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 thing that has really been bothering me about a lot of Pirates fans this offseason is this insane idea that the Pirates are good in left field with Starling Marte but really should have looked for a better option in right field. The fans are quick to dismiss Snider, Tabata, Sands and Presley and I’m not really sure why they do so especially considering they are willing to accept Marte starting. Taking Presley out of this discussion for a moment all the players are still young at 24 or 25 years old and all of them including Presley have very similar production at the major league level. Just look at their career wOBA at the major league level.
Marte doesn’t stand out in that crowd and as I stated he is not noticeably younger than the rest of the group either since Marte is 24, Tabata is 24, Snider is 25, Sands is 25 and Presley is 27. Perhaps other ratios have been better like his ability to steal bases (SB%) or his home run ability (AB/HR).
Marte: 70.6 SB%, 33.4 AB/HR
Tabata: 62.3 SB%, 97.5 AB/HR
Snider: 72.0 SB%, 30.1 AB/HR
Presley: 63.3 SB%, 41.7 AB/HR
Sands: 50.0 SB%, 55.3 AB/HR
Well finally we may be getting somewhere Marte’s rates are clearly better than 3 of the other 4 players but the other player has him beat on both accounts. Snider so far in his career has been a more efficient base stealer and has hit home runs on a more regular basis. So once again this doesn’t explain why Marte is held so far above the rest of the corner outfield mix. Let’s look at something else, perhaps Marte has been good in some areas of Pirates weaknesses most notably plate discipline. Below are the career numbers for each players in terms of K% and BB%.
Marte: 27.5 K%, 4.4 BB%
Tabata: 14.7 K%, 8.1 BB%
Snider: 26.7 K%, 7.8 BB%
Presley: 19.2 K%, 5.1 BB%
Sands: 23.9 K%, 10.4 K%
Marte definitely stands out here but that is for terrible reasons as he has the highest career K% and lowest career BB%. Obviously at this point the reason Marte gets excluded from this list of question marks is not because of what he has done at the major league level because it is essentially indistinguishable from the rest of the crop. So perhaps Marte was definitely more highly touted than the rest or had a stronger showing in AAA. Below are the highest ranking each player received by Baseball America going into a season and each player’s career OPS at AAA.
Marte: 73rd, .847 OPS
Tabata: 27th, .767 OPS
Snider: 6th, .976 OPS
Presley: NA, .851 OPS
Sands: NA, .914 OPS
Marte looks to be right about in the middle of the pack as far as pedigree goes. So right now I’ve concluded that Marte has not been markedly better than any of the other players at the major league level nor does he really have a much better pedigree than the rest so the question remains why are Pirates fans giving him a free pass while criticizing the rest?
To be honest with you I’ve known the answer all along. Quite simply it’s for the same reason fans can go from not liking Jason Bay (when he was originally acquired) to getting mad when he is traded away. Pirates fans, and sports fans in general, have a very short attention span. They are only ever concerned with the flavor of the month and only want to focus on the most recent data set. This is obviously not true of every sports fan or every Pirates fan but for quite a decent amount it is the case. Marte was better than either of those 4 players in 2012 and has less major league experience so therefore he is better than the rest and has the most room to improve or so the logic goes. There is course plenty wrong with that logic but it is essentially how the casual or I might even go so far as saying average sports fan thinks. In theory there is nothing wrong with it but in practice it leads to situations like this where a group of 5 players (or 4 if you want to discount the older Presley) have nothing discernible separating them but one is held head and shoulders above the rest of the group because he is the new guy on the scene.
The truth is any of these guys, with the possible exception of Presley, has what it takes to break out and become a starting corner outfielder in 2013 and conversely all of them could just as easily fail and be relegated to bench duty or even AAA by season’s end. We are dealing with a group of players that up until this point have been league average offensively in their career. I will add a plus here for Marte as he probably has the highest floor of the bunch as his strong defense and plus speed is likely to make him at least a solid 4th outfielder even if his bat and plate discipline never develops. Then again Marte isn’t too dissimilar from another outfielder the Pirates have in camp who I didn’t even bother mentioning until right now, Felix Pie. He too was once a highly regarded prospect with a lot of tools who just couldn’t cut it.
