Offensive Help From the Farm System: The 2012 Edition
Yesterday I pointed out why it is unlikely for a trade to be made this early in the season. I felt the article was straight forward enough: trades don’t usually happen this early, so don’t hold out hope that one will be made. Some translated “trades aren’t likely” as “trades never happen” or “the Pirates shouldn’t try”. The Pirates should absolutely try — they just probably won’t find any takers. Trades do happen early, although as I pointed out it’s mostly on a minor scale, and rarely an impact deal.
It takes two to make a trade, and there are good reasons why other teams probably aren’t rushing to make a move. As an example, theoretically the Boston Red Sox match up with the Pirates. The Red Sox have good hitting, but poor pitching. The Pirates have pitching depth, but poor hitting. But would the Red Sox even consider a deal at this point?
The big issues with the Boston rotation are Clay Buchholz — owner of a 7.77 ERA and a contract that runs through 2015 — and Daniel Bard, who the Red Sox moved to the rotation this year. The Red Sox didn’t go out and get a pitcher over the off-season. They were a year removed from locking down Buchholz, and they felt comfortable enough with Bard to move him to the rotation. They did add Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla to minor deals. Cook blew up in his one start, and Padilla has been strong out of the bullpen. In Triple-A they have former major leaguers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ross Ohlendorf.
First of all, the Red Sox probably aren’t giving up on Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard after less than 50 innings. If they did, they’d probably go in-house and call up a Triple-A option, rather than seeking outside help right away. That’s just a guess based on what every team does in that situation. You don’t keep guys like Ohlendorf and Dice-K in Triple-A just so you can make a trade if you need a replacement in the rotation.
That’s just one example of why trades are unlikely this early. Eventually, Boston might deal for a starter. But they’re probably not giving up on two young guys that they’re high on after less than two months, and once they do, they will probably go to their depth in Triple-A before making a deal.
The best bet in the next few weeks for the Pirates is to make internal moves. The Pirates don’t have a lot of impact players in the system, and none are ready to make the jump to the majors. However, they have a few players in Triple-A who could provide upgrades to the offense in Pittsburgh.
There are always two groups of players in Triple-A. There are the organizational players, who might be able to help you on the bench during the current season. Then there are the prospects, who could profile for more of a long term role. We’ll start with the organizational guys, then go to the prospects.
Jake Fox - Fox started off the season on fire, but has since cooled off, currently hitting for a .279/.351/.426 line in 68 at-bats. He has 489 at-bats in the majors, and in that time he has hit for a .237/.288/.425 line with 20 homers. His upside is a good power bat off the bench who can play multiple positions, but can’t provide defense at any of them.
Jeff Clement - Clement is in a similar situation to Fox. Started off great, has cooled off, and is currently hitting for a .286/.380/.420 line in 112 at-bats. He also has major league experience that has resulted in one thing: power. In 363 career at-bats, he has hit for a .223/.281/.383 line with 14 homers. I’d take Fox over Clement. Neither have good defense, but at this point Clement can only play first base.
Jose Morales - Morales is hitting for a .288/.358/.373 line in 59 at-bats in Triple-A. He also has shown some decent defense behind the plate. He has 218 career at-bats in the majors, hitting for a .289/.365/.344 line. The trend has been that he hits for average and gets on base, but doesn’t have much power. He profiles more as a backup catcher. Morales can opt out of his deal at the end of May, so it will be interesting to see if the Pirates try to keep him around by adding him to the 25-man roster, replacing Michael McKenry as the backup. After last night’s homer, I don’t really see McKenry going down.
Jeff Larish - The Pirates just acquired Larish, and the utility player is off to a slow start in his first 17 at-bats. He’s similar to Fox and Clement in that he has major league experience with some power. He’s hit for a .224/.308/.380 line in 245 at-bats in the majors. I’d still take Fox if the Pirates were looking for this type of player.
Overall, this group won’t help the Pirates in a significant way. Morales might be a better backup than McKenry, but that impact is marginal. Fox would be a better option than Nate McLouth or Yamaico Navarro at this point, although that is also a small impact in the grand scheme of things.
Starling Marte - The top hitting prospect in the system is off to a slow start in Triple-A. He’s hitting for a .246/.314/.408 line in 142 at-bats. He also has a 24.6% strikeout rate, and a 5.7% walk rate. Neither ratio is horrible, but neither one is good. He’s hitting for power, with a .162 ISO, which is a bit down from his .168 in 2011 with Altoona, but still good to see. Marte might not be ready to come up at all this year. You look at Andrew McCutchen and how long he spent in Triple-A. He hit for a .283 average with a .770 OPS in his first full season at the level, then was promoted the following year after hitting for a .303 average and an .853 OPS.
Right now, Marte isn’t ready. If he starts hitting today, he might be ready later in the season. For now, if he’s not hitting in Triple-A, the expectations shouldn’t be high for him to help the major league offense. The thing I see often is “Call him up and see what happens”. That’s always a horrible move. It’s a move made out of desperation. The Pirates don’t have a lot of hitters with Marte’s upside. Potentially compromising his development, all for a desperate attempt at finding a solution to the major league hitting woes, is not a good way to develop a top hitter.
Matt Hague - Every time I write about Hague I say the same thing: he could be a league average first baseman at best, likely profiling as a James Loney or Casey Kotchman type. I say this because Hague doesn’t hit for enough power to be more than just an average major league first baseman (and an average upside isn’t a bad thing). During Spring Training he went on a tear, hitting seven homers and making his way to the major league roster. Since being demoted to Triple-A, Hague is hitting for a .271/.322/.308 line in 133 at-bats.
