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.
Burnett, who has already been named the opening day starter, is the clear unquestioned leader of the Pirates staff. Burnett isn’t quite as effective as your typical number one pitcher but is a significant upgrade from the number one starters the Pirates sent out there just a few seasons ago. Headed into last season he was coming off two rough seasons for the Yankees but he rebounded nicely compiling a very strong seasons. The Pirates and I’m sure fans are all hoping he can repeat his 2012 success in 2013 but realistically that doesn’t seem very likely to me. Burnett is getting up there is baseball years at 36 years old and while his 2012 season was nice he tailed off towards the end of the year. His campaign in 2012 did not appear to be exceedingly lucky so expecting a complete collapse back to his 2010-2011 years is probably unrealistic as well but still his 2013 numbers are likely to be worse than his 2012 ones. Last season Burnett managed to keep his walk rate below 3.0 BB/9 innings something he has rarely done in his career. I see Burnett still being a very strong rotation arm for the Pirates but the walks will likely increase and that will have the snowball effect which cause regression to set in. I’m seeing an ERA in the upper 3s, say around 3.90, a WHIP in the 1.30-1.35 range and strike out and walk ratios around 7.5 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9 respectively. Last season Fan Graphs had him pegged as a 3.4 WAR player and he won’t reach that level in 2013 as I see him around a 2.5 WAR player with a maximum of a 3.0 WAR player.
Rodriguez has already been names the second man in the rotation and I think the Pirates will benefit from having for the entire season. Rodriguez has seen his strike out rates slip in the past few seasons and that coupled with his age of 34 years old is a definite red flag. Still he has managed to keep his numbers fairly steady and there is reason to believe he will continue to do. He isn’t a true #2 starter like the Pirates will be counting on him to be but he is a durable arm who should give the Pirates a lot of solid innings and that in itself has a lot of value. Rodriguez has been transforming himself the last couple of seasons from a power pitcher to more of a finesse one and he has been fairly successful and my expectation is that he will continue to be fairly successful. Overall I see a Rodriguez posting an ERA not to dissimilar to Burnett’s ERA. His ERA should be in the high 3 range around 3.8-3.9, his WHIP should remaining fairly steady around 1.30 and I see his strike out rate improving slightly to around 6.5 K/9 and his walk rate remaining strong at about 2.7 BB/9. Overall I see him having about the same value as Burnett meaning he should be about a 2.5 WAR player. I would say Burnett’s maximum performance for 2013 is better than Rodriguez’s but Rodriguez is probably the more dependable of the two meaning he has less of a chance to fall of a cliff this year.
Now we are not really in the top of the rotation but McDonald certainly has top of the rotation stuff. No single player was a better microcosm of the Pirates successes and failure in 2012. When McDonald was riding high so were the Pirates and when he fell apart the Pirates did as well. He is the ultimate variable for the Pirates pitching staff in 2013. His strong first half to the 2012 season suggests he could be the top of the rotation arm the Pirates need but his late season collapse suggests he could just be another AAAA arm. Chances are his value will fall somewhere in between. The last two seasons have seen McDonald post the exact same ERA of 4.21 so when predicting an ERA for 2013 it is hard not just to say that is about what he will do again in 2013 but then again there is such a wide array of possible outcomes for McDonald that it is impossible to know just exactly what he will do in 2013. Personally I’m expecting a more consistent pitcher who will pitch slightly better than his overall results from the last two years. The numbers won’t be a whole lot better but I think they will be better. Taking a stab at his statistics I think he’ll have an ERA around 4.10, a WHIP in the 1.30 range and ratios around 7.7 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 respectively. I think overall this will make him a nice middle of the rotation arm and that he should be worth approximately 1.5-2.0 WAR for the Pirates in 2013.
