The Pirates essentially finalized their 25 man roster earlier today. Technically speaking there are still a few additional players in camp but all of them are expected to begin the season on the DL. Overall the roster is constructed in a very expected manner and while it is not how I would have went about doing it most of the decisions are at least somewhat understandable. There are always going to be people who complain about the fringes of the 25 man roster but at the end of the day those fringes really do not matter much, it is the core of the team and the overall depth (bench, bullpen and minor leagues) that will determine the fate of a team. The 5th starter, the 5th bench spot and the 7th reliever are not really positions that will dramatically alter the course of a team so the overreaction to the Pirates decisions on those roster spots is likely overblown. With all that in mind let’s take a look at how the Pirates roster looks headed into Opening Day.
C: Russell Martin
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
3B: Pedro Alvarez
SS: Clint Barmes
LF: Starling Marte
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Travis Snider
BN: Michael McKenry, Gaby Sanchez, Jose Tabata, John McDonald, Josh Harrison
SP: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke
RP: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez
In reality the only players I would remove from the roster if I was in charge of its construction would be McDonald, Harrison (eventually Inge) and Gomez. In their place I would prefer to see Mercer, De Jesus and Morris. The other change I would like to see made is swapping Wilson and J Sanchez. Wilson is younger and in my opinion more likely to be able to contribute to the rotation for a few starts while Sanchez at this point is probably best suited trying to turn his career around as a lefty reliever. Even these changes though are for the most part temporary. When Liriano comes back I would most likely opt to bump Wilson from the rotation, when Karstens comes back I would most likely opt to bump Morris from the bullpen and I can even understand the argument for wanting McDonald over De Jesus. I don’t get Harrison or Inge over Mercer though. I know Mercer can’t play the outfield while the other sort of kind of can but the Pirates have enough options where they shouldn’t be considering playing infielders in the outfield anyway. The other advantage Inge has is supposedly power but people seem to forget Mercer has a little pop in his bat as well, it was just 2011 when he lead the Pirates minor leagues in home runs. Still arguments over the last bench spot are basically trivial and irrelevant. I don’t get why the Pirates need two (or even one) veteran middle infielders on the bench who can’t hit but in reality the difference between them and the other options is most likely negligible.
With that rather long disclaimer out-of-the-way I figured now was as good as time as any to take a look at the players the Pirates have opted to bring north.
The starting infield is what we expected it to be all along. Russell Martin behind the dish will be counted on to provide solid defense and hopefully will produce somewhere in the vicinity of league average offense from the catcher position. The Pirates likely overpaid for him but if his superior pitch framing skills are actually real and not just a product of catching for guys like C.C. Sabathia then there is a chance he lives up the contract or maybe even provides some surplus value. I’m not expecting much in terms of offense from him but if he can be non horrible and provide the Pirates with an OPS around .700 I would take it.
Garrett Jones likely won’t be playing full-time at first base but assuming the Pirates actually stick to regularly platooning him this season he should get about 70% of the starts. Jones is here for essentially one purpose, to provide the Pirates with relatively cheap power. The rest of Jones’ game is fairly unremarkable from his defense to his baserunning but he is a fair hitter with plus power. That doesn’t make him a super valuable piece but it makes him an asset in the middle of the order. On the hot corner will reside Pedro Alvarez. Like Jones, Alvarez could probably benefit by sitting against some left handers but hopefully the Pirates give him a chance to prove his worth against them. Also like Jones, Alvarez is here to provide the Pirates with some power but unlike Jones, Alvarez has enough power potential where he could develop into an extremely valuable piece. Alvarez is going to strike out too much and not play the best defense at third but if he can show a little more plate discipline, draw a few more walks and continue blasting home runs he is going to have a lot of value.
Up the middle Neil Walker figures to get nearly every start at 2nd base and assuming Inge takes Harrison spot he better be starting everyday as the Pirates really won’t have a viable alternative on the 25 man roster. He had some back problems near the end of last season which bares watching but in reality any injury to him would really hurt the Pirates. It is unclear whether Hurdle plans to use him near the top of the order or more towards the bottom but given the fact he is one of the few Pirates players with a decent knack for getting on base placing him near the top (or eve at the top) of the order would probably be the wisest decision. Up the middle with Walker is Clint Barmes. Barmes’s value comes almost entirely from his ability to field the shortstop position very well but even so he is going to have to improve upon last year’s numbers to be of much use to the Pirates. Over the last 4 months of 2012 Barmes posted an OPS of around .650 and if he is able to do that for an entire season he won’t be the most glamorous shortstop but he will give the Pirates value.
