical and physical issues. No specific injury has been cited and Watson has pitched in a few minor league games but still his long absence from major league camp and the mysterious issues he is reportedly having make him no longer a lock to begin the season in the major leagues.

Last season Watson was dominant against left handed hitters and was good against right handed hitters as well making him an ideal left handed reliever for Hurdle who doesn’t appear to like using his relievers strictly as matchup guys. If healthy and ready to pitch Watson is undoubtedly the Pirates best left handed option out of the bullpen and his potential absence from the Pirates roster could really hurt the team. Watson could begin the year on the DL if his issues are truly injury related or he still does have 2 options remaining so the Pirates could start him down in AAA if they believe him healthy but needing more time to get acclimated to game speed. At this point no one except the Pirates seems to know just what is really going on with Watson and what his status looks like for opening day. If I had to put a number on it right now with all I know I’d say it is 50/50 that he is one of the 25 guys heading north at the start of April.

Justin Wilson

Justin WilsonOver the course of the last two seasons the Pirates have tried Wilson as a starter to begin the year only to have him switch to relief near the season’s end. The change in roles was not due to him being ineffective though but rather to him struggling with his control. Wilson is one of the Pirates most talented pitcher in terms of just pure stuff but he has a big problem with his control. As Wilson moved up the minor league latter he became harder and harder to hit but his walk rate stayed relatively steady in the mid 4s BB/9. If he can manage to get that down to even under 4 Wilson has the talent to become a strong middle of the rotation starter and if he can get into the low 3s he could possibly become a decent #2 but as it currently stands Wilson’s best chance at major league success seems to be as a reliever.

Wilson got a cup of coffee in the majors last year and showed good stuff striking out a lot of hitters but when he didn’t do that they were mainly finding a way to get on base. Wilson faced only 26 batters in the majors last year of those he struck out 7 and allowed 13 to reach base. So far this spring Wilson has shown more of the same being tough to hit but continuing to walk too many hitters. It is difficult to tell exactly how the Pirates currently view Wilson; rather they see him as a potential starter they will want working out his kinks in AAA or whether they now think the best path forward with him is as a reliever. At the beginning of Spring Training I had Wilson on the outside looking in for a bullpen spot but with Watson’s mysterious issues and the Pirates comments on wanting at least two left handed relievers and multiple bullpen arms capable of throwing multiple innings I think Wilson’s chances of making the team are growing everyday. If I had to put a number on it right now I think I’d give him a 70% chance of coming north with the Pirates.

Mike Zagurski

ZagurskiZagurski received a minor league contract from the Pirates this past offseason and at the time he appeared to be little more than just depth for AAA but a couple of things have changed and they are the same two things I have discussed at length so far. One the Pirates appear likely to take two left handed relievers north and two Tony Watson very well may not be one of them. Those two factors along with a strong spring showing from Zagurski has brought him squarely into the conversation as a potential bullpen arm for the Pirates. His major league track record isn’t too good but he is coming off the best and longest major league stint of his career in 2012. It wasn’t good as his WHIP was 1.500 and his BB/9 were 4.6 but it was an improvement. On the positive side Zagurski has been fairly effective at AAA although he still has shown a problem with his control (something that is a theme for all Pirates left handed relief candidates). The other positive of Zagurski’s game is that he does have the ability to miss some bats although his numbers in that category have been slipping the last couple of seasons.

It should be pretty clear what the Pirates have in Zagurski and that is a below average left handed reliever who should be used as nothing more than a fill in should injuries arise during the course of the year. He almost certainly isn’t going to be a great reliever for the Pirates but his strong Spring performances gives some hope that he could be an effective one at least. The Pirates are having trouble with injuries as I stated with Watson so it definitely isn’t inconceivable he could start the year with the Pirates and be released once Watson is healthy. In fact if I were forced to guess right now I think that is exactly what the Pirates are intending to do with him. Since I have Watson as a 50/50 proposition and since I see Zagurski as Watson’s alternative I will also give him a 50/50 chance of making the Pirates out of spring training.

Jonathan Sanchez

Jonathan SanchezLike Zagurski, Sanchez was signed to a minor league contract with an invitation to major league camp but unlike him Sanchez came with some intrigue and in my mind some chance of making the team. Sanchez has had success in the majors before as a starting pitcher albeit one who managed to do so despite having poor control. Over the last two seasons however Sanchez’s control problems have gotten out of hand and he has been unable to still be effective in spite of them. Sanchez entered this Spring as a long shot for the rotation but certainly as a solid candidate for one of the available bullpen jobs. His first outing this spring was solid but it was followed up by 3 very poor outing where he showed essentially no control what so ever. He appeared to be out of the picture but a second solid showing a few days ago has him back in the competition although he is a long shot at this point. Still his overall numbers suggest he still has a few kinks to work out before being ready to contribute at the major league level.