If there is a bigger wildcard for this pitching staff than James McDonald it is Liriano. Liriano, like McDonald, could wind up just about anywhere from Cy Young contender to a complete mess. There is also the added intrigue of the broken right arm which will likely cause him to miss the first month of the season. Still if you are looking for a high upside guy Liriano is most certainly that. All the projection systems I’ve seen seem to think he will do fairly well in Pittsburgh and by that I mean keeping his ERA in the high 3s to low 4s. In reality I don’t have the slightest clue what to expect from Liriano, however I will add I don’t see him completely blowing up and I think he’ll at least be a solid back of the rotation option for the Pirates but of course I’m hoping for more. I think on the low end we’ll see a 4.50 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 4.6 BB/9 type of seasons from Liriano and on the high end I think we could see a 3.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 3.8 BB/9 type season from Liriano. I tend to think the low end has a better chance than the high end though. So lets split the difference and lean towards the low end and call for a 4.20 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.3 BB/9 type season. I’m thinking that should put him somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5-2.5 WAR so again let’s go down the middle leaning toward the low side and call it 1.8 WAR.
With Jeff Karstens now back on the Pirates payroll there are 6 pitchers with a reasonable chance of starting the year in the major league rotation. They are A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. In addition to those six there are quite a few other players who could factor in at some point this season. There are a handful of pitchers who look like they could be non-horrible spot starting options in Chris Leroux, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Zach Stewart but none of them would ideally be counted on. There is also the two reinforcements, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole, who will hopefully both be ready to help contribute by mid season. Then there is even Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver who have the stuff to be good starters if they can figure out their control. Finally the Pirates also have a stable of AAA pitchers who look like they should be ready to step up and make a handful of starts later in the year in Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and even Michael Colla. That is undoubtedly a lot of arms but I still believe the Pirates need to bring in another starter and I’ll explain why.
Let’s first take a look at the depth. A lot of the pitchers making up the Pirates depth, Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Phillip Irwin, Brandon Cumpton and Michael Colla are going to probably need a couple of months before they would be ideally counted on to help the rotation. Two more Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver will need time to prove that they have improved their control before being ready to move up. What this means is that a lot of this depth will not be ready to help out should a problem arise in say April or May. Now with six starters ready to start the year that ordinarily wouldn’t be a huge deal but the Pirates have risk factors with all six of their starters.
Burnett – AJ will be 36 years old this upcoming season and had two poor seasons prior to his good year last season. A pitcher nearing his late 30s is always at risk of breaking down especially one with as much use on it as Burnett.
Rodriguez – At 34 years old Rodriguez isn’t as old as Burnett but there is a cause for concern as his strike out rate has been steadily dropping the last few seasons. The bottom really fell out in 2012 as he dropped from 7.8 K/9 to 6.1 K/9. He is going to need to show he can transition into being successful as a finesse pitcher.
McDonald – The biggest question mark of them all. Which McDonald is the real McDonald? Is he the Cy Young candidate we saw the first half of last year, the AA arm we saw in the second half or somewhere in between. A complete collapse can not be ruled out.
Karstens – The reason the Pirates didn’t offer Karstens arbitration was his injury history. Karstens has been a very consistent starter for the Pirates but the question is how long can he stay healthy? The Pirates really shouldn’t be counting on Karstens for more than about 120 innings max.
Locke – I feel pretty good about Locke but the issue with him is that he has no track record of big league success and has struggled when given his few chances. Locke has been a very successful AAA pitcher and while that probably should transition over to him being at least a solid 4/5 in the majors you never know until he actually does it.
McPherson – McPherson has had shoulder soreness twice in the past year and last time it cause him to miss a decent chunk of the season. Add in the fact that he has only made 3 starts at the AAA level and you have a pitcher who the Pirates should probably proceed cautiously with.
