Category: Off Season

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.

Roster Status

At this point the Pirates are roughly half way through the spring training schedule. Yesterday they cut 11 players from camp, none of which were a surprise so that leaves the Pirates with 51 players left in camp. Over the course of the next 2 weeks or so that list is going to have to be pared down to only 25 players which means there are 26 more cuts in the forthcoming. Looking at how the roster currently sits I see 21 players with fairly secure spots on the team assuming they remain healthy and conversely  I see 19 players who I believe have little to no chance of making the team out of Spring Training unless injuries were to occur. That leaves 4 open roster spots for the remaining 11 players to compete for.

Roster Locks

Lineup: Russell Martin, Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Travis Snider

Barring injury this is the starting eight I figured we’d see on opening day since the beginning of Spring Training and nothing has happened to make me change my mind.

Bench: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata

Much like the starting 8 I had figured these 3 to be near locks for the roster from the beginning of Spring Training and to date nothing has happened to make me change my opinion.

Rotation: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke

Once it became apparent Liriano wasn’t going to be ready for the beginning of the season it appeared quite likely that the above 5 would comprise the Pirates rotation. There is still one question mark remaining though and that is the health of Karstens. Right now he appears as if he should be ready for the start of the season but if he isn’t Kyle McPherson would likely take his place.

Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Bryan Morris

Again assuming good health these 5 players were essentially guaranteed a 25 man roster spot at the start of the season. As expected nothing has happened to change this so expect these 5 to be part of the opening day squad.

Likely Cuts

Catchers: Tony Sanchez, Lucas May, Ali Solis, Carlos Paulino

These 4 catchers were only brought to major league camp to help work out all the extra arms. I expect once the number of arms begins to thin out these catchers will start to be cut as well.

Infielders: Chase d’Arnaud, Jared Goedert

D’Arnaud had an outside chance of making the team entering Spring Training but has been injured for most of it so his chances now are likely next to none. Goedert entered camp as basically just a body to take up some early ST innings but he has played exceptionally well still he is a long shot for the roster.

Outfielders: Alex Presley, Brad Hawpe, Felix Pie

Huntington has shown in the past he prefers to have two utility infielders on the bench so the chances of the Pirates carrying a 5th outfielder seem slim to none. The Pirates already have their 4 outfielders in place so barring an injury or an unexpected decision to carry a 5th outfielder there just isn’t any room for any of these three.

Starting Pitchers: Kyle McPherson, Gerrit Cole, Phillip Irwin, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton

McPherson entered with a chance of making the rotation over Locke but it was a long shot and he has done nothing to distinguish himself to this point (written before his strong outing today but still his overall line still doesn’t stand out). Right now it appears his only chance of making the team would be some sort of injury. Cole hopefully won’t be in the minors long but the Pirates want him to get a little seasoning in AAA before bringing him up to the majors, Irwin is turning heads this spring but like McPherson and Cole he would probably be best served to get some more time in AAA. The last Liriano and Morton would be candidates to make the team or even locks would they be healthy but both are likely to start the season on the DL.

Relief Pitchers: Vin Mazzaro, Andy Oliver, Jose Contreras, Kyle Waldrop, Ryan Reid

All these pitchers are unlikely to stick for a variety of reasons. Mazzaro has gotten a decent look in camp but was removed from the 40 man roster earlier this year, if the Pirates were serious about him possibly starting with the major league club that wouldn’t have happened. Olive has gotten a look but has shown poor control and will likely be kept in AAA where they will work on improving it. Contreras is currently rehabbing and won’t be ready to start the season. Waldrop and Reid were signed to minor league deals and have pitched well this spring but the way the Pirates are using them suggests they don’t see them as much more than depth options.

Open Competitions

Bench Infielders: Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus

Along with Chase d’Arnaud these 4 have been competing for the 2 bench utility infield jobs since the beginning of spring. Right now it is difficult to say just who the favorites are but if I were pushed to guess I would say the Pirates might be leaning towards Harrison and Inge. Mercer and De Jesus have undoubtedly had the best springs and are also the best options to backup shortstop but in reality it seems like this was probably not a fair fight. Harrison seems to be very well liked by the Pirates management and Inge fills the veteran role Hurdle seems to like to have on his bench. Personally I’d think it would be a mistake to carry both but right now I’d lean that way. Ideally the Pirates would seek upgrade over these options or even contemplate carrying only one but short of that I think the best option would be to carry one of De Jesus or Mercer and one of Harrison or Inge. De Jesus or Mercer would give the Pirates a competent backup option at shortstop and Inge or Harrison would give the Pirates slightly more offense and a right handed caddy for Alvarez in case he struggles.