The starting outfield is pretty much what we expected all along. There was a quasi competition for the corner spots but for the most part those were basically just made up as it was rather clear who should be the starters. In center field the Pirates will once again have their superstar Andrew McCutchen. There really isn’t a whole lot to say about him. He is likely one of the best 10 players in the game today and in order for the Pirates to have any chance of competing he will need to perform at a MVP caliber level. McCutchen did have a few flaws last year though and hopefully this season he will improve upon them. Last season he struggled stealing bases and was a little on the weak side defensively. Considering the rest of his game these are minor points of course but shoring them up would only make him more valuable.
In the corners the Pirates will use Starling Marte and Travis Snider. I expect to see both of them rested, especially Snider, on a fairly consistent basis but they will both get a long chance to prove themselves. Marte has plus speed and is a great defender so even if he struggles with the bat this season he is likely to still provide the Pirates with value. By no means is Marte’s bat weak though as he has the potential to possibly be the Pirates second best hitter this season behind only McCutchen. Marte is likely going to be forced into the leadoff spot a role he isn’t really suited for since he has some strike out issues but if he can maintain a high average and show any improvement in plate discipline he should be serviceable there. In the other corner will be Snider. He doesn’t have the speed or defense of Marte so he is going to have to hit to create value. People tend to think him hitting is less likely than Marte hitting well but in reality I think its a pretty even race. Snider has shown flashes in the past and comes with more power potential than Marte. The Pirates in order to have a shot at competing probably need one of these two to break out and become a true plus player and the other one will have to at least hold his own and be an average starter.
As I have previously stated the construction of the bottom of the bench really doesn’t matter a whole lot but the players near the top of the bench will likely get a lot of playing time so they will matter a good deal. The top player on the bench is likely Gaby Sanchez and he is expected to pick up the 30% or so of the starts that Garrett Jones doesn’t get at 1st base. Ideally Sanchez would bounce back to his 2010-11 form but that doesn’t really seem likely. In reality all the Pirates need him to be is a good bat against LHP and a good PH option off the bench two roles I think he’ll have no problem handling. Jose Tabata could potentially wind up in a similar situation to Sanchez only in right field. It is possible he winds up platooning with Snider and if that is the case he too will have to hit very well against left handed pitching. Tabata has the upside for more though. At this point he isn’t likely to develop into your traditional starting corner outfielder but he has very good plate discipline and that alone has the potential to make him a valuable asset atop the order. His speed although it has been questioned is still above average and his defense is probably around average as well. Tabata has the makings of an OBP first starting corner outfielder or a solid 4th outfielder. He is likely to be the second most important bench player.
The third most important bench spot and the last I see with much value will go to Michael McKenry. As the backup catcher he is likely to get at least 60 starts this season and will need to continue hitting as well as he did last season to provide value in those starts. His defense is decent but often overrated by Pirates fans but his bat can make him a solid backup catcher. The last two spots are currently slated to go to Harrison and McDonald but Inge will likely eventually assume Harrison’s role. In my mind the most important of these spots is the Harrison/Inge spot. This is supposedly the offensive first infield bench spot so whoever holds it down is going to have to actually you know hit at a respectable level. McDonald will serve as Barmes backup and though he is probably a touch worse both offensively and defensively his presence in the lineup for a day here or there shouldn’t really cause a noticeable difference.
Right now the Pirates rotation is a bit of mess. At the top of it the Pirates have probably one of the best one-two punches they have had in a while in AJ Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez. Neither one is a true ace but both seem like fairly safe bets to put up solid numbers this season. At 36 and 34 years old respectively there is of course the chance that either Burnett or Rodriguez has reached the end of their rope as pitchers but with how both of them pitched last year it seems likely they probably have another year or two of value left in them at least. Behind them is James McDonald who si the ultimate wildcard for the Pirates. If there is a true ace currently in the Pirates rotation it is James McDonald. McDonald showed us in the first half of the season last year that he has the talent to be a number one starting pitcher but he showed us in the second half of the year that he isn’t ready to be that yet and possibly never will be. What James McDonald the Pirates get this year, potential ace, borderline #5 starter or somewhere in between will probably be one of the biggest factors in how the Pirates season winds up.
