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)
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.
Walker gives the Pirates one of their most stable positions. Assuming he is healthy he is a good bet to start at least 140 games and likely more. Last season Walker put up numbers relatively similar to the two years before; he hasn’t been able to regain the slugging percentage he had in his rookie campaign but the rest of his numbers have remained relatively close. For that reason Walker is becoming a known commodity and there is a level of production that we should all be able to reasonably expect from him. Defensively Walker has been steadily improving and as of now is probably around a league average defender and that is a pretty safe estimate of what he will likely be in 2013. For his overall game Walker has the look of a very solid secondary piece who will usually post a 3-3.5 WAR. His offensive numbers suggest something around .275/.340/.420 can be reasonably expected. There have been no indications that Walker is ready to take a step back from this production nor does he appear to be a candidate to move to the next level of production so for 2013 I am expecting Walker to continue to be an above average second baseman.
Ivan De Jesus
The only other player I feel worth discussing who I consider his primary position to be second base is the newly acquired Ivan De Jesus. De Jesus will have a chance to make the major league squad but right now I have him on the outside looking in so he will more than likely begin the season at AAA. I expect him to at some point this season get a chance at a bench role with the Pirates and I am actually expecting him to handle it quite well. I see De Jesus as a slightly better version of Josh Harrison. He has shown a willingness to at least occasionally take a walk, has put up some decent offensive numbers in AAA and is from all reports a sound defender capable of handling shortstop for a limited amount of time. It would not surprise me one bit to see De Jesus get a chance with the big league team and stick as a utility infielder. As for an upside higher than that, I just don’t see it. He has no aspect of his game that particularly stands out. I’m not expecting to see much of De Jesus in 2013 but I do expect him to hold his own and be a decent bench option in the limited opportunities he does get.
Neil Walker: Walker is the only major league player I’m going to be covering here. Everyone else except Brock Holt fits in better at another position and since Holt still has prospect eligibility I’ll discuss him below. There isn’t much to say about Walker he does what he does. He gives the Pirates a solid and improving defensive performance at 2nd base while providing above average offensive numbers for the position. Walker started off cool but heated up in June and July positing two very good months before a finger injury and back injury caused him to play sporadically over the final two months. His performance was solid and he should return next season and once again be a nice consistent presence in the middle of the infield. Overall Grade: B-
Brock Holt: Holt got to make his major league debut this season and he impressed in his short time frame. He started the season in AA primarily playing shortstop before moving up to AAA late in the season where he caught fire and put up video game like numbers. Holt’s defense at shortstop and 2nd base for that matter is a little shaky but he has the ability to work a count and make good contact so he could have some future value as a utility player or even a starting 2nd baseman. It wouldn’t surprise me if Holt got a chance to make the team out of spring training but I expect him to start the season in AAA and be the backup plan to Walker should his back problems fire up again.
Dilson Herrera: Herrera had a big year this season in rookie ball and is going to be a popular pick to have a big breakout season next year. He was signed as a shortstop prospect but spent no time there instead he played 2nd and 3rd base. His defense is good but not great at either position so it is his bat which will need to carry him. He has some potential to add power and 8 home runs this season is a positive sign that it may yet develop. Considering his strong season this year I expect him to move up to full season A ball next year.
Dan Gamache: Gamache was drafted in the 2011 draft out of Auburn University. His selection at the time was widely unnoticed and even his performance this season while good was overlooked and overshadowed by his double play partner. Gamache had the type of performance you look for from a college player in his first year of pro ball and while all the attention was given to the four Latin American prospects who jumped the whole way from rookie ball to A ball he did a solid job and established himself as a prospect going forward. If he can repeat his performance next year likely in A+ he will quickly go up the prospects charts but for now he profiles as a potential utility player.
Neil Walker: Probably the most certain part of this team going forward is Neil Walker at second base. Walker appears to be one of the most durable players on the Pirates and once again I am expecting 150+ starts from him this season. Hopefully Walker is able to shake off hi sophomore slump of last season and return closer to his rookie numbers. I do see him getting closer to them but not quite matching. His batting average should stay in the 270-280 range but where improvement will come is with his power as I expect his slugging percentage to be around .450. With another year under his belt at the second base position Walker’s defensive game should continue to improve and it would not be surprising to see him be average defensively at the position this season.
Gustavo Nunez: I am hoping the Pirates will not go with Nunez as the middle infield backup to begin the season but as of right now it appears rather likely that will be the case. I am not going to get into Nunez too much right here because he profiles more as a shortstop than second baseman. However I will say he is likely to be Walker’s backup to start the 2012 season, how long it will last is another matter.
Anderson Hernandez: Another rather odd move by the Pirates this offseason was signing Anderson Hernandez. It is always nice to have a veteran middle infielder down in AAA in case of emergencies but there does not appear to be a spot for Hernandez. In theory Hernandez will be given a chance to win the backup middle infield job out of Spring Training but in reality the only way I see him even sticking in AAA is if the Pirates opt to carry an extra reserve infielder at the expense of a 5th outfielder. Either way Hernandez should have little to impact on the Pirates this season.
Others: If there arises a need for Walker to be spelled for an extended time chances are it will be neither Nunez nor Hernandez that fills the role. Instead it will likely be players whose primary position is either shortstop or third base. The four likely candidates are Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison. I will get more into those four at their primary positions but one or all of these players could see time at second base this season. Navarro and Harrison are candidates to make the major league team out of spring training and could end up serving as Walker’s backup.
Jarek Cunningham: The top 2nd base prospect in the Pirates system could rank amongst the Pirates top 15 prospects if he could just manage to stay healthy. He has some strike zone and defensive issues but his bat has the potential to make him a good major league second baseman. He should be moving up to AA this season but due to his injury filled 2011 I am expecting him to repeat A+. If Cunningham manages to stay healthy I could see him posting a good season and become a very good prospect for the Pirates. However his injury history combined with his lack of strike zone discipline makes me doubtful that will happen.
Brock Holt: Holt appeared destined to be moving up to AAA to start this season but the acquisitions of McGehee, Nunez, Navarro and to a smaller extent Hernandez likely means he will repeat AA. With no real option to play shortstop in AA I see Holt getting the majority of the playing time there even though he is better suited as a second baseman. He does a lot of things well but nothing great. Holt has some speed and has shown a fair amount of plate discipline along with decent defensive abilities but he lacks anything that makes him stand out. Most likely Holt’s upside is that of a Major league utility player. Hopefully he proves me wrong but I think this will be the year Holt begins to lose his prospect status and starts to settle in as organizational depth.
Gift Ngoepe: Ngoepe is an interesting case. He was the first black South African to sign a pro-baseball contract. At the time of his signing he garnered a lot of attention even being featured is a Sports Illustrated article. He is a very good defensive player and he runs extremely well. Last season he was beginning to show signs of his offensive game improving but an injury early in the year cut his season short. He is a candidate to be moved up to A+ but with missing so much time last year I see the Pirates having him repeat A+. Unless the Pirates are aggressive with a GCL player there is really no prospect to man SS in A ball so I am expecting to see Ngoepe get a lot of playing time there. I am expecting Ngoepe to keep improving his offensive game in 2012 and become a legit prospect for the Pirates.
Summary: The position for now and for the immediate future is Neil Walker. The Pirates do have some options that can fill in if necessary and even have a few intriguing prospects in the middle levels but I just don’t see any way that Walker does not remain here for the next few seasons. The position will basically succeed or fail with him this year but it is in good hands here. The Pirates have nothing to worry about here and appear set for the next few seasons. Should a prospect develop the Pirates could move them to another position or use them as trade bait.