With the signing of Clint Barmes this past week, the Pittsburgh Pirates made their second move to upgrade the 2012 team from the team we saw in 2011. But if you’re expecting a huge upgrade, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Anyone who takes a look at the available options at catcher and shortstop knows the positions are thin. In fact, anyone who looks at the actual positions will realize that it’s not just the trade market and free agency that lacks strong options. When you consider that a team like the Pirates has no chance at one of the few standout options like Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, the market for possible upgrades becomes even thinner.
The Pirates added two of the top options available to them at two positions where it’s hard to find talent. They focused primarily on upgrading their defense, since offense at each position is a premium that can only be afforded by big market teams, or by sacrificing a huge amount on the defensive side of the game. The end result is that the Pirates added two upgrades to their team. Barajas doesn’t have the offense that Ryan Doumit had, but he has much better defense, and he’s one of the more reliable catchers in the game, ranking in the top third in the league in innings behind the plate over the last few years. Barmes is very strong defensively, and has been consistent throughout his career at the shortstop position, something that can’t be said about Ronny Cedeno.
If there’s one thing you can’t say about the two additions, it’s that they add impact talent. Barmes and Barajas are both good additions, but in reality they strengthen the defense (which somehow is still underrated) and they likely end up the number seven and eight hitters in the lineup. Again, if you were expecting impact talent to be added at these two positions, you either weren’t looking at the market for those positions, or you had unrealistic expectations that the Pirates could land someone like Reyes or Rollins.
So where can the Pirates add some impact to the 2012 roster? My feeling has always been that the impact talent, at least on the offensive side of the game, would have to come from first base.
The first base market has a few guys who would never be options for the Pirates, specifically Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Outside of those two, the first base market isn’t nearly as weak as the shortstop and catcher markets in terms of players who could make an impact.
First up is Derrek Lee, who the Pirates tendered an offer of arbitration on Wednesday. If Lee accepts, he would receive a raise over his $8.5 M compensation in 2011. If he declines and signs elsewhere, the Pirates would get a first round compensation pick for him. Lee is healthy entering the off-season, something that he couldn’t say in the previous two off-seasons, which led to early season struggles. After getting healthy, Lee posted strong second half numbers, showing the impact he can make on a lineup. That was the case in 2011 when he hit for a .306/.354/.548 line from the middle of June to the end of the season.
If the Pirates can’t convince Lee to return, and he hasn’t been open to the idea, then Carlos Pena would be another strong option. Fans of batting average won’t like Pena and his career .239 average. However, people who look past batting average at on-base percentage and slugging will realize that Pena is a threat. Last year Pena struggled in April, but had a .367 on-base percentage and a .505 slugging percentage, along with 28 home runs from May 1st to the end of the season.
In either case the Pirates would probably have to commit $10 M a year, which might be a little high compared to what other teams would have to pay for the two players. If there’s anything that we’ve learned from Barajas and Barmes, it’s that the Pirates haven’t been afraid this off-season to spend a little more in order to get the player they want. The Pirates guaranteed a second year to Clint Barmes to get him to sign, and gave Rod Barajas a raise over his 2011 salary to get him to agree to a deal.
The Pirates can also afford to spend on Lee or Pena. They have a projected 2012 payroll of $37.97 M after the signing of Barmes. That number could even go down if they choose to non-tender someone like Garrett Jones, who is projected to make $2.4 M through arbitration. That would still leave a bit of room for another addition, with the final need being starting pitching.
Looking at the starting pitching market, we can rule out top guys like Roy Oswalt, C.J. Wilson, and probably even Edwin Jackson. The Pirates are unlikely to find a number one starter, and they probably can’t get a number two starter. That said, there are opportunities for them to land a number three starter to boost the rotation. In the past I’ve mentioned that my preference is Chris Capuano. He’s coming off a down year as far as his ERA goes, although his strikeout and walk ratios are both strong, and his xFIP suggests he is a much better pitcher than his 4.55 ERA in 2011. He’s a left hander who would benefit from pitching in PNC Park, which may help lower his numbers even more once you consider his big weakness was a 1.3 HR/9 ratio.
There are other options outside of Capuano who have an xFIP in the number three starter range. Paul Maholm, Erik Bedard, and Jeff Francis are three guys that I like. All three are left handed, and would fit well in PNC Park. Out of the three, Bedard would have the biggest upside, potentially being a number two or number one quality starter, although he also comes with the biggest amount of risk due to his injury history. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Francis would be the biggest gamble, and would likely get most of his value from pitching at PNC Park, with similar home/road splits that Maholm has seen in previous years.
The Pirates could also think outside of the box to add potential impact players. One way to do this would be a Joel Hanrahan trade. The market for relievers is at an all time high, with Jonathan Papelbon getting four years and $50 M, and Joe Nathan getting two years and $15 M, despite missing the 2010 season and coming off a down year in 2011. Hanrahan’s projected two years and $11.5 M through arbitration would be a huge value to a team that isn’t looking for a long term deal at the prices the free agent closers are demanding. His trade value would be enough to bring back at least one impact prospect, possibly even filling a hole at first base or in the rotation.
As with any team, you can’t build through trades and free agency. The bulk of your impact talent needs to come from the players already under control, whether that’s young players on the 25-man roster, or players in the farm system. The Pirates can benefit from Andrew McCutchen performing over a full season, rather than struggling in the second half like he did in 2011. They can benefit from Alex Presley putting up his 2011 numbers over a full season. They could benefit by Neil Walker putting up his 2010 numbers, rather than his 2011 numbers. The same could be said for Jose Tabata. The biggest area the Pirates can improve would be at third base, with Pedro Alvarez doing a 180 from his 2011 season.
When you think about the makeup of the 2012 lineup, the Pirates look pretty good at the top three spots, with Jose Tabata and Alex Presley taking the top two spots, and Andrew McCutchen providing the team with a strong number three hitter. The addition of an impact bat like Derrek Lee or Carlos Pena in the cleanup spot moves Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez to the fifth and sixth spots, thus putting less pressure on the young players to carry the lineup.
The Pirates were never going to add impact at the catcher or shortstop positions. Adding strong defensive options at the two spots works, but it’s not something you can build a team around. Instead the Pirates need to add a guy like Pena or Lee to anchor the lineup, and another starter to give the rotation a boost. They’ll also need to see some improvements from the players already in the system, with the biggest potential for improvement coming from Alvarez. The additions of Barmes and Barajas boost the defense, but if the Pirates want to compete, they’ll need impact at first base, another starter, and most of their current players to play up to their expectations.