When this type of thing happens, the typical reasoning that comes from fans is that the player is only performing poorly because he was undeservingly sent down. The theory is that Hague would continue his Spring Training hitting if the Pirates would have given him a chance. And once they demoted him, it crushed his spirits so much that he could no longer hit at the Triple-A level. Or, he was just angry at the demotion and that led to his poor performance. I’ve never understood this reasoning from fans. Is that what you want out of a player? Someone who suddenly can’t hit at the first sign of adversity?
Fortunately, that’s not the case with Hague. The issue is that he is an inconsistent hitter. Last year he started the season with a .696 OPS in April. He improved to a .782 OPS in May. Then, in June, he took off with a 1.096 OPS, which kicked off the #FreeMattHague campaign. He carried the hot hitting over in to the first half of July, but faded in the second half. He ended up with an .812 OPS in the month. He had a .747 OPS in August, the a .762 OPS in 12 at-bats in September.
This year Hague had a .509 OPS in April. He has a .708 OPS so far in May. He could be a help in the majors, but he’s not exactly going to be a huge upgrade over Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee at first. Best case scenario, the Pirates catch him during one of his hot streaks like we saw last June, or during Spring Training.
Jordy Mercer - Mercer might be the best fit for immediate help, and for positional need. He’s only hitting for a .289/.374/.389 line in 149 at-bats on the season. However, most of that was due to a slow start in April. Mercer hit for a .238/.347/.375 line in 80 at-bats in April. So far in May he has a .348/.408/.406 line in 69 at-bats.
Clint Barmes is struggling at the major league level. On the season he is hitting for a .171/.200/.285 line. He had a .469 OPS in April, and a .502 OPS in May. When Mercer’s hot streak started a few weeks ago, I noted that the Pirates should consider making a switch if these two trends carry over in to June. Barmes continues to struggle, and Mercer continues to hit. Mercer can provide good defense at shortstop, although not great defense. His offensive upside is about what you’d normally expect from Barmes. He’s only been hitting for about a month in Triple-A, but with Barmes struggling, and Mercer hitting, the Pirates should be considering a switch soon. Or, at the least, a situation where Mercer is brought up and gets a few starts per week at shortstop.
Chase d’Arnaud - I think d’Arnaud’s overall potential value is similar to Mercer, but right now d’Arnaud isn’t hitting, with a .170/.290/.245 line in 53 at-bats in Triple-A. That puts Mercer in the lead spot for any potential promotions right now.
Gorkys Hernandez - He’s in the majors right now, or at least I think he is. He didn’t have a single at-bat in the weekend series against the Tigers, and I’m not sure if that was him in the dugout, or one of those holograms that they use to hold 2Pac concerts now. Hernandez has great defense, but the big knock is that he doesn’t bring much with the bat. He’s a singles hitter with some speed. He’s not going to help the offense much. But then again, he won’t be worse than Nate McLouth’s .392 OPS, and his defense will be better. It would be disappointing if the Pirates demoted Hernandez and kept McLouth on the roster.
Here are five moves I’d make involving players in the system, with the goal of providing upgrades to the major league roster. These moves might not provide the biggest impacts, but any upgrade is welcome at this point. These aren’t listed in any specific order, so don’t read number one as my top priority, or consider that to be the move with the biggest potential upgrade.
1. Cut Nate McLouth, give playing time to Gorkys Hernandez.
Hernandez has great defense in the outfield. The knock on him is his bat. He’s a singles hitter with speed. However, Nate McLouth isn’t exactly doing much with the bat this year. There’s also little upside in sticking with him. In the last two years he combined for a .650 OPS. It’s not like he’s going to turn things around and we’ll see the 2008 version again. At this point, even with the weak bat, Hernandez would be an all-around upgrade.
2. Call up Jake Fox.
With a roster spot cleared for McLouth, call up Jake Fox. This could also be one of the other 4A players who has shown power in the majors. I just prefer Fox, as he has the best track record, and can play multiple positions, even though his defense is poor at all of them.
3. Replace Clint Barmes with Jordy Mercer.
I mentioned the trends above. If those trends continue in to the month of June, the Pirates need to consider making a switch. Barmes has been good defensively this year, but the Pirates can potentially get better hitting from Mercer, while not seeing a big drop off on defense. I wouldn’t cut Barmes. I’d keep him around as an expensive backup infielder, sending Yamaico Navarro down. I’d probably even ease Mercer in to the majors, splitting time with Barmes at first, unless he started off with a hot bat.
4. Free Matt Hague and move Garrett Jones to the bench.
I mentioned Hague’s inconsistent play above. Now for the inconsistent play of Jones and McGehee. Jones has been good against right-handers in his career. He started off well this year, but has struggled lately, leading to a .247/.270/.459 line against right handers. Similar situation with McGehee: he hit well early, but is now hitting for a .235/.333/.324 line against left-handers. He also hasn’t been used as a platoon player, getting 57 at-bats against right-handers, with a .490 OPS.
Hague may be inconsistent, but the platoon isn’t working. I like the bat of Jones off the bench. He can play right field, first base, and gives a left handed power bat off the bench. As for McGehee, there wouldn’t be a spot for him in the majors with Hague up, although he hasn’t done much to secure a roster spot. This would all be similar to Barmes/Mercer in that I’d wait until the calendar turns to June before pulling the plug on Jones/McGehee.
5. Bring Alex Presley back.
Everyone on the team has been struggling, but for some reason Alex Presley was the only one who was sent down to Triple-A. I think Presley could be a starter in a weak outfield, or a strong number four outfielder on a good team. He’s not hitting this year, but neither is anyone else. He is hitting better than the alternatives. I could see playing Garrett Jones here, but he’s not an every day player. Josh Harrison doesn’t run the best routes in the outfield, as we saw last night. Presley seems like the best option, even with his struggles.
Tomorrow I will take a look at what players below Triple-A can help the offense in future years.