Ideally the Pirates would prefer to send Sanchez to AAA, have him work on a few things and give him a chance to show that his control is now at least back to an acceptable level. However the Pirates probably do not have that option seeing as Sanchez has an out clause in his contract if he isn’t added to the roster by March 24th and from reports I’ve seen it sounds as if he intends to use it. As things currently stand Sanchez’ chances of making the Pirates appear very slim and in fact there are only two scenarios in which I can see him making it. The first scenario I think is highly unlikely and that is if the Pirates see something in him that suggests a minor tweak here and there can bring him back to his old form and don’t want him to leave. The second more likely but still doubtful scenario is if Ton Watson isn’t ready, the Pirates are intent on bring up two lefties and they deem Justin Wilson would be best served by heading back to AAA to start. Overall I’ll place Sanchez’s odds at around 10%. That leaves me at 180% for the four, the remaining 20% to me represents the possibility the Pirates opt to go with just one left hander.

The Last Twenty “Aces”

With the news of Gerrit Cole being sent down today I’ve got to thinking about how good (or to be more accurate bad) the Pirates “ace” has been over the course of the 20 year losing streak. The first step to do this was to go about picking the Pirates ace from each season. I did this in a subjective way factoring in a bunch of different stats but one thing I did set as a constant was a minimum of 150 IP in a give year (this was adjusted down some for the shortened 1994 season to 120 IP). You can see the results below. Also to give an idea of how baseball as a whole pitched that year I have listed the pitcher’s ranking in terms of FIP and WAR (min 150 IP, 120 in 1994).

1993: Steve Cooke

Stats: 210.2 IP, 3.89 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 3.3 WAR

Rankings: 38th (WAR), 41st (FIP)

1994: Denny Neagle

Stats: 137.0 IP, 5.12 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 2.0 WAR

Rankings: 47th (WAR), 35th (FIP)

1995: Denny Neagle

Stats: 209.2 IP, 3.43 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 4.6 WAR

Rankings: 11th (WAR), 12th (FIP)

1996: Denny Neagle

Stats: 182.2 IP, 3.05 ERA, 3.84 FIP, 3.6 WAR *based on only his time with the Pirates

Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 20th (FIP) *based on only his time with the Pirates

1997: Francisco Cordova

Stats: 178.2 IP, 3.63 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 3.5 WAR

Rankings: 30th (WAR), 23rd (FIP)

1998: Francisco Cordova

Stats: 220.1 IP, 3.31 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 3.6 WAR

Rankings: 32nd (WAR), 33rd (FIP)

1999: Kris Benson

Stats: 196.2 IP, 4.07 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 3.7 WAR

Rankings: 27th (WAR), 22nd (FIP)

2000: Kris Benson

Stats: 217.2 IP, 3.85 ERA, 4.20 FIP, 4.0 WAR

Rankings: 24th (WAR), 24th (FIP)

2001: Todd Ritchie

Stats: 207.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 3.2 WAR

Rankings: 35th (WAR), 36th (FIP)

2002: Kip Wells

Stats: 198.1 IP, 3.58 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 2.5 WAR

Rankings: 56th (WAR), 46th (FIP)

2003: Kip Wells

Stats: 197.1 IP, 3.28 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 2.4 WAR

Rankings: 61st (WAR), 60th (FIP)

2004: Oliver Perez

Stats: 196.0 IP, 2.98 ERA, 3.45 FIP, 4.5 WAR

Rankings: 17th (WAR), 11th (FIP)

2005: Mark Redman

Stats: 178.1 IP, 4.90 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 2.2 WAR

Rankings: 69th (WAR), 52nd (FIP)

2006: Zach Duke

Stats: 215.1 IP, 4.47 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 3.3 WAR

Rankings: 42nd (WAR), 31st (FIP)

2007: Ian Snell

Stats: 208.0 IP, 3.76 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 3.5 WAR

Rankings: 35th (WAR), 32nd (FIP)

2008: Paul Maholm

Stats: 206.1 IP, 3.71 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 2.8 WAR

Rankings: 48th (WAR), 49th (FIP)

2009: Paul Maholm

Stats: 194.2 IP, 4.44 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.2 WAR

Rankings: 43rd (WAR), 32nd (FIP)

2010: Paul Maholm

Stats: 185.1 IP, 5.10 ERA, 4.18 FIP, 1.9 WAR

Rankings: 80th (WAR), 70th (FIP)

2011: Charlie Morton

Stats: 171.2 IP, 3.83 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 2.1 WAR

Rankings: 70th (WAR), 48th (WAR)

2012: AJ Burnett

Stats: 202.1 IP, 3.51 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 3.4 WAR

Rankings: 29th (WAR), 27th (FIP)

The numbers above pain a pretty gruesome picture. Only twice in the last twenty years did the Pirates have a pitcher rank in the top 20 of the league in both FIP and WAR. A lot of years the Pirates struggled to even get a player to crack the top 50 in both categories. AJ Burnett helped dramatically improve the Pirates standing last year by posting the best season from a Pirates starter since 2004 but even so the Pirates have a lot of room to go to catch up to the rest of the league. The Pirates will not be able to close that gap through external means so there only hope of doing so in the next two or three years lies squarely on the arms of Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Yes it has been a little disappointing to see them both sent down this spring but both of them still need a little fine tuning before they are set loose. If things go right the Pirates in 2014 or 2015 could have two ace caliber seasons from Cole and Taillon matching their total from the last twenty years combined. There is a light at the end of the tunnel Pirates fans.

