The Pirates Have Upgraded, But How Much?

The Pirates have upgraded this off-season, but by how much?

In 2004 I was in college, and at the same time managing a local movie theatre.  Because of this job, I saw movie previews all the time, knew the release dates of movies months in advance, and got to watch the movies a few days before they were released, which was technically part of my job since I was supposed to be watching to make sure there was nothing wrong with the film (which sounds great until you are forced to watch some Lindsey Lohan movie from start to finish to make sure the film was put together correctly).

In 2004 the movie Troy was also showing in theaters.  Due to my job, I saw about 10,000 previews for the movie heading up to the release date, and by the time the movie came out, I was convinced it was going to be the greatest movie ever made.  How could a movie with an All-Star cast, including two of my favorite “that guy” actors (Sean Bean and Brian Cox), possibly be bad?  A few days before the movie came out I watched it, and sure enough, it couldn’t live up to my extremely high expectations.  In fact, those expectations actually had me hating the movie.  When it came out on DVD, I gave it a second chance, and the results this time were a complete 180.  Going in with extremely low expectations, I loved the movie, and it’s now one of those movies that I’ll watch any time it’s on.

That second chance approach doesn’t work with every movie (I’m looking at you, Transformers 2), but for the most part it’s consistent, and ranges over to other aspects in life.  In this case, it could apply to the 2010 off-season for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Heading in to the off-season, we heard that the number one target for the Pirates was Jorge De La Rosa.  They were also reported to have an interest in Adrian Beltre, although they weren’t targeting him as hard as De La Rosa.  De La Rosa re-signed with the Colorado Rockies, and there’s really no chance the Pirates sign Beltre, which basically put the off-season in the “there’s no way this will ever live up to the expectations going in” category.

The Pirates made a series of moves during the winter meetings, adding Kevin Correia, Matt Diaz, and Scott Olsen, plus drafting Josh Rodriguez in the Rule 5 draft.  They followed that up today by adding first baseman Lyle Overbay.  The quality of the additions haven’t been anywhere near the quality of guys like De La Rosa or Beltre, which has led to a lot of comments about how the Pirates have had a horrible off-season.  The question is, have they had a horrible off-season, or were expectations so high that even good moves would look bad?

Let’s take a step back from the high expectations that we started the off-season with, and look at the additions the Pirates have made.

Kevin Correia/Scott Olsen

The Pirates had extremely horrible pitching last season.  Heading in to the off-season, the pitching didn’t look much better, with a projected rotation of Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, James McDonald, Zach Duke, and either Charlie Morton, Brad Lincoln, or Jeff Karstens.  The Pirates non-tendered Duke, and added Correia and Olsen.

I’ve gone over why I like Correia.  I also pointed out some of the changes he made leading in to his great 2009 season.  In my opinion, Correia is an upgrade over Duke.  Duke has been way too inconsistent in his career.  Meanwhile, Correia had a breakout year after his adjustments in 2009, and started off strong in 2010 before the tragic death of his brother.  If he can get back to the 2009 and early 2010 performance, he will provide a big upgrade over what Duke provided last year.

It’s hard to get excited about Olsen, but he pretty much serves as another option.  Rather than having Morton, Karstens, and Lincoln competing for two spots, the Pirates have those three and Olsen competing for one spot.  Olsen seems to be the favorite, due to the makeup of his contract, although I don’t think he’s a guarantee to start off as the number five starter.  This year provides a lot more options than the Kevin Hart/Daniel McCutchen battle last off-season.

Matt Diaz/Lyle Overbay

The addition of Diaz wasn’t a big splash, as he looks like a platoon option.  Fortunately, that’s what the Pirates are using him as, pairing him up with Garrett Jones in right field after the addition of Overbay this afternoon.  Overbay also seems like more of a platoon player, with struggles against left handed pitchers, but the Pirates seem set on using him as an everyday option.

The Pirates spent the majority of the 2010 season with Garrett Jones at first base and Lastings Milledge in right field.  Heading in to the off-season, they were looking at Jones as the first baseman, and a Milledge/Ryan Doumit platoon in right field.

Overbay has been the same as Jones offensively, although his defense at first has been much better, making him a slight upgrade.  In 2010, Overbay had a 1.5 WAR, compared to a 0.1 WAR from Jones.  Overbay didn’t even have his best defensive season, with a 0.1 UZR/150, down from his 2.0-2.9 range the previous three seasons.  That was still an upgrade over the -8.4 UZR/150 from Jones in 2010.

The combo of Diaz and Jones in right field is a big upgrade over Doumit/Milledge, mostly due to the swap of Doumit for Jones.  Doumit has horrible defense, while Jones was decent in right, managing a -2.6 UZR/150 in 2010 in right field, which was worse than his -0.2 UZR/150 in his career.  Diaz and Milledge are similar defensively, and both are pretty much platoon options, although Diaz has been better in his career against left handers, which is an upgrade since that’s the role he will be filling.

