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)
When it comes to evaluating how well a draft worked out for a franchise be it baseball, football, hockey, basketball or really any other sport I am one who always feels that 5 years is a fairly reasonable time frame. Of course in baseball and to some extent hockey the evaluations have to be done a little differently because not everyone from those drafts are going to be established players but for the most part we should have a fairly good idea as to what kind of player they are. Typically speaking I think the 5th professional year for a draft class, particularly and MLB one is a huge year. The quick risers are likely in their 3rd pro season or so, the slow risers are likely entering their first full season or just ready to contribute and the wildcards are likely on their final chance. Its been five years since Neal Huntington’s first draft class and of course 2013 will be that class’s 5th full year of professional baseball experience. So according to my rule of thumb it should be a big year for them and indeed it is. To my research there are twelve players who still have at least some level of significance to the Pirates franchise, I have broken down those 12 into 6 different categories and will discuss what the 2013 season holds for them. Think of this as a primer for what to look for out of the 2008 draft class this season.
Organizational Players: Benjamin Gonzalez, Jeremy Farrell, Zachary Foster
Essentially this group has no expectations for the 2013 season. The three above players were drafted and signed in 2008 but have evolved into organizational filler; they will likely serve as bench depth or bullpen arms for one or multiple levels in 2013. They aren’t expected to contribute to the major league team and at this point really have no discernible prospect value. +
Wildcards: Jarek Cunningham, Quinton Miller
Cunningham and Miller are not that far from bien organizational players but both remain in the system and unlike the three organizational players I have listed do have somewhat of a ceiling. Cunningham is capable of playing 2B and has plus power for the position and Miller was a fairly highly regarded prep pitcher at the time he was drafted. Both of them face uphill climbs to ever make the majors let alone become a significant contributor there but each of them have enough upside that they will have essentially one last chance to rebound in 2013 and show they have some value. Miller is likely to work out of the bullpen at A+, a level he’ll be playing at for a 3rd season and at 23 years old is pushing the high side for a prospect at that level. If he shows signs of progress the Pirates may opt to send him to AA early on to give him one last chace but that appears highly unlikely. Cunningham is a little farther along than Miller as he will likely repeat AA this season and should be the starting 2B. At 23 years old he isn’t a terrible age for the AA level but another failed year could prove costly to the little prospect status he has remaining. There is a little more hope for Cunningham than Miller as he showed progress last season with his plate discipline, if he can manage to build off that, refind his power and stay healthy (something that has been a struggle for him) there is a chance he could regain his prospect status. Cunningham is facing an uphill climb but it appears he at least has a fighting chance.
Major League Depth: Matt Hague, Michael Colla
Not much to say about these two. Hague and Colla are essentially organizational players but they have advanced far enough along that either one could be potential non horrible at the major league level meaning they will serve as depth in 2013. Hague is well known by Pirates fans because of his hot spring training last year and the fact he subsequently made the Pirates bench. He struggled with his chances with the big club though and spent most of 2012 in AAA. Hague doesn’t really profile to hit for much power so his ceiling at the major league level is limited. Hague will almost certainly start the 2013 season off in AAA but this year he won’t have a starting position and will be forced into a utility role. The utility role could be a good thing for Hague though as his best chance of making it back to the majors is probably as a utility player who can make decent contact. Colla has spent the last two years in the AA rotation. His numbers over that time are actually fairly decent. In reality he doesn’t profile as a starter and unless he returns to AA for another season will not be one in 2013 but as a reliever he has a chance to become a decent depth middle reliever who could fill in at the major league level when injuries or ineffectiveness occurs. Colla and Hague don’t come with much upside and aren’t really players that will determine if the 2008 draft was a success or failure but 2013 will be a pivotal year in determining whether either one can carve out some sort of a major league career.