Bullpen: Chris Leroux, Bryce Brown, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Mike Zagurski, Kris Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez

I actually see this as two separate competitions. The Pirates haven’t publicly stated anything but I suspect in addition to the 5 players who appear to be locks for the bullpen they wish to carry a long reliever and a second lefty to round out the pen. Leroux, Brown and Gomez seem like the logical candidates for the long relief job. Leroux and Gomez because they are on the 40 man roster and out of options and Brown was signed to a contract like Reid and Waldrop but he is being used in such a way that suggests the Pirates see some potential in him. Gomez has been awful this spring so he really shouldn’t factor into this discussion but he remains on the fringes. Of Leroux and Brown right now I’d give the edge to Leroux because he seems to fit the Pirates mold and is on the roster and out of options but this one is probably pretty close. The last spot in the bullpen will likely go to a second lefty. I list 4 competitors but at this point Sanchez is likely out of the conversation as he has shown no control. Zagurski and Johnson are non-roster players who have pitcher fairly well this spring and Johnson has the momentum of a strong 2012 season and strong winter ball campaign propelling him up this list. Wilson is a candidate to return to AAA and once again try his hand as a starter but the Pirates could opt to keep him in the majors as a relief pitcher. Zagurski has the major league experience and has looked the best this spring, Johnson has the momentum and Wilson has the status. I think this is the closest race there is right now but as of now I’ll give the edge to the rostered player and say Wilson would get my vote.

2013 Rule V Draft

I know this is incredibly early but with news being slow this time of year I thought I would fast forward to December and take a look at the players the Pirates will have to decide to either add to the 40 man roster or expose to the Rule V draft. For the sake of simplicity I have opted to focus only on players who will be eligible for the Rule V draft for the first time in 2013. I am sure there will be others who were previously eligible who may wind up factoring into the Pirates or another team’s plans but there are too many to consider at this early point. I have divided the players into five categories and written a little bit about the players, why I think there is a chance they might be selected and how I think the Pirates will proceed with them in 2013. There are of course other first time eligible players and I make mention of that later one but to me they are notable in this discussion. Once again it is way too early to even begin thinking about this kind of stuff but hey news is slow this time of year so why not.

Locks To Be Added: Gregory Polanco

It takes a lot to look like a definite lock to be added to the 40 man roster nearly a year out from your Rule 5 eligibility so naturally there are very few players who fit this description. The Pirates have one and only one such player in Gregory Polanco. He is the Pirates number 1 or 1a hitting prospect and should start the season at A+. Usually when evaluating whether to protect prospects or not teams would like to see what the player is capable of doing at least against AA competition but in Polanco’s case that isn’t really much of a concern as he will be protected in almost any set of circumstances. I expect Polanco will get pushed to AA at some point this season but it will be based on merit not just taking a look at a guy. Polanco has a huge upside as a fast solid defensive center fielder with plus power so the Pirates would be crazy not to protect him.

Next In Line: Brandon Cumpton, Matt Curry, Gift Ngoepe, Adalberto Santos

The four players listed in this group all look like fairly safe bets to become solid major league contributors. Now that doesn’t mean star or even starter but any of these four it would appear could hold down a 25 man roster spot next season and produce at least some value and for that reason each one would be at risk of getting selected and is therefore a candidate to be added. Cumpton, Curry and Santos are all candidates to start in AAA but I would say Curry is the only lock to do so. Ngoepe appears likely to start in AA but could be held back in A+. The Pirates will take a long look at each of these players and decide whether to protect them or not at the end of the season. None of these players has the ceiling of a star but all could be quality depth for the Pirates next season. Cumpton looks like a possible 5th starter or middle reliever. Curry appears to have the upside of a Casey Kotchman type first baseman meaning one who can hit decently but not for a lot of power; most players of this type quickly fizzle out though. Ngoepe has a great glove but will need his bat to develop some in order to become a starting major league option but even if it doesn’t he might be able to find a role as a defensive middle infielder off the bench. Santos is quite simply a professional hitter but one who doesn’t have a true position. Santos has hit at every level but has shown very little power and is not really good defensively anywhere. His ability to hit though and his experience at 2B and in the OF could make him a decent bench bat though.

