One aspect of the game the Pirates have struggled with a lot in past seasons is production, both offensively and defensively, from the bench. Pirates pinch hitters hit well below league average and with a team that isn’t exactly full of superstars this is a big problem as production is essentially needed from everyone. Well as we sit here more than two months away from opening day we have a good handle on 4 of the Pirates 5 bench spots.
McKenry will definitely start the year as the backup catcher and if he can replicate his performance from 2012 he will be a very good asset off the bench and should even allow the Pirates to rest Martin on a fairly regular basis.
As things stand right now Sanchez will likely platoon with Garrett Jones at 1B but since Jones will take up the lion’s share of the playing time he will usually be on the bench. At the very least he is a good right handed stick for the bench and he has the upside of returning to his 2010-11 form and returning to his average major league 1B form.
It appears as if Travis Snider is going to get first crack at starting in right field which means the out of options Jose Tabata will be relegated to the bench. It is possible Tabata will receive some playing time in the OF especially if the Pirates sit Snider against lefties but he appears likely to be the usual 4th outfielder. He has shown some decent OBP skills in the past and if he can refind his stolen base ability he could be an interesting option, otherwise he is probably just another averageish bench player.
Although the Pirates technically have Jordy Mercer and Ivan De Jesus who will be competing with Harrison I find it difficult to believe the Pirates will not keep Harrison in the majors. Harrison gives the Pirates a very flexible player who can play 2B, 3B, SS and even a little RF. He isn’t really a good hitter but he has shown some decent contact skills so he does have some value.
The last spot basically comes down to another middle infielder on the bench, which is how the Pirates usually go or another 1B/OF type who will give the Pirates a better bench offensively. Mercer and De Jesus are the top candidates should a 2nd middle infielder be carries and Sands and Presley appear to be the top candidates should another 1B/OF be carried.
There are pros and cons to carrying either one but I think considering how Ciriaco (2011) and Mercer (2012) were wasted on the bench the Pirates need to strongly considering carrying a better offensive option and of the two main candidates the left handed Alex Presley appears to be the best option as the 4 people I previously have mentioned are all right handed. Another option I think the Pirates should strongly consider is bringing in a middle infielder from free agency but with my preference for him to be a left handed batter the only two real options appear to be Adam Kennedy or Kelly Johnson. Johnson has gotten little interest in the free agent market and if the Pirates could convince him to come be part of the bench and an insurance policy for Walker’s back he could be the perfect addition to the Pirates bench. Johnson would need to be willing to try to be a little more versatile than just 2B as he would probably be asked to dust off his OF glove and maybe even take some reps at 3B. Kennedy on the other hand plays 1B, 2B and 3B and would be another decent add although his bat is a little weak. Johnson would provide some power for the bench and Kennedy would probably be not much more than an average left handed bench stick.
Heading into this offseason the Pirates seem to have a lot of positions set on the 25 man roster but that obviously doesn’t mean that there are not spots that could and should be upgraded. Trying to upgrade these positions the same ways as in year’s past (signing middling free agents) is probably not the best way to solve these problems as is evident by the failures of the last several years. So a new direction is needed and that could possibly include trades, NRI signings, Rule V draft, internal solutions, international signing, etc. My preferred strategy for the Pirates this offseason is to be minimally active in traditional free agency and instead focus on finding players through other means. Still free agency can not be entirely ignored and the idea of going for just one upper level free agent should also be considered. With all that being said I have found six positions that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be well served to upgrade. So in no particular order the positions are:
1. Starting Pitcher
5. Corner Outfield
Now I will go over the type of player I believe the Pirates should be looking for at each position and I’ll give the best fit of the available free agents and where necessary I’ll give an example of the type of player the Pirates should look to acquire via a trade. Again I’ll reiterate I’m not necessarily advocating acquiring these players just giving an example of the type the Pirates should be looking for.
Starting Pitcher: The way I see it the Pirates have only AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez locked into the rotation to begin next season. James McDonald should also probably be in there some where but his end of the season struggles make him a question mark. Karstens is the other obvious candidate but he has durability/injury issues. The rest of the candidates, Locke, McPherson, Leroux, VandenHurk, Wilson, etc seem best suited for 5th starter or depth duty for now. So with three question marks of some variety in the rotation starting pitcher is an obvious need. In fact if the Pirates decide to go the route of one decent sized free agent signing I hope it is in the rotation as a Gavin Floyd or Edwin Jackson type could do a lot to help stabilize the rotation. However I am advocating different strategies this season so a trade for a good starter would be a good thing to consider as would a signing of a high upside risky pitcher. For example the pitchers I see fitting into this category are Francisco Liriano, Ervin Santana and Scott Baker. All 3 of those pitchers have a ton of upside and could get a reasonably large sum in free agency but conversely all 3 have significant faults which could drop their respective prices making them prime targets for the Pirates.
Bullpen: The only two players who should be considered near locks for the Pirates bullpen are Jared Hughes and Tony Watson. I also expect Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux to be part of the pen but they aren’t guarantees but we will say the Pirates are looking for 3 players to fill out the pen. Hanrahan of course is someone who could take one spot but I think the Pirates will and should trade him, hopefully doing so fills one of the other holes. Resigning Grilli should be another move the Pirates consider but I wouldn’t go with a big salary for him, I think my max would be 2 years at 4 million per season. To fill the other spots I think the Pirates should do what they have done the past few seasons which is scour for players like Jose Veras or Juan Cruz or even select someone in the Rule V draft. Waiver claims and low-level trades could also work. It is always difficult to predict which relievers will be available for low salary contracts or NRI but some names I like are Kyle Farnsworth, Randy Choate and Jon Rauch. Internally guys like Justin Wilson, Duke Welker and even Chris Resop are candidates to fill out the bullpen.