The best part of the Diaz/Jones combo is the expected offensive output at the plate.  Diaz is a career .335/.373/.533 hitter against left handers, while Jones is a career .282/.359/.495 hitter against right handers.  If we assume 700 combined plate appearances between the two players over the course of the 2011 season, at a 66%/33% split between Jones and Diaz respectively, we get the following output from the right field position:

700 PA, 641 AB, .300/.364/.508, 29 HR

The combo of Diaz and Jones is basically an All-Star hitter with average defense, assuming both players play up to their career numbers so far in their respective platoon roles.  The production above is the same production the Milwaukee Brewers got out of Ryan Braun in 2010 (.304/.365/.501, 25 HR).

That combo in right field is a huge upgrade over what the Pirates had in 2010.  Overbay is a better defensive version of what Garrett Jones was at first base in 2010, making him a slight upgrade.  The Pirates could maximize that upgrade by platooning Overbay as well, rather than using him as an everyday player.  Using the above rules, here is how an Overbay/Steve Pearce platoon could look:

700 PA, 610 AB, .287/.374/.495, 21 HR

Again, that’s all assuming each player plays up to their career numbers for platoon purposes, and this comes with a big disclaimer that Steve Pearce has a small sample size of 115 at-bats against left handers (although he does have similar splits in the minors).

Platoons aren’t a new concept in any way, but they are a concept that the Pirates avoided for some reason the past few years.  Perhaps that was because they wanted to give young players the chance to be more than just a platoon player.  They are now embracing the platoon, which is a great move for a small market team like the Pirates.  The Pirates can’t go out and get a top hitter on the free agent market, without ridiculously over-paying like the Washington Nationals did with Jayson Werth.  The cheap alternative is the platoon, which can work out well with the right players involved.

The Pirates should be using a platoon for both the first base and right field positions, considering the players they have under contract.  However, even without a platoon at first base, Overbay is an upgrade over what the Pirates had with the 2010 team.

Have the Pirates Upgraded?

The Pirates have definitely upgraded over the 2010 team, although that’s not exactly a big accomplishment, considering how bad the 2010 team was.  Lyle Overbay is about a one win upgrade over Garrett Jones, mostly due to his defense.  The platoon of Jones and Matt Diaz in right field can be a big upgrade if both players play up to their career numbers in their platoon roles.  Correia is at worst exactly the same as Zach Duke, although I feel he will provide an upgrade to the rotation.  The Pirates also have four options fighting for the final rotation spot, which should provide some depth, something they didn’t have in 2010.

The upgrades aren’t huge.  They’re not going to turn the Pirates in to contenders.  However, upgrades have been made.  The moves don’t live up to the high expectations, but after a second look, they’re not that bad.

In order for the Pirates to make the massive jump from their 2010 season to being contenders, they will need a lot of things going right.  They would need Paul Maholm to return to 2008 form.  They would need Ross Ohlendorf to be healthy the entire season.  They would need James McDonald, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker to repeat or improve on their 2010 seasons.  They would need Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez to step up to the next level to lead the team.  They would need the .775 OPS and strong defense version of Chris Snyder.  They would need good defense from the shortstop position.  They would need the bullpen to be strong.

It’s highly unlikely that all of those things would go right in one season.  The simple fact is that the Pirates still have too many question marks for one big signing to make an impact.  Even if they would have added De La Rosa, he probably wouldn’t have made an impact until year two or three of his deal, as even with De La Rosa, they have questions for the other rotation spots (Maholm’s performance, Ohlendorf’s health, can McDonald repeat, who is the 5th starter).

Adding a player like De La Rosa would have been great (if you read the site this off-season, you know I wanted the Pirates to sign him), but the truth is that it’s unrealistic.  Right now the options available to the Pirates are to make minor upgrades, such as the additions of Overbay and Correia, or the Jones/Diaz platoon.  In order to be a more attractive option to the better free agents, they need to get closer to being a competitive team, and in order to do that, they need their internal options to step up, regardless of who they add on the free agent market.

The Pirates have made some minor upgrades this off-season, and again, that’s not a hard accomplishment, considering their 2010 season.  The most important thing for their 2011 season is the performance of the players who were already on the roster.  Without answering the questions that exist in that area, the Pirates aren’t seeing a significant improvement, and that’s true whether they make a big free agent splash or not.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • http://twitter.com/llamafeed Jacob Neville

    Very good article. A smart look at these signings. People always expect us to be like the Yankees or Red sox, but thats simply not reality and it wouldnt really be worth it either. Let our talent develop before we’re making big deals and spending big money for the Adrian Beltre’s of the world so that the money isnt completely wasted.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PJL4JKN4GXNTHPI2L4J3FUJ2Y4 Jason

    Good run down. I’m not of the mind that the sky is falling either, but I am confused why they essentially signed substitutes for cheaper internal options that have potential upside. Milledge doesn’t look like he’s going to pan out, but he’s still young and it would have been worth platooning him with Jones or Bowker in RF. Same thing with Pearce at 1B, where he appears to be the odd man out, and will be losing playing time to an older player who’s not very good any more. I don’t think we’re worse, in fact I assume we’ll be a few games better this year just b/c it’s hard to lose as much as we did last year. At the end of the day, it’s hard to get excited about the prospect of 70 wins, which I think is exactly where we’re headed.

  • http://twitter.com/bucstradewinds David Harrison

    One important change that was not mentioned. Hurdle.