Look this writing isn’t meant to be critical of Marte. I like him and I think he has the potential to be a very strong outfielder for the Pirates going forward but let’s just say I’m a bit more realistic here. In my opinion Marte should absolutely make the 25 man roster but so should Snider and Tabata. I discount Presley because of his age and I opt to hold Sands back because his strong AAA showing has all come in the PCL so for me there is indeed something for him to prove in the International League. Marte, Snider and Tabata though have nothing left to prove at the AAA level and deserve the chance to see what they can at the major league level. It is true Tabata and Snider have gotten longer looks than Marte already but doesn’t that say something about their talent if they have already received long looks in the majors despite being roughly the same age as Marte? I think people tend to forget that point, Tabata, Snider and Sands aren’t players in their late 20s just looking for one last chance to break out, they are players in their early to mid 20s looking to become established just like Marte is trying to do. Ideally the Pirates would have two established corner outfielders but the truth is they don’t. Less ideally but still preferable to the current situation they would have one and would let the other battle it out for playing time in the other but again they don’t have that either. I’m not asking Pirates fans to be happy with what the Pirates have, all I am asking is that they know what the Pirates have and that isn’t 4 question marks competing for 1 spot but rather 5 question marks competing for 2 spots.
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.
The Pirates super star. Instead of asking what should we expect from him it might be better to ask what we shouldn’t expect from him. And what we shouldn’t expect is a repeat of last season. It is going to be very difficult for McCutchen to have as good as of a 2013 as he did a 2012 but at the same time I wouldn’t say it is impossible for him to do better. I’m not quite sure we have seen McCutchen at his best yet but even so just with the variation one expects from year to year 2012 will be a very difficult one to top. Make no mistake about it we should expect McCutchen to continue to be one of the best players in the game and I have great confidence that he will continue to do so. He is a rare and special talent and us Pirates fans are lucky to have a player of his caliber on our club. No other franchise has a player quite like him. Now as for what is a reasonable expectation from McCutchen this season. I see a solid 6.0 WAR season with more consistency and improved defense being a fair projection for our superstar. As far as a slash line goes something in the .290/.370/.480 ranges feels like a nice conservative estimate with something like .310/.380/.520 being a bit more optimistic projection. Bottom line here is that we should expect Andrew McCutchen to continue being well Andrew McCutchen.
With the possible exception of Pedro Alvarez and of course Andrew McCutchen no player will have a greater impact on the success or failure of the Pittsburgh Pirates than Starling Marte. As I have previously stated the Pirates desperately need a second true impact hitter and while Alvarez appears to be the most logical choice to become that, Marte isn’t far behind as the Pirates second most realistic option. Marte no doubt has a huge upside and in fact at is very best may be near the level of Andrew McCutchen with less bat and more glove, however it is unfair to expect that from Marte during his first full year. It is fair though to expect Marte to be a very valuable player though basically just because of his speed and defense alone. Just those aspect alone couple with a mediocre performance at the plate probably makes Marte a 2.0-2.5 WAR player. In reality we should expect to see some offensive value from Marte though and that likely bumps him up into the 3.0-3.5 WAR range with the potential for more. As far as his overall game is concerned I think we should reasonably expect to see great defense out of left field and a legitimate threat on the bases. His high strike out rate and relatively low walk rate means he might not be too effective in the lead off role the Pirates appear to plan to use him in but the value is still there. As for a slash line it is difficult to say just what to expect but as a floor a .260/.310/.420 line seems reasonable to me. Couple that in with about 1o home runs and 20 steals and the Pirates have themselves a very dynamic player with the potential to do much more.
The Pirates have plenty of other outfielders but they are all involved in what is the right field mess. Some of the right fielders are bound to spend some time in left field and will probably be the first called upon to do so should poor performance or injury become an issue but the only other player I feel comfortable calling a left or center fielder right now is Felix Pie. Pie was signed to a minor league contract this offseason and in a lot of other years would have a reasonable shot at winning a bench job with the Pirates. This year his chances are essentially none and it would in fact be a little surprising to see him in a Pirates uniform at any point in 2013. Right now the expectation for Felix Pie has to be that he will go to AAA and serve as depth and probably split time between left and center field. Pie is a very talented player that just hasn’t reached his potential. There is a very small chance, almost non-existent, that he finally puts it together this season and gets promoted bases on his talent alone but that would be a bit of a miracle.
