Right now I am at a loss for words. Some how, some way both Jonathan Sanchez and Brandon Inge have made the Pittsburgh Pirates out of Spring Training. Just a few short weeks ago this seemed virtually impossible and yet here we are. Things have gone horribly horribly wrong and now these two players are going to wind up displacing two guys from the Pirates 40 man roster. Considering the other options available this isn’t necessarily a death-blow to the team’s chances in 2013 but what it is is an admission from Huntington that he just doesn’t trust his minor league system. Last week the addition of John McDonald was yet another admission. For some reason Huntington just can’t put any faith into the players he has at the minor league level and I am getting quite tired of it.
Neither is really an acceptable addition but to some extent Sanchez is at least a little understandable. When the Pirates signed him as a minor league free agent Sanchez appeared to be competing with the likes of Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro, Chris Leroux and Phillip Irwin to be the Pirates 10th option to pick up starts. The fact that he has apparently won that battle is perfectly fine but the fact that the Pirates 10th option is needed in the rotation to begin the season and the fact that such a possibility wasn’t exactly a difficult one to see is a problem. For those of you wondering where I’m getting 10th option at the Pirates have five fairly established starters in Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Liriano and Karstens and they have two young starters primed to get inning in Locke and McPherson and two players who are primed to help support the rotation by midseason in Morton and Cole. All that adds up to 9 respectable arms ready to man the rotation. That is all well and good but it was a fairly easy thing to predict that 5 of the 9 weren’t going to be ready for Opening Day. It was already a given Morton and Cole weren’t going to be and Liriano was known to be hurt. That means all it took was Karstens injuring his shoulder (an issue he has for the past few years) and McPherson showing he isn’t ready (something his 3 career AAA starts should have told us).
Yes it is a little bad luck the Pirates are down to their 10th starting option to begin the season but it was at least possible to foresee this situation playing out. Sanchez does have some upside though and has looked fairly respectable in camp so it is hard to fault the Pirates completely on him. Inge (and McDonald) are entirely different stories. First let me say that Inge appears likely to start on the DL and probably won’t be part of the Opening Day roster but in reality that just makes the fact he has made the team even more inexcusable. These two players provide nothing the Pirates internal options like Mercer, Harrison and De Jesus could not provide. Yes Inge has some power but his injury zaps that all away and he has been declining rapidly over the last few years anyway. The younger players on the Pirates roster also come with some upside and still could potentially develop into more useful players so choosing Inge and McDonald over them makes absolutely no sense. Those three are better options and hell they are even cheaper. This is simply a matter of poor roster management.
Again at the end of the day these mistakes by the front office aren’t likely to cost the Pirates a lot. The difference between Inge and McDonald and the younger players is probably going to be fairly irrelevant and having to go with Sanchez in the rotation is a case of improper planning but at the end of the day is at least somewhat understandable. These moves aren’t going to derail the Pirates season they simply aren’t important enough to do so but they are aggravating and highlight some poor qualities in Huntington and Hurdle. A team like the Pirates is going to have to get lucky with some of their own young players. That is a two-step process: 1) Getting young players in the system with some potential and 2) Getting lucky by giving them a chance to prove themselves. Huntington has done a fair job with the first part of the equation but has displayed an unwillingness to even try the second part of the equation.
Last offseason I did a 15 part preview of the Pirates upcoming seasons focusing on what I expected to see out of various positions at the major league levels, the minor levels, the coaching staff and the front office. The series went over fairly well with my readers so I have decided to bring it back for a second year. I’m not sure how many parts this year’s series will include but I will do my best to cover every key player I can think of.
Manager Clint Hurdle
Hurdle is entering his 3rd season as manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Under his leadership the Pirates have seen their records improve each of the last two seasons. The players seem to play for him and to me that is the largest part of being a successful manager. On the not so bright side Hurdle has some issues with in-game management that are often talked about on the blog-o-sphere. His love of bunting and inability to see young utility infielders on his bench being my two chief complaints. There are others of course such as his timing of things such as hit and runs and steal attempts. Overall I see him as an effective manager with a lot of room to improve. It isn’t always easy to set expectations for a coach but I think it’s fairly obvious the task at hand for Hurdle he needs to lead the Pirates towards another improved season or likely be fired. The Pirates did remove his lame duck status this season but that’s more of a formality than anything. If the 2013 Pirates fail to improve there will undoubtedly be wide-spread changes in the coaching staff starting with Hurdle. Now as far as what I would like to see him do in terms of actual performance there is really only one thing: Use the Roster He Has More Efficiently. Last season the Pirates offense believe it or not was heavily dependent on the long ball and Hurdle’s insistence to bunt took away opportunities for one. In addition to that Hurdle seems to have a reluctance to use younger players such as Pedro Ciriaco, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson and Kyle McPherson. He needs to start rolling the dice with players like that be it in bench roles, bullpen roles or something more impactful. I am not expecting to see any of that though as Hurdle is what he is and will continue to push veterans into roles the younger players are at least if not better prepared for.