Slow Movers: Justin Wilson, Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud
Wilson, Mercer and d’Arnaud are ultimately going to play a large role in determining how well the 2008 draft worked for the Pirates. A good rule of thumb is that a good draft should give you 3 solid major league contributors. Well the Pirates have one who we will discuss later and have one more who could pay some dividends for them at the major league level but if they are to get any additional help from this class it is going to have to come from these three players. Wilson undoubtedly has the highest upside of the bunch as if he were able to find some control he has the stuff to be a top of the rotation arm. Mercer and d’Arnaud look like their ceiling is likely a major league average shortstop and that may be pushing it. At the end of the day three solid major league contributors doesn’t mean three superstars essentially if the team is able to draft one very good regular, a solid back end reliever and a good bench option it has had a decent year. None of these three except maybe Wilson look like they will develop into a solid regular but they all look like potential secondary pieces. Each player has two options remaining meaning they could in theory be brought back next season if they fail to establish themselves but in reality this is a big year for all three. Should any of them not establish themselves as at least a serviceable major league player they will be in great risk of being removed from the roster after the season and unless claimed by another team that usually severely hurts a player’s chances of having a good major league career.
Traded: Robbie Grossman (Wandy Rodriguez)
The importance of Robbie Grossman who was the key piece in the Wandy Rodriguez deal might often get overlooked when discussing the success or failure of the 2013 draft but it shouldn’t be. Grossman may no longer be in the system but the reason teams have prospects is not for only developing them for their own use but for using them to acquire major league talent through trades, in short they are assets. How Grossman performs this season is largely irrelevant to how the Pirates 2008 draft should be viewed but how his return, Wandy Rodriguez, performs is in my mind a critical part of it. Rodriguez is an established major league and a good performances by him in 2013 will help push up the value the Pirates were able to get out of the 2008 draft. As I stated this will be often overlooked but in my mind the return for Robbie Grossman may very well end up being the 2nd most important aspect of the 2008 draft.
Fast Movers: Pedro Alvarez
At the end of the day the performance of the other 11 players I’ve discussed mean very little compared to the draft 1st round pick. The success or failure of that draft will forever be linked to how Alvarez performs in his career as a Pirate. Last season saw some encouraging progress from Alvarez at the major league level but the strike out rate was too high. Alvarez at this point is an established major league player and looks like he has a strong chance of developing into a regular however his upside is so much more. He possess the power needed to develop into a true impact bat. This upcoming 2013 season will be crucial to his development. If he is able to build off his success in 2012 Alvarez begins looking like a cornerstone player but if he struggles like he did in 2011 he will once again look like a big bust. As his fortunes go so will the fate of the 2008 draft. Even in an optimist scenario where Wilson develops into a solid middle of the rotation arm, Mercer is able to be a decent place holder at the shortstop position for a year or two, d’Arnaud starts to hit and becomes a good spark plug off the bench, Cunningham regains his prospect value and Hague or Colla carves out a major league niche for themselves the 2008 draft will still feel light on talent if Alvarez fails to produce. In order for him to be a success and by extension the 2008 draft Alvarez doesn’t have to perform all that much better than his 2012 numbers going forward but he has to prove that he can that type of player and not be subject to wild down seasons like 2011; building off of 2012 and taking another step, even a small step forward would go a long way in proving just that.
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.
Last season I called Pedro Alvarez the key to the Pirates season and in a sense he was. His 2012 campaign was vastly better than his 2011 one but still not a dominating performance so the Pirates performed better but still not good. Not much has changed in one year, Alvarez still appears to me to be the biggest key to the success or failure of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates need another impact bat in their lineup to go along with Andrew McCutchen and the person most capable of being that impact bat is Mr. Alvarez. It is difficult to say just what we should expect from Alvarez in 2013. He is a big power guy with a big strike out problem and those types seem to see a lot of fluctuation from year to year. Still I’m reasonably hopeful that Pedro will take another step forward and continue to grow as a hitter and all around player. I think we will see his ratios improve as I expect to cut down slightly on his strike outs while taking more walks. THese will not be vast improvements but I expect to see Alvarez drop his K% below 30% and possibly even get it down into the 28% range and I see his walk percentage eclipsing 10% and maybe even approaching 11%. These are not dramatic shifts but if they occur it will help Alvarez improve. The biggest test with Alvarez will be whether or not he can improve upon his long cold stretches, by improve I don’t mean have them disappear but have them not be so bad. It is ok if he goes two weeks and is a .600 OPS player but it’s another thing if he goes two weeks and is a .350 OPS player. Defensively I think we all know what to expect from Alvarez he will be a below average third baseman but I suspect he will continue to play passably enough where talk about him moving to 1st base can be delayed another season at least. On the power side I am expecting to see Pedro increase his total of 30 home runs from 2012 but only slightly finishing with somewhere between 32-35 home runs. All in all I see Pedro being a solid 3.0-3.5 WAR player for the Pirates in 2013 and I see him posting a triple slash of approximately .240/.325/.475.
