Alex Presley: The Pirates received very little production from left field this season ranking 29th in most offensive categories. The man manning the position the most frequently this season was Alex Presley. Presley was solid in the field but looked completely lost at the plate at times. He did finish the year on a fairly strong note but his overall performance did nothing to stop the perception of him being a 4th outfielder. Overall Presley posted a .683 OPS which while not terrible is disappointing coming from a starting corner outfielder. Presley also didn’t run too much stealing only 9 bases and being caught 7 times. The bottom line really is that Presley just didn’t look like a major league starting outfielder this season which is fine of course as he could still carve out a nice career as a backup but the Pirates needed more from him this season. Outfield spots figure to be tight next season and the Pirates may even bring in another option to complicate matters farther. Due to his left handedness it is not impossible for Presley to make the roster out of spring training but right now I would expect him to start the year off in AAA. Overall Grade: C-
Starling Marte: For most of the second half of the season it was Starling Marte playing left field and while he wasn’t spectacular in his rookie season he held his own and posted a respectable .737 OPS. In itself that still isn’t good enough for a corner outfielder but due to his youth and relative lack of experience hopes are high that he can improve upon those numbers. Marte also showed off his good defense and great arm this past season and was probably one of the Pirates most effective base stealers swiping 12 bases on 17 tries. Marte was miscast as a leadoff hitter most of this season as he simply doesn’t have the plate discipline needed to make him an effective top of the order hitter but he has enough power potential and other talents that he could develop into a nice 5 or 6 hitter. Due to the Pirates woes in the corner outfield and Marte’s relatively good performance this past season it is difficult for me to imagine that he won’t be next season’s opening day starter in left field. Marte deserves a fair chance at establishing himself as a fixture in the Pirates lineup for next season and as far as this season is concerned he played about as well as you should realistically expect from most rookies. Overall Grade: B
Mel Rojas: When it comes to the outfield I’m not going to stick strictly to positional basis as most lower level outfield prospects at least play center field. Instead I just took my top 9 outfield prospects and moved them to fit positions. Rojas is a center fielder by trade but he had a poor showing in A+ this season so I don’t expect he’ll be moved up to AA and with Gregory Polanco coming to A+ next season he won’t remain in CF so for now I’ve moved him over to left field. Rojas was selected in third round in 2010 and was seen as raw when the Pirates drafted him but with a very high upside. He was not viewed as someone who would add a lot of power but the other 4 tools were and to some extent still there. After 2.5 seasons in the minor leagues Rojas has progressed very little and I suspect you’ll see quite a few analysts giving up on him now which is a justifiable move but I still like his talent and am going to give him one more season before I completely drop him for the prospect radar. For the record he did have a few positives this season as he played a very good defensive center field and was decent on the base paths. However he continued to show poor plate discipline striking out 107 times while only walking 35. For the type of hitter he is that is never going to work. Rojas as stated earlier will probably stay in A+ to start next season but will have to slide into a corner outfield position to accommodate for Gregory Polanco.
Willy Garcia: Garcia is the one guy on my list who actually played extensively in left field this season, though he did split his time pretty evenly between LF and RF. Garcia fits the traditional profile of a corner outfielder meaning he has decent but not great speed, plays solid defense, has a plus arm and has some good power in his bat. Garcia displayed all those things this season but unfortunately was very inconsistent with them, having some good hot stretches followed by doing essentially nothing for long stretches of time. Overall he hit for good power belting 18 home runs and played overall solid defense in the outfield but plate discipline and a tendency to swing and miss made his season rather poor overall. Garcia has the talent to break out and turn into a legit power hitting corner outfield prospect but he didn’t do it this season. There are still obvious holes in his game that could be exposed in A+ so the Pirates may choose to hold him back in A ball and have him work on those things. He is still fairly young and will be playing all of next season at 21 years old so he won’t really be old for A ball either.
Harold Ramirez: Ramirez was signed out of Columbia last season and it was assumed he would start the year in the DSL but the Pirates aggressively pushed the 17 year old to rookie ball in the states. Ramirez had a leg problem at the beginning of the season which caused him to miss the first month of rookie ball so by the time he started playing fellow 17 year old Latin American signing, Elvis Escobar had already taken over CF so the Pirates had Ramirez split time between LF and RF. He got off to a good start but struggled to close out the season in August. Unlike the other two prospects I discussed here Ramirez didn’t show bad plate discipline striking out only 20 times but he also didn’t walk much either. Ramirez is a very quick outfielder and has some power potential, his defense is solid enough to stay in center field but his lack of arm strength will probably put him in a corner eventually. Obviously at 17 Ramirez is still very raw. His showing this season while it doesn’t jump off the page as being great was fairly respectable for a 17 year old in his first year in the United States. Ramirez will probably play next season in Jamestwon for the Pirates new A- affiliate.
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.
Something has been bothering me about the Pirates for the last few weeks but I figured in time it would play itself out but so far it has not. The make up of the Pirates bench really confuses me. Currently it has the backup catchers McKenry, one of Presley, Jones or McGehee depending on the SP and 3 middle infielders. Now call me crazy but I really don’t see the need or rationale for carrying 3 middle infielders on the bench. Ideally you would like to really have only one but I can understand keeping two. The Pirates bench is no doubt a weak spot right now and there are three ways to fix it.
1.) A direct trade aimed to help the bench. Pretty straight forward target a bench player in a trade
2.) Acquire a starting player which in turn will push current players (McGehee and Presley) to the bench.
3.) Call up help from AAA. There isn’t much down there but Clement looks ready to help and if an outfielder is needed Hernandez and Tabata await in the wings.