2013 Expectations: Low Level Prospects

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.

Most of the intriguing prospects that play in the lower levels in a given year are drafted in that year’s draft but of course there are a few holdovers. I’m expecting the Pirates to send the most interesting of the possible holdover lot (Tyler Glasnow, Waytt Mathisen, Jin-De Jhang, Dilson Herrera, Max Moroff and Eric Wood) to A ball. That still leaves some interesting talent and that is what I will discuss here. However at these levels it is difficult to have actual expectations so instead I’ll just go over the interesting names to watch.

Hitters

The two most interesting names that I currently have projected to play in the lower levels are Harold Ramirez and Elvis Escobar. Ramirez and Escobar were the Pirates big international signings in 2011 and made the aggressive jump to the states. Ramirez was hampered by injuries but returned later in the year and held his own. Escobar started the year in center field and while his numbers were not eye popping they were fairly impressive for it being his first professional season and playing at a that high a level. Both of them should start the year in short season ball and while things will be taken slowly with them we will hopefully see signs of growth. The next most interesting duo is the DeLaCruz brothers (not actual brothers they just share the same last name). Julio and Michael were the Pirates two big international signings from last year’s class. Neither is a guarantee to start the year in the states but early reports suggest the Pirates are at least considering it. Julio is a third baseman while Michael is an outfielder. It is difficult to say there are any expectations on them but a solid debut like Escobar had last season would be a welcomed sight. Another interesting group are the players moving up from the DSL. Daniel Arribas, Carlos Ozuna, Ulises Montilla, Maximo Rivera and Enyel Vallejo are the players that appear likely to move up. Of the group Arribas and Rivera stand out to me. The Pirates have been slowly turning Arribas into a catcher as he split time at catcher, 1st and 3rd base the last two seasons. He struggled in 2011, his first professional season but fared really well last season. Rivera was one of the Pirates big international signings in 2009 and was said to have good power potential. He didn’t show much his first two professional seasons but broke out last year aand although he didn’t show much power he had a very solid season. Three other names I’ll be keeping an eye on are Stetson Allie, Kevin Ross and Luis Urena. Allie isn’t much of a prospect as a hitter but due to name recognition he garners attention. Ross was drafted in the 8th round of last year’s draft but signed late and didn’t play much. Urena is another outfielder in the Willy Garcia mold. This may sound a little odd but he is a potential 2014 breakout candidate. What I mean by that is that he showed enough positives in 2012 that with a good performance this season he could put himself in a position to really step up next year. None of these players really have expectations at this point but the hope is a couple of them step up and take on the look of real prospects.

Pitchers

No one single pitcher really stands out in the lower levels but there are two trios I am going to be watching closely. One trio is a group of 2011 high school draftees who have all played very sparingly to this point and in which no one has stood out from the rest. They are Jason Creasy, Jake Burnette and Colten Brewer. I give a slight advantage to brewer as the most intriguing of the bunch but they all have to make some sort of statement this year if they are to be taken as real prospects. The other trio is a mix of last year’s drafted pitchers who for some reason or another received little playing time. They are Jonathan Sandfort, John Kuchno and Hayden Hurst. Sandfort was the Pirates 3rd round pick last season but pitched only 15 innings in rookie ball. Hurst and Kuchno pitched 0 and 5 innings respectively last year and while they weren’t high draft picks they were two players the Pirates opted to go overslot for when the Appel signing fell through. Of the three I’m currently highest on Sandfort but to be honest that is largely because I don’t know much about the other two yet. There are also a couple interesting arms coming up from the DSL this season with the two most intriguing to me being Cesilio Pimentel and Mervin Del Rosario. Both players posted good lines in the DSL last season but struck out very few hitters. Pimentel did have a large strikeout rate in 2011 though.  Also in the lower levels is a semi-interesting group of relief prospects. The most interesting of the group to me is Bryton Trepagnier. Trepagnier saw his velocity increase last season and a rise in his strikeout rate. The Pirates have an interesting mix of prospects from the 2011 and 2012 drafts along with an assortment of international arms in the lower levels of the system. Some of these players are candidates to see time in A ball this year but for the most part they will be playing in rookie ball or short season ball and sharing the workload with the pitchers selected in this year’s draft. I don’t really see a breakout star in this group or even anyone I’m comfortable saying will have a solid season but there are a ton of interesting arms to keep an eye on so that increases the odds that someone here will emerge.

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