Possible Relievers: Casey Sadler, Zach Thornton, Jason Townsend, Tyler Waldron

Every year it seems the Pirates protect one pitcher from the Rule V draft who is a bit of a head scratcher. Some times that is a player who was previously eligible and other times it is a first time eligible player. There are too many previous eligible candidates to discuss but of the first time eligible ones the above four currently appear to me to be the most likely to be added to the 40 man roster at the end of the season. I won’t say too much about each of these players individually but they all fit the typical mold of being right handed pitchers who throw in the mid 90s and to date haven’t posted the numbers (especially strike out numbers) that one would like to see from them. Although to be fair Thornton did have a a good strike out rate last season but he was a little old for the level he did it at. All four of these pitchers are likely to start the season in AA and with the exception of Sadler they will all likely be pitching from relief. Sadler is by far the most polished of the group and it could be argued he belongs with the next in line class but unlike the four I listed I don’t think he could necessarily stick for an entire season. If any of these four make an impression with the Pirates and keep in mind that isn’t necessarily only statistics I could see them being protected.

Projects: Zack Dodson, Mel Rojas, Zach Von Rosenberg

At the time these players were drafted all of them were considered to have high ceilings but to date none of them have progressed much and 2013 will serve as a defining year for them. The ceilings these players once were to said to had are still there and outside of Polanco these 3 probably have the most talent of the bunch (with possibly one exception below). Currently I have all 3 projected to start the season at A+ but Rojas could be pushed to AA and Dodson could be held back in A ball once his suspension ends. The players who do wind up starting in A+ I imagine will be aggressively pushed once and if they show any signs of progress. Before the Pirates opt to put any of these players on the 40 man roster I imagine they will want to see them against some AA competition. At this point little should be expected of any of these players but each of them has one last chance to show just a glimmer of that upside the Pirates dreamt about when drafting them.

Other Notables: Stetson Allie, Kelson Brown, Dan Grovatt, Justin Howard, Drew Maggi

There are a lot of other players eligible but essentially I see little to no chance of them being added to the roster or selected. That is nearly a year away though so a lot can and probably will change. Of the remaining players the ones above are the names I find the most interesting. With the exception of Allie who I will get to later all of the players have posted solid minor league numbers and will be playing most likely in AA this upcoming season. A good showing in AA could put them on the radar as a possible Rule V selection but right now they all seem like long shots. The other players not listed are players who have largely not developed past A ball yet and while they may have a ton of talent they are too raw to even be considered in this discussion. The one name on my notable list that doesn’t quite fit with the others is Stetson Allie. In his current states and practically any state he’ll be in by the end of the 2013 season Allie is no threat to be selected and obviously will not be protected. Quite a fall from grace for Allie as headed into last season he had the look of one of the Pirates better prospects but now that he failed at pitching and transitioned back to hitting he appears to be not much more than an organizational player. Certainly he has talent but it appears his time to harness and develop that talent has almost ran out.

Infield Bench Battle

One area that causes me great concern regarding the Pirates is in the depth they have for the infield. The starters Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Clint Barmes are all fairly healthy individuals and their play is fairly solid at least in some aspects. However behind them the Pirates really do not have a whole lot. Traditionally two infielders get bench spots on the Pirates to begin the season and I am expecting that to be the case again this season. Once again this crop is fairly unimpressive but there appears to be five players with a legitimate chance of winning one of the bench jobs available. I thought it would be a good idea to review each players strengths and weaknesses and analyze why there is a reason for concern with each player.

Josh Harrison

Josh HarrisonHarrison is probably the most familiar of the 5 to Pittsburgh Pirates fans as he has been part of the Pirates bench for the last five seasons. He is a player who is easy to like because of his all out style of play. During the 2012 season we even were introduced to his mother on the Pirates broadcasts as she watched him play in games in his home town Cincinnati, he reaction when he got hit probably was something a lot of mothers can relate to. Harrison is an interesting player as he is a free swinger and he will really go deep into the count which means he walks a small amount of time but also means he doesn’t strike out very often. As for the other aspects of his game he is a contact hitter with limited power, has probably slightly above average speed and is a below average fielder. It is really a mix bag with Harrison.

