How Can the Pirates Improve Internally?

Any time a move is made during the off-season, the same question gets brought up: how does this improve the team for the following season?  The entire off-season is full of this sort of analysis of the following year, usually consisting of a comparison between the team from the end of the previous season, and the projected roster for the beginning of the next season.  In this analysis, there is one flaw that I notice: the idea that teams maintain the same performance from year to year.

The Pittsburgh Pirates finished with a 57-105 record in 2010.  In order to get to just a .500 record, they need to add 24 additional wins in 2011.  That’s a seemingly impossible turnaround for any team, and the teams that make that sort of turnaround (the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, the 1991 Atlanta Braves, to name two) are very rare.  It’s easy to just look at the players who have departed and the players who are coming in, figure out how many wins that might add, and add that to the 2010 win total.  The problem with this approach is that we assume the 2011 team, if no changes were made during the off-season, would finish with another 57-105 record.  What most people fail to consider is that the previous year’s record isn’t necessarily guaranteed for the following season.

It’s hard to substantiate this, as every team makes moves during the off-season, and teams never have the same roster from one year to the next.  However, it doesn’t take much to see that the Pirates will improve on that horrible 57-105 record, regardless of who they add.  Improving on that record doesn’t take much, and I don’t think the Pirates have enough to make a Rays-type turnaround.  The question is, where will they land in the middle?  Will it be a significant jump, putting them close to a .500 season?  Or will it be a small jump, leaving them with an improvement that will still leave them at the bottom of the MLB standings?  Let’s take a look at the returning players to get an idea of how the team will improve in 2011.

The 2010 Rookies

Alvarez could be one of the key players for the Pirates in 2011.

A big problem in 2010 was that the Pirates spent the first two months with Akinori Iwamura at second base, Andy LaRoche at third base, and Jeff Clement at first base.  They eventually called up Neil Walker, who replaced Iwamura, Jose Tabata, who moved Garrett Jones to first base to replace Clement, and Pedro Alvarez, who replaced LaRoche.  Walker and Tabata were great all season at the plate, while Pedro started slow, but went on a tear at the end of the season.

The Pirates will have all three players for the entire 2011 season, compared to just for two-thirds of the 2010 season, which will provide an upgrade.  The same can be said for James McDonald.  The Pirates only had him in the rotation for the final two months of the season.  If he continues to pitch like he did in 2010, then he would be a big upgrade for the Pirates in 2011, compared to the Dana Eveland/Daniel McCutchen type starters they sent out there in 2010 for the first four months of the season.

As for the 2010 rookies, there’s always the possibility that they might not repeat their performance, but there’s also the possibility that they improve on their performance.  For Neil Walker, the best improvement would be on the defensive side of the game.  Walker just moved to second base in 2010, and while he wasn’t strong defensively, he’s definitely talented enough to improve at the position.  We talked last week about how Jose Tabata has added muscle this off-season, which could help him hit for power.  Tabata was a great hitter in 2010, but with the power rate we saw, he projects as a top of the order guy.  If he can add some power, which has always been a possibility for him, then he would become a strong number three hitter for the Pirates.

The big key is how Pedro Alvarez will play.  Alvarez had a slow start to the 2010 season, hitting for a .167/.220/.222 line in his first 54 at-bats.  On July 3rd he hit his first Major League home run, followed up with another homer the next day, and from that point to the end of the season he hit for a .273/.346/.505 line in 293 at-bats, with 16 homers.  He finished off the season on a strong note, with a .306/.355/.577 line with six homers in 111 at-bats in September/October, including this one off of new Pirates reliever Jose Veras.

Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf

Paul Maholm has been an interesting case the last two years.  In 2009 he struggled in the first four months of the season, despite having a strong defense behind him.  Maholm combined for a 4.70 ERA in 128.1 innings leading up to the trade deadline, with an 81:40 K/BB ratio.  Then, with Ronny Cedeno and Delwyn Young replacing Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, he combined for a 3.93 ERA in 66.1 innings over the final two months, with a 38:20 K/BB ratio.

Maholm looked good for most of the 2010 season.  Through his complete game, three hit shutout on July 18th, Maholm had a 4.03 ERA in 114 innings, with a 57:40 K/BB ratio.  After that, things fell apart, and he combined for a 6.81 ERA in his final 71.1 innings, with a 45:22 K/BB ratio.  During those final 13 starts, Maholm had five quality starts, with three coming in his final four starts.