My preference is to acquire a corner outfielder which would push Presley to the bench and push Jones and McGehee back to their platoon with Jones getting the majority of the playing time and McGehee being a bench bat. To make room for this extra player I would send Harrison or Mercer to AAA. In addition I would also like to see Jeff Clement called up to add a little pop to the bench. He could start an occasional game at 1st when we wanted to go lefty heavy but would primarily just be a PH. He would replace Sutton. This would leave a bench of:
C: Barajas/McKenry (I’m in favor of making this a 50/50 split)
MI: Mercer (or Harrison)
I’m not sure what has happened to Alex Presley he went from being the everyday left fielder and lead off hitter to riding the bench more often than not. I think his future is as a very good 4th outfielder but it is amazing how quickly the Pirates have changed attitudes on him. Personally I think he should be in the lineup receiving more playing time as I see Navarro as a good alternative to Barmes but not Presley. However if the Pirates are going to keep using Presley in a 4th outfield role they really have no need for McLouth. At this point McLouth is worthless off the bench and replacing him on the roster with a bat like Jake Fox makes a lot of sense if Presley is going to be viewed as solely a 4th outfielder going forward. My suggestion is that McGehee although he hasn’t looked great would be better with consistent playing time so in my suggestion he takes over as the regular 1B and a Jones/Fox platoon moves out to RF.
Again I am not advocating this move but rather saying that it makes a whole lot of sense under the assumption that Presley remains as the 4th outfielder. Under my suggestion the lineup could look like”
Barmes (Navarro), SS
Personally I want to see Navarro at SS but realistically it will be Barnes so that is why I put the SS position as such. The bench would look like:
If McGehee fails at 1B one of Hague, Clement or Evans could be called up and given a chance or Presley could be reinserted in the OF moving Jones back to 1B. As for everyone’s favorite B duo, Barmes and Barajas, Jordy Mercer is looking strong in AAA and could be a Major League option some time in June and July and Jose Morales, who has a decent Major League track record, is playing well and could be a good catching option in a matter of a few weeks.
Alex Presley: In my opinion Alex Presley is the key to the Pirates having a top notch outfield this season. After surging through the minor leagues the last two seasons Presley got his first real chance last season and did not disappoint. In addition to the speed, defense and contact skills we all expected he even showed a little bit of power with a slugging percentage of .465. Presley has the speed and the defensive skills to make patrolling the Pirates rather large home left field no issue at all. The question is rather is his bat sustainable. I this point I can’t think of a reason not to expect it to be; I see him hitting for a line of roughly .280/.340/.450. That would make him a very solid left fielder. If Presley does reach my projection he (and Tabata and McCutchen) will give the Pirates a very strong outfield and top of the batting order.
Nate McLouth: McLouth will be the backup for all three outfield spots but I believe he was signed primarily as an insurance policy in case Presley’s magic ride ends. For this reason I am considering him a left fielder for this season. There is no reason to expect McLouth to return to his 2008/09 but I think a return to his old stomping grounds will allow him to improve on his past two seasons numbers. McLouth will assume the 4th outfielder job, the Pirates had him penciled in for all along and I think he will succeed in such a role. McLouth has a good speed/power mix which I think will prove to be a perfect combination for his new lesser role with the Pirates.
Robbie Grossman: Grossman made a huge splash last season with a great showing in A+ ball. He quickly rose into the Pirates top 10 prospect. Grossman will likely mostly play CF in AA this year but he profiles best as a corner outfielder hence his inclusion as a left fielder prospect. Now the questions are how will Grossman adjust from moving to a hitter friendly park to a pitcher friendly park, how will his hammate injury affect him and how we he handle the brighter spotlight that will be on him? He has the pedigree of a guy who should be a rather successful player. However with all those factors working against him I think Grossman is going to take a step back this season. I don’t see him having a horrible season in AA but it won’t be near the level of what people are expecting. I think his hammate injury and the jump in the level of competition will be the two largest factors limiting him.
Wes Freeman: It wasn’t to the extent of Grossman but Freeman had his only little breakout season last year. Like Grossman, Freeman will likely be spending most of 2012 in center field but long term he appears to be a better fit for a corner spot. Freeman had a few disappointing seasons in 2008-10 and was likely on his last chance last season when he made his big strides forward. It should be noted that his breakout came in short season ball so he still has a long way to go before he can move into the top prospect crowd. This year should be Freeman’s first full year in full season ball and while I like how much he has progressed I know he is still a project who will probably struggle initially. I think we will see encouraging signs late in the season but I think this is going to be a relatively rough season for Freeman.
Candon Myles: Myles was drafted as a high school senior in the 12th round. He received a decent signing bonus amount of 125K so the Pirates must think fairly highly of him. He received limited playing time (6 AB) in rookie ball last season and considering he is only 19 he will likely either repeat rookie ball or play in short season ball. Myles best tool is his speed and he loves to use it on the bases. He has a small stature so he doesn’t project to hit for much power and probably is best suited for center field. I am listing him as a replacement for Cayones and because he is the remaining outfield prospect I am the highest on. I am expecting a very good season from Myles but since he is so young and at such a low level his prospect status will not be affected much.
Summary: One of the Pirates organizational strengths is the outfield and left field is no exception. In the short term Alex Presley will man the position and there is no real reason to think that his play will not be at least acceptable. The Pirates also have a few interesting prospects who project best as left fielder in Grossman and Freeman. Some fans may be concerned by the lack of power the Pirates have coming from left field but to be honest in recent seasons left field has been becoming less and less of a power hitting position. With Presley (or Tabata), two good prospects and the chance a CF could slide over the Pirates should have no real problem filling the left field position for 2012 and for the short term future.