Hitting Coach Jay Bell
The task in front of Bell is relatively simple. Improve team plate discipline. The Pirates as a team walked too few times last year and struck out far too many times. In his first year as Pirates hitting coach Bell is tasked with fixing those issues and making the Pirates a more discipline team. It isn’t going to be an easy task but that is the job Bell signed up for. In addition to closely watching those numbers it is my expectation that at least one Pirates player hits well above expectations. What does that mean? That means Snider or Marte or Sanchez or … someone taking that next step and playing better than what we all expect. I’ll say it again these are not necessarily fair things to task Jay Bell with it but it is the job he has taken on so I wish him luck and will hope to see some results.
Pitching Coach Ray Searage
Searage has been a breath of fresh air for the Pirates coaching staff. He has done an outstanding job with the arms the front office has given him but he needs to show he can keep them going for an entire season. McDonald and Liriano will be the two pitchers who largely define the success or failure of the 2013 season for Searage. Neither one has to pitch like an ace all season but both of them need to be quality starting pitchers for the entire 2013 season. There can be no falling off a cliff and wondering what happened. Searage has been great but he needs his staff to put together a consistent good solid year or else he too will be out the door. Also something has to be done to improve the pitchers’ ability to hold runners and that will ultimately lie at the feet of Searage.
1st Base Coach Rick Sofield
I wasn’t originally going to highlight any of the other minor coaches by them self but Sofield is an important one. The first base coach is typically given the task of coaching the running game and while the overall base running from the Pirates last year actually wasn’t too bad their stealing was absolutely terrible. Sofield will be spending his first year on the Pirates staff and has the tall task of making the Pirates a legitimate threat on the bases. The Pirates have some speed in Marte, McCutchen and Tabata they could be utilizing which in return would minimize the number of time Hurdle felt the need to bunt but for some reason or another they can’t seem to do it real well. It will be Sofield’s job to help the Pirates as a whole and specifically the premier base stealers improve upon their current abilities.
The rest of the coaching staff includes Nick Leyva (3rd base coach), Jeff Bannister (Bench Coach), Euclides Rojas (Bullpen Coach), Jeff Branson (Coach), Dave Jauss (Coach) and Brendon Huttman (Stregnth and Conditioning Coach). The role of these coaches are a little less clear in the day-to-day grind which is baseball but every one of them is on the hot seat should the Pirates performance not improve. Leyva’s most obvious duty is deciding whether to send runners home but he also oversees the infield defense (Sofield oversees the outfield defense). Bannister as a bench coach is largely there to assist the manager with whatever tasks he chooses. Rojas is there to answer the bullpen phone (his most visible job) but his main job is assisting the pitching coach likewise the main job of Jeff Branson will be assisting Jay Bell with his duties as hitting coach. Jauss’s role is a little more ambiguous as he has been described as the team’s “eye in the sky”. Essentially he will offer his advice on various matters. Finally Brendon Huttman is obviously there to try to keep the players as healthy and fit as possible. These coaches will be judged based upon whatever duties they are assigned to oversee.
Manager, Clint Hurdle: There are three main things I am hoping to see from Hurdle this season: 1) Smarter small ball management, 2.) Smarter bullpen management and 3.) Success from his own personal hitting projects. By smarter small ball management I am meaning he needs to better utilize the speed he has at the top of his lineup and bunt less often. With Tabata, Presley and McCutchen likely at the top of the Pirates lineup Hurdle needs to run aggressively but smarter. As for the bunts last season Hurdle did it with so much frequency that it became frustrating and a bit or a running joke; when the situation calls for it Hurdle should still absolutely call for a bunt he just needs to be more selective this season. Now as for the bullpen usage this mainly deals with his use of his closer. Some people advocate using Hanrahan in late game crucial situations instead of solely the 9th inning but I want to see Hanarhan stay primarily in the 9th inning role but I want to see Hurdle show flexibility and occasionally be willing to bring Hanrahan in during the 7th or 8th inning if the game is close and the situation critical. Also if Hurdle is going to stick to his no pitching 3 days in a row he needs to be more selective before sending out pitchers, i.e. if Hanahran pitched the day before he should not come to mound to close a game in which the Pirates have a 3 run lead. The final thing I want to see from Hurdle is for his personal hitting projects of Alvarez and McKenry to show success in the majors, being honest I am really indifferent on McKenry (it would be nice to see and all) but Alvarez is the key here.