Strengths: Harrison can play all over the field, logging innings last year at 2B, SS, 3B and the corner outfield. He is difficult to strike out and is very good at putting the ball in play. He has experience with the Pirates and appears to be a player Clint Hurdle likes. In addition his base running is fairly good and he can steal the occasional base.

Weaknesses: Although Harrison has played all over the field the only position where he looks even semi-decent defensively is third base. His inability to work counts causing his walk rate to be low which in return negatively affects his OBP. He is a contact hitter but the contact he makes is often of a weak variety as he doesn’t possess much power.

Overall: Harrison has a great chance to be a part of the Pirates bench this season because of his familiarity with the Pirates coaching staff, his ability to play several different positions and the simple fact he is on the 40 man roster. On the flip side the Pirates should consider going another direction because there is nothing Harrison really does that makes him stand out. With the exception of his ability to not strike out Harrison is at best average in every other aspect of the game. The ability to play multiple positions is a plus but his inability to play them well or even decently negatively effects his value. Overall the Pirates could definitely do worse than Harrison but should try to do better.

Jordy Mercer

Jordy MercerMercer is probably the best defensive shortstop of this group and is also one who should be familiar with Pirates fans as he was drafted by the Pirates in 2008 and has remained in the organization ever since. He spent a rather significant amount of time in the majors last season but got very few at bats as Clint Hurdle gave him the Pedro Ciriaco treatment and he was mainly glues to the bench. Offensively it is difficult to get a read on just what Mercer will be able to do in the major leagues but in the minors he has been adequate with the bat. Mercer’s strike out and walk rates for his minor league career appear to be roughly average and he does seem to have at least a little power in his bat as he led the Pirates minor leagues in homers in 2011. Defensively speaking Mercer has only played 2B, 3B and SS but he plays those positions fairly well. As for the other aspects of his game he has about average speed and really doesn’t try to steal many bases although he will occasionally sneak one in there. At this point Mercer is sort of an unknown with a high floor and low ceiling.

Strengths: Mercer’s best strength is his defensive ability as he is the only one of the five candidates who is capable of even being an average defender at the shortstop position. He does have a few other pluses too though as he is probably one of the safer bets to not be completely useless on the bench and has shown at least some power in the minor leagues.

Weaknesses: The biggest weakness with mercer is that it is really not known how is bat will translate. He has struggled in his very limited sample in the majors but that came over quite a long-span with very inconsistent playing time. He also doesn’t have the ability to play the outfield although with all the Pirates options that shouldn’t be a large concern.

Overall: Like Harrison, Mercer’s strongest case for making the team is quite simply his familiarity with the coaching staff and his presence on the 40 man roster. He also has the additional benefit of actually being able to handle the shortstop position at a good level although with an all glove guy like Barmes starting on most days that is less of a concern than it would be otherwise. I currently have Mercer as my second infielder on the bench but I feel that his position is a lot less secure tha Harrison’s. I feel Mercer is probably the safest choice of this group as his glove will at least give him some value but his lack of experience may wind up hurting him.

Brandon Inge

IngeThe Pirates signed Inge to a minor league deal this offseason and because of the new CBA he will be able to opt out if he is not placed on the roster by late March. Of the 3 players I consider on the outside looking in when it comes to battling for the two bench spots I believe Inge has the best chance of winning one. Inge is clearly on the downside of his career but was still a valuable player to the Athletics last season and could still have some value for the Pirates. Offensively speaking he is a below average player who strikes out a fairly high amount and walks roughly an average amount. He is not a contact hitter but does hit for some power. Defensively his primary position is 3B and he has spent the majority of his career there although he has logged innings at 2B and in the corner outfield and was a catcher when his career began so he could probably serve as the emergency third option at that position which is a plus. He is a very good defender at 3B and ahs shown himself capable at the other positions. Baserunning wise he is below average and he really isn’t a threat to steal any bases. Inge is a veteran and has been around the league a long time and has more experience in the majors than his other four competitors do combined.

Strengths: Inge’s best strength and what separates him from the other four is his experience. He has been in the majors for several seasons and has been a part of winning clubs so a pressure pinch hit situation is less likely to get to him than any of the other players. He also would provide the Pirates with a little power off the bench and would provide them with possibly an adequate option to rest Alvarez against tough left handers and to pull him for defensive purposes late in games.