Rounding out the rotation are a pitcher who amazingly actually has a wider range of possible outcomes than McDonald and a pitcher who looks like a fair bet to be a solid a back end guy but who has yet to prove it at the major league level. Jonathan Sanchez is another wildcard in the Pirates rotation but he is even less likely to pay off than McDonald. If Sanchez can keep his control problems at a minimum he will have an excellent chance of being a solid middle of the rotation starter for the Pirates but if he can’t he will most definitely be a total disaster. The Pirates really can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be expecting much from him. If Sanchez can give the Pirates 3 or 4 non-horrible starts in the month of April without completely exploding then it should be considered a success. The other pitcher Locke is a different story. Locke pitched exceptionally well in AAA last season but in his short stint in the majors was the victim of a very unlucky high home run rate. Assuming the high home rate drops this season which it will almost assuredly do I’m fairly confident Locke can become a solid #4 starter for the Pirates and mange to keep them in almost every game. He isn’t the flashiest pitcher but his performance in AAA has earned him this shot.
The back of the bullpen will consist of Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes. These four actually make for a fairly solid quartet of arms. Grilli has been successful in a set up and middle relief role the last two seasons and will inherit the closer role this year. Melancon struggled last year in April and was sent down to the minors but when he returned to the majors he pitched pretty well The two of them , Grilli and Melancon, will likely be the Pirates 8th and 9th inning duo. By no means is this the best back end duo in the league but the tandem should be able to close out most leads that are handed over to them. Watson and Hughes were rather successful last season in their middle relief roles and will be counted on this season in later inning situations. Hughes will probably inherit the 7th inning role and Watson will continue being the top left handed releiver in the bullpen. The success of these two last year makes it fairly likely the adjustment should be relatively smooth.
At the front of the bullpen trying to bridge the gap to the back 4 guys will be Justin Wilson, Chris Leroux and Jeanmar Gomez. All 3 pitchers are capable of throwing multiple innings and all will likely be called upon to do so throughout the year. Wilson provides the Pirates with a second lefty and one who is more of a strike out pitcher. Leroux and Gomez will likely pick up most of the long relief duties. Both are out of options and one of them is likely to be released once pitchers began to get healthy so it will be sort of an extended competition for the duo. Leroux appears to have the more upside but Gomez has more major league experience. Leroux and Gomez are both fairly replaceable relievers so they will have to pitch well this season to remain with the team.
With only 11 days left until Opening Day I thought it was time to take my final crack at predicting which 25 guys the Pirates will take north with them.
Catchers: Russell Martin, Michael McKenry
Both Martin and McKenry are healthy and appear ready to begin the year. There has been some talk about the Pirates looking for a catcher but I imagine that would only be as a depth option for AAA. These two have been locks to make the team since Spring Training began and nothing has changed that.
1st Base: Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez
Despite battling an injury early in the spring Jones now appears at full strength and should be ready to open the year as the Pirates regular 1st baseman. The plan all along this spring was to have Jones be the starter and for Gaby Sanchez to platoon with hm and pick up the starts against left handed starters. Sanchez has also been working out at third this spring and will hopefully be a viable alternative there.
2nd Base: Neil Walker
Fairly straight forward here. Walker is healthy and is the Pirates everyday 2nd baseman.
3rd Baseman: Pedro Alvarez
Again no rocket science here. Alvarez struck out a lot last season and has been struggling this spring but the Pirates have little choice but to let him have a shot at being an everyday or close to it 3rd baseman.
Shortstop: Clint Barmes, John McDonald
Before yesterday it wasn’t so clear just who would be backing up Barmes but the acquisition of McDonald clears things up quite a bit. Barmes will start on most days but when he needs a breather or is pinched hit for late in games McDonald will see some time in the field at shortstop.
Left Field: Starling Marte
Contrary to popular belief I don’t think Marte had a starting spot nailed down headed into Spring Training but from all reports he has looked great and his numbers have been solid so he will now undoubtedly as he should start the year as the everyday left fielder.
Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
Duh, who else would it be?
Right Field: Travis Snider, Jose Tabata
Some thought Sands or possibly Presley or even Hawpe may factor into right field mix at the beginning of Spring Training but it became fairly clear early on that the spot was Snider’s to lose and that in all likelihood Tabata would make the team as the 4th outfielder and split time with Snider in right taking most of the starts against left handed pitchers.