With all those question marks and the real possibility that a starter outside of those 6 might be needed the way the Pirates are currently constructed they would need to give the chances to one of the spot starter options in Gomez, Stewart, Leroux or Mazzaro. If those 4 are forced to make a combined 2-3 starts this year, ok stuff happens the team should be fine but if one of them is needed to move into the rotation in April or May it could very well likely signal bad things for the Pirates. For the Pirates and all teams really one of the most important keys is depth in the rotation and while that is coming for the Pirates it isn’t there yet. Ideally come midseason the Pirates will have a surplus to trade for needs in other areas or will be able to convert some starters into bullpen arms but you can’t go on expecting the ideal the Pirates need to prepare for the very real possibility that they may need an extra arm to help the rotation get through April and May. As long as health holds out Burnett, Rodriguez and McDonald should all start the season in the majors. McPherson would ideally start the year in AAA to get a few more starts and a little more polish. This leaves two rotation spots for Karstens and Locke. I would really like to see those two battle it out for the 5th spot with Locke going to AAA if he loses and Karstens being the swing man if he loses. The las rotation spot needs to go to someone on the outside. Perhaps the Liriano deal can be reworked and he can fill the last spot (his upside would really fit nicely with what the Pirates need) or perhaps another free agent such as Marcum or Saunders can be had or maybe a trade for someone like Capuano or Porcello but the bottom line is another arm needs to be added so the Pirates can have some reasonable security that they will be able to make him through April and May with their in house rotation options.
There has been a lot of news lately about the Pirates seeking a starting pitcher but also about how they are comfortable with the internal options they have. The Pirates do have a fair number of internal options but it doesn’t appear like it is quite enough to go in to the season with. So lets take a look at those internal options the Pirates are currently counting on.
Locks For The Rotation
The Pirates have 3 locks for the starting rotation heading into the season. A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald all should start the season in the rotation and each one of them could be candidates to make 30+ starts and pitch 200+ innings but then again there are age concerns surrounding Burnett and Rodriguez and consistency questions surrounding McDonald. The Pirates are likely hoping that this trio can contribute roughly half of the starts they need in the 162 game season. More realistically though anywhere from 70-75 starts would be a good total.
Competing For A Rotation Spot
The Pirates have 3 players who look as if they are competing for the final 1 or 2 rotation spots in the rotation. These players are Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson and Vin Mazzaro. All three of these players could definitely have a positive impact on the rotation but then again all 3 of them are untested and unproven. Locke and McPherson both showed flashes of talent near the end of last season and of the 2 Locke seems to be the most polished and ready to take on a big league job. Mazzaro is out of options so the Pirates are either going to have to start the year with him on the 25 man roster or waive him. I really don’t see him as a starter but I expect the Pirates will give him a chance to compete for a job. I’m sure the Pirates would love to get 50-60 starts from this trio but I just don’t see it. If they can get anywhere from 30-35 starts that would be a success.
Mid Season Help
The Pirates have two players who look they will be ready to provide rotation depth some time around the middle of the year. Charlie Morton should b coming back from injury and Gerrit Cole should be polished enough from the minor league to make his debut. I have my doubts about Morton getting ready in the short 30 day window he will have but the Pirates appear to be counting on that so we will see. As for Cole we all know he is the top prospect and should make a very anticipated debut this season but we shall see how he fares and how long it takes him to get here. Both pitchers certainly have the talent to fill rotation spots for this club but again there is nothing for certain here. Ideally these guys would be able to provide a half a season each which would give them 30 starts but 15-20 would be a pretty good amount.
There are two prospects outside of Gerrit Cole who appear like they could possibly make a start for the Pirates some time this season. They are Jameson Taillon and Phillip Irwin. Chances are neither will be ready until August at the earliest so counting on the for more than a handful of starts can’t be done. Taillon is of course a top prospect and Irwin is a very stable arm who with just a few months of AAA time could be a Jeff Karstens like starter for the Pirates. Again these two are talented and may play a key role in 2014 but in 2013 anything more than a taste of the majors would be highly unlikely. Around 5 starts is all that can be expected from this duo and even that may be high.
