The 2013 roster is starting to take shape. There are still a few off-season questions that remain unanswered. Will the Pirates trade Garrett Jones? Who will win the 5th starter job? Will the Pirates add any free agent relievers? Will they add any more free agents, period?
One thing that is already apparent is that the roster will feature a lot of boom or bust players. I was listening to the recent Bucs Dugout podcast the other day, and David Todd described Francisco Liriano as a “high beta” player — meaning there were plenty of realistic outcomes for his 2013 season, ranging from very bad to very good. That got me thinking about how many “high beta” players the Pirates have, which got me thinking about how many question marks the Pirates have on their roster. The roster is pretty close to being set, but there are several positions with players who aren’t established. The Pirates could go for a guaranteed option at any of these positions, but they’ve got so many choices internally that they might be better off hoping a few of their questionable players have breakout seasons.
Here are 13 players who fit that questionable status. Some of them are “high beta” players like Liriano. Some of them are guys who have talent, but either haven’t seen their skill translate to success in the majors, or have had inconsistent results. Then there’s some guys who haven’t even had a shot in the majors and are unknowns. The success/failure rate of this group will play a big impact in where the Pirates end up in the standings in 2013.
You could probably put Pedro Alvarez on this list, but I left him off. That’s probably because he’s coming off a pretty good season, rather than last year when he was similar to some of the guys on this list below. Alvarez could make a big impact, and he could regress, but I don’t feel like he’s in the same category as the guys below. I also didn’t include Alex Presley, since I see his upside as a strong fourth outfielder.
Starling Marte - Marte was the top hitting prospect in the system last year, and showed flashes of his potential last year. He hit for a .257/.300/.437 line in 167 at-bats after his promotion. The Pirates have a lot of corner outfield options, but no long-term solutions at corner outfield. Marte is the top candidate for one of those corner outfield jobs, and he’s got the biggest chance of a long-term impact. He’s a five-tool talent, but has some issues with plate patience. He’s already hit for some power in the majors, but will either need an increase in average or walks to have value as an everyday player. Considering his plate patience issues, the increase in average seems more likely. He’s hit for average in the minors. This is a case where Marte needs to carry his potential over to the majors. I think he’s got star potential, but I could see a situation where he struggles adjusting to the majors.
Travis Snider - The Pirates acquired Snider at the trade deadline for Brad Lincoln. He was one of the top prospects in baseball a few years ago. He has a lot of power potential, but hasn’t broken out in the majors yet. Snider showed some improvements last year in Triple-A, and briefly with Toronto before the trade. Snider dealt with hamstring injuries after the trade, which could have impacted his performance. He’s still young enough to live up to his potential, but that’s obviously not a guarantee. He should have the inside track for the second starting job, but could lose some at-bats to Jose Tabata and/or Jerry Sands due to the crowded outfield situation.
Jerry Sands - The Pirates recently acquired Sands as one of the main pieces in the Joel Hanrahan trade. He’s hit for power throughout his minor league career, but hasn’t carried that hitting over to the majors in a limited amount of at-bats. There are concerns that he might not carry the hitting over to the majors due to a loopy swing. The power throughout his minor league career makes him very intriguing, although the depth chart is crowded at the positions he plays (1B/OF). He’s got an option remaining, so he’s no guarantee to start in the majors.
Jose Tabata - With the additions of Travis Snider and Jerry Sands, and the promotion of Starling Marte, Jose Tabata has become a forgotten man. He’s still young and has a lot of good tools. He’s been a frustrating player with a lot of injuries, and questions about his work ethic. He’s about the same age as Marte, and younger than Snider or Sands. If those guys still have a shot at breaking out in the majors, then Tabata has time to turn things around. He’ll have to compete with Marte and Snider for playing time, but should be the number four outfielder behind those two, and would get plenty of at-bats in that role. If one of Snider or Marte struggle, Tabata could get another chance as a starter.
Clint Robinson - Robinson draws a lot of similarities to Garrett Jones. He’s hit for power all throughout his minor league career, but has yet to make it in the majors. That’s no fault of his own. He’s been blocked in Kansas City behind Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer. Right now he’s lower on the depth chart, and has one option remaining. He would have a better chance of making the majors if Garrett Jones is traded.
James McDonald - We saw two versions of McDonald last year. In the first half he looked like a Cy Young candidate. In the second half he looked like a candidate to be sent to Triple-A. Which version will he be closest to in 2013?
Francisco Liriano - He’s a lefty with a strikeout per inning and an above-average ground ball rate. A move to the NL Central and to PNC Park could help him put up some strong numbers. He’s had a high ERA the last few years, but his FIP numbers have been much lower. When a guy underperforms his FIP numbers one year, it could be chalked up to luck. When he constantly does it, there could be an issue. Liriano has great stuff, and he’s in the best situation he could be in with PNC’s park factors. But the fact that he’s constantly under-performing his skill level and FIP numbers means he isn’t a guarantee for a bounce back season.
Jeff Locke - Locke doesn’t have anything left to prove in Triple-A. He’s got the potential to be a strong fourth starter. So far he hasn’t carried his skill over to the majors. His first chance in the majors was limited to four starts. His second chance came after a full season in Triple-A. It will be interesting to see what he could do in the majors starting fresh at the beginning of the year.
Kyle McPherson - McPherson only had a few starts in Triple-A, and made an appearance in the majors at the end of the season last year. The results at each level were good, but they also come with the small sample size disclaimer. He’s also dealt with some shoulder problems in the last year, including over the off-season. That’s a concern going forward, although it shouldn’t keep him out to start the year. He’s got the potential to be a strong number three starter and an inning eater. He’ll just have to answer the question of whether his results in a small sample were legit.
Jason Grilli - The Pirates dealt away a very good closer in Joel Hanrahan. Grilli’s secondary numbers were better than Hanrahan. He’s older than Hanrahan, so there’s a risk that he could see a decline due to age. If you believe that it takes some special attribute to have success in the 9th inning, then there would be questions of whether Grilli can close.
Mark Melancon - I’ve talked about how Melancon looks like a strong candidate to bounce back from his 2012 numbers. If he can do that, he’d provide the Pirates with a strong set-up option behind Grilli. There’s a chance that Grilli/Melancon could provide similar value to Hanrahan/Grilli.
Charlie Morton - Morton had a strong year in 2011, which was the first year with his new delivery and sinker. He struggled last year, then had Tommy John surgery. He’ll return around mid-season this year, and the Pirates will inevitably need him in the rotation at some point either due to injuries or poor performance. Will the 2011 version return, or was that just a fluke?
Gerrit Cole - Cole has the upside to be one of the best pitchers in the game. He should start the 2013 season in Triple-A, and will likely be up by mid-season. He’s got an amazing arsenal, highlighted by a fastball that hits triple digits, a slider that tops out at 92 MPH, and a changeup in the upper 80s. He dealt with some control issues at the end of the year, and was hit hard in his second appearance in Triple-A. He’s got the potential and the stuff to be an ace, but he does have some things to work on. He’s also struggled initially at each level. When he does make the majors there might be a chance that he doesn’t enter the league at full potential.
Links and Notes
**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. Order your copy today!
**Dan Szymborski has a good article at ESPN looking at how closers are made, and not born. If you’re like me and believe that anyone can close, this has some good numbers to back up your case.