Starting Pitcher: AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Locke
Burnett, Rodriugez and McDonald have long been assumed and nothing from this spring changes that. The three of them will form the Pirates top 3 going into the season. The last two spots have looked like a bit of mess all Spring Training as Liriano hasn’t been healthy at all and Karstens really hasn’t been either. Locke hasn’t exactly separated himself from the pack but he was a favorite for a job headed into spring training and no one has really over took him at this point.
Bullpen: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux
Things have gotten a lot less settled in the Pirates bullpen in the last couple of days. Grilli, Melancon and Hughes were all assumed to essentially be locks since the beginning and nothing has changed on that front. Also considered near locks were Tony Watson and Bryan Morris bu Watson has only pitched sporadicly and Morris apparently has an option remaining meaning he could start in the minors without the Pirates having to risk losing him. Leroux is out of options and has had a pretty strong spring so I expect the Pirates to keep him on the roster and not risk losing him.
For those of you not keeping track at home that is only 20 players meaning there are still 5 spots available. These are the 5 that I think still come with some uncertainty.
Bench (1): Josh Harrison, Brandon Inge, Alex Presley, Felix Pie, Brad Hawpe, Jordy Mercer, Ivan De Jesus, Jared Goedert
At this point there is only one bench spot remaining and all the above players still vying for it. With the acquisition of McDonald I assume Mercer and De Jesus are out of the running. Non roster invitees Hawpe and Goedert seem like long shots and are unlikely to make the team. That leaves Harrison, Inge, Presley and Pie. I would prefer to see the Pirates use this last spot on the best offensive player but knowing how Huntington and Hurdle like to construct a roster I think this last bench spot is likely to go to an infielder with some versatility so that eliminates Presley and Pie. This final spot in my mind is down to Harrison and Inge. To date Inge has shown nothing tha hints he would be an asset to this team so I expect the Pirates will opt to carry Josh Harrison as the final bench player.
Rotation (1): Jeff Karstens, Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeanmar Gomez
Before his disastrous start yesterday I would have said McPherson would get the last spot if Karstens wasn’t ready to go but now I’m not too sure. I still can’t imagine any scenario in which Gomez gets the nod but the Pirates are keeping Sanchez starting and have to make a decision on him by the 24th. I think there are serious doubts that Karstens will be ready by the start of the season but right now I’m still inclined to say he will take the last rotation spot.
Bullpen (3): Bryan Morris, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Wilson, Ryan Reid, Mike Zagurski, Jonathan Sanchez
Although he still has an option remaining Bryan Morris remains in my opinion one of the Pirates strongest options for the bullpen so despite the fact there is now a chance he could start the year in the minors I still expect to see him as part of the bullpen on Opening Day. Watson has me legitimately concerned at this point and I am now leaning towards the idea of him not being ready by Opening Day and actually starting the season in the minors. I’m expecting the Pirates to carry two left handers in the bullpen to start the season regardless of Watson’s health so assuming everything breaks as I predict that leaves no room for Reid or Gomez and makes the final two spots a battle between Wilson, Zagurski and Sanchez. At this point I can’t see Sanchez making the team unless they opt to have him start in the rotation so my prediction is the final two spots will go to Wilson and Zagurski.
Lineup: Marte (LF), Walker (2B), McCutchen (CF), Alvarez (3B), Jones (1B), Martin (C), Snider (RF), Barmes (SS)
Bench: McKenry (C), Sanchez (1B-3B), McDonald (2B-3B-SS), Tabata (OF), Harrison (2B-3B-SS-OF)
Rotation: Burnett, Rodriguez, McDonald, Locke, Karstens
Bullpen: Grilli (CL), Melancon (SU), Hughes, Morris, Leroux, Wilson (LH), Zagurski (LH)
One area that concerns me about the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates is the team’s bench. To me it just looks weak on paper and I have the feeling that has been the case for quite some time now. The Pirates depth or lack there of has been an issue for years and while it is steadily improving I believe some spots, especially the middle infield, are still lagging behind. My belief the Pirates bench was weak in past seasons, including 2012, was not really based on any research but rather jut an observational opinion. I decided to take a look at the numbers and see according to Fan Graphs WAR just how well the Pirates bench in 2012 stacked up to the other 4 teams remaining in the NL Central (Reds, Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs).