Weaknesses: Unlike the other four players Inge has no experience at the shortstop position meaning the Pirates would only have one bench option capable of playing that position if they kept Inge. He has also been on the decline the past few seasons and is a threat to bottom out this year. Defensively speaking last year was the first time he spent any time at 2B and before that he hadn’t played a position outside of 3B since 2008.

Overall: Inge isn’t on the 40 man roster and because of that he has a slightly uphill climb to make the team. I still give him very good odds but I think he starts behind Harrison and Mercer entering Spring Training. Inge is also a player this coaching staff is not familiar with which puts him at another disadvantage. His lack of flexibility in the field will also likely play against him. However the Pirates, specifically Clint Hurdle may see some value in his experience and because of that he has a chance to make the bench. Inge has also expressed a willingness to work on other positions outside of 3B so his flexibility issue will be slightly reduced. Inge could be a decent veteran presence on the bench but his declining numbers in recent years are cause for concern.

Ivan De Jesus

Ivan DeJesusDe Jesus was acquired by the Pirates as the fourth piece in the Hanrahan trade. Pretty much him and Brock Holt are just consider after thoughts in the deal and are considered to roughly cancel each other out as neither one projects to be much more than utility infielders. De Jesus is a relatively inexperienced major league player but he does have some considerable time in at AAA. He definitely has some upside but it is difficult for me to see him as anything other than a utility player at this point. De Jesus has put up some good offensive numbers in AAA but that very well may be a by-product of the PCL as those numbers have yet to translate to his limited MLB sample size. De Jesus offensive game is predicated around contact as he does not hit for much power and is just an average runner. His strike out rates have been high in the major leagues but they have been right around average to a little above average in the minors. His walk rates have been all over the place from very good to below average throughout his career so it is probably safe to assume he has about average plate discipline. On the defensive side he was originally a shortstop but injuries moved him to 2nd base and he is probably unable to be a regular shortstop now although he is probably capable of being a fill in for a game here or there. His defense in the majors has been poor but that is a small sample. Overall he is probably roughly an average fielder.

Strengths: The best asset De Jesus has going for him is that he is probably the best hope amongst the 5 bench candidates to be a solid two-way player. His defense is at least serviceable at shortstop and around average at 2B and 3B and his bat has shown potential in AAA. De Jesus is not the best player in any particular aspect but he also isn’t the worst and he probably balances out to have the best mix of any of the five competing.

Weaknesses: De Jesus biggest strike against him is that he hasn’t had success in his limited major league opportunities and that like Harrison there is really nothing he does above average. He has the skills to be a nice balanced utility player but without something to make him stand out it could be difficult for him to get noticed. So his biggest weakness is not a particular flaw but a lack of a true strength, essentially its a double edge sword.

Overall: De Jesus has only very minimal experience in the corner outfield meaning he is essentially limited to strictly infield duty but once again that shouldn’t be a real issue. As of right now he appears to be the Pirates fourth choice amongst the bench infielder candidates but he has opted to skip the WBC in an attempt to move up the chart and I think that is certainly doable. De Jesus isn’t on the 40 man roster, doesn’t have an out clause and has had little success in the majors in the past; all of that is working against him making the bench out of spring training. On the other side De Jesus has some potential with the bat and really lacks a glaring weakness in his game and when combined with his ability to handle shortstop better than Harrison and Inge it gives him a certain appeal which could allow him to find a home. If he doesn’t make it out of spring training there is a chance he could see Pittsburgh some time this season but that would be far from a guarantee.

Chase d’Arnaud

Chase d'ArnaudPirates fans are probably familiar with Chase d’Arnaud from his time with the Pirates in 2011. He was a bit of a fan favorite at the time and was seen as a spark plug for the offense while he was up in the majors. Truth be told though he really didn’t play all that well. He is a weak hitter and a below average fielder but yet he might have the highest upside of all the players listed. What sets d’Arnaud apart from the rest of this crowd is his plus speed a weapon that if he would ever be able to utilize correctly could make him a solid major league player. With the bat he displays very little power but has shown an ability to maintain a decent average in AAA. His strike out rates are right around league average which is probably a little high for a speed guy like him and his walk rate is also probably about average. Defensively he has played 2B, 3B and SS and he is below average defensively at SS although he is good enough that a team could get by with him there for an extended period of time and at the other positions he is right around an average defender. He has a small sample of major league plate appearances and has mostly struggled in that time. Currently he appears to be a distant fifth in the battle for the final two bench spots but if he can show he is capable of hitting decently his speed could make for a great asset off the bench for the Pirates.