Hitting Coach, Gregg Ritchie: There is only one thing I want to see from Ritchie this season, at least one person under his tutelage needs to step up and take his game to the next level. The Pirates really had no single hitter last season who exceeded expectations, that needs to change this season. I am not including Alvarez in this because I see him more as a project for Hurdle than Ritchie but somebody like Tabata, Presley, Walker, etc has to play better than what everyone is expecting. I actually think this is critical and failure to do this could end up costing Ritchie his job.
Pitching Coach, Ray Searage: The goal for Searage is to continue doing what he did last season. Bottom line the pitching staff for the first four months performed remarkably and all Searage really has to do is help that continue and maybe get it to extend throughout the entire season. I will mention a few tasks I will like to see him specifically address. 1.) Get Morton more confident throwing pitches other than his sinker, 2.) Help McDonald get deeper into games, and 3.) Tweak Burnett’s delivery, grip, something to make him lose a few mph of his changeup. Those three tasks along with continuing last season’s success and building off of it is what I am looking for this season.
1st Base Coach, Luis Silverio: In addition to being the 1st base coach Silverio will also serve as the outfield coach and the base running coach. I think his most important role this season is going to be base running but it would also be nice to see the outfield reach its full defensive potential. As for base running Silverio has to better train the Pirates base stealers like Tabata, Presley and McCutchen to make them more aggressive and smarter. I want to see the Pirates be smart and aggressive on the base paths this season and Silverio will have a big role in that.
3rd Base Coach, Nick Leyva: Leyva is also the club’s infield coach and he will have his work cut out from him there. The Pirates should get good defense from Barmes but the platoon of Jones/McGehee, Walker and Alvarez are not the strongest fielders. Leyva will have to work to get McGehee comfortable at a relatively new position and he will need to try and get respectable defensive performances from Walker and Alvarez. I want to see the infield defense be average or better this season. As for his role as 3rd base coach I had no real problem with how he decided to send runners last season so hopefully he just keeps up his work and maybe gets a tad more aggressive.
Bench Coach, Jeff Banister: To be honest I am not really sure what responsibilities Hurdle has delegated to Banister. A bench coach’s role is to help the manager with the day to day activities. Since I really do not know what Banister is responsible for it is tough to say what to expect from him but since he does assist Hurdle the same goals I gave to Hurdle apply to Banister.
Bullpen Coach, Euclides Rojas: The bullpen coach has a very similar role to the pitching coach but mainly works with the relievers. One job away from the relievers I am hoping Rojas partakes in is using his past experience with Burnett to help Searage form a relationship with Burnett. As for his work in the pen I think his two most important tasks this season will be working with Meek to help him regain his form and working with the left handed relievers to try and solidify that shaky spot in the Pirates bullpen.
Bullpen Catcher, Hebarto Andrade: I really have nothing to add here. As the bullpen catcher Andrade basically serves as an assistant to Rojas and is also responsible for throwing batting practice. During the winter months Andrade also serves as a catching instructor for the Venezuela winter leagues so maybe he will be able to Barajas and McKenry out in some capacity.
Coach, Mark Strittmatter: Strittmatter will serve as the pitchers hitting coach, work with the catchers and also help Ritchie and Hurdle with the hitting program. A lot of what I assigned to Hurdle and Ritchie applies to him but I would also like to see some improvement from the Pirates pitchers in terms of hitting. The pitchers will obviously never hit great but even so last season the Pirates pitchers were 100 OPS points below the National League average and that is not acceptable.
Strength & Conditioning Coach, Brendon Huttman: A new addition to Hurdle’s staff Huttman will take over a role that no one actually filled last season; the Pirates did have someone responsible for strength and conditioning but that was not his full role. Obviously the goal for him is to help avoid a repeat of last season’s major injury collapse down the stretch.