Good Stuff, Poor Control
The Pirates have two left handers who have great stuff but little control. It is uncertain rather the Pirates see them as starters or relievers right now but one would think they will each get a chance at starting in AAA at least to begin the season. These two players are Justin Wilson and Andy Oliver. Both of them are power lefties who if they can even slightly improve their control could be great starters or dominating back end relievers but that is one very big if there. The Pirates shouldn’t be counting on this pair for any starts but it would be a huge bonus if they could make some. I wouldn’t count on them for any but it wouldn’t surprise me to see 10+ starts out of this duo if one or both can take significant strides this season. More likely though these two will serve as bullpen options.
The rest of the Pirates options are players who look better suite for relief work but could step up and make a spot start if needed. They are Chris Leroux, Rick VandenHurk, Zach Stewart and Chad Beck. These guys are really just emergency starters so if the Pirates need these guys for more than 1-2 starts things have probably gone horribly wrong. I would imagine that some of these guys will not even be with the Pirates at the start if the year and if they are 1 or 2 of them are likely to be removed from the roster.
So how many starts do we have from the internal options:
Mid Season: 20
The Rest: 10
The Pirates would probably be able to get by with what they have but my fairly realistic numbers seem to suggest that unless they get good luck in regards to health or are planning to count on players who they probably shouldn’t they are going to come up about 20 starts short. I believe it is important to avoid giving starts to players who just don’t appear ready and to have some backup plans should injuries arise. It is rather apparent to me that right now the Pirates need to bring in one more dependable starter because otherwise making it through the year is going to be rather difficult and could even get ugly. So the talk about Capuano and Porcello has plenty of merit and I expect the Pirates pursuit for their them or another pitcher will start to pick up in the coming weeks.
Jared Hughes: Hughes had the most innings pitched out of the Pirates bullpen this season and overall had a pretty good season. His numbers weren’t dominant as he posted fewer than 6 K/9 but as the Pirates ground ball specialist that appears to be fairly acceptable. Hughes was used in multiple roles this season pitching some long relief at times and even getting a chance to close out a couple of games near the end of the season. There were some knocks against him near the end of the season for allowing a large amount of inherited runners to score but overall he only allowed 10 of 38 for a 26.3% rate. Which is perfectly reasonable. Looking at more traditional numbers like ERA and WHIP Hughes had a great season but he didn’t pitch quite as well as those numbers say even though he was good. The bottom line is Hughes put up a nice 60% ground ball rate and had good numbers supporting that, at a minimum that performance should earn him a middle relief job next season and possibly even give him a chance to win a set up role. Overall Grade: B
Chris Resop: Resop with 73.2 inning pitched had the second most innings out of the Pirates bullpen and did fair in his role. The one discouraging sign is that Resop has always been a strike out pitcher and this season his K/9 rate was down to 5.62 which diminishes his value and overall effectiveness. Usually ERA is not a great indicator of how a relief pitcher did during the course of a season but I think Resop’s 3.91 ERA fits him fairly nicely. He was an average middle reliever this season, the type you should be able to easily find. His WHIP was 1.43 and he allowed 10 of 27 inherited runners to score for a 37.0% rate. Basically Resop is what he is a fungible reliever who is capable of holding down the 6th or 7th spot in a bullpen but a reliever who can be easily upgraded upon. I’m not sure if the Pirates will bring Resop back next season or not but considering he should be relatively easy to replace I expect they will at least consider non tendering him. Overall Grade: C