The first step to do this was determining exactly what a bench player was. I’m not merely looking for how well a team does with its pinch hitters but rather how well a team’s non-regulars do when pinch-hitting and when giving a regular starter a day off. Two obvious constraints came to mind one pitchers are obviously not bench players and bench players will not have as many plate appearances as starters. Using those two constraints I narrowed my list down to all non-pitchers and then eliminated anyone with 400 or more plate appearances. Four hundred was really just an arbitrary end point but it seems like a solid number for a regular starter, it represents roughly 60% of a 650 PA season meaning the player probably had to have played more than 50% of the time. Going even further I opted to eliminate any player with fewer than 50 PA. Players such as that likely didn’t have a chance to contribute much off the bench and were probably either short-term injury callups or September roster expansion players. These constraints limited the player pool to a manageable size for bench players but still left me with a few oddities such as Starling Marte and Rod Barajas being listed as bench players. Obviously those two and other like them are not bench players so I decided to look at the number of plate appearance the remaining players had per game played. A typical bench player should have a lower number because while they will make some starts a lot of their plate appearances will come as a pinch hitter or late inning replacement limiting their PA in those games to 1 or 2. Again I opted to choose an arbitrary dividing line of 3.3 plate appearances per game. It may seem random but it indicates that in at least a third of his games the player was receiving at least 4 plate appearances and to me that was a good enough dividing line. Finally I opted for one more constraint and that was removing all catchers. This may seem a little odd but typically speaking backup catchers receive a larger number of starts than a typical catcher and are often not used in pinch-hitting situations. In short catchers really don’t fit my standard ideal of what a bench player really is.
These constraints left me with a various number of players left for each team. The Reds had 4, the Cardinals and Brewers each had 7, the Cubs had 9 players and the Pirates topped the list with 10 such players. I looked at the total number of plate appearances each of these groups had and at the total number of WAR they produced on the season. The Reds were low and the Cubs were high but the other three teams all had right around 1200 plate appearances. So I decided to look at the stats on the basis of 1200 plate appearances which for the NL Central at least appears to be roughly the average number of plate appearances each “bench” received. The results can be seen below. I’ve also included the actual WAR and total number of plate appearances.
Cardinals: 5.1 WAR/1200 PA (5.4 WAR, 1263 PA)
Brewers: 1.9 WAR/1200 PA (1.8 WAR, 1118 PA)
Pirates: 0.8 WAR/1200 PA (0.8 WAR, 1255 PA)
Cubs: 0.4 WAR/1200 PA (0.5 WAR, 1538 PA)
Reds: -0.6 WAR/1200 PA (-0.4 WAR, 835 PA)
A little to my surprise the Pirates actually finished third. The Cardinals total was just incredibly insane and the Reds total was much lower than one would assume a successful team to be but then again they had very little reason to use it. For those of you interest the players included for each team I have listed below:
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter, Skip Schumaker, Tyler Greene, Shane Robinson, Lance Berkman, Pete Kozma, Adron Chambers
Brewers: Nyjer Morgan, Cody Ranson, Travis Ishikawa, Cesar Izturis, Taylor Green, Jeff Bianchi, Edwin Maysonet
Pirates: Casey McGehee, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Drew Sutton, Matt Hague, Brock Holt, Jordy Mercer, Nate McLouth, Yamaico Navarro
Cubs: Bryan LaHair, Joe Mather, Tony Campana, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Brett Jackson, Josh Vitters, Dave Sappelt, Adron Cardenas
Reds: Chris Heisey, Wilson Valdez, Miguel Cairo, Xavier Paul
In reality it is difficult to draw much from this. The Pirates bench wasn’t good but it was better than the Cubs and the Reds. That sounds good but the Cubs were awful in 2012 and the Reds used their bench only two-thirds of time that the Pirates or basically any other NL Central team did. One thing I did draw on was just how difficult it was to determine a bench for the Pirates and the Cubs. I had originally started out planning on picking the 5 most frequent bench players from each team but it became difficult to do that with the Pirates. Harrison and McKenry were easy picks but the next three proved impossible which is why I opted to go with the above formula. For the record the Pirates and Brewers would have been helped out the most if I would have included back up catchers in my analysis.