The big concern with Maholm is the lack of strikeouts.  In 2008 he had a 6.1 K/9.  That dropped to 5.5 in 2009, and 5.0 in 2010.  Maholm is a heavy ground ball pitcher, with a career 52.7% ground ball ratio.  His value will largely be influenced by an infield defense that has a lot of question marks (more on that later), which means the more strikeouts he has, the less he has to rely on the shaky defense.  There’s room for Maholm to improve, especially if he puts up similar numbers as his first half in 2010 (I could see him getting dealt by July 18th, 2011 if that’s the case), but I’m not banking on much, and I don’t think he’ll be with the team beyond the month of July.

As for Ohlendorf, a lot of people point to the fact that he made 21 starts in 2010 due to injuries.  That doesn’t guarantee that he will see his 2011 season shortened.  In fact, considering Ohlendorf had a 4.07 ERA in those 21 starts, the extra starts in 2011 will certainly improve the team.  That is only if Ohlendorf can maintain the same level of performance, which is where my questions lie.

Ohlendorf had a 3.92 ERA in 2009, but was lucky, thanks to a low .265 BABIP, and a high 76.3% strand rate.  In 2010 he had a 4.07 ERA, but was still lucky.  His BABIP went to .293, which was closer to the league average, but his strand rate was still high at 73.3%, and his home run per fly ball rate was lucky, at 7.7%, which is lower than the 10% league average for starters.  His home run rate should normalize in 2011, which could mean a regression.  I worry more about that than the idea that he could get injured again and be limited to 21 starts in 2011.

The Infield Defense

The only area that the infield defense was upgraded at this off-season was first base.  Lyle Overbay is an upgrade over Garrett Jones (if we never have to see Jones try to make a throw to second again, I’ll be happy), but first base is the least important defensive position in the infield.  The Pirates still have Walker at second, Ronny Cedeno at short, and Alvarez at third.

I mentioned above how Walker could improve with more time at the position.  As for Alvarez, everyone wants to rush him to first base, but it’s not out of the question that he could stick at third for another year or two.  It just requires that he stay in shape.  I saw Alvarez a lot in Lynchburg during the 2009 season, at a point where he was very out of shape.  He reminded me of Aramis Ramirez when he was with the Pirates: looking kind of lazy, playing on his heels, and failing to get a good first step on the ball.  Then I watched him on TV in the World Cup during the off-season, and he looked much better, probably because he was noticeably in better shape.  Alvarez has a thick frame, and as he gets older it will be hard for him to stay in the shape necessary to play third base.  His conditioning will play a big role in staying at third base.  With the right conditioning he won’t be a Gold Glover, but he also won’t be a liability.

The big issue comes at the most important defensive position, shortstop.  Ronny Cedeno was very inconsistent defensively in 2010.  At times he was one of the highest rated shortstops, according to UZR.  By the end of the season, he rated as below average.  I’ve felt that Cedeno has the tools to be a top defensive shortstop, but lacks the focus and consistency to actually put those tools to use for the entire season.  This was shown last year, not only with his inconsistent UZR ratings, but on the occasions where he was benched by the Pirates.  He is more or less in a contract year this year.  If he plays well, he can get in more games, which drives up the price of his 2011 option.  At that point the Pirates either pick up the higher priced 2012 option, or buy him out and let him go to free agency, which is a win-win scenario if he has a strong season (and I don’t think the Pirates let him go if he does play well, unless someone like Chase D’Arnaud is ready to step up).

There are a lot of question marks for the infield defense.  I think Walker will improve thanks to more experience.  Alvarez needs to maintain his conditioning, which is easier said than done.  As for Cedeno, he’s really hit or miss, but hopefully his contract will increase his focus throughout the year.  This isn’t an area I’m expecting upgrades at.

The 2011 Rookies

The 2010 season saw Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker make an impact.  The 2011 season could see a new group of rookies improving the team, as early as June.  The top prospects come from the 2010 Altoona rotation, with Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson.  I think Owens will arrive first, as I’m not sold that Morris and Locke will start in AAA, and Wilson’s lack of consistency with his control could be an issue.