Strengths: As I’ve already said d’Arnaud’s best asset is his speed. He is probably the Pirates best base stealer and would be a nice player to have for pinch running situations. He also has the ability to play shortstop decently well and would be a perfectly adequate backup option defensively especially considering its an all glove player in front of him. Outside of his speed and ability to play shortstop d’Arnaud also has the advantage of being on the 40 man roster and having played for Hurdle. He did provide a certain spark while he was here in 2011 so with a solid spring it is possible Hurdle could consider that as a factor.

Weaknesses: d’Arnaud has many weaknesses but mainly it is his poor hitting that hold him back. If he could show himself to be even a decent hitter he has enough athleticism that he could be a solid contributor. Also working against him is his shaky defense at shortstop. d’Arnaud right now is a very one-tool specific player and that is usually a poor fit for most benches. He is going to need to show a more complete game in order to have any chance.

Overall: I would very much like to see d’Arnaud win one of the bench spots as his speed would be a nice weapon to have available on the bench. The fact that he is a shortstop, albeit a below average defensive one, is another reason it would be nice to have him around. Right now he is probably the longest shot of all five competitors but I think it is close enough that a strong spring performance could vault him into the conversation. His game right now is almost solely dependent upon his speed and that isn’t going to be enough; he needs to make an effort to be well-rounded and most importantly make some strides with his bat. If d’Arnaud proves capable of carrying over his average from AAA to the majors he could make for a solid bench player or maybe even a decent starter. If d’Arnaud does not show any improvements in his game during spring training he will head back to AAA and unless he shows something there he is going to be a candidate to be taken off the 40 man roster and would likely only see Pittsburgh as a pinch runner in September.

Overview

I thought a good way to summarize everything from above would be to rank the five players on a few different skill aspects.

Power: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Jordy Mercer, 3. Josh Harrison, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Ivan De Jesus

Average: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Brandon Inge

Contact: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Brandon Inge

Plate Discipline: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Ivan De Jesus, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Josh Harrison

Speed: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Jordy Mercer, 4. Ivan De Jesus, 5. Brandon Inge

Base Running: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Jordy Mercer, 5. Brandon Inge

Shortstop Ability: 1. Jordy Mercer, 2. Chase d’Arnaud, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Josh Harrison, 5. Brandon Inge

Defense: 1. Jordy Mercer, 2. Brandon Inge, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Chase d’Arnaud, 5. Josh Harrison

Versatility: 1. Josh Harrison, 2. Ivan De Jesus. 3. Chase d’Arnaud, 4. Jordy Mercer, 5. Brandon Inge

Experience: 1. Brandon Inge, 2. Josh Harrison, 3. Chase d’Arnaud, 4. Ivan De Jesus, 5. Jordy Mercer

Potential: 1. Chase d’Arnaud, 2. Jordy Mercer, 3. Ivan De Jesus, 4. Josh Harrison, 5. Brandon Inge

Finally I would like to give the percent chance I think each has of making the team. Now remember there are two open spots and the Pirates are probably going to give both of them to two infielders but there is a not impossible chance they opt to go with a 5th outfielder instead of an additional infielder. Since there are two spots the odds add up to 200% and these numbers are really just my best estimate as of now. I have no real knowledge of the situation, it is pure speculation.

Josh Harrison: 75%

Jordy Mercer: 40%

Brandon Inge: 30%

5th OF: 25%

Ivan De Jesus: 20%

Chase d’Arnaud: 10%

The Bottom of the Roster

A curious thought popped into my head the other day. As things stand right now the Pirates obviously need improved production to compete in 2013 and beyond but does that production necessarily have to come from the top? What about the bottom of the roster and the so-called replacement players. By replacement players in this sense I’m meaning the people who during a season get playing time but were not being counted on to do so by their teams. For the Pirates of 2012 this would be the Drew Sutton’s of the world. How bad comparatively is the Pirates production at that level.

