The Pirates appear pretty set up the middle and there is little to talk about there. Sure the Pirates could seek upgrades but right now they seem content with what they have. A Martin and McKenry tandem behind the plate should provide adequate production, maybe even major league average offense and major league plus defense. Clint Barmes should continue to provide great defense and will hopefully rebound from last season and put a non-horrible OPS somewhere in the .650-.670 range. Not great but adequate. The other two up the middle players Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are of course key cogs in the Pirates machine.
All of this leaves the corners as the part of the lineup that will determine how well the Pirates do offensively this season. The only certainty appears to be Pedro Alvarez who should once again be manning 3rd base. Even with him there are questions about whether he is ready to hit cleanup and if he can handle left handed pitching well enough to not need platooned. Outside of Alvarez the next closest thing to a certainty is Garrett Jones. There is some speculation he may get dealt before the season begins but right now I doubt that will occur. It seems to be a little unclear whether Jones will be playing 1B or RF and how much he will be allowed to face left handed pitching. Logic seems to suggest he will platoon at 1B and be largely protected from left handers but only time will tell.
With those guys out of the way we are left with a very interesting assortment of players. The Pirates have some prospects who may be ready to help at some point this season, some depth players of varying levels who may at some point get a chance to prove themselves and 5 players fighting for what will likely be 4 positions out of Spring Training.
There are only two real prospects who look like they may be ready to significantly contribute to the major league team some time this season. They are Matt Curry at 1B and Adalberto Santos in the OF. Neither is a great prospect but both have shown some ability and could possibly become solid major leaguers. Curry hasn’t shown the ability to hit for as much power as you’d like from a 1B and his defensive ability limits him to the position but even so should Jones be traded for any reason the Pirates would probably consider giving Curry a shot if he shows he can handle AAA pitching. Santos is a slightly different breed. Like Curry he doesn’t profile to hit for much power but throughout his minor league career he has shown a good ability to just plainly hit. With a good showing in AAA anything is possible but it appears Santos may be limited to a bench role and with a little bit of versatility (he has also played 2B) he could be a decent option. The remaining prospects include players such as Quincy Latimore and Andrew Lambo who are probably actually closer to minor league depth at this point but either one could enter into the corner OF, or in Lambo’s case maybe even 1B, equation with a good showing in AAA. It is not a certainty that either will start the season in AAA though. The only other possibility for a corner player would be Alex Dickerson, who will be making his AA debut, but he would need a few very hot months to even realistically enter the conversation.
The Pirates have numerous depth options who could be called upon should injury or ineffectiveness arise. Jeff Larish and Matt Hague seem to be the most uninteresting of the group. Larish is coming off a poor 2012 campaign and Hague as we saw last year is limited in what he can do. The Pirates did bring in two minor league outfielders who it wouldn’t be shocking to see get a chance at the majors some time this season in Felix Pie and Darren Ford. Ford is a pure speedster and Pie is a once top prospect who has fallen from grace. Both have some talent and either one might be called up if the Pirates sense a need. The last depth player is actually technically still a prospect in Clint Robinson. Robinson has never really gotten a chance to prove himself at the major league level but has hit exceptionally well in the minor leagues. Defensively he is limited to 1B but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he has shown some decent power and surprisingly even has shown good plate discipline. Should Jones be traded or forced to play extended time in the outfield expect Robinsons to get the first crack at the 1B job.
Major League Options
The Pirates have 5 major league options who figure to be fighting for 2 starting spots and two bench spots. Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Gaby Sanchez will enter this spring fighting for playing time. Marte appears likely to start the season as the everyday LF but he has no track record and while he was respectable in his brief minor league stint last season it would not be crazy if the Pirates felt he could benefit from some time at AAA. Snider as things stand right now figures to be the starting RF but his spot appears to be in a little bit more jeopardy than Marte’s. Snider performed well immediately after coming over at the trade deadline but struggled after getting injured. It is not quite clear what the Pirates plan to do with him. He is out of options so he will surely make the team but he could be relegated to bench duty should the Pirates opt to start Jones in RF. Jose Tabata is coming off a disappointing season but actually finished the 2012 season rather strongly which gives some hope that he is back to being the Tabata we seen in earlier seasons. As a right handed hitter Tabata figures to probably make the team as the 4th outfielder and platoon with Jones or Snider in right field. If his performance at the end of the season was a sign that he has turned things around Tabata could quickly regain his starting job in RF as his ability to leadoff is something the Pirates are sorely missing. The last outfielder of the group is Alex Presley. Presley has an option remaining so the Pirates will likely use it and send him back to AAA to start the season but he will be given a chance to show what he can do. Presley looks like the prototypical 4th outfielder who can do a little bit of everything but doesn’t really stand out in any area. His skill set is probably better suited to a 4th outfielder role than Tabata’s but given the facts he has an option left and that of Snider and Marte it is most likely that the left handed hitting Snider will need a platoon partner he is probably below Tabata on the depth chart. The last option is Gaby Sanchez. As things stand right now Sanchez appears slotted to be Jones platoon partner at 1B. As someone who has consistently hit very well against lefties that is probably a good position for him. If Sanchez performs well he could be given a chance to start everyday at 1B which would force most likely Snider out of the lineup.
The four corner positions are likely to have a huge impact on the Pirates this season. With Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones the Pirates hope to have some stability and certainty at 2 of the 4 positions but the other 2 remain rather big question marks. The Pirates are undoubtedly planning to give Marte and Snider the two highest upside players of the bunch a chance to fill those question marks but should they fail the Pirates do have some other alternatives who will hopefully step up and take advantage of the opportunity. Assuming the Pirates actually do add a good starter for the middle of the rotation is is my opinion that the performance of the players I have discussed is what will decided whether this team once again finishes below 500, makes the playoffs or anything in between.