Harrison plays all over the field but the only position he really looks comfortable at defensively is third base. He is officially competing for a bench spot but seeing as he has been the on the team the last two seasons he appears to be a player Hurdle likes so I expect him to once again be a part of the Pirates bench. In reality the Pirates need to be doing better than Harrison on the bench. He is a decent guy to have around in AAA but last season he led the Pirates in pinch hit appearances and that should not happen. Harrison has little power and is weak defensively so his value comes from his contact skills and since he only hit .233 last season he had essentially no value at all. Harrison doesn’t walk but on the plus side he tends to be hard to strike out. He is a free swinger who usually makes contact. I’m hoping Harrison sees a drop in playing time but considering the Pirates really don’t have a lot of other quality middle infield bench options I suspect he will still get around 250 PA in 2013. I expect Harrison will see an improvement in his average and get it up to around .250 which should at least give him some value to the Pirates. Despite my dislike for Harrison I expect we will see a slightly better year from him in 2013. Assuming he can get his average and walk rate up his versatility could make him a semi-decent bench player assuming the Pirates don’t use him as the top bench option. Like I said I expect he’ll receive around 250 PA but that is too mcuh, ideally he’ll be limited to around 150-175 and if he is and he posts a .250/.300/.350 slash line he could be an ok 25th man. Bottom line what I’m expecting from Harrison is non-horrible 25th man production but playing time deserving of a more important bench piece.
Inge appears to be Harrison’s main competition for a bench spot. In theory both players could make it but since neither really plays shortstop, at least play it well, I think it is an either or situation. Inge brings to the table better defense and a little more power than Harrison but isn’t quite as versatile having spent almost all of his playing time at third base. Now he does have some time in the outfield corners, a few innings at second and was a catcher not all that long ago so he does have some versatility. As of now I don’t expect Inge to make the team and as he appears to be in the declining portion of his career that isn’t a bad thing. If Inge were to make it I could see him providing similar value to what Harrison would albeit in a different way. Realistically if he were to make the team a line of .220/.280/.350 would be a fairly good estimate taking into account his recent seasons. Value wise there isn’t much difference between Inge and Harrison but skill wise there is. Inge has an out clause in his contract if he isn’t on the roster by late March, I’m not sure if he will use it or not but if he doesn’t I would assume we would see Inge playing third base down in AAA for most of the season.
The Pirates appear pretty set up the middle and there is little to talk about there. Sure the Pirates could seek upgrades but right now they seem content with what they have. A Martin and McKenry tandem behind the plate should provide adequate production, maybe even major league average offense and major league plus defense. Clint Barmes should continue to provide great defense and will hopefully rebound from last season and put a non-horrible OPS somewhere in the .650-.670 range. Not great but adequate. The other two up the middle players Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are of course key cogs in the Pirates machine.
All of this leaves the corners as the part of the lineup that will determine how well the Pirates do offensively this season. The only certainty appears to be Pedro Alvarez who should once again be manning 3rd base. Even with him there are questions about whether he is ready to hit cleanup and if he can handle left handed pitching well enough to not need platooned. Outside of Alvarez the next closest thing to a certainty is Garrett Jones. There is some speculation he may get dealt before the season begins but right now I doubt that will occur. It seems to be a little unclear whether Jones will be playing 1B or RF and how much he will be allowed to face left handed pitching. Logic seems to suggest he will platoon at 1B and be largely protected from left handers but only time will tell.
With those guys out of the way we are left with a very interesting assortment of players. The Pirates have some prospects who may be ready to help at some point this season, some depth players of varying levels who may at some point get a chance to prove themselves and 5 players fighting for what will likely be 4 positions out of Spring Training.