I cam about thinking of this because of some numbers I’ve seen earlier which suggest the Pirates “hidden” offensive numbers, as I like to call them, were far below league average in 2012. Now what do I mean by hidden offensive numbers. Well the production from the 8 positions on the field are widely talked about but not the production from the pitcher or the team’s pinch hitters. WIthout going into too much detail as this isn’t what this post is really about the Pirates last season got a .245 OPS from their pitchers and a .513 OPS from their pinch hitters, the NL average was a .330 OPS from pitchers and .655 OPS from pinch hitters. I think those numbers speak for themselves so I’ll move on from here.

All this presented a real problem though because how does one begin to measure what a replacement player is? If the replacement players do well then they become not replacement players and that is something I’m not interested in measuring. I could spend a while trying to figure out a good way to make a distinction or I could find some assumption to make and while it may not be very accurate it would give me a place to start. I choose to go with the assumption route and the assumption I made is that teams, brace yourselves for this, aren’t going to give bad replacement level players a lot of plate appearances. Shocking I know. So I decided to look at the production of players with fewer than 100 PA. For the purpose of this discussion since I’m talking bottom of the roster offensive production I decided to include pitchers in my numbers. When I say production what I am looking for is a good overall snapshot of how the players did. For me there is no better stat for that than WAR. It has its problems yes but for a general discussion like this it is a good place to start.

Now the other issue here is I didn’t just want to find out the Pirates numbers I wanted to compare it to other so I choose their 4 closest competitors the rest of the NL Central. Since this is looking more ahead than behind I excluded the Astros from this discussion. Below are the numbers on how each of the 5 teams performed.

Cardinals: 21 players, 763 PA, 2.0 WAR

Reds: 17 players, 679 PA, 0.7 WAR

Brewers: 25 players, 721 PA, 0.5 WAR

Cubs: 24 players, 623 PA, -1.4 WAR

Pirates: 24 players, 811 PA, -2.3 WAR

Now just a couple of notes on each team.

The Cardinals strong number is fueled by Pete Kozma who posted a strong 1.4 WAR in just 82 PA and is also helped out by Lance Berkman receiving only 97 PA while posting a 0.4 WAR.

The Reds number is helped by Xavier Paul who posted a 0.5 WAR in 96 PA.

The Brewers number is arrived at with no real oddities although Alex Gonzalez, who they were counting on to be their starting shortstop is included here with 89 PA and 0.3 WAR.

The Cubs number is kept from being worse by Dave Sappelt who posted a 0.9 WAR in 78 PA. The also have Marlon Byrd who posted the lowest WAR of the group with a -0.8 WAR in just 47 PA

The Pirates have only two players in this group with a positive WAR, Jordy Mercer at 0.4 and James McDonald at 0.3. The lowest total belongs to Nate McLouth at -0.5 WAR.

*Note: The WAR totals are fangraphs WAR just to avoid any confusion

Now the Pirates replacement players as I have defined them were 3.0 wins worse than the division winning Reds and 4.3 wins worse than the wild card winning Cardinals. That is of course in itself not enough to make up the difference between the club but if the Pirates can cut that difference down in 2013 they become 2-3 games closer to those teams and that is a start. Another thing worth noting is that the Pirates lead the division in PA given to this group of players. Maybe this points to a lack of back-end talent and trying to figure out what works or maybe it points to some bad luck. I’m not sure but obviously you want more at bats going to the upper part of your roster. We can’t really determine much from this data but one thing I think is perfectly clear and that is the depth of the Pirates was an issue in 2012. The Pirates have made some moves to address that problem in 2013 and let us hope it works because if so that is a step in the right direction. The heavy lifting is still going to have to be done by the Pirates top end players but the guys at the bottom can make that load a little lighter by simply not being a hindrance.