Outside of those pitchers, the Pirates do have some position players who could make it to the majors.  Matt Hague has hit at every level, and is one of the best defensive first basemen in the minors.  His upside isn’t really better than Lyle Overbay in his prime, but he could make a good stopgap at first until the Pirates find someone to move Alvarez to first (Anthony Rendon?).  Chase D’Arnaud is my pick among the shortstop options.  He had a down year in 2010, but finished up strong in the Eastern League playoffs, and played well in the World Cup this off-season.  He could return to AA to start the 2011 season, but if he carries over his late-season success, he will be in AAA in no time, and possibly in the majors by the end of the year.

Andrew Lambo also struggled at the AA level, but saw an increase in his power after coming to Altoona (especially in the playoffs) and had a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League.  Like D’Arnaud, Lambo could return to AA to start the year, but there is a chance that he makes it to the majors this year.  I actually think it’s more likely that Lambo arrives in 2011, as I think the Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz platoon will allow the Pirates to take their time.

One of the best hitters in the minors last year was Josh Harrison, who will make the jump to AAA in 2011.  Harrison doesn’t have a true defensive position, and it’s hard to see him fitting in with the Pirates as they are currently built.  He’s not replacing Walker or Alvarez at second or third, and I don’t see him taking over in right field.  His upside is more a super utility player, although if he hits well enough in AAA, and Pedro Alvarez plays poor enough defense, it could make sense to entertain the idea of moving Alvarez to first, and either having Harrison play third, or have Walker move to third with Harrison at second.

The biggest impact from the 2011 rookie class will come from the pitchers, as there aren’t any position players that I think are a guarantee to arrive in the majors in 2011.  Fortunately, the Pirates’ biggest area of need is pitching, and the 2011 arrivals should address that need.  Whether they have the same impact as the 2010 rookie class did remains to be seen.

Playing to Potential

The biggest influence on a team’s season is how many players play to their potential, how many exceed expectations, and how many slump.  The Pirates have seen a few career years (Ryan Doumit in 2008, Garrett Jones in 2009), but far too many slumping years (or perhaps they were counting on too many people to repeat their career years), which explains why they’ve been bad for so long.  They don’t necessarily have to get career years from a lot of people, but they need to avoid the slumps.

As I pointed out earlier, the biggest slump could come from Ross Ohlendorf if his HR/FB rate normalizes in 2011.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 4.60 ERA from him if no adjustments are made.  As for the returning players, the biggest impact could be Andrew McCutchen taking his game to the next level.  McCutchen has been a 3.3 WAR player in his first year and a half in the majors, but definitely has some room to improve, and is young enough that we can’t assume this is all he will be.

We could go player by player, but in short, the Pirates need to avoid down years from as many players as possible if they want to improve.  For some players, that means showing that their previous good performance wasn’t a fluke.  For others, it’s showing that their struggles last year were a fluke (Chris Snyder, Paul Maholm).  And most importantly, for some key players, it’s taking it to the next level (McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata), or having some players put up a breakout season (Brad Lincoln, Charlie Morton, or really any pitcher).

Internal Improvements

A month ago I pointed out that the Pirates had upgraded this off-season, although the upgrade wasn’t huge.  The upgrades the Pirates made externally definitely won’t improve much on a 57 win team.  However, I don’t feel the internal team is as bad as a 57 win team.  Having Alvarez, Tabata, Walker, and McDonald for a full season will be a big help.  Getting some help from new rookies in 2011 could also help.  The big internal questions are the infield defense, the performance of the other two returning starters, Maholm and Ohlendorf, and how many rookies/question marks can step up and be contributors.  Those factors are far more important to the future success of the team than any upgrades the Pirates could have made, or actually did make this off-season.

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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  • Anonymous

    Loved it for the most part, but disagree with a few things. The first baseman is the least important defensive guy in the infield? No, IMO and many experts, the 1B impacts the work of the rest of the folks in the infield. The standard thinking is that an excellent defensive 1B can improve the overall defense by 20 to 30 errors a year.

    I also think that Kevin Correia will prove to be an excellent add to the Rotation, and Paul Maholm will be strong. If the Yanks and Cashman are smart, a deal involving Paul and possibly a young OF for Joba Chamberlain could be had. I like Chase d’Arnaud and Matt Hague to be at PNC in 2011, along with Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, and Danny Moskos. Thanks for the updates and I look forward to receiving the Prospect Book.

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

      The first baseman definitely has defensive value, but not as important as the other positions, in my opinion. It’s a chicken and the egg type thing. The first baseman can improve the defense by saving wild throws, but if the defenders don’t have the range or the glove to make the plays in the first place, then the impact of the first baseman is limited.