There are only two real prospects who look like they may be ready to significantly contribute to the major league team some time this season. They are Matt Curry at 1B and Adalberto Santos in the OF. Neither is a great prospect but both have shown some ability and could possibly become solid major leaguers. Curry hasn’t shown the ability to hit for as much power as you’d like from a 1B and his defensive ability limits him to the position but even so should Jones be traded for any reason the Pirates would probably consider giving Curry a shot if he shows he can handle AAA pitching. Santos is a slightly different breed. Like Curry he doesn’t profile to hit for much power but throughout his minor league career he has shown a good ability to just plainly hit. With a good showing in AAA anything is possible but it appears Santos may be limited to a bench role and with a little bit of versatility (he has also played 2B) he could be a decent option. The remaining prospects include players such as Quincy Latimore and Andrew Lambo who are probably actually closer to minor league depth at this point but either one could enter into the corner OF, or in Lambo’s case maybe even 1B, equation with a good showing in AAA. It is not a certainty that either will start the season in AAA though. The only other possibility for a corner player would be Alex Dickerson, who will be making his AA debut, but he would need a few very hot months to even realistically enter the conversation.
The Pirates have numerous depth options who could be called upon should injury or ineffectiveness arise. Jeff Larish and Matt Hague seem to be the most uninteresting of the group. Larish is coming off a poor 2012 campaign and Hague as we saw last year is limited in what he can do. The Pirates did bring in two minor league outfielders who it wouldn’t be shocking to see get a chance at the majors some time this season in Felix Pie and Darren Ford. Ford is a pure speedster and Pie is a once top prospect who has fallen from grace. Both have some talent and either one might be called up if the Pirates sense a need. The last depth player is actually technically still a prospect in Clint Robinson. Robinson has never really gotten a chance to prove himself at the major league level but has hit exceptionally well in the minor leagues. Defensively he is limited to 1B but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he has shown some decent power and surprisingly even has shown good plate discipline. Should Jones be traded or forced to play extended time in the outfield expect Robinsons to get the first crack at the 1B job.
Major League Options
The Pirates have 5 major league options who figure to be fighting for 2 starting spots and two bench spots. Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Gaby Sanchez will enter this spring fighting for playing time. Marte appears likely to start the season as the everyday LF but he has no track record and while he was respectable in his brief minor league stint last season it would not be crazy if the Pirates felt he could benefit from some time at AAA. Snider as things stand right now figures to be the starting RF but his spot appears to be in a little bit more jeopardy than Marte’s. Snider performed well immediately after coming over at the trade deadline but struggled after getting injured. It is not quite clear what the Pirates plan to do with him. He is out of options so he will surely make the team but he could be relegated to bench duty should the Pirates opt to start Jones in RF. Jose Tabata is coming off a disappointing season but actually finished the 2012 season rather strongly which gives some hope that he is back to being the Tabata we seen in earlier seasons. As a right handed hitter Tabata figures to probably make the team as the 4th outfielder and platoon with Jones or Snider in right field. If his performance at the end of the season was a sign that he has turned things around Tabata could quickly regain his starting job in RF as his ability to leadoff is something the Pirates are sorely missing. The last outfielder of the group is Alex Presley. Presley has an option remaining so the Pirates will likely use it and send him back to AAA to start the season but he will be given a chance to show what he can do. Presley looks like the prototypical 4th outfielder who can do a little bit of everything but doesn’t really stand out in any area. His skill set is probably better suited to a 4th outfielder role than Tabata’s but given the facts he has an option left and that of Snider and Marte it is most likely that the left handed hitting Snider will need a platoon partner he is probably below Tabata on the depth chart. The last option is Gaby Sanchez. As things stand right now Sanchez appears slotted to be Jones platoon partner at 1B. As someone who has consistently hit very well against lefties that is probably a good position for him. If Sanchez performs well he could be given a chance to start everyday at 1B which would force most likely Snider out of the lineup.
The four corner positions are likely to have a huge impact on the Pirates this season. With Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones the Pirates hope to have some stability and certainty at 2 of the 4 positions but the other 2 remain rather big question marks. The Pirates are undoubtedly planning to give Marte and Snider the two highest upside players of the bunch a chance to fill those question marks but should they fail the Pirates do have some other alternatives who will hopefully step up and take advantage of the opportunity. Assuming the Pirates actually do add a good starter for the middle of the rotation is is my opinion that the performance of the players I have discussed is what will decided whether this team once again finishes below 500, makes the playoffs or anything in between.