Joel Hanrahan: Hanrahan threw 14 less innings than Resop and 16 less than Hughes but still received the 3rd most innings of any Pirates reliever. He was used almost exclusively in the 9th inning closer role this season which despite being largely debated by most bloggers is a practice I am relatively ok with. I would like to see some more creativity used but I pretty much accept it for what it is. Hanrahan posted a very strong, 10.11 K/9 but had some massive control problem posting a 5.43 BB/9. There were times this season when Hanrahan looked like his dominating self but there were also long stretches where he looked erratic and largely ineffective. Still more often than not Hanrahan got the job done even if it was not in impressive fashion. Hanrahan inherited only 7 runners this past season and left all of them stranded on the base paths. It was an up and down season for Hanrahan in which his numbers seem to suggest he pitched a whole lot better than he actually did. The Pirates will be able to bring him back next season for probably somewhere in between 7-7.5 million but I expect they will look to deal him. As for this past season I give Hanrahan an Overall Grade: C+
Jason Grilli: Grilli had a strong season posting an unbelievable 13.81 K/9 while posting a slightly high but still reasonable 3.38 BB/9. I think it is pretty clear he had the best season of any Pirates relief pitcher. Grilli pitched the 4th most relief innings for the Pirates this season but only inherited 6 runners which seems preposterous to me considering just how good he was but on the plus side none of the six scored. Grilli did start to get a little shaky near the end of the season but you really couldn’t have asked for much more from him this past season. Quite simply it was a stellar season. Grilli heads into free agency this offseason probably looking at a 2 year contract worth in the neighborhood of 8-10 million dollars. I’m not exactly sure if the Pirates will (or should) give him that kind of money and it will be one of the more interesting stories this offseason. Really not much more than excellent can be said when describing Grilli’s year. Overall Grade: A
Tony Watson: Watson for long stretches of time was the Pirates only lefty in the bullpen which was a large reason why he led the Pirates in relief pitch appearances despite finishing 5th in inning pitched. In addition to some other roles Watson filled this season the Pirates tried Watson as a lefty matchup specialist, it was a role he did ok in but he pitched essentially as well against lefties as he did righties which probably means he is better suited for a more traditional relief role and as a second lefty in the pen. The Pirates will hopefully look for a true lefty specialist this offseason so Watson can be freed up for other duties. Watson’s overall stat line doesn’t really jump off the page at you. I mean 8.94 K/9 is good but not dominating, a 3.38 ERA is good but again not great, and a 1.13 WHIP while very good is not eye-popping. However there was one thing Watson did extremely well this season and that was strand inherited runners. For the season Watson inherited a whopping 61 runners and only allowed 11 to score for a rate of 18.0%. Watson should be back next season as either the primary lefty in the bullpen or maybe as the fireman who comes in to try and put out the fires that the other pitchers started. Overall Grade: B
Brad Lincoln: Earlier I recapped Lincoln as a starting pitcher and he was awful but out of the bullpen he appeared to be an entirely different pitcher. He was as good as if not better than Grilli this season and was really settling into that role and looking good. Lincoln inherited 11 runners while with the Pirates and allowed none of them to score, plus he had an out of this world 99.3% strand rate. Quite simply Brad Lincoln in the bullpen was an awesome weapon Clint Hurdle had at his disposal when he was with the Pirates. We all know the rest though, come the trade deadline he was traded to Toronto for Travis Snider in a move that was praised and criticized by large chunks of the Pirates fan base. His removal from the bullpen no doubt hurt it but how much an impact it had can not really be said. For the record while with Toronto Lincoln was actually quite bad but since I’m judging him just on his performance out of the Pirates bullpen that is neither here nor there. It was a brief 35.2 innings but during that time in the bullpen we got to see the stuff and the talent which made Brad Lincoln a #4 overall pick. Overall Grade: A
