The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 2011 off-season with holes at first base, right field, shortstop, and the starting rotation. So far they have added Lyle Overbay to fill the first base role, Matt Diaz to platoon with Garrett Jones in right field, missed out on a few shortstops, and signed Kevin Correia for the rotation, while adding Scott Olsen as an option for the fifth starter role.
It seems that two things are certain when it comes to the Pirates and free agency. One is that they aren’t going to sign a big name. It would be hard to attract a big name to Pittsburgh while the Pirates are one of the worst teams in the league, unless they over-spend like Washington did with Jayson Werth, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen. The other thing that seems certain is that the Pirates aren’t going to block any prospects with their free agent signings.
One of the biggest problems with Dave Littlefield while he was the general manager was that he didn’t let the young players play. Take the 2006 season, for example. The Pirates had Freddy Sanchez, who was fresh off a .291/.336/.400 season in 453 at-bats, splitting between second and third base. Rather than going with Sanchez as the starting third baseman, they signed Joe Randa, and started Sanchez off as a bench player before he went on to replace Randa and win the batting title. The team had catching prospects Ronny Paulino and Ryan Doumit, but traded Leo Nunez for Benito Santiago, rather than going with Paulino or Doumit. They had Nate McLouth, but signed Jeromy Burnitz to start in right field.
The Pirates under Neal Huntington haven’t taken that approach. They’ve been very inactive in the free agent market leading in to this season. They’ve signed bench players and bullpen arms, but the only significant off-season acquisition prior to this year was the Akinori Iwamura trade, and that only added a guy to fill the second base role for one season. It’s safe to say that the Pirates don’t want to block any of their prospects, which is a good move, since teams like the Rays and Twins have shown that the best way to initially build your team is with prospects, and not big free agent signings.
The additions by the Pirates this off-season are somewhat of a big turnaround in the approach they’ve taken, compared to previous off-seasons. I’ve talked about how the moves provide a slight upgrade to the Pirates, and you could certainly make a case that they could have done better in some areas. One thing we haven’t discussed yet is what the additions might say about the estimated arrival time of some of the internal options. Let’s take a look at each addition.
First Base – Overbay was signed to a one year deal, which means the Pirates could be looking for a new first baseman once again next off-season if no options emerge during the season. The Pirates do have two options in Matt Hague and Andrew Lambo, although neither is a guarantee. Hague hit for a .295/.375/.442 line in 509 at-bats at the AA level this past season. If he can maintain those numbers in the jump to the next levels, he could step in to replace Overbay, possibly during the middle of the 2011 season. Lambo is an outfielder, but range issues could force him to first base. He was once one of the top prospects in baseball, but saw his career decline in the last two years. He got some of his power back after joining the Pirates this season, and carried that over to a strong Arizona Fall League season. Lambo could start off in AA again this year, so it’s unlikely he’d be in the majors in 2011.
Ultimately the first base position will belong to Pedro Alvarez, although there are no internal third basemen available to move Alvarez to first. That will likely come if the Pirates draft Anthony Rendon, although the earliest he would be up is June 2013. The signing of Overbay fills the first base role for one season, or at least until mid-season if Hague is ready. Hague would be a good stop gap until Rendon could arrive.
Right Field – Matt Diaz was signed as a platoon option on a two year deal, while Garrett Jones has move to a platoon role with five years of control remaining. Lambo is also a possible option for right field, but likely won’t be ready until the 2012 season. Starling Marte is the top outfield prospect in the minors, but will be starting AA in 2011, all while recovering from a hamate bone injury from the 2010 season, which means the earliest he would be expected up is 2012. That explains why the Pirates added Diaz to a two year deal, as the Pirates are at least a year away from an internal outfield option emerging.
Starting Rotation - The rotation should start to get a boost from the minors this year. I expect the AAA rotation to start off with Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson. Some of those options could be in the majors by June. The future of the rotation is difficult to judge. James McDonald and Ross Ohlendorf look like the only promising young starters in the majors with years of control remaining, although neither option is a guarantee to have success. It’s likely that Paul Maholm will be gone, if not this off-season, then at some point in the 2011 season. The addition of Correia on a two year deal basically leaves two spots open for the 2011 season. The first spot will be held by Maholm until he inevitably gets traded. The second spot will be fought over by Charlie Morton, Scott Olsen, and Brad Lincoln to start the year, and most likely held by all three players at different points in the 2011 season.
Of the five pitchers who are expected to start the AAA season, the Pirates can’t expect every one to work out. It’s likely that two of those options will realize their potential, and it would be huge if three of those pitchers had success in the majors. Not all of them will be ready to jump to the majors during the 2011 season, which is why the addition of Correia for two years makes sense. It could also be possible that one or two of those options starts off in AA in 2011, similar to what Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris did in high-A to start the 2010 season, making it less likely that Correia would get bounced from the rotation in 2011.
Internal Options - The Pirates could have an internal option at first base as soon as June, assuming Matt Hague hits in AAA the way he has been hitting since turning pro. They probably won’t see an internal option in right field until June 2012, which means we will likely see a Jones/Diaz platoon for at least a year and a half. The rotation can vary based on injuries and performance, but I think the fact that the Pirates stopped after adding Correia and Olsen makes it more likely that we see a few members of the 2010 Altoona rotation in the majors by June.