Going into this offseason I identified to key areas in which I felt the Pirates needed to improve. The top priority was and should quite frankly near always be starting pitching depth. The Pirates worked on that this offseason by tendering Morton, resigning Karstens, (allegedly) signing Liriano and adding a few players like Jonathan Sanchez and Vin Mazzaro to serve as depth. The second area I pointed out was their lack of OBP and by extension top of the order and specifically lead off candidates. To address this the Pirate have done … well … nothing. Russell Martin was added and while I have heard some rumblings he might bat 2nd that really shouldn’t be an option except possibly against left handed pitching. So it appears the Pirates are going to try to address this problem internally. Let’s take a close look at the options:
The first thing we need to ask is what exactly does a team want in a leadoff hitter. The typical lead off hitter is viewed as someone who is fast and can steal bases but more importantly it is about getting on base and to a smaller extent making pitchers work. Since the primary goal of a leadoff hitting is getting on base I am going to focus most of this discussion of OBP but as a secondary number I will look at BB and K rates and finally as a third number I am going to look at stolen bases. Looking at those stats and comparing them to the league I get a very rough estimate that a good leadoff hitter should meet at least the following criteria: .330 OBP, 8-10 BB%, 15-20 K% (so 2:1 K:BB), 25 SB at a 75% rate. Those are reasonable estimates of minimum production teams would be expecting out of good leadoff hitters. So to compare the Pirates players to those standards I will use their 2013 ZiPS projections.
Russell Martin: .328 OBP, 10.3 BB%, 16.1 K%, 7 SB, 78 SB%
Michael McKenry: .297 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 24.8 K%, 1 SB, 50 SB%
Garrett Jones: .309 OBP, 7.7 BB%, 21.1 K%, 5 SB, 71 SB%
Gaby Sanchez: .324 OBP, 8.7 BB%, 14.6 K%, 3 SB, 75 SB%
Neil Walker: .328 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 18.5 K%, 8 SB, 62 SB%
Pedro Alvarez: .313 OBP, 10.2 BB%, 31.1 K%, 2 SB, 67 SB%
Clint Barmes: .289 OBP, 5.5 BB%, 18.7 K%, 3 SB, 50 SB%
Josh Harrison: .299 OBP, 3.7 BB%, 12.1 K%, 12 SB, 67 SB%
Jordy Mercer: .286 OBP, 5.4 BB%, 18.2 K%, 5 SB, 56 SB%
Chase d’Arnaud: .285 OBP, 6.4 BB%, 21.6 K%, 24 SB, 83 SB%
Starling Marte: .310 OBP, 4.3 BB%, 22.8 K%, 24 SB, 67 SB%
Andrew McCutchen: .369 OBP, 11.4 BB%, 18.0 K%, 23 SB, 68 SB%
Travis Snider: .310 OBP, 7.4 BB%, 22.7 K%, 9 SB, 69 SB%
Jose Tabata: .329 OBP, 7.9 BB%, 15.0 K%, 19 SB, 61 SB%
Jerry Sands: .304 OBP, 8.5 BB%, 25.0 K%, 4 SB, 80 SB%
Alex Presley: .308 OBP, 6.1 BB%, 18.0 K%, 15 SB, 65 SB%
Well as should have been expected no one met all the criteria listed and in fact no one at all met the 25 SB criteria. Since the Pirates do not have an ideal leadoff hitter (something we already knew) I think it is time to look at the best of the flawed options.
OBP > .330
Only one Pirates player projects to have an OBP over .330 and he is obviously the best choice to bat leadoff but the problem is he is the same guy who is the best choice to bat 3rd, 4th, 5th and well really anywhere in the lineup. With an ideally balanced lineup Andrew McCutchen is the obvious choice to be a leadoff hitter and if he can improve his stolen base efficiency he would be as near perfect a lead off hitter as one could make. However we all know he has more value to the Pirates batting in the middle of the lineup and driving those runs in than he does sitting atop the lineup, getting on base and ultimately staying on base.