Pedro Alvarez: Alvarez received the wide majority of at bats for the Pirates from third base this past season. We seen flashes of his brilliance when he got on some unbelievable tears which elevated him to one of the most feared hitters in the game to his bottomless pits where he couldn’t hit anything and was thought of as essentially an automatic out. Pedro is probably always going to be that type of hot/cold player but the key is to make the cold stretches not so bad and by the end of the year Alvarez had made progress with that. There is no doubt about it Alvarez just has gobs of potential and can be the middle of the order bat the Pirates are still desperately lacking. Going into next season will not be very different from this one the most important player to the success of the Pirates will once again be Pedro Alvarez. Along with his big power spike this season came some improved but still shaky defense. It appears Alvarez may eventually have to move over to first base but right now he looks the part of a capable third baseman and until the Pirates have a reason to move him (ie just terrible defense or a stud replacement) he should remain there. There is no reason to not think that Alvarez will be the starting third baseman next year and probably occupying a spot in the middle of the lineup. As for this season I give him an Overall Grade: B+
Josh Harrison: This season Harrison finally got a chance to settle into what will undoubtedly be his primary role in the majors, utility player. Harrison also played some 2B, SS and OF this season but seems most comfortable at 3B which is why I am listing him here. He was defensively solid everywhere except the outfield and even there he appeared to be slowly getting more comfortable. Harrison won’t wow you with his defense and is probably a little suspect at shortstop but as a fill in he is perfectly capable. The problem Harrison had this year was that his bat was rather weak. He had a few hot stretches but overall posted a .624 OPS which isn’t going to be good enough to establish himself as anything more than a fringe bench option. Harrison was the Pirates top pinch hitter this season which admittedly is a role he shouldn’t have but nonetheless he struggled in it. This offseason one thing the Pirates must address is the depth of their bench and by doing so it could end up costing Harrison a spot on the major league roster. I still think he finds a way to sneak in there though. Overall Grade: C
Eric Avila: The Pirates are very weak prospect wise at 3rd base which allowed Avila to stick around as one of the better 3rd base prospects in the system despite a season and half of poor play. Avila’s 2011 season and first part of 2012 were pretty bad but a strong showing coupled with a power spike at the end of the season has him back atop my 3rd base prospect rankings and has him once again as a prospect to watch heading into next season. Next season will be a big test for Avila to show that he has found his power stroke and is once again a legit prospect. Due to the lack of 3rd base depth in the system Avila should open next season in A+ as the starter and with a good showing should easily be promoted to AA as there is no one blocking him.
Eric Wood: The other two 3rd base prospects I’m going to list were both selected in this past draft and the one who has had the best start to his career has been Eric Wood. Wood was selected in the 6th round of this past draft and was sort of a mystery. He appeared to be an overdraft with the idea of saving money by going way underslot but while he did sign for underslot it wasn’t by a huge sum. He was drafted as JuCo player so he is much closer to a high school age player than he is a college age drafted player. He was known to have some power when the Pirates drafted him and he displayed that power during his debut in rookie ball. The Pirates promoted him at the end of the season to A- ball where he struggles some but the sample size there is rather small and the bigger point is this is a move the Pirates usually make when they are considering sending a player straight to full season ball the following year. I expect Wood to start the season as the starting 3rd baseman in A ball and really get a chance to establish himself as a legit 3rd base prospect.
Kevin Ross: Ross was officially signed as a shortstop but spent no time at that position this season and is widely considered someone who won’t stay at the position anyway. His future seems to be at either 2B or 3B but I see him more as a third baseman which is why I have him listed here. Ross signed late into the signing period and due to this he didn’t get a chance to play a whole lot. He struggled initially but put up a very strong stat line in August to end the regular season. Ross does have some power potential but has some work to do with his swing. He is probably more of a project right now than a prospect but due to the Pirates current state of 3rd base prospects he is definitely an interesting name to keep an eye one. Ross will almost definitely return to one of the short season leagues next year but which one is still a bit of a guess and will probably depend on how he does in extended spring training and by who the Pirates draft next year.
I have talked at length about the Pirates’ great hope and we seen that great hope on display the last two nights. It isn’t the starting rotation or McCutchen but Pedro Alvarez. Pedro is the one player who can put this team on his back and carry it through September. This has been the case all season. Pedro Alvarez has been the Pirates one great hope he is the shining light that can lead this team to the promise land. It has been a frustrating season for sure but Pedro has actually been fairly productive this season and has given us a glimpse of his future potential.
If this team is going to make a serious run at the playoffs in September it will be on his back. Like it or not as I have been saying these past 5 months Pedro Alvarez is our one great hope.