Juan Cruz: Cruz pitched exactly the same number of innings as Lincoln did and had a fairly decent season. The overall stat line 8.33 K/9 and 2.78 ERA look pretty good but Cruz was getting very lucky and allowing a lot of base runners posting a 1.63 WHIP. When the Pirates released Cruz it surprised some people but in all reality he wasn’t pitching all that good. Still Cruz had a certain magic to him that allowed him to tip toe out a few tight spots and was certainly worth picking up off the scrap heap this past offseason as an NRI. Essentially Cruz like Resop was an average middle relief pitcher and really there is nothing wrong with that. The Pirates will likely look top pick up another pitcher like Cruz on the scrap heap again this offseason and if they pitch like Cruz did this season it should be considered a success. For the record he inherited 7 runners and allowed only 1 to score for a 14.3% rate. Cruz wasn’t really good but he wasn’t bad either Overall Grade: C
The Rest: The Pirates had another 106.1 innings pitched out of the pen that was picked up by 15 different pitchers. None of them pitched more than 13.2 innings (Qualls) and two of them (McCutchen and McDonald) didn’t even manage to record an out. Rather than go over each one individually I figured I’d lump them all together here. Qualls (13.2 IP) was pretty bad out of the pen but advanced numbers suggest he was unlucky (6.59 ERA, 3.94 xFIP), still his tiny 3.95 K/9 is a red flag. Doug Slaten (13.0 IP) was decent out of the pen but was a little lucky and overall looked like a pretty fungible average lefty relief pitcher. Evan Meek (12.0 IP) was down right awful out of the pen in his limited chances but did pitch rather well in AAA, regardless he is now a free agent and the Pirates have no reason to look at bringing him back. Kyle McPherson (11.2 IP) showed some good things in his limited time in the bullpen which led to him getting a few starts near the end of the season. Chris Leroux (11.1 IP) put up some bad numbers in limited action from the bullpen but pitched far better than those numbers would indicate and appears to be in line for the long relief job in next year’s bullpen. Kevin Correia’s (10.1 IP) time in the bullpen was pretty much like his time in the rotation, mediocre, he wasn’t bad but not good either just decent. Hisanori Takahashi (8.1 IP) posted a good strike out rate (11.88 K/9) but was overall rather bad in his limited action; he is a free agent and probably won’t be brought back. Jeff Karstens (7.1 IP) didn’t get a lot of time in the bullpen but did pitch some average innings out of it late in the season. Bryan Morris (5.0 IP) amazingly pitched very sparingly out of the bullpen this season. Morris is out of options so the Pirates will either need to wave him in 2013 or put him on the roster but yet they really choose not to take much of a look at him. For the record he was fairly good in his 5 innings of work and had a good season in AAA; he should be in the opening day bullpen next season. Justin Wilson (4.2 IP) was a starter in AAA this season but pitched only relief with the Pirates and he did fairly well in his limited opportunities. The Pirates seem to want to keep him starting so he’ll probably return to AAA next season but does have a chance of winning a bullpen job out fo spring training. Jeff Locke (4.1 IP) came up for a fairly odd stint with the Pirates bullpen in which they only intended to use him for long relief so as to not mess up his pitching schedule I guess. Regardless he didn’ allow a run in his brief time and held runners to an absurd .077 BABIP of course nothing can be drawn from that and Locke will of course return to starting next season whether it be in the majors or at AAA. Rick VandenHurk (2.2 IP) got called up to the majors in September on the strength of a good showing in AAA but really didn’t get to show much while with the team. His 2.2 innings weren’t great though he did show he could miss some bats but VandenHurk looks like a possible cut to free up space on the 40 man roster. Wandy Rodriguez (2.0 IP) threw only 2 innings of relief this season and I bet most of you remember those two innings, Rodriguez came in to pitch the 18th and 19th innings of the Pirates 19 inning marathon win over the St Louis Cardinals. For what it is worth he pitched well in those 2 innings and as a starter seemed to settle in nicely with the Pirates rotation after this appearance. Daniel McCutchen (0.0 IP) failed to record an out this season in his only appearance but faced only 2 batters. Considering he wasn’t even called up in September McCutchen is a candidate to be cut this offseason. Finally we have James McDonald (0.0 IP) who liked McCutchen didn’t record a single out but faced 4 batters in the process. At the time he was pitching in relief McDonald had pretty much lost it so there is little surprise he failed to record an out. Hopefully his demotion to the bullpen is just a blip on the radar as McDonald should return to the rotation next season.