One thing I do think we can take from this is that there is room for the Pirates to improve on the bench. It might be unfair to expect the Pirates or any bench to rise to the St Louis Cardinals level but if the Pirates bench can improve to around the Brewers 2012 level which was approximately 1.2 WAR there is reason to believe some ground could be made up. The Cardinals are likely to see some sort of regression from the great 2012 season from their bench so it is possible the Pirates by improving to just 2.0 WAR from their bench could pick up as many as 3-3.5 games on the Cardinals just with their bench improving and the Cardinals returning to a more normal level. Bottom line the point I’m trying to make here and in my post The Bottom of the Roster is that the Pirates can make up ground not only by having their big names like McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker and Marte perform better but also by making some small but noticeable strides simply with team depth. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the Pirates could pick up 4-5 wins compared to the Cardinals just by strengthening their depth and having the Cardinals return to a more normal level that the Pirates.
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.
What can we expect from the Pirates big free agent splash of the 2012-13 offseason? Martin should undoubtedly be a better backstop for the Pirates than Rod Barajas was in 2012 but that is setting the bar a little low. Over the last 3 seasons Martin has seen his K% rise and his OBP drop every season. Even at the age of 30, these are worrisome signs as catcher typically age a little faster than most other players. Martin has kept a fair amount of value over the last two years despite the increase in his K% and decline in his OBP because of his increased power, notably in the form of his home runs. Unfortunately some of those were likely a byproduct of the hitter friendly Yankee stadium he played his home games in. On the positive side though Martin was a little unlucky last season with a low BABIP of just .222 so there is reason to believe his average and by extension OBP will rebound some in 2013. Defensively Martin is solid but not spectacular; he is noted as a good pitch framer and if one trust those metrics he should be a nice boost to a Pirates pitching staff that routinely had borderline calls go against them. Martin’s offense overall has been around league average for a catcher the last few seasons and it is not unreasonable to think he can stay at or at least near that level for 2013. As far as throwing out would be base stealers Martin is nothing special in that area, posting a 24% caught stealing rate which is almost identical to what Rod Barajas posted in 2011. The Pirates are said to be reworking their strategy of not having pitchers focus on runners at all so that should Martin and really all Pirates catchers some in 2013. Bottom line I’m expecting Martin to give the Pirates roughly average production both offensively and defensively from the catching position. I see him settling in as about a 2.5 WAR player while posting an OPS in the area of .700 (.325 OBP, .375 SLG) and throwing out roughly 18-20% of base stealers
McKenry had a fine offensive season in 2012 fueled by a surprising display of some power. The solid offensive showing and the fact that h e was only terrible at throwing out would be base stealers (as opposed to historically awful) made it a little surprising he did not assume more of the starting catcher role as the season wore on. McKenry was the Pirates best catcher in 2012 but make no mistake he is not a starting catcher. McKenry’s surprising power surge in 2012 was more likely a result of a small sample size than it was of any real breakout. Despite the fact that McKenry’s offensive numbers are likely to regress in 2013 he should still remain a solid backup catcher as he is a good defender and can hit at least a little bit. His defense is overrated by some segments of the Pirates fan base but it is very solid. Overall the Pirates should still feel comfortable using McKenry on a semi-regular basis in order to ease the burden put on Martin. I expect McKenry will likely receive around 50-70 starts in 2013 depending on Martin’s health and the performance of the catchers behind him on the Pirates depth chart. I’m expecting McKenry to receive around 200-250 PA this season, while being roughly a 1.0 WAR player and posting an OPS of approximately .670 (.300 OBP, .370 SLG).
This upcoming season should see Tony Sanchez make his major league debut. He has the reputation of being a strong defender with a questionable bat but some power. Sanchez is the Pirates third catcher and will likely be the first player called up from the minors should an additional catcher be needed. It is difficult to say just how much he will play in the majors this season because Martin and McKenry have shown to be relatively healthy players and a reasonable expectation is that neither of them should perform poorly in 2013, meaning Sanchez may have to wait a while before ultimately getting a chance to make an impressions. I have Martin pegged for between 90-100 starts and McKenry ticketed for anywhere from 50-70, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for Sanchez. My predictions for the other two catchers leave about 10-20 starts for Sanchez as a max so I am not expecting him to get a ton of time in the majors but he is going to have to make good use of the small window he receives. Sanchez will start the year in AAA and I’m expecting to hit better there although still not great. I see him in AAA posting a slash line of roughly .260/.340/.400. To some that may sound optimistic but I feel that is rather reasonable. I’m also expecting him to show some strides defensively as that is what will really carry him. In the majors I’m expecting him to struggle in the limited chances he gets I could see him being about a .3 WAR player and posting a .220/.280/.340 stat line in his limited opportunities.