OBP > .320
The Pirates have 4 players who have an OBP in the .320s and without an obvious choice to leadoff it would make sense that the player should come from this group. Those players are Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Looking at the secondary numbers I posted each of these players BB% and K% look fairly good as well as the BB% are at the very least near 8% and the K% for all of them is less than 20%. Where the divergence happens though is in the SB department, only one of these players, Jose Tabata is any sort of threat on the bases and while he does have the speed to swipe bases he like most other Pirates isn’t good at picking his spots. Still there is little doubt that outside of McCutchen the Pirates player best suited for the leadoff spot is Jose Tabata but there is a problem with that as Tabata’s 2012 struggles has made it very likely that he won’t be in the starting lineup. Gaby Sanchez is in a similar position as he is only expected to get consistent at bats against left handers. That leaves us with martin and Walker. In an ideal world where the leadoff hitter is determined only by the ability to get on base Martin batting lead off against lefties and Walker against righties makes a ton of sense as both players do a really good job getting on base against those particular handedness. In practice Martin is a catcher and catchers no matter how much they are suited for it rarely if ever lead off. I would not dismiss the possibility of Walker doing so however.
OBP > .300, BB% > 7.5%
Next up are 3 players who do not put up the best on base percentages but show a decent knack for working a count as shown by their projected BB%. These 3 players Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez and Jerry Sands. On the surface none of these 3 look like a leadoff hitter and when you dig a little deeper that becomes even clearer. Alvarez’s strike out rate is projected to be above 30% and his power bat is too valuable to have at the top of the order and he is better suited for a slugger role somewhere in the middle of the lineup. Similar to Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates count on Garrett Jones for his power and middle of the order presence. He doesn’t strike out a ton though and is actually has a fairly high OBP against right handed pitchers so using him at the top of the lineup against them shouldn’t be entirely dismissed. THe other player Sands faces a similar situation to Tabata as there is probably just not a whole lot of playing time to be had by him. Even so with a projected 25% strike out rate and a low OBP the top of the order probably isn’t a good place for him.
OBP > .300, BB% < 7.5%
There are 3 more players with a projected OBP above .300 but all of them do not walk a lot. They are Starling Marte, Alex Presley and Travis Snider. First I’ll deal with Travis Snider, he is a lot like Garrett Jones in that the Pirates are going to be expecting him to provide power but that his OBP is decent enough that using him near the top of the lineup can not be completely dismissed in the right situations. The other two players Starling Marte and Alex Presley fit the look of a traditional leadoff hitter. Both are speedy outfielders that can steal a base fairly well. However both have some OBP problems and Marte has a strike out problem. Presley is in the same boat as Tabata and Sands and in actuality is probably worse off so it is unlikely he gets enough playing time to be a real leadoff hitter candidate. Starling Marte appears likely to be the Pirates first choice as a leadoff hitter but his projected numbers show he really isn’t a good fit for that role. He can steal some bases but he will really work a walk and is projected to have a strike out rate more than 6 times greater than his walk rate.
OBP < .300
I have 5 other players listed above but they have even greater on base problems than the ones I have already discussed. McKenry is a solid backup catcher with a little power but he quite obviously has the OBP nor the speed to handle lead off duties. Clint Barmes is expected to be the everyday starting shortstop but that is more for his defensive prowess than anything with the bat. He quite simply should see nothing but the bottom of the order. All that leaves us with is the 3 primary candidates for the reserve infielder jobs in d’Arnaud, Harrison and Mercer. Each one has his strengths but none of their strengths are really getting on base. d’Arnaud is a decent enough base stealer but can’t hit well enough to get on base at a decent enough clip, Mercer is a solid defensive player but once again is lacking with the bat, and Harrison is a little better with the bat and is a decent base runner but lacks a true position and doesn’t have the plate patience nor the OBP ability to make any sort of leadoff hitter.
So what does all of this tell us? Quite simply that the Pirates are going to have to patchwork their leadoff spot and their top of the order. All things should be on the table. Players like Garrett Jones, Travis Snider, Russell Martin and Gaby Sanchez need to be considered for the top of the order even though they aren’t your prototypical choices. Neil Walker shouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a #2 hitter as he has the ability to be a competent lead off hitter at least against left handers. I am going to share my own ideas for lineups below and then discuss my rationale behind them.
In my lineup against right handers I am having Walker lead off because he is the Pirates best OBP man against right handed pitchers outside of Andrew McCutchen. The second spot in my order came down to Garrett Jones and Travis Snider both of whom can post decent OBPs against right handers while providing a little pop but Jones is more proven in that regard and I want the younger Snider concentrating more on unlocking his power pontential rather than trying to set the table. The middle of the order I kept the same for both lineups as I think Cutch fits well in the 3 hole and that it is time for Pedro to get a real chance to inherit the clean up job. Marte is more of a run producer than a leadoff hitter so batting him 5th gives him a oppurtunity to do and if he develops he could possible move up to the 3rd spot which would allow Cutch to inherit the lead off spot. Rounding out the lineup I have Martin and Barmes who I hope will at least be competent. If Martin sits McKenry can just slide right into the 7th spot.