Defining the Rotation Spots

Sometimes for no reason at all I like to look at baseball related things and analyze them. There is really no larger purpose to this article except I had a curiosity and looked to solve it. Essentially my question is what makes a number one starter a number one starter and so on and so forth. Is it a certain ERA, strike outs, being tough to hit. What is it that defines a top pitcher. Well I’m not a big statistical researcher so I don’t like to delve into things too deep without some sort of general idea what I’m looking at so I usually make some sort of assumption, see what that gives me and proceed from there. Well this is my first attempt at answering that question and as usual I went with an assumption. I decided for general purposes to call a #1 starter a player who posts a WAR greater than or equal to 4.0 and for each subsequent spot I drop 1 WAR (ie a 3.0-3.9 WAR player is a #2 starter). I then wanted to know what the ERA, WHIP and K/BB were for each group in 2012. The result can be seen below:

4.0+ WAR: 3.15 ERA, 1.142 WHIP, 3.78 K/BB

3.0-3.9 WAR: 3.43 ERA, 1.193 WHIP, 3.05 K/BB

2.0-2.9 WAR: 3.95 ERA, 1.286 WHIP, 2.71 K/BB

1.0-1.9 WAR: 4.33 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, 2.45 K/BB

0.0-0.9 WAR: 4.85 ERA, 1.434, 1.92 K/BB

-0.1 or lower WAR: 6.14 ERA, 1.588 WHIP, 1.46 K/BB

On its surface that makes sense to me. I always felt that roughly speaking the difference between each rotation spot should be about a half run of ERA. While that isn’t exactly what I have here is it is roughly close. However upon closer look I’m not sure these numbers really tell the whole story. I looked at the percentage of starts made by each group of pitchers:

4.0+: 12%

3.0-3.9: 12%

2.0-2.9: 23%

1.0-1.9: 24%

0.0-0.9: 21%

-0.1-: 8%

In an ideal world the first 5 groups would all be even at 20% and the last group would not exist but of course we all know this isn’t an ideal world. Still the low % of starts made by pitchers on the top end suggest I’m setting the bar too high. I decided to take a different approach and order the pitchers by WAR and then split them into 5 groups each of which started approximately 972 games. In case it’s not obvious where that number comes from that is the number of major league baseball games in a year multiplied by 2 since there are 2 starting pitchers divided by 5 since there are 5 rotation spots. I didn’t bother with splitting the data set exactly as I’m just looking for a rough figure here:

#1: 3.23 ERA, 1.162 WHIP, 3.48 K/BB

#2: 3.76 ERA, 1.255 WHIP, 2.88 K/BB

#3: 4.35 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, 2.50 K/BB

#4: 4.28 ERA, 1.344 WHIP, 2.25 K/BB

5: 5.64 ERA, 1.539 WHIP, 1.64 K/BB

Relatively speaking the effect this new classification has on #1 and #4 starters in minimal but the #5 starter group is greatly impacted by the dreadful performance of the negative WAR group. Also the #2 and #3 starters are severely dragged down and it is actually an insignificant amount separating a #3 and a #4 starter. Needless to say there are plenty of problems with this data set.

In the past I have always used the rule of thumb that a 3.25 ERA was the average for a number one starter and that for each additional starter you add half a run. So number two would be 3.75, number 3 4.25, number 4 4.75 and number 5 would be 5.25. I’m not sure how accurate that really is though and my above attempts really don’t do much to enforce the opinion or not. Taking one last look at this for now I decided to ignore all the pitchers who posted a negative WAR and all the pitchers with fewer than 5 starts and focus on the remaining group. This left me with 203 starters totaling 4406 starts or about just over 880 starts per rotation spot. The results can be seen below:

#1: 3.20 ERA, 1.157 WHIP, 3.56 K/BB

#2: 3.74 ERA, 1.254 WHIP, 2.87 K/BB

#3: 4.17 ERA, 1.303 WHIP, 2.60 K/BB

#4: 4.31 ERA, 1.334 WHIP, 2.37 K/BB

#5: 4.96 ERA, 1.447 WHIP, 1.90 K/BB

Once again I am surprised by the relatively little separation between a number 3 and number 4 starter. Also surprisingly in all 3 measurements the values for a number 4 starter as remained relatively constant giving me a fairly good idea of what a number 4 starter really is. Once again the #5 spot is subject to some wild fluctuations based on a handful of horrible starters. My method made an attempt to remove some so the number is not way out of line.

Bottom line I think I need to study all this in more detail and try a few other methods of looking at how to define each rotation spot but I think these three methods give me a good starting place. My original idea of a .5 run step in ERA appears to fit the first 3 rotation spots fairly well but the drop off to the fourth small is less significant while the drop off to the 5th spot is difficult to determine which much accuracy but it can be though of as around .5 run. I want to make an attempt to research this more in-depth at a later date and I’ll make sure to share my findings but as an initial survey I thought this was fairly interesting while not all that informative.