To summarize I’m expecting Russell Martin to be roughly a league average catcher both offensively and defensively for the Pirates, I’m expecting McKenry to see a drop off in his offensive production but still be a respectable backup catcher and I’m expecting Sanchez to have a solid showing at AAA but struggle in his limited big league opportunities. For 2013 the catching position for the Pirates looks around league average to me and in reality if they can get that it will be a significant improvement from where they were last season.
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.
Rod Barajas – Barajas came to the Pirates as a free agent this past offseason and at the time was widely considered one of the better options available. To put it bluntly his 2012 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates was just plain awful. Outside of a strong month of May Barajas struggled to hit and was horrible at throwing runners out all year long. I will give him credit for working with the pitching staff well and appearing to be a good game caller overall. When he was signed I thought it was a good move and I still think it was the Pirates needed someone to fill the catcher role and Barajas was amongst the best available. The problem I have was the continuation of giving him 60% of the starts when it became apparent he had lost it he should have gotten the smaller portion of the share meaning about 40%. Barajas has a 3,5 million dollar option for next season and while I see no way the Pirates pick it up I am dismissing the possibility of him resigning at a lower amount for next season. Overall Grade: D
Michael McKenry – Pittsburgh’s favorite catcher. The one a large percentage of the Pirates fan base, at one point this season, would have lead you to believe was amongst the best in the game. Sadly McKenry isn’t that good and all the talk about him needing to start 4 out of every 5 games was overblown (I believe only Yadier Molina, AJ Ellis, Miguel Montero and Matt Weiters approached that ratio). Still McKenry was without a doubt the Pirates best catcher this past season and has shown himself perfectly capable of being the smaller part in a catcher time share (he may be even able to handle the larger share but I’m not fully convinced of that yet). His offense outburst was surprising and probably unsustainable for following seasons but still a very positive sign. It was kind of funny this season to hear people saying he should be the “starter” this season because of his offense when the same people said last year he should be the “starter” because of his defense. Like Barajas, McKenry struggled mightily at throwing out runners. I expect McKenry will be back next season possibly even as the “starting” catcher. Overall Grade: B
Eric Fryer – Fryer did not play one single game at catcher for the Pirates which considering he is by far better than Barajas and McKenry at throwing out runners is a bit of a shame. Fryer simply doesn’t have the skill set to stick around the majors for a long period of time, he appears to be a very good depth option in the minors because he is a solid defensive catcher and can also play multiple positions but that is pretty much all. My expectations are that he will be removed early on from the 40 man roster. Overall Grade: C
Tony Sanchez – Sanchez did not have the greatest year in AA and AAA but did have a better showing than last season. He was steady but not spectacular in AA which earned him a promotion to AAA where he flashed a bit of power but overall struggled. Sanchez has a great arm and is an all around solid defensive catcher. His bat leaves some question marks and without a little bit of power he will probably struggle to hit well enough to remain a starting MLB catcher. Sanchez is eligible for the Rule V draft this season and I fully expect him to be added to the roster. There is an outside chance Sanchez starts the year with the Pirates in a time share with McKenry behind the plate but I fully expect him to get more seasoning at AAA. Sanchez will probably get a chance to claim the starting catcher job at some point next season though.
Wyatt Mathisen – Mathisen was the Pirates 2nd round draft pick this past season. He signed relatively quickly and started to play in the GCL. In high school Mathisen was the most athletic player on the team so he usually played shortstop but he did have some experience catcher and most scouts believed that is where his future was the brightest. Mathisen split time in the GCL between catcher and DH this season and put some very strong numbers. He has the look of a strong two way catching option and is one to watch for the next few seasons. There is a chance Mathisen could start next season in full season ball but I expect with catching being a relatively new full time thing for him we will see him in A- next year.
Jin-De Jhang – Jhang was the catcher splitting time with Mathisen this season and he too is relatively new to the catcher position. Jhang coincidently put up numbers very similar to Mathisen this season and profiles as a similar less athletic catcher. This was Jhang’s first season out of Taiwan and he handled himself well. Chances are either Jhang or Mathisen will make the jump to full season A ball next year and for some reason I get the sense that it will be Jhang but we will just have to wait and see.
Other Prospects – Charles Cutler (AAA*), Ramon Cabrera (AA*), Carlos Paulino (AA*), Jacob Stallings (A+*)
The * denotes my projected level for the player next season