Catcher: Let me start by saying unequivocally that Rod Barajas should not be brought back at any price. Now as for McKenry he is a decent part of a catching tandem but give him anymore than 90 starts and I have a feeling things won’t be looking so good. So obviously some help is needed for him. Eric Fryer and Tony Sanchez are the internal options but Sanchez could use more time in AAA and Fryer well just isn’t that good. There are bound to be some available catchers that can be acquired via a trade such as Hank Conger and the Pirates should seriously consider that route but if they want to go the free agent route there is a pretty decent free agent market for catchers. Napoli is obviously the best available but is not someone the Pirates should ideally locate a lot of money to. Other catchers such as Russell Martin, Kelly Shoppach and David Ross make sense as well. I wouldn’t rule out a trade here but I think I would prefer going after a catcher like Shoppach and using the trade resources to go after some of the other needs.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes wasn’t as bad this season as most Pirates fans would lead you to believe. He had an awful April and May but was exactly what the Pirates should have expected to get the remainder of the season. With all that being said Barmes production shouldn’t have locked down the shortstop job for next season. The Pirates could look at free agency for an answer but the pickings are slim. Stephen Drew and Jhonny Peralta headline the class but Peralta may not even reach free agency and Drew is coming off a season argubly worse than Barmes. Still something needs to be done to address the shortstop problem because at the very least another solution is going to be needed in 2014. If the Pirates choose to go the trade route I hope they look for someone who has good on base skills and could hit near the top of the lineup. Players like that are rare from the shortstop position and are usually pretty expensive in terms of salary and what it would cost to acquire them via trade. One name that sticks out to me who by all accounts isn’t available but I imagine could be for a good offer is Jed Lowrie. Lowrie can play good defense and has consistently put up a good OBP. If the Pirates can acquire a shortstop in that mold that is the way to go otherwise when considering the options available through free agency sticking with Barmes and adding in more Jordy Mercer to prepare him for 2013 is probably the way to go.
Corner Outfield: The toughest need to really explain. Let me start by saying I am assuming Garrett Jones will split time with Gaby Sanchez at 1B meaning he will only play in the outfield sparingly if at all. If the Pirates decide to make him a OF the need for a corner outfielder greatly diminishes but the need for a 1B to compliment Gaby Sanchez increases, however I’ll ignore that possibility for now. The Pirates production from the corner outfield this season sans Jones was awful. The Pirates received the 2nd worst offensive production from LF this season and were only marginally decent in RF thanks to Jones playing there about half the time. This would seem an obvious spot to upgrade but yet it isn’t. The Pirates have 4 players vying to man these two positions with 3 of them being 24 years old (1 of the 3 will be 25 for all of next season). The Pirates have a ton of youth and potential to fill these 2 positions in Marte, Snider, Tabata and Presley but not much actual success to go on. I would assume Marte has got to be given a chance in one corner due to the fact he has the highest upside of the bunch and had the best season of the four last year. The other spot is where the need comes into play Snider will be playing next season at 25 years old and Tabata will be playing most of it at 24 years old. The two of them look like they could make a decent platoon in RF but with the uncertainty in LF this is not something the Pirates should count on. If the Pirates wanted to make a big splash for an offensive player this is where they should do it. A player like Angel Pagan makes a lot of sense as he could come in play a OF corner and hit atop the order. However due to the youth and potential the Pirates have here I’d rather see a big splash investment go to the pitching side and this be solved with a less splashy option. I envision the type of addition that makes the most sense is a veteran outfield who has good on base skills and who wouldn’t mind being a 4th outfielder but is capable of being a borderline starting option. The two players in free agency that best matches this description are Juan Pierre and Reed Johnson, however I am not too enthused about either of them. Just to give an example of the type of player I’m talking about I’ll mention David DeJesus. Now I doubt the Cubs will actively be looking to move DeJesus but a player like him capable of playing all 3 positions in the OF and maintaining a .340+ OBP is exactly what the Pirates should be looking for. If they can’t find one and they don’t choose to make a big splash I think the best option is to play Marte in LF, have Snider and Tabata platoon in RF, have Presley available in AAA and be open to using Jones in the outfield once again. That may not seem like a great option but neither is bringing in a middling free agent.
Bench: If there is one theme to what the Pirates need to do this offseason it is they have to get deeper. Deeper in the rotation, the bullpen, the lineup, the minor leagues and the bench. This past season the two Pirates who received the most pinch hit appearances were Josh Harrison and Jeff Clement. Both of them struggled and Clement for one shouldn’t be back. Going into next season the Pirates bench figures to include a backup catcher say McKenry, T Sanchez or an outside addition, Gaby Sanchez, a young middle infielder say Mercer, Holt or Harrison and a 4th outfielder say Snider, Tabata or an outside acquisition. That leaves one final spot which this past season belonged to Harrison. Harrison should absolutely be given a chance to win a spot on the bench but only the reserve middle infielder job. The Pirates should allocate some resources to improving this spot with offense being a key focus. Just looking at free agency the Pirates could choose to go for a pure pinch hitter and sign a 1B like Jason Giambi or Carlos Lee. Or since they seem to have a desire to carry at least 4 middle infielders at all times a guys like Maicer Izturis or Adam Kennedy could be pursued. Or they could carry 5 outfielders on the roster (which with Jones on the team seems like overkill) and get a player like Austin Kearns, Raul Ibanez or Reed Johnson. The other option is of course to go with a Mike Fontenot or Jeff Baker type who can play all over the field but that would likely sacrifice offensive production. It is very difficult to speculate on who else the Pirates may be able to acquire here so I’ll just leave it at that but something needs to be done to improve the Pirates bench.