In my lineup against lefites I start with Tabata as I am not ready to give up on him quite yet and feel it would be for the best to sit Snider against left handed pitching. Outside of McCutchen, Tabata is clearly the player that best profiles as a leadoff hitter so this will give him a chance to audition for that job. The second spot came down to either Martin or Sanchez and I went with Martin because I feel Sanchez brings a little more power lower in the lineup and I feel that Martin’s track record of posting a high OBP against lefties is just a touch better than Sanchez’s. The middle of the order stays the same as I want those guys to try and establish themselves. I dropped Walker the whole way down to the 7th spot because when he is forced to bat right handed he really struggles. I wouldn’t mind seeing him swapped with Sanchez though and batting 6th. And of course Barmes rounds out the lineup. When Martin sits move Sanchez up to the 2 spot and insert McKenry in Sanchez’s spot.
My lineups may be a little unconventional but I feel they make the best use out of what is the poor assortment of top of the order candidates the Pirates currently have in their stable.
At the start of the 2012 offseason the Pirates had a glut of utility infielders on the 40 man roster. They resolved this issue fairly quickly by waiving Gustavo Nunez and trading Yamaico Navarro and Borck Holt. However now they face another glut of 1B and corner outfielders. The Pirates have 8 players vying for 5 positions in the majors in Garrett Jones, Gaby Sanchez, Clint Robinson, Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Jerry Sands. Robinson, Marte, Presley and Sands all have options remaining so there isn’t necessarily a need to clear any of these players out but with the possible exceptions of Robinson and Presley there are reasons to believe the Pirates will want to start the rest off in the majors.
None of this means the Pirates have a surplus at these positions as the only 2 proven commodities they have are Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez. The Pirates glut is with unproven players and they are going to have to roll the dice with at least a few of these options. There has been some speculation that Garrett Jones could be traded but I’m not really sure I see the benefit of that. Snider and Tabata would probably share RF duties and Marte would likely start in LF which would leave Sands and Sanchez to share 1B duties. Since both Sands and Sanchez are right handed a time share between the two wouldn’t be practical. Sands is limited to 1B and the OF and Sanchez most likely is limited to 1B so there isn’t even really enough positional flexibility here for one to be used purely as a reserve. Sands could possible be used as a bench player but with 4 OF on the roster his presence would not really be necessary.
Another option could be a trade of Jose Tabata or Gaby Sanchez. These make more sense as it would free up a spot for Jerry Sands to platoon with either Travis Snider or Garrett Jones. However the Pirates would likely be selling low on either player and that is something they should probably avoid in almost all circumstances. So this leaves Marte, Snider and Sands as the other options. I would think the Pirates wouldn’t flip Sands or Snider since they just acquired them and Marte appears to be nearly untouchable.
So all of this leaves us with 6 players competing for 5 major league jobs and it makes little sense for the Pirates to send any of the 6 away in a trade. So what are they going to do? Well I wouldn’t have a problem with keeping the depth and starting Sands in AAA but I’m not sure the Pirates are going to do that. So the next most likely scenario would be trading Tabata or Sanchez. However neither probably has much value so the idea of trading the one player with a lot of value in Garrett Jones comes back up. From a position of roster makeup that may not make sense but from a position of getting fair value in a trade no other option makes sense. It is a bit of a conundrum the Pirates have themselves in and I’m not really sure what the plan is going forward. I would think Sands is not going to start in AAA but for that to happen someone is going to have to be dealt and of all the options only Jones has value but again moving him doesn’t make sense as it leaves only two right handed hitters or 1B making a platoon impossible and keeping one as a bench option troublesome.
The Pirates are likely just about done making moves this offseason but this is the one area left with the biggest question mark. They have plenty of options but not many proven ones. All of the players have significant upsides but at the same time it wouldn’t be hard to imagine any of them including Jones struggle in 2013. The Pirates have themselves quite a puzzle here and it should be interesting to see